Genre: Non-fiction, Politics
Author: Ronald Dworkin
Book: Is Democracy Possible Here? (Buy the Book)
Published in 2006, Is Democracy Possible Here? explores the deterioration of public political discourse in America and suggests frameworks to discuss important political issues and their policy implications based on shared moral principles.
Written in the context of the 2004 election, which George W. Bush won against John Kerry, the book discusses three particularly salient topics that still dominant the public sphere today: terrorism and human rights, religion and dignity, and taxes and legitimacy. Dworkin concludes by clarifying what democracy means in America and how we can move towards a more civil and effective form of government by reshaping our discourse.
Americans agree on two primary principles:
- The Principle of Intrinsic Value: It is ‘good’ when a life is successful and ‘bad’ when a life is wasted. That is, it is a good situation when an individual fulfills his/her potential and a bad situation when that individual falls into habits such as crime or violence.
- The Principle of Personal Responsibility: Individuals hold the responsibility for conceptualizing and realizing what a successful life looks like for themselves.
Using these principles, Dworkin argues against torture, capital punishment, and unjustified detention of suspected terrorists. A government that respects both the intrinsic value of life and the importance of personal responsibility cannot, in good faith, use torture, capital punishment, or prolonged detention on individuals, even if they are not citizens.
Regarding religion, Dworkin contends that America should be governed as a secular tolerant state rather than a religious tolerant state so that no group can impose its values onto individuals, denying them of their personal responsibility. Finally, Dworkin frames the issue of fair taxation in the context of political legitimacy. A government that abides by both principles must demonstrate equal concern for all citizens, including its poorest, and preserve personal responsibility.
He suggests an insurance pool mechanism, in which individuals fund social programs through a progressive income tax. Throughout the book, he invites those who disagree to voice their opinions through rational, defensible logic, just as he does. Even if Dworkin’s conclusions do not resonate with every reader, the book provides a critical framework for thinking about important issues. At the very least, Is Democracy Possible Here? should make us all reexamine the way we talk about politics.
Ronald Myles Dworkin (1931 – 2013) was a renowned American legal philosopher whose work was defined by a belief that law should be defined by formal rules and moral principles. After graduating from Harvard University in 1953, Dworkin studied at Magdelen College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.
Dworkin then returned to Harvard Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 1957. After clerking for judge Learned Hand of the New York federal appeals court, Dworkin was offered the opportunity to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, which he turned down to work for Sullivan & Cromwell.
Dworkin went on to teach as a professor of philosophy at New York University. Throughout his illustrious career, Dworkin published 16 books, received the Holberg International Memorial Prize, and received honorary doctorates from the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, and the University of Buenos Aires.
Published in 2006, Is Democracy Possible Here? was written in the context of the 2004 presidential election, which George W. Bush won against John Kerry. Dworkin was disturbed by the quality and structure of political discourse throughout the election. Through the book, Dworkin aims to establish guidelines for communicating effectively about politics, beginning with shared moral principles.
Dworkin passed away in 2013, before witnessing the polarizing 2016 presidential election. Nevertheless, Is Democracy Possible Here? conveys salient lessons about productively discussing politics that are particularly important today.
“Red Culture” and “Blue Culture”
The political narrative during the 2004 election, which is still prevalent today, divides the American public into a “red culture” and a “blue culture”. The red culture believes that high taxes penalize success and destroy America’s capitalist economy, businesses should have more freedom, sexual freedom should be restricted, and that economic protection is more important than environmental protection.
The blue culture essentially believes in the opposite. Taken to an extreme, this idea of ‘two cultures’ paints people who belong to blue culture as philosophical, high-brow, and out of touch with the common person while portraying people who belong to the red culture as authentic, evangelical, and militant. While this narrative is obvious and prevalent in our political media, upon closer examination it seems absurd.
Dworkin astutely points out that these ‘cultures’ are entirely created. There is no reason that traveling internationally or preferring beer over fine wine should indicate anything about what an individual believes and how he or she votes. Modern political parties have harnessed the polarizing power of the ‘two cultures’ idea to link issues that are not related. For instance, there is an implicit political alliance between evangelical religion and commercial interests, even though it is unclear why religious beliefs should impact beliefs about corporate tax policy.
