Michael Walzer on Liberalism and its Critics
Yascha Mounk and Michael Walzer discuss liberalism, communitarianism, and why some forms of inequality are more acceptable than others.
Michael Walzer is an eminent political philosopher and the author of numerous books, including Just and Unjust Wars and Spheres of Justice. He is professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, has taught at Harvard University, and is editor emeritus of the magazine Dissent.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Michael Walzer discuss why, though he is a democratic socialist, he believes that there are certain acceptable forms of inequality; what forms of injustice true egalitarians should focus on fighting; and the threats to liberalism from the post-liberal right and the illiberal left.
The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: I've been reading and grappling with your work since I was an undergraduate, and so I'm really looking forward to asking you all kinds of questions. One part of your work that is well known is your very interesting sense of what equality is really about.
In Spheres of Justice, you argue that the way to think about distributive justice in particular is to recognize that there are different kinds of goods for which different kinds of distributive mechanisms are appropriate, and the real injustice comes from one of these realms becoming dominant and being able to be translated to everything else. Can you walk us through that a little bit? What do you think is the danger of this kind of dominance?
Michael Walzer: Well, first of all, equality across a social society doesn't consist of sameness or an equality of power or of resources. If you think about the political system we have, we have a mechanism called elections for reducing inequality—radical inequality. Some people win, some people lose. Some people have a lot of power, some people have far less, and many of us are just watching. And yet, in the distributive system—if the elections are free and fair, and if the right of opposition is safeguarded—the resulting inequality is okay. The distribution of medical care should go to the people who are sick or most sick. That seems a natural way of distributing medical care, even though it means that some people get more if they need it, and some people get less if they don't.
What makes for injustice is not inequality in political power or inequality in the distribution of health care or welfare or education. It is when these distributions don't take place for the right reasons and through the right procedures. It's when you get more health care than I do because you have more money than I do. You have taken success in the market and you have bought health care, or elite positions for your children in the country's universities, or political influence. So it's the use of one social good which may be rightly possessed to claim many other social goods that ought to be distributed differently. It's an argument that depends on what the special goods we distribute mean to the people who make them and share them. And those meanings may be different in different societies.
Mounk: One of the things that I find very elegant and clarifying about this argument is that it explains, I think, a core concern that the left rightly has about contemporary capitalist societies, which is that money is dominant in that kind of way, and that being rich doesn't just buy you a nicer watch than somebody else; it also buys you better healthcare, better access to education, better access to opportunities for your children, higher likelihood of winning political office, and all of these other kinds of things where money doesn't feel like a rightful metric.
How should we think about this general tendency towards domination in which, today, the dominant currency is money, but at other times it might have been the honor of the noble-born or the people who claim to have greater religious enlightenment?
Walzer: In the Soviet Union, a near contemporary society, it was political power and membership in the Communist Party which got you better healthcare, a dacha in the countryside and all kinds of other privileges. So, yes, it is a tendency. In democratic societies, there are ways to resist the tendency. Civil service examinations were a way to resist the tendency toward upper-class nepotism in our government; the banning of bribery—you can't buy votes. All of these are efforts to control the convertibility of money, in our case, into the takeover of all other goods. I think it's important to notice that a lot hangs in this argument on the view that we have of social goods. I've been called a relativist because of making this argument, but I have a favorite illustration of it: in the Middle Ages, eternity was thought to be a high value; longevity, radically undervalued. And the way to achieve eternity was through faith, through the mechanisms of the church, distributed by the ecclesiastical hierarchy. And then, over time, eternity faded, beginning, I think, with Descartes’ famous statement that a long life is a great benefit. Eternity faded as a human desire, and longevity became increasingly important. Then, because of longevity, we began to establish public health. And not yet in the United States, but in most other Western countries a national health service: we made healthcare a good that could no longer depend on religious faith, or on noble birth, or on financial capacity.
