Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Liberty But Not Yet


Politics and Passion: Toward a More Egalitarian Liberalism

Michael Walzer

Yale University Press, 2004

xiv + 184 pgs.


When I first saw Politics and Passion, I was inclined to toss it aside. "Just what we need," I sneered: "a more egalitarian liberalism." (By "liberalism," the author emphatically does not mean classical liberalism.) But Michael Walzer is a shrewd political theorist, and his book is better than its subtitle. He addresses a vital problem; unfortunately, his commitments to egalitarianism and democracy prevent him from solving it.

Walzer begins with a point that should be uncontroversial. Persons in society depend crucially on associations of various kinds. By no means all of these are groups that people have chosen to join: you are born into a particular family and ethnic group; and, often, it will prove very difficult to abandon the religion in which you have been raised.

Should it be our goal to change all this? "[I]sn’t it the purpose of liberal autonomy to challenge this givenness? Aren’t we supposed to criticize the associations that we find ourselves in as a result of birth and socialization by asking whether we would have chosen them had we been able to choose freely? Don’t we have to ask ourselves what rational and autonomous agents would have done?" (p. 9).

Walzer disagrees. However much ideologues of autonomy may disapprove, people often refuse to question the associations and ways of thought to which they are accustomed. Though people should not be forced to remain in groups that they wish to leave, do they not also have the right to continue in their accustomed way of life?

So far, so good; but Walzer is no libertarian. It soon transpires that the freedom of association he recognizes is sharply limited by other imperatives. If individuals are left free either to remain in the associations of their birth or to abandon them for new ones, a dire outcome will ensue. Some people and groups will end up with much fewer resources than others. Can a leftist in good standing accept this inequality without flinching?

Walzer cannot. He states fairly the classical liberal view: "It holds that ‘we’ shouldn’t do anything; individual men and women must take responsibility for their own lives—not only individually but also in (voluntary) association, pooling resources, bringing their numbers to bear, acting on their own behalf. The associational life of civil society is, on this view, self-correcting . . . we should simply step back and not interfere with the self-interested activity of men and women freely forming and reforming the organizations that they need" (pp. 80–81). Oddly, Walzer ascribes this position to "neoconservative intellectuals," though it "reflects a near-classical liberalism"; but the philosopher he cites as giving the best defense of it, Loren Lomasky, is a libertarian, not a neoconservative (pp. 80, 173).

In response, Walzer advances his own egalitarian position. The state must aid less advantaged groups, lest they have to struggle under unfair conditions with the more powerful. To those acquainted with elementary economics, one of his examples will hardly carry conviction: "By requiring collective bargaining whenever there was majority support . . . for the union, and then by allowing union shops, the Wagner Act sponsored the creation of strong unions capable, at least to some degree, of determining the shape of industrial relations" (157). One wonders why Walzer is so eager to praise legislation that led to unemployment for workers not among the favored few. Why should those not enrolled in a union lose the opportunity to work?

Once the disadvantaged groups receive the appropriate "help," will the state then allow people to lead their lives in peace? Of course not; to a committed democrat such as Walzer, the unhindered life is not worth defending. Democracy is not a form of life that develops spontaneously; people must be educated to believe in its virtues.

Here a problem arises. Many communities are benighted enough not to believe in democracy; indeed, some are hierarchical and antidemocratic. How can democracy flourish in such unfertile soil? The state must step in and require these groups to teach civic virtue to children in their charge. "Coercion itself cannot be avoided; civic education does have to be legally mandated and compulsory. And since it challenges the totalizing claims of the religious or ethnic community, it is sure to encounter opposition. Its aim is to allow or encourage the community’s children, as many of them as possible, to accept another identity, that is, to think of themselves as responsible and respected participants in democratic decisionmaking" (p. 60). Walzer anxiously assures us that this interference is not "totalizing"; but if democratic education eventually leads to the dissolution of hierarchical institutions, so much the better. Society must be made safe for democracy.1 n MR


1For an excellent libertarian account of some of the same problems that Walzer addresses, see Chandran Kukathas, The Liberal Archipelago (Oxford University Press, 2003).



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