The two cultures view makes it seem impossible and futile to begin a productive political discussion. Each culture sees the other culture as fundamentally different. When this level of polarization occurs, we do ourselves and our country a great disservice. As Dworkin stresses, we ultimately agree on more basic points than we think. Political discourse should begin by establishing shared principles and then debate how specific policies address those principles.
What we share
Dworkin has two explicit goals: (1) to outline the philosophical principles Americans share about the value and responsibilities of human life, and (2) to demonstrate what those shared principles imply about contemporary political views. At the most fundamental level, Americans generally share the belief that human life matters.
Broken down specifically, the value of human life can be explained by two principles: (1) the Principle of Intrinsic Value, and (2) the Principle of Personal Responsibility. The Principle of Intrinsic Value states that it is ‘good’ when a life is successful and ‘bad’ when a life is wasted. That is, it is a good situation when an individual fulfills his/her potential and a bad situation when that individual falls into habits such as crime or violence. This principle applies to every individual equally; all individual lives are intrinsically and equally important.
The principle of personal responsibility says that individuals hold the responsibility for conceptualizing and realizing what a successful life looks like for themselves. We may follow the teachings of a religion or philosophical ideology to define a successful life, but the decision to follow that school of thought should be our own and not coerced. Together, these two principles roughly evoke the western philosophical concepts of equality and liberty.
Dworkin believes they are general enough to be common ground for both political cultures and significant enough to contain a basis for interpreting their consequences for policy. Throughout the rest of the book, he outlines what these principles imply for potent contemporary policy issues including terrorism, religion, and taxes.
Terrorism and Human Rights
At the time Is Democracy Possible Here? was written, one of the most salient issues America was grappling with was how to handle the detainment and interrogation of suspected terrorists. The attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001 were fresh in America’s collective memory. In response, George W. Bush’s administration signed the Patriot Act into law.
The Patriot Act was intended to give the United States government the resources and access it needed to effectively gather intelligence and prevent another devastating attack on American soil. While the act did increase communication between agencies, its original version contained disturbing provisions, including secret searches. The most extreme violations of privacy were removed when the act was revised in 2006, but issues regarding the legality of the Bush administration’s detainment policies persevered.
These issues included torture, wiretapping of suspected terrorists, and detainment without trial at facilities including Guantanamo Bay. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that foreigners have the same constitutional right to trials as domestic criminals, a decision that declared Guantanamo Bay’s detainment of prisoners without allowing them to contest charges illegal. However, Dworkin argues that the legal precedent is not enough to resolve the issue or begin a productive dialogue since those who support the Bush administration’s detainment policies believe the law is anachronistic.
These people also generally believe that untraditional methods (i.e. torture) are unnecessary to combat an untraditional threat. Since the issue cannot be effectively resolved by existing legal precedent, it is more meaningful to frame it within the deeper context of human rights.
As a nation, the United States has a history of punishing human rights abuses elsewhere in the world through economic sanctions, agreements to stop cooperation, and even military action. Since we have expressed a serious commitment to protecting human rights in our countries, we cannot claim exception when it comes to our own actions. The issue surrounding terrorism and human rights can be formulated as a legal question and as a moral question.
The legal question asks whether ‘enemy combatants’ are protected under the Geneva Conventions and other international human rights accords. Most international lawyers would answer ‘yes’, but the US Court of Appeals has disagreed. Since the legal question yields ambiguous answers, the moral question–what are human rights and should detainees have them–is a more constructive starting point.
Dworkin first defines political rights as special moral rights that protect individuals from governments rather than from other individuals. These include freedom of speech and the right to a fair and just trial. Political rights prevent governments from harming minorities or individuals even if doing so would theoretically be better for the overall community. For instance, it would not be permissible for a government to persecute members of a certain race even if the overall population would be better off by doing so.
By invoking a political right, a community or individual is essentially saying that the government cannot act in the overall population’s best interests because doing so would violate individual interests. Political rights vary across the world, even among other nations that have comparable political systems.
For instance, while freedom of speech is protected political right in both the United States and in Great Britain, hate speech is not protected in Great Britain although it is legal in the United States. Similarly, some nations consider healthcare a basic political right, while the United States does not.
Nations generally tolerate differences in political rights, but are quick to condemn and potentially intervene when other nations violate human rights. On a broad level, the concept of human rights asks that individuals and governments act consistently with the idea that life is intrinsically important and valuable (the first principle).