It doesn't bother me if you can collect rare books and I can't, or if you can take a month's vacation and I just get two weeks. That doesn't bother me. It's when your wealth matters in every other sphere of activity—and right now, crucially, in politics. It's when your wealth can buy a senator or a judge, or a law, or an exemption from a law—all of that I want to rule out. I don't think it's crucial to a socialist or social democratic society, that someone who has an economic green thumb or some entrepreneur who invents some machine that people enjoy using, that they make more money than I make. It's what they can do with the money that matters.
Mounk: How do you think about meritocracy within this scheme? Meritocracy is a sort of founding ideal of the modern world. It has, in important ways, been a left-wing ideal, but it's recently come under quite concerted attack on the American left, in particular, but a little bit more broadly as well. And some of it for understandable reasons; that there does seem to be a kind of meritocratic elite in the United States that, I would argue, is not always, in fact, meritocratic.
Do you see meritocracy as a crucial bulwark against the dominance of money? Or do you think it has effectively become corrupted by money in such a way that the ideal is not worth upholding at this point?
Walzer: Well, the “career open to talents” was a revolutionary slogan. And in many parts of the world, it probably still is. The difficulty with meritocracy is that we allow the merits of the meritocracy to extend beyond the offices or the duties or the professions to which they pertain. Meritocracy produces what Shakespeare called the arrogance of power, the arrogance of office. I think people who hold high positions in government or in the professions have come to expect that they will pass on these positions to their children, as they usually are able to do. They will exercise their will, experience the benefits of their office in other spheres of activity. We need to create a meritocracy where the privileges that go with merit have to do only with the exercise of the office to which the merit is directly related.
We're probably only at the beginning of the creation of a new kind of elite. But already we are witnessing its presumption, its arrogance, and its ability to sustain itself across generations.
Mounk: I have another question which is about capital-L liberalism. Before we get to some of the attacks on liberalism today from both the left and the right, let’s talk about your own understanding of liberalism. On the one hand, you are in the tradition of a democratic socialist, and unlike some other people who use that term, you always understood that that is a label that needs to be earned by very clear and explicit rejection of the illiberal sorts of socialism that have dominated much of the 20th century. So it seems to me that something about what it is to be a democratic socialist in the Walzerian tradition is to be a liberal. But on the other hand, you're also known as a communitarian. So, are you a liberal? And if so, in what sense are you a liberal?
Walzer: Well, I am a liberal democrat, a liberal socialist, a liberal nationalist, or a Zionist, or liberal patriot. In this country, I am a liberal Jew. And all of those categories seem to me to be in trouble in different parts of the world today. Liberalism—well, I'm not sure what that means anymore. In this country, if it means New Deal liberalism, then that's simply our modest version of social democracy. And it would be better if we were able to call it that. Bob Nozick’s libertarianism might also be called a kind of liberalism—his, by the way, was very radical. I taught a course with him called Liberalism and Socialism and Capitalism, which was a semester-long debate in which I heard him say that he thought a revolution would be justified to establish capitalism in this country—given his version of what capitalism was, it would, in fact, take a revolution to do that. So, libertarianism can be a very radical version of liberalism, as it is on the European right today. Being a liberal democrat means accepting the notion that a majority cannot do anything it wants to do; that there are restraints based on human rights or civil liberties and that those restraints extend to the right of opposition and the plurality of parties or social movements. That's what I mean when I call myself a liberal. I'm a liberal communitarian. But it's an adjectival qualification of another commitment.
Mounk: What is at the heart of the debate between liberals and communitarians? And, therefore, what is the significance of you choosing this semi-middle way where your primary identification is as a communitarian, but perhaps unlike certain other communitarians, you qualify it with the adjective liberal? What's at stake in this debate for people who haven't taken an intro to political theory?
Walzer: Well, first of all, there are two versions of communitarianism. One version is straightforwardly Rousseauian, it aims to create a community like the community that Rousseau describes in The Social Contract, or in the constitution of Poland, where, as he says, Polish children study Polish history, Polish literature, Polish geography and nothing else. And that makes them intense members of this community. And some of the American communitarians had this version of the American republic looking back to Tocqueville's description, or what America was like in the 1840s. That was never my view of communitarianism. I was never sympathetic to that. I would prefer a liberal democracy or liberal social democracy to a Rousseauian community.
