Political Philosophy and the Left

by Ed Lewis, Stuart White

Political philosopher Stuart White discusses the philosophical foundations of the left and their implications for social structure. The first part of the discussion focuses on the central values of equality and freedom.

First published: 28 July, 2010 | Category: Philosophy and Theory

Stuart White is a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and a member of Demos’s advisory council. He writes about political philosophy and its application, and is the author of Equality and The Civic Minimum. He spoke with Ed Lewis about the philosophical foundations of the left and their implications for social structure.

The first part of the discussion, which follows, focuses on the central values of equality and freedom. Part two can be read here.

What is political philosophy, and what do political philosophers do?

Political philosophy is about the exploration of concepts that play an important role in political life and political discussion.

Many of those concepts are value concepts, like liberty or equality or social justice - the kind of concepts that politicians, as in the recent election campaign, will refer to at length. For example, Nick Clegg launched his party’s manifesto saying he was going to hard-wire fairness into British society. But what’s ‘fairness’? What political philosophers do is they step back a bit, and they examine these concepts: what exactly do or should we mean by ‘equality’, ‘liberty’, ‘fairness’? Political philosophers might also talk about concepts like ‘power’ or ‘the state’, which are implicated in a lot of political discussion but which aren’t necessarily values.

So that’s centrally what political philosophers are doing. Sometimes academics who are grounded in political philosophy might then go a little bit further. They might move towards prescription, towards trying to answer questions about what ideally ought to be done. I mean, presumably, if you’ve got a theory about what social justice is, then that’s going to tell you a lot about how ideally a society ought to be arranged. So at that point, political philosophers might start to get into prescribing particular kinds of institutions or policy – I think we’ll talk a bit about some policy ideas later in our discussion. All I would say now is that when political philosophers start to do this, then their project starts also to draw on social science. You can’t really engage in policy or institutional recommendations without combining the philosophical analysis – the clarification of concepts, the argument for a particular understanding of justice, and the like – with some empirically grounded understanding of the social world.

We’re going to be talking in more detail about the values and prescriptions of the left, but I want you now to give us an initial sketch of leftist political philosophy. What would that look like?

I think one way into that question is to identify three issues which have always been pretty central to what political philosophers have been discussing from the Ancient Greeks on.

First there is the issue of authority. Is authority – that’s to say, the right to command – legitimate? On what basis is it legitimate? Here I think leftism tends towards some sort of egalitarian answer to the question. In the extreme you might get the anarchist view which is that authority as such is illegitimate, nobody has the right to command another. A less radical view would obviously be to prescribe some sort of democratic account of authority.

The second big issue is the issue of social justice: what makes a society – its institutional arrangements, such as its economic system – just, in terms of the way it distributes burdens and benefits? And, again, I think a leftist answer is going to be an egalitarian one.

And then, thirdly, there’s the issue of what makes for the good life.

On this issue, I’m less clear that there’s necessarily a clear leftist answer. I think that political philosophy itself is divided between a tradition which thinks that politics should answer the question of what the good life is, and another tradition which thinks that we disagree about the good life – we have different religious views, say, or we give different priority to things like work over leisure – so the point of a good polity is not to promote a particular vision of the good life, it’s to ensure that goods are distributed fairly so that we can then go out and pursue our respective visions of the good life on a fair basis. But it’s not the job of the state to promote a particular account of the good life.

I’m sympathetic to the latter view, but I think the left as a whole is divided between the two philosophical positions.

Let’s go back to equality for now, because that’s of course the concept that the left is most closely associated with, as has come through in the answer that you’ve just given. Can you first of all tell us a bit more about the kind of equality you think is characteristic of the left? I’m thinking in terms of social justice and material equality because that’s what the left is most famous for, and what there has been quite a lot of debate around in political philosophy in recent years.

I think one way to get at this is to start with a concept that’s there in mainstream political debate: the concept of meritocracy, or the related idea of equality of opportunity.