Human rights have two large implications: (1) individuals are all granted baseline rights that affirm the importance of human life (this necessarily condemns torture), and (2) that governments do not act in ways that contract their understanding of their own values (so that human rights are not selectively applied). Dworkin concedes that this definition is still vague. Beyond baseline rights, there is no real test of whether a right is a human right or not.
For this reason, governments and politicians still disagree on whether economic rights are human rights or not. Nevertheless, some rights are clearly human rights. Any action that clearly violates the Principle of Intrinsic Value would be a violation of human rights. Asserting that one group is inherently more valuable than another, whether it is Aryans over Semites or whites over blacks or believers over infidels, supposes that some lives are not equal to others and violates Dworkin’s first principle. Taken to an extreme, such beliefs have resulted in genocide, perhaps the clearest violation of human rights.
The second principle, the Principle of Personal Responsibility, supports traditional political rights like freedom of speech, political activity, and freedom of religion. These rights are all consistent with the idea that individuals should be free to choose and fulfill what a successful life looks like for them. Even societies that share a basic belief in traditional political rights differ on surface paternalism, the extent to which the government should guide individuals to successful lives.
Americans generally do not object to the government creating laws to wear seatbelts or to educate children. However, many Americans object to the idea of mandating healthcare insurance, which is commonly accepted in a country like Canada. Differences in paternalism appear to be tolerated internationally as long as they do not impact the dignity of a nation’s citizens. The Principle of Personal Responsibility dictates that governments should not act in ways that force individuals to make choices that undermine their humanity.
Using the above logic, Dworkin tackles three issues related to terrorism and human rights: (1) torture, (2) capital punishment, and (3) detention. The primary argument for using torture on suspected terrorists is that it is a useful way to extract information that can be used to save American lives. Dworkin points out that the validity of information obtained under duress is questionable but puts that point aside to focus on the morality of the issue.
Offering inducements, such as a reduced prison sentence, allows an individual to weigh the benefits and consequences of giving up information. Torture is designed to cripple that ability until the individual is no longer capable of making a choice. Dworkin’s argument contends that torture violates both the Principle of Intrinsic Value and the Principle of Personal Responsibility by using pain to reduce a human being to something subhuman and by depriving that human being of the ability to make a decision and take personal responsibility for his or her life.
When it comes to capital punishment, Dworkin writes that the two principles are inconclusive as to whether the death penalty constitutes a violation of human rights. There are two primary arguments for capital punishment, the first being that capital punishment serves as a significant deterrent to crimes like murder. There is evidence that the deterrent effect is not strong, but putting that aside, Dworkin sees this argument as coherent and in line with both principles.
The deterrent argument says that society wants to create a strong enough disincentive for murder, without denying the importance of any individual life, preserving the Principle of Intrinsic Value. Individuals who choose to commit crimes punishable by capital punishment despite knowing the consequences have made an independent decision, preserving the Principle of Personal Responsibility. Similarly, the second argument contends that the community deserves retribution for heinous crimes.
A primary argument against capital punishment is that there is always the risk of convicting and killing an innocent individual (this is complicated in the US since black defendants are disproportionately wrongly convicted). Proponents of this argument say that being okay with running this risk reveals a contempt for certain individuals’ lives, at odds with the Principle of Intrinsic Value. Dworkin is hesitant to reach a clear solution on the topic of capital punishment. Although he personally believes that it violates human rights, he can see why those who disagree genuinely believe they are abiding by both principles.
As with torture, the main justification for detainment of suspected terrorists is that it could prevent harm to American lives. Proponents of this argument believe that the basic hearings detainees are given are sufficient to cover their human rights. Those hoping to change detainment policies say that these hearings are not as safe as American law prescribes. Detainees cannot have their own counsel and cannot see the evidence against them. Furthermore, there is no external review of military tribunals, so once a decision is made, it is likely to be final.
Moreover, they believe the Bush administration detainment policy acts in bad faith. A government that acts in good faith applies the same laws and procedures to everyone under its power, even to people who are not citizens. It treats all individuals under its power with dignity. By treating suspected terrorists as criminals but not affording them the same rights that domestic criminals have, the government acts in bad faith.
Religion and Dignity
The 2004 election saw a surge in evangelical religion as a political force, bringing to light questions about the place of religion in American politics. Theorists speculate that when there is an official religion in a state, it binds sects together. When there is not, there is more room for fundamentalist groups to gain traction. The issue Dworkin identified in the 2004 election that preserves today is the political militancy and aggressiveness employed by religious groups.