But the other kind of communitarianism stresses the smaller communities that exist within a liberal, democratic framework. And in that sense, I guess I am a communitarian social democrat, because I belong to a community of social democrats in the United States—an embattled community, perhaps. But Dissent was not only a magazine, it was a fellowship. I am a Jewish communitarian in the United States, valuing the traditions of my community, and the sense of membership of belonging to it; the commitment to people who will laugh at my jokes, which is a communal commitment. I imagine a liberal, democratic or social democratic framework within which there are more and less intense communities. And that was always my communitarianism. And so it is already a liberal version of communitarianism.
Mounk: In a way this places us in the middle of what feels like one of the most lively debates about liberalism and perhaps about political philosophy today, which is the rise of the post-liberals. There's certainly a very explicit rejection of liberalism on parts of the philosophical right with people like Patrick Deneen, but also in parts of the political right. Part of what right-wing critics of liberalism would argue, is that they pretend to be neutral, and they pretend to be universal, and they pretend to allow people who are religious to go through their lives with freedom of conscience. But in reality, liberal societies structure public education, public discourse and cultural institutions in such a way that they promote an attack on religion and on traditional values.
As I understand it—and I'm ventriloquizing a position I don't agree with, here—the promise of equality and toleration towards more traditional conceptions of religion or the good life within liberalism is always a false one, and therefore, anybody who cares about religion or about certain kinds of traditional values needs to, in the language of Robert Nozick, have a revolutionary overthrow of that regime in order to allow people to maintain it. How do you understand the nature of this critique, and what would your response to it be?
Walzer: Well, first of all, just on the issue of public education and religion, I think we have gone quite far in allowing religious communities to create parochial schools and private schools. We have allowed the Amish to take their kids out of school before the legal school-leaving age. We have allowed the Haredim in Kiryas Joel, 50 miles north of New York City, to run a public school system according to their own lights. We have been remarkably tolerant. And what has to be understood is simply the fact that these children are going to grow up to vote in our elections. And so we, the citizens of the democratic state, have an interest in their education. It's not an exclusive interest, it leaves a lot of room for parental decision-making. But we do have an interest that they grow up to know something about what it means to be the citizen of a democracy. And if that challenges some religious beliefs, then yes, they have a problem. But I don't think we can give up on that idea.
According to people like Patrick Deneen, liberalism is responsible for everything that has gone on in the modern world. And what is most amazing about his work is all the factors that he omits in his description of the rise of modernity, like the Protestant Reformation, which is perhaps the truest source of the individual and individualism—the individual and his God. The Protestants invented that singular pronoun. The gathered congregation, the critique of hierarchy—all that comes from the religious side, not from secular liberal ideology. And Deneen just doesn't talk about it. One crucial aspect of individualism (which already also begins in primitive forms among the Protestant radicals) is the equality of women. Genuine equality of women, the end of the patriarchal regime, is going to change the way families live and the way familial life is organized. And they continually invoke the traditional family which has been destroyed by liberalism, and they are not prepared to say that women are not equals, they're not prepared to say that. By the way, I don't think the word equality appears in the index of Patrick Deneen’s book. It might be that they're not prepared to acknowledge that women are equals. But yes, that's a crucial cause of the changes that we are living through and are sometimes unhappy about and sometimes very proud of. And then there is the scientific revolution which has transformed life and which is not a product of liberalism.
It isn’t a useful analysis, I think. And then I think the things they criticize are things that you and I might criticize. They are hostile to gross disparities of wealth, the post-liberals. They believe in a welfare state for the many, organized by the few. I don't think what we need is post-liberalism. We need a better version of liberal democracy and liberal social democracy.
Mounk: One problem with the post-liberals is that they do the classic conjuring trick of anybody who attacks a tradition, of somehow overlooking all of the good things that flow from it and blaming all of the ills in current society on that same tradition.
But the second problem, which stems from the first, is that when you look in a little bit more detail it is absolutely unclear what that new society would look like. One of the things that strikes me is that a lot of the post-liberals are either Catholics, or Catholic converts, and they seem to think that this would be a majoritarian society in which the elect few, or perhaps the democratic many, impose their