Practical Political Philosophy and Will Kymlicka’s Endnote 42

Confusions of the real and the ideal underly far too many policy debates. Libertarians, for instance, often assume perfectly functioning markets and compare them to genuinely (mis)functioning governments. Progressives do the opposite, highlighting the very real warts on the existing markets while assuming that government policies will, in practice, turn out exactly as perfect as we’d wish them to. Whenever the real is compared to the ideal, the real comes out tarnished.

Real/ideal confusion is a particular plague within political philosophy. Philosophers, using the powers of their intellect and the tools of reason, argue to perfect conceptions of justice and then assume that those conceptions (the ideal) can be made manifest if only we decide to do so. For instance, in Spheres of Justice, Michael Walzer argues that, if we banish money from certain realms of human experience, then everyone, rich and poor, skilled and unskilled, blessed and cursed, will have equal access to all that is good within those spheres. He ignores and so wholly discounts the economic insight that, with money excluded, people will “pay” for those goods in other ways, with some having more of this new form of payment than others.

Likewise, John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, tells us that justice permits inequalities in the distribution of goods only if those inequalities benefit the worst-off members of society. He doesn’t tell us how we are to know who the “worst-off members” are, how we are to keep track of them as they shift from worst-off to not-worst-off and from not-worst-off to worst-off, or how we are to measure equality and inequality — all of which are likely impossible tasks to accomplish with any degree of accuracy. It is merely assumed that, upon discovering just principles, we can rejigger the world to conform to them.

That’s why it was so deeply refreshing to come across endnote 42 in the “Libertarianism” chapter of Will Kymlicka’s Contemporary Political Philosophy. Kymlicka is far from a Hayekian libertarian — the chapter is downright scathing, in fact — and has built his career discussing theories of justice. With that in mind, here’s the text of the endnote.

Consider the question of state capacity. It seems clear that liberal-egalitarian theories have operated with over-optimistic assumptions about state capacity. For example, in developing his theory of liberal equality, Bruce Ackerman explicitly appeals to the idea of a “perfect technology of justice” (Ackerman 1980: 21; for similar assumptions, see Arneson 1990: 158; Roemer 1985a: 154). Of course, Ackerman knows that this is not available in the real world. But he does not tell us which parts of the resulting theory can be implemented, given our actually existing “technology of justice.” The inherent limitations in the capacity of the state to achieve social objectives have been theorized by social scientists, both on the right (Glazer 1988) and the left (Rothstein 1998). But this literature has not yet permeated the philosophical debates. One looks in vain in the corpus of the major left-liberal political philosophers (Rawls, Dworkin, Cohen, Roemer, Arneson, Ackerman) for a discussion of the extent to which the state can or cannot fulfill the principles of justice they endorse.

(Emphasis added.) If true — and my reading in the field indicates that it is — this is a shocking admission. The project of these philosophers is telling us how society should be structured in order to fulfill obligations of justice. By nature of their role as “left-liberals,” they believe that the structuring of society should be conducted via the state. If the state cannot fulfill the goals of that structuring, then the merit of the ideas antecedent to the structuring is seriously undermined.

Imagine if a philosopher of bioethics spent years writing a book in which she concluded that the moral obligation of modern medicine is to cure cancer through the application of natural spring water. Or if a researcher in education told us that schools should be built on the assumption that children already know the sum total of all knowledge in the universe. While the goals of these scholars would remain laudable (curing cancer is good, as are highly knowledgeable children), their scholarship would have little value. Children don’t already know everything and natural spring water cannot cure cancer, no matter how much we might like otherwise.

Of course, the arguments of Rawls and Walzer are not valueless. Forcing us to think about the justice of our society and its structure and prodding us to make our world more just are crucial and worthwhile pursuits. But it remains facile to conduct those pursuits without even considering the feasibility of the proffered conceptions of justice.

There’s another problem, too. Insisting that our states be organized around perfect conceptions of justice — which demand perfect technologies of justice — might very well produce worse results for humanity than accepting a less-than-perfect justice, but one achievable by the technologies we actually possess. A chef attempting to prepare an unattainably perfect omelet will break a lot more eggs than a chef setting out to make — and actually achieving — a merely excellent one.

But admitting this and and moving forward with it in mind would mean discussing “the extent to which the state can or cannot fulfill the principles of justice” the philosophers demand — something Kymlicka (who is arguably as well-versed as anyone in the philosophical literature) tells us simply doesn’t happen.

That Kymlicka’s insight hides in an endnote is telling.