In its strongest form the idea of meritocracy is that we should have a society where there is competition for jobs and other offices, there’s an inequality of reward attached to these jobs and offices, but there should be equal opportunity to compete for these jobs and offices: your chances for getting jobs and rewards shouldn’t be detrimentally affected by things like race, ethnicity, gender or your class background.

Now I think a left approach to equality is not going to be satisfied with meritocracy. Meritocracy captures a requirement of justice but it’s deficient because even under a perfectly meritocratic system - where we’ve controlled for unequal opportunity due to race, ethnicity, gender, social class - people will still be unequally rewarded through no fault of their own because of differences in the talents and capacities that they have, which the market will reward unequally. This is an important insight of philosophers such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin (Rawls, 1999, Dworkin, 2000).

So another view that’s emerged within political philosophy, which tries to address the deficiency of meritocracy, is a view called luck egalitarianism. This is a view set out particularly clearly by the late G.A. Cohen (Cohen, 1989). One key idea of luck egalitarianism is: if an inequality is due to brute luck, due to forces over which the disadvantaged have no control, then that inequality is unjust and there’s a presumption to do something to correct it. If I’m earning less than you just because I’m genetically endowed with less strength or less intelligence, this inequality is unjust and a just society wouldn’t permit it, or at least there’d be a strong reason not to permit it.

On the other hand, luck egalitarianism says that if an inequality is due to lifestyle choice then it’s just and there’s a good reason to tolerate it. So if you and I have the same opportunities to earn income, and we just have different preferences – you prefer income, I prefer leisure – then any inequality which results in terms of income is just because is reflects choice and not brute luck.

Within contemporary political philosophy this has been one influential answer to the question what kind of equality we should be interested in. But it in turn has become subject to an important criticism, which is that allowing inequalities due to choice could in turn generate worrying inequalities of power or status (Anderson, 1999). Smith might end up destitute because he bet all his money on the wrong horse, and that would be fine for a luck egalitarian (simply as a luck egalitarian) because Smith chose to take the gamble. At the same time, Jones could end up very rich because her gambles turn out well. People like Jones are then likely to have power over people like Smith and/or to be seen as having a higher social standing.

The luck egalitarian perspective gets us some way in understanding what kind of equality the left should be interested in, but it needs to be complemented by a perspective which says it’s important that social relations not be characterised by domination or by inequalities of status. We shouldn’t have domination or humiliation in social relationships, and that might temper how far we apply this luck egalitarian ideal.

I’m interested to explore what the implications of luck egalitarianism would be. For one thing it seems that there are elements of luck egalitarian rhetoric in various attacks on welfare programs today. It seems that a benefit claimant who could work but chooses not to is enjoying rewards for which they’re not responsible, and so such rewards might be regarded as unjust from a luck egalitarian perspective. The whole idea of increasing means testing and increasing conditionality of access to benefits and social services and so on then seems consistent with luck egalitarianism. And yet this is something that the left, of course, has tended to be very hostile to, seeing such policies as an attack on the disadvantaged in society. So how would you respond to that?

You’re absolutely right that arguments for these policies that condition benefits on behaviour are often rationalised in terms of ‘the state has a responsibility to protect people against involuntary disadvantage but not voluntary disadvantage’.

However, I think there are two problems with defending these sorts of policies from an egalitarian point of view.

First, even if we’re looking at things just within the framework of luck egalitarianism, the problem is that contemporary politics picks up only, or to a much greater extent, on the choice-sensitive side of luck egalitarianism, the side that says people should be held responsible for their choices. It doesn’t pick up, to anything like as great an extent, on the other idea, which is that inequalities due to brute luck should be neutralised. The same people who call for tougher sanctions in the benefits system might also be people opposing inheritance tax or greater ‘redistribution’ to those who are low-paid through no fault of their own.

