September 15, 2003

Walzer's Spheres

Earlier this summer I read Michael Walzer's Spheres of Justice. Since I know many people (outside of political philosophy circles) haven't read it, I thought it would be worth doing a quick summary, and add a few thoughts of my own.

Those who know me know that, politically, I'm pretty far from a Walzerian. I think he's got way too much faith in the State's ability to solve problems (my wife would argue that I've got way too much faith in the market's ability to solve them). Regardless, Walzer's got an important core point and a new way of looking at things, one that's worth repeating.

The subtitle makes clear what he's up to: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. Walzer is trying to combine an argument for (a new kind of) equality with the recognition that different social goods have different social meanings and should rightly be distributed according to different rules. These social goods (wealth, education, welfare, punishment, status, work, kinship, leisure, pleasure, etc.) are divided into different "spheres," each of which has it's own kind of distributive justice requirements.

Walzer argues that "simple equality," which he defines as strict egalitarianism within and across these sphere, is not only undesirable, but is also practically impossible. The coercion necessary to maintain the equality would constitute a system that would be unbearable to live in.

To replace simple equality, he argues for "complex equality," a state in which people are unequal within each sphere (but only according to the appropriate distributive laws for that sphere) but everything is still just overall as long as there is no "dominance" of one sphere over the other.

Walzer's dominance is an extension of Pascal's tyrrany: demanding love because you are powerful, power because you are wealthy, or wealth because you are of noble blood. Each improperly uses advantage in one sphere to appropriate goods in another. If we can just figure out ways to banish these border-crossings, we'll have a more just society. (This is, of course, easier said than done, although Walzer lists some social norms that can or have been called to bear in this fight: norms against nepotism, simony, buying love, etc.)

After laying out his thesis, Walzer explores several of the spheres, using historical episodes to illustrate the plurality of ways in which the goods within the sphere have been distributed. He then argues for a specific distributive rule for each sphere: need for health and welfare, deserts for punishment, interest and capacity for specialized education, etc. Given his diachronic, pluralistic account of the social goods and their distribution, one can only assume that his recommendations are themselves historical and therefore appropriate for the 20th century Western world (and hopefully not just 1983...) only — though he's less than clear that this is the case.

So that's his point, and I think it's mostly a good one. Even if you don't buy it on grounds of social justice, it still seems to make sense pragmatically, and it fits nicely with what I call an anti-concentrationist stance, i.e. one that wants to limit the concentration of power in too few hands (which is a big, but so far, under-developed part of my thinking). Limiting dominance between the sphere's is a worthy goal, for the same reason that Constitutional checks and balances and anti-trust laws are.

So a few points of criticism, in no particular order:

  • While arguing for need as a distributive rule for health and welfare, he fails to take into account the dynamic nature of need. He does mention, in his discussion of education in medieval Jewish communities, that need is socially constructed. But he neglects the fact that need might (will) change within a single culture, based on what (and how many) goods you condition on need -- a variation of moral hazard arguments. If you get what you need, why wouldn't you (and society) just decide that you need a lot (of specialists , for instance). Or put another way, if I have only so much time and energy, but I know that I'll get certain things if I need them, but others only if I work for them, won't I (rationally) through life choices I make, need the things that society distributes based on need? Trying to counter this with statements about what you really need, would seem to cross over into an objectivist world that he's trying to avoid. As an aside, I think there's a similar argument on the "ability" side of the Marxist mantra, too (more on this later).
  • He privileges equality and justice over rights, without a thorough explanation of why. Many of his boundary-protecting injunctions and distributive rules constrain individual rights severely — from the obvious property rights, to limits on expression and association that would required to enforce other boundaries. The conflict between campaign finance reform and freedom of speech is just one modern example. If these individual rights are falling by the wayside, then exactly what are we buying, because it better be pretty attractive.... Which leads us to the fact that,
  • He doesn't show that people would be better off under his regime. While I waiver as to the extent to which utilitarianism should, by itself, define a just society, it seems that it is at least a relevant "test". His argument would seem to say that his system is better, even if everyone is worse off under it than under today's mixed system. Given his prescriptions for the ownership of the means of production contra the historical success of market-based economies, it's a situation that is not simply academic. Perhaps, since it's a theory, he only has to say why it's theoretically better and not practically better, although this would limit his (practical) critique of simple equality significantly. In contrast, Rawls would appear to allow more broad inequality (within and across spheres) as long as the least well-off member is better off than he or she would be in other systems. Walzer doesn't seem to make room for this possibility.
Anyway, that's enough for now. Definitely a thought-provoking book. I need to find time to read his other major book: Just and Unjust Wars. When I do, I'll try to post something about it.... Posted by richard at September 15, 2003 09:04 PM

I read Just and Unjust Wars a long time ago but remember very little of it.

Not that I can speak with any greater authority about Spheres of Justice, but I wonder to what extent the thesis, as you've summarized it, just exists to rationalize the gap between liberal ideals and capitalist reality.

I remember a particular session of my "Law and Education" class in which fellow students were lamenting not the dearth of equal educational opportunities (a problem in its own right), but the absence of equal outputs. I put a hand up to point out that one important goal of education — which we don't like to talk about — is to regenerate the class system. Simply put, you need people to work the late shift at the Seven-Eleven, and it's demoralizing (and arguably destabilizing) to take people through Ph.D. programs before landing them behind the Slurpee counter.

So we can tolerate inequalities that shake out through true tests of merit; that is, it's wrong to predetermine people to be Seven-Eleven clerks because of their withering means, their daddies' lack of influence, etc. A just system, if I get this right, would be one that gives no head-starts or advantages in one sphere based on their relative status in another. Under those (idealized) conditions, the Republicans would actually have something intelligent to say in defense of the class system: if you screw up in school or on the standardized test or whatever it is that should determines your place in America's various "spheres," you have no one to blame but yourself.

Keeping the spheres separate seems to me implausible — maybe because the Marxist in me sees that people do and will (to take just one example) get more "love" when they're rich and powerful, if only because poverty and social marginalization complicate and disturb human relations in ways that don't apply to the better off.

But even if this ideal were attainable, it doesn't make it suck any less to be serving up day-old chili dogs to college brats all night long, despite the exhilaration of "playing a part" in a just-as-just-can-be society.

Just something I'm thinking about "from my seat on a whirling Walzer."

Posted by: phutatorius at September 15, 2003 11:03 PM

"Complex equality" is indeed an apt term. Who decides whether leisure should be multiple spheres, like travel, massages, sports, entertainment, etc., or just one sphere or even just part of some other more broad sphere? Also, I don't understand logic underpinning Pascal's tyranny. While I personally think it would be abhorrent (and probably ineffective) to attempt to buy love, I don't see why we should we should fragment justice into multiple spheres because of it.

In any event, I am not yet persuaded in the usefulness or correctness of this concept.

Posted by: Michael Weiksner at September 16, 2003 10:30 AM