Historically, religion became a forefront political issue with the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision permitting abortion. In 2004, religiosity was ignited further when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the state could not prevent homosexual couples from marrying. Since those events, the fervor around religion in politics has grown stronger, with neither side making a genuine effort to appeal to or understand the others’ perspective.
The primary question about religion concerns the role it should play in politics and public life. Trying to answer this question for specific issues (should abortion be legal? Should prayer be allowed in public schools? Should Christmas trees be on public property?) would be futile since over time more issues would spring up. Instead, we need to establish a framework to guide our decisions about religion.
Since liberals and conservatives agree that the government should be tolerant of all peaceful religions and of people of no faith, there are two possible formulations of society: (1) a religious nation tolerant of religion minorities and nonbelievers, or (2) a secular nation tolerant of religion. Currently, America is somewhere between the two. Our pledges and coinage have obvious references to divinity, but we generally support the separation of church and state.
A tolerant religious society believes that religion is important to make people and society function better. It supports a form of generalized monotheism, includes references to theology in politics, and protects nonbelievers’ freedom of religion, while maintaining that they are wrong in their beliefs. A tolerant secular society does not commit itself to religion or to atheism. There are no religious or antireligious references in its official ceremonies and no religious symbols in public places (these are still legal on private property). It is particularly cautious of disproportionately benefitting religious organizations, for instance, by giving parents vouchers that could be used for parochial schools.
These societies differ in their interpretation of ‘religious freedom’. A religious tolerant society understands religious freedom only as it pertains to religious practice. It does not believe freedom of religion includes a generalizable right for individuals to make other decisions of ethical importance. For this reason, it bans abortion, stem cell research, and gay marriage on religious grounds. A tolerant secular society does not see religion as uniquely important.
Within this society, any law that gives special protection to a certain faith would be seen as discriminatory by the rest of society. Here, freedom of religion is interpreted as a general ethical freedom. In the context of this discussion, “ethical values” are those values that explain why human life has intrinsic value and how that value is realized for individuals. Tolerant secular society would not impose one group’s ethical values on any other group.
The religious narrative argues correctly that America was founded as a tolerant religious society. It was not until after World War II that Supreme Court judges decided to make America a tolerant secular society. Nevertheless, as Justice Anthony Kennedy argues, the Constitution only requires the government to refrain from coercing citizens into religious observance; any other manifestation of religiosity by the state is permissible.
On the other hand, the argument for a secular tolerant society is found in principle rather than history. This argument is based in the philosopher John Rawls’ idea of “public reason”, that people can create policy with the ethical, religious, and moral beliefs of everyone in the community considered. In line with the public reason argument, Dworkin contends that only a secular tolerant society is consistent with the Principle of Personal Responsibility.
In America, a majority of citizens are religious, and a majority of them are Christians. They generally support the Principle of Personal Responsibility, and, by doing so, it should follow that they support the freedom to take individual responsibility. However, Dworkin argues that the interpretation of religious freedom in a tolerant religious society is too narrow to properly respect personal responsibility. He first details the distinction between “liberty” and “freedom”.
Liberty is the set of rights that the government ought to establish to protect individuals’ personal responsibility while freedom is broader and refers to an individual’s ability to do whatever he or she wants to do. The government limiting freedom is permissible (e.g. creating laws to prevent crime), but limiting liberty (e.g. preventing people of a certain race from getting jobs) is not. The tolerant religious argument holds that religion is special issue that needs a distinct kind of protection. But proponents of this argument support the rights of atheists, so their conception of liberty is necessarily broader than just religion.
Dworkin then revises his definition for liberty, calling it the right an individual has to do what he or she wants with the resources that are rightfully his or hers. However, the government can take resources for distributive reasons in order to fairly allocate resources to maintain order in society. This means that fair taxation and property laws preserve liberty while unfair taxation does not.
Any law that derives from this conception of liberty must be “impersonally judgmental”. That is, it should appeal to the intrinsic value of the subject (for instance, protecting forests because they are inherently valuable natural resources). Laws that arise from “personal judgment” (e.g. gay marriage should be illegal because it is disgusting), violate liberty.