And that makes the way the idea is applied politically highly questionable. What we risk doing is making things worse for people who on the whole are worse off than others through no fault of their own. These conditionality policies increase the pressure on people who are to a considerable extent involuntarily disadvantaged. It increases the pressure on them to get into low paid work.

Perhaps, in a society which had done a lot more to address these brute luck inequalities – in other words in a society where, for example, you didn’t have inequalities in inherited wealth, where there was much less inequality of reward between skilled and unskilled workers – maybe in that society there would then be a stronger case for this kind of choice-sensitivity. It’s worth recalling that some socialist thinkers of 19th and 20th centuries were not hostile to the idea of conditioning benefits on work as such. Very often their descriptions of a future socialist commonwealth include this kind of conditionality. But it applied in a society envisaged to be much more egalitarian in other respects.

Let’s now turn to the second egalitarian worry with welfare conditionality policies. This relates to the criticism of luck egalitarianism referred to above. Even if we thought the policy was justified in purely luck egalitarian terms, we might be concerned about its possible implications for inequalities of power or status. Would such a policy demean the welfare recipient and/or make them vulnerable to domination or oppression? The philosopher Jonathan Wolff has made this point specifically with regard to the danger of demeaning welfare recipients (Wolff, 1998).

Would you say, then, that luck egalitarianism points in an anti-capitalist direction? Would you say that it’s a socialist value framework, if you like?

I think that’s a trickier question. It certainly points in the direction of an economic system which does a lot more to redress brute luck inequality.

But what kind of institutional framework could deliver the equality the luck egalitarian wants, that’s a more open, complicated question. Would it have to involve the complete suppression of private ownership of the means of production and the market? I don’t think so. But here we’re moving from clarification of concepts into institutional prescription, and as I said in the first answer, you can’t really answer those institutional policy questions without bringing a lot of empirical social science in as well, to tell you about how different institutions are going to work in practice.

OK, well I think we’ll probably fail to do all of that social science today. Maybe another time. But let’s move on to then to a different value, one that we actually haven’t discussed so far, which is freedom. I want to raise this partly because the characteristic leftist emphasis on equality is sometimes seen as conflicting with freedom, showing an apparent left-wing preparedness to violate our freedoms. So I wonder if you could say something about that putative conflict, and if indeed there is, again, a characteristic left conception of freedom which you think is important or valuable.

Well, one way into this is to start with the idea that Isaiah Berlin termed ‘negative liberty’ which is the idea that a person is free to the extent that they’re able to do what they want, or what they might want to do, without experiencing coercive interference by others (Berlin, 1958). This is often taken to be ‘the right’s notion of freedom’. When people talk about a conflict between freedom and equality, what they often have in mind is the idea that if you promote equality, you have to impose all kinds of restrictions on negative freedom as I’ve just outlined it. Hence the idea of a conflict.

I mentioned the philosopher G.A. Cohen in an earlier answer and I think one of the other insights in his work is to note the way in which any distribution of private property is also a distribution of negative freedom (Cohen, 1997). Let’s say you’re a person without much income. You want to go on the train from London to Liverpool but you don’t have the money to buy the ticket. You get on the train, the ticket inspector finds that you haven’t got the ticket, and you’re required to get off the train at Slough. Now, what you’ve experienced there, in virtue of your lack of income, is a restriction on your negative freedom. Your lack of income translates into a lack of legal permission to do something: to travel on the train from London to Liverpool. A lack of money limits the things that it’s legally permissible for you to do, and in that way it restricts your negative freedom.

Now this matters for the alleged conflict between liberty and equality. If the state comes along and arranges property rights so that there is a more equal distribution of income, it is not reducing liberty as such: it is changing the distribution of it so that we get a more equal distribution of negative liberty.

