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A review of The Struggle for a Decent Politics by Michael Walzer

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Reviewed by H.N. Hirsch 

The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On “Liberal” As An Adjective
by Michael Walzer
Yale University Press


     Michael Walzer has been, for more than fifty years, one of the English-speaking world’s most important and accomplished political theorists and public intellectuals. He has written books on just and unjust wars, equality, economic justice, and myriad other topics. In addition he has published a steady stream of essays in leading journals, including Dissent, where he was a long-time editor. To call him prolific is an understatement. As a professor at Harvard and then at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton he taught generations of students and readers and reached a wide audience. There are few like him.

     He has now, in is late eighties, published a somewhat puzzling short book, The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On “Liberal” as an Adjective. In it he argues that we should understand “liberalism” to convey not a specific political doctrine, but a moral stance—a stance of tolerance, openness, generosity, an absence of dogmatism and fanaticism, a willingness to listen to one’s opponents and take seriously their arguments. As such, he agues, there can be liberal democrats, liberal socialists, liberal nationalists and internationalists, liberal communitarians (a label applied to him by me and by other commentators, for he is quick to defend the rights of cultural groups), liberal feminists, liberal professors. In a series of chapters devoted to each of these topics, he has wise things to say, somewhat like a caring and nurturing parent hoping to incline his child toward becoming a caring human being. 

     Thus he defends pluralism within and peaceful coexistence among nations; careers open to talent; he points out that excessive nationalism can be illiberal; he favors limits on majority rule and the right to protest nonviolently; and he does not deny the existence of structural racism in the United States despite formal legal equality. He argues against the repression of ideas that “offend” (but do not actually harm) in universities, and condemns the coercion of women by their male relatives in some traditional societies. 

     All of this is fine, valid, and interesting, as far as it goes. The problem is that it does not go far enough. “Liberal” may well be an adjective but it is also a noun: a real thing. It is a political doctrine, one that can trace its heritage back through centuries, at least as far back as John Locke, as Walzer knows. Although its boundaries may be disputable, it contains a core set of principles against which government policies, programs, and actors can and should be judged. Political theorist Alan Wolfe defines its key substantive principle this way: That as many people as possible should have as much say as it feasible over the direction their lives will take. Judith Shklar, Walzer’s longtime colleague at Harvard, expressed the same principle this way: “The original and only defensible meaning of liberalism” is that “every adult should be able to make as many effective decisions without fear or favor about as many aspects of his or her life as is compatible with the like freedom of every adult.”

     These liberal principles developed over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a counter to hereditary privilege, powerful monarchy, and established state religion. Some would say it reached its apotheosis in the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Liberalism as a political creed advocated the restraint of power to protect individual rights and believed in human progress over time. It is based on rationality, not revelation, and valued the psychological security and independence of individuals. It opposed autocracy and aristocracy. 

     And, crucially, liberalism accepted and encouraged the development and freedom of the economic marketplace as an antidote to feudalism, caste, and state-and-elite-driven mercantilism, and as a system that could harness the exploding world of commercial development.   

     And therein lies the rub, and perhaps the reason Walzer wants to turn liberalism into an adjective. For he has always considered himself a democratic socialist, and the freedom of the marketplace is not a form of freedom in which he places a great deal of value. For to be a liberal is to accept, at least to some extent, the inevitability of some level of economic inequality. To be a liberal is to agree with Ann Richards, the last Democratic governor of Texas, who famously said, when forced to defend her mildly redistributive economic ideas, “I am in favor of wealth. I don’t know anyone who isn’t.”

     That is not a sentiment that sits comfortably with the democratic socialist tradition with which Walzer identifies himself–although it should go without saying that Richards’s sentiment does not require acceptance of the obscene levels of inequality on display in the United States of today. 

     Defining liberal as only an adjective allows Walzer to skirt a discussion of tough political and economic policy questions, from welfare to tax brackets. Tolerance and generosity are fine sentiments, but how high should marginal tax rates go? How much of a safety net should be provided to the poor, and for how long? How should education be funded? Who should pay for medical care? If liberalism is only an adjective, one can avoid such thorny questions and stay above the fray; this allows Walzer to state blandly that he “doubt[s] that there can be a liberal capitalism”—a stunning declaration with extraordinary implications, none of which he really explores. 

     Walzer’s unwillingness to address real world difficulties becomes even clearer in his last chapter, on being a liberal Jew, a category in which he and I both belong. He sympathizes, as he has throughout his career, with the founders of the state of Israel, whom he labels secular. 

     But these Zionists were not entirely secular—they founded Israel as a Jewish state, baking in a fundamental contradiction, since not all of its inhabitants were in fact Jewish. That contradiction has grown over the ensuing decades and today has reached crisis proportions. Among other costs, it has warped Israeli politics in a militaristic and cruel direction, and opposition to the cruelty of states is a key liberal tenet.  

     John Kerry, while serving as the American Secretary of State, said the quiet part out loud. Israel, he said, can be a democratic state, or it can be a Jewish state; it cannot be both. A true liberal would see the contradiction, as Hannah Arendt did decades ago, and be willing to address Israel’s horrific treatment of Palestinians, which Walzer mentions not at all–a glaring and telling omission. There is much that has happened in Israel over the last half-century that makes a true liberal shudder. A state that bullies a minority and treats its members as second-class citizens is not a liberal state.

     Liberalism may well be a sentiment, for Jews and everyone else, as Walzer argues. But it is far more than that, and we forget its political content at our peril. Liberalism forces hard political and economic choices and forecloses some options. Sentiment and moral stance, necessary though they may be, is not enough, and never has been.   

About the reviewer:

H.N. Hirsch is the Erwin N. Griswold Professor of Politics Emeritus at Oberlin College in Ohio and the author of the mystery novel Shade and the memoir Office Hours.

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