The Principle of Personal Responsibility further implies if people are to take personal responsibility for their lives, they themselves must decide which ethical values they will espouse. Personally judgmental laws impede this ability.
Many contemporary Supreme Court precedents about religious issues are derived from the idea that people’s convictions about ethical issues (e.g. when life begins, if homosexual marriage is right) are equally formative in their minds as the religious convictions of a person of faith. Laws that imply the majority knows better than individuals about ethical values curtail liberty and stop people from taking personal responsibility.
Despite his conviction that only a tolerant secular society can fulfill the Principle of Personal Responsibility, Dworkin believes that there is a substantial, nontrivial cultural argument for tolerant religious society. A majority of members of our society are Christian and presumably want to live in and raise their children in a culture that reflects their religious values.
The question then becomes who should decide the culture we have? The tolerant religious argument implies that the majority has the right to determine culture, while respecting the right of nonbelievers to follow their own or no religion. Culture inevitably influences our choice of values, a phenomenon that is consistent with personal responsibility. However, subordination is not consistent with personal responsibility. Allowing other people to decide what they think is a good life for an individual constitutes subordination.
Granted, the majority decides on taxation and civil rights, both of which impact ethical culture. However, these ideas are impersonally judgmental, not prescriptive in the way religious values would be. Religious conservatives do not tolerate ‘economic socialism’, which allows the majority to dictate prices. Therefore, they should theoretically be opposed to the same mechanism in the realm of religion.
Dworkin goes on to suggest policy outcomes based on his argument. If courts and legislatures decide that abortion is murder, it should be made illegal. However, if abortion is not murder, then any law outlawing it would be personally judgmental and undermine personal responsibility. At the time the book was written, President Bush had proposed that the theory of intelligent design be taught in schools.
Dworkin argues that intelligent design proponents have not put forward a scientifically valid theory to counter evolution. Therefore, allowing intelligent design to be taught creates a dangerous precedent of allowing teachers to explain all events with miracles. For instance, lung cancer could be explained as God’s decision to punish some cigarette smokers, rather than explaining the relationship between tobacco and lung cancer.
The religiosity of pledges recited in schools makes those who do not subscribe to the same faith feel like outsiders, creating a coercive impact on students that threatens their personal responsibility. The same is true of coinage and public spaces with religious references.
However, Dworkin does not feel as though these instances make life all that uncomfortable, despite being violations of liberty. Finally, Dworkin argues that banning gay marriage would be a personally judgmental decision that discriminates against homosexual couples. He responds to the argument that marriage is culturally between a man and woman by recalling subjugation by the majority: it is against individual dignity to impose one cultural interpretation upon another group.
Taxes and Legitimacy
One of the Bush administration’s most salient policy decisions was a series of tax reductions. Dworkin analyzes the tax issue using a frame of legitimacy, essentially asking what the government ought to do with the power it is given. The Bush tax cuts came at the same time as an expensive military campaign. The ultimate effect of the tax policy was to drive the United States from a multitrillion dollar surplus to a deficit of $3.5-4 trillion.
Perhaps the most poignant impact manifested in the government’s slow and unorganized reaction to the disaster in the Gulf States following Hurricane Katrina, which Dworkin partly attributes to a tightening budget. Dworkin further states that the tax cuts primarily benefitted the rich, and although they were supposed to have a ‘trickle down’ effect, median household income had fallen from 2001 to 2006. Nevertheless, Dworkin proposes rethinking the conversation around taxes beginning with a framework, rather than critiquing specific policies.
Taxes are the primary conduit through which the government plays a redistributive role. In addition to funding the operations of the government and military, they support programs for unemployment, retirement, healthcare, and subsidized housing. The conservative argument is that taxes at current levels penalize success while liberals argue that taxes do not go far enough to support the less fortunate and bridge the wealth gap.
This sort of dialogue frames the issue as a question of fairness. Dworkin argues that it is more constructive to think about taxes in the context of legitimacy. The Principle of Intrinsic Value requires that we have concern for all individuals. But while individuals may be more concerned about their families than about strangers, the government has an obligation to be equally concerned about all citizens. A government must answer the following question:
what conditions must it meet to be entitled to act so that its citizens are morally obligated to obey?
To be politically legitimate, a government must treat all citizens with equal concern and ensure that citizens who are born into the community and those who join later have the same obligations to each other and the government. By this logic, the apartheid government in South Africa did not have political legitimacy over blacks since they were treated as second-class citizens.