It’s very important for people on the left not to get too defensive when confronted with the claim that freedom and equality conflict. A lot of what the left stands for in terms of promoting equality is not about reducing freedom, it’s about redistributing freedom. And not some mysterious kind of freedom that’s different from what we ordinarily understand by freedom: what the left is concerned to achieve more equality of is straightforward, bog-standard, negative freedom – the freedom to do what you like, or might like to do, without being interfered with coercively by others. 

This approach to freedom almost sounds more anti-capitalist than luck egalitarianism. Let’s say our primary focus was to maximise freedom and that people should have equal freedom – I mean it’s a very common assumption that everyone should be equally free. Then if there’s a pretty straightforward connection between property and wealth, on the one hand, and freedom on the other, you’re not going to get this equal distribution of freedom without an equal distribution of wealth and income, which is more egalitarian than the luck egalitarian framework which allows and justifies certain inequalities.

If two people have different amounts of income and wealth, then one of has more negative freedom than the other in an immediate sense. But is that a problem in terms of justice? On the luck egalitarian view, we’d have to look at why one of them has more income and wealth than the other. Is it due to lifestyle choice or is it due to the factors over which the disadvantaged had no control. Only if it’s the latter, would there then be a justice-based case for correcting the inequality. But you’re right – if you put to one side the luck egalitarian view, and you just say, ‘Justice is equality of negative freedom at each and every moment in time’, then that looks like it might well support a degree of distribution that the luck egalitarian would be unhappy with.

Of course, there is another complication here. A luck egalitarian might also say, ‘Well, if you care about freedom, then you ought to care about people to some extent experiencing the consequences of their choices’. If I have more income than you because I choose to work harder, not because I’m just born with greater talent, then respecting freedom, caring about freedom, would seem to gel with the luck egalitarian idea that you should respect the income inequality that results from the different choices that people make. So even if you do take the view that justice is simply about equal freedom, there might be something a bit dodgy about trying to strictly equalise income at all moments in time, regardless of the choices that people make.

Another reason why the left is sometimes accused of being hostile to freedom is that the kinds of policies which might redistribute wealth are ones that have traditionally involved a lot of state action, and seem to empower the state significantly. Those policies themselves have been criticised by various strands of the left, of course. But it’s in this context that I’d ask you to bring the idea of ‘republican democracy’, because one of the starting points of that idea is a hostility to an overly empowered state. So can you tell us a bit about republicanism, and its connection with freedom.

In answering the question about freedom and equality I stressed how the left can rebut some arguments of the right by appealing to the straightforward notion of negative liberty. That’s not to say there aren’t refinements or revisions to this notion of liberty that aren’t also worth making.

One of the proposed revisions that some have come up with in recent years, notably Phillip Pettit and the intellectual historian Quentin Skinner, is the idea that we should think of freedom not, or not simply, as the absence of interference but as the absence of domination (Pettit, 1997, Skinner, 1998).

The example that Pettit and Skinner give to illustrate the difference is that of a master and a slave where the slave’s master is either very lazy or very benevolent. The master, being lazy or benevolent, doesn’t actually coercively interfere with the slave’s actions very much. So if you think of freedom simply as the absence of interference, it might look as if the slave has a lot of freedom. But the point that Skinner and Pettit make is that nevertheless as a slave this individual is subject at all times to the master’s power to interfere at his or her will. And merely to be subject to that kind of power of interference at somebody else’s discretion, to live ‘at the mercy of another’ as Rousseau put it, that is destructive of one’s freedom. One of the ideas associated with republicanism is the idea that it’s the job of the state to promote liberty as non-domination in this sense.

This has implications both for the structure of the state itself – we want the state to have a non-dominating relationship to individual citizens, and this might imply that the state has to be not simply democratic, but that there have to be various kinds of checks and balances within the state to prevent relationships of domination emerging. It also has implications for thinking about the character of our social relationships: we don’t want social relationships between employers and workers, or between partners in a household, to exhibit domination. Hence we need to think about how economic institutions are structured to prevent such domination.

The second part, including references, follows soon.

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