The laissez-faire social structure, in which the government is minimally involved provides a base case for the question of political legitimacy. Individuals’ outcomes are determined by their personal economic variables (past choices, physical and mental abilities, luck), but are also shaped by the “political settlement” of the community (laws and policies).
In this complex environment, every decision the government makes has bearing on individual outcomes. Those who support small government must justify how a smaller state is still capable of caring for poorer citizens who are disproportionately negatively impacted by their circumstances. One could argue that the government should not consider the distributive consequences of its decisions by allocating decision making to specific departments (e.g. The Department of State makes foreign policy decisions, the Department of Health makes health decisions).
However, since all agencies rely on budget, even a minimalist government would have to consider the implications of allocating money to one area over another. Another possible counterargument is that the government acts in equal concern by trying to maximize aggregate happiness. However, maximizing aggregate happiness can result in large inequality, leaving the poorest in society in the cold.
Still, complete egalitarianism is not the answer. Adults are not children, and a politically legitimate government must adhere to the Principle of Personal Responsibility. In an egalitarian society in which all wealth is redistributed, people do not face the economic consequences of their decisions and cannot take full responsibility. Instead, Dworkin considers John Rawls’ theory of justice. The theory does not require complete equality but asks to try and make the least well-off group as well-off as possible.
The theory does not discriminate between those in the least well-off group as a result of poor circumstances and those there because of their own lack of effort. Since Rawls ignores the connection between personal choice and personal fate, Dworkin looks to find a broader theory of legitimacy. A theory of legitimacy (and thus and theory of taxation) should outline (1) what equal concern demands of a government, and (2) capture the consequences of personal responsibility.
Personal responsibility can only really exist in a mainly free market economic organization, but a government that demonstrates equal concern cannot ignore the impacts of luck and talent. A community achieves equal concern through granting equal opportunity; when personal outcomes are determined by the value and costs of individuals’ decision rather than on their luck.
There are two general models of equality: ex post and ex ante. Ex post equality calls for the government to provide individuals outcomes based on the value of their decisions (for instance, providing rehabilitation and medical reimbursement for someone involved in a car crash). Ex ante equality calls for government to do all it can to put people in an equal position before luck plays a role (for instance, asking individuals to get health insurance).
Expost equality is not actually feasible in practice. Restoring everyone to equality after luck plays a negative role in his or her life would be unreasonably expensive and hard to implement. Moreover, doing so would eliminate personal responsibility. Ex ante equality is a better model: it addresses differences in people’s ability to protect themselves from bad luck by creating forms of insurance.
Similarly, there are two metaphors generally used to describe economic justice: the social contract and the insurance pool. The social contract metaphor imagines an understanding among members of society to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. This model presupposes a community with an established collective identity, an idea that does not accurately fit America.
The insurance pool metaphor, in which all members contribute to and draw from in times of need, is more apt and historically accurate (e.g. FDR’s New Deal). Furthermore, the insurance pool metaphor suggests individuals have made sensible choices by contributing into the pool, so they are entitled to draw from it; it is not charity. The analogy to social programs is not perfect: (1) government social programs are mandatory, not voluntary, insurance pools and (2) citizens of actual communities do not begin with the same wealth/circumstances in practice.
The analogy to social programs is not perfect: (1) government social programs are mandatory, not voluntary, insurance pools and (2) citizens of actual communities do not begin with the same wealth/circumstances in practice.
Inequality in individuals’ ability to protect themselves stem from three primary reasons:
- Some people have less money and cannot afford the same amount of insurance
- Some people are more likely to suffer from certain ailments and will be charged more, and
- Events impacting individuals’ ability to pay have already occurred; we are born with different levels of opportunity and talent.
Dworkin suggests correcting for these differences by calculating what level of insurance reasonable people would have bought if society was perfectly egalitarian. The aggregate of these hypothetical insurance premiums should equal the aggregate value of taxes needed. Using these taxes, the government can redistribute wealth through direct transfers (unemployment benefits, medical reimbursements) or public spending (single payer healthcare).
Dworkin’s hypothetical insurance plan would require a progressive tax rate system. He cites the theory of declining marginal utility: an extra dollar is worth more to a poor person than it is to a rich person, so the percentage of income paid in taxes should increase as income increases.
Dworkin addresses a range of counterarguments, beginning with the claim that lowering taxes increases prosperity. Referencing a range of data points, he argues that lowering taxes on the rich has not empirically increased the economic outcomes of the majority. But putting aside the numbers, legitimacy is about concern for all people, not just maximizing the aggregate.
A society with a few multi-billionaires and masses living in poverty would be better off in the aggregate, but such a government would lack political legitimacy. Others may contend that only a minimal ‘safety net’ is necessary to demonstrate concern for all citizens. Dworkin counters that his insurance strategy is essentially a safety net. He invites those who disagree to propose and justify a different type of safety net.
Dworkin responds to those who believe that high taxation is a threat to liberty by arguing that based on his established conception of liberty (rights to protect individuals’ personal responsibility) is not violated by social programs. Finally, Dworkin addresses the argument that the government should not act like Robin Hood. The government has certain responsibilities to all of society and requires money from society to fulfill them.
Others may further argue that they should only have to pay for what they get. However, what they have ‘earned’ is largely a function of the political settlement; it is hard to defend the idea that the money was earned solely by sheer good decision making on the individual’s part.
Conclusion: Is Democracy Possible Here?
Dworkin concludes by asking his central question again: is democracy possible in America? He writes that the contemporary political sphere is debilitated by unproductive discourse and special interests. Nevertheless, he still believes there is a path to reclaiming democracy and proposes ways to do so.
Money plays an inordinate role in our political system both today and at the time of the book’s publication. Both political parties and their candidates are financed by rich donors and special interests that can buy influence when it comes to policy making. The impact of money on political discourse is even more insidious.
Funding allows candidates to create expensive social media and television campaigns that flood the political sphere with misinformation and divisive language. As it stands, the current American political environment threatens the nature of our democracy. Regardless of political culture, we all agree that democracy is the most legitimate form of government, but we have a muddled idea of what democracy actually is.
There are two views of democracy: the majoritarian view and the partnership view. Under the majoritarian view, a society is governed by what the majority of citizens want. This majority is not necessarily a good or just decision maker. Under this view, the majority can vote to discriminate against a race and still be a democracy.
Furthermore, a majoritarian democracy does not require people to be responsible citizens. If every citizen is uninformed, the democracy is still no less of a democracy. Under the partnership view, people govern themselves as equal partners in a collective political enterprise. This view further requires that the government protects the status and interests of each citizen.
To reconcile democracy with the Principle of Intrinsic Value and the Principle of Personal Responsibility, the partnership view stresses the importance of equal concern and self-government. Under this view of democracy, citizens cannot assume coercive authority over others.
Dworkin rejects the majoritarian view of democracy since it cannot justify itself as a just and politically legitimate form of government. He proposes ways to bring America closer to a partnership democracy, beginning with education. We could start by creating a required “Contemporary Politics” course in high schools. This class would discuss the issues of the day through frameworks rather than arguing based on visceral reactions.
Granted, such a course would be difficult to create and teach, but it is a necessary step to creating responsible citizens. Elections should also be reformed. Congress could create special public broadcasting channels to cover elections. These channels would have strict equal-time and fairness coverage requirements. Congress could also further regulate private networks.
For instance, major networks should be required to set aside time to correct errors and biases from the previous week’s reporting. Finally, Dworkin proposes that Supreme Court justices should have a term limit. The Constitution is a vitally important part of our legal system, and justices play a tremendous role in determining how the Constitution is interpreted. Because justices serve life terms, their decisions can shape multiple generations.
Term limits would prevent the country’s most important judicial decisions from becoming stale and out of touch with contemporary America. Early in the book, Dworkin notes that his personal political philosophy leans liberal. Nevertheless, every argument he makes stems from principles that most Americans share. Throughout the book, he invites those who disagree to voice their opinions through rational, defensible logic, just as he does. Unfortunately, years after Dworkin published the book, America seems even more divided.
In our current environment, there is little effort to examine the fundamentals of why we believe what we believe and to identify which beliefs we share. Even if Dworkin’s conclusions do not resonate with every reader, the book provides a critical framework for thinking about important issues. At the very least, Is Democracy Possible Here? should make us all reexamine the way we talk about politics.
Britt always taught us Titans that Wisdom is Cheap, and principal can find treasure troves of the good stuff in books. We hope only will also express their thanks to the Titans if the book review brought wisdom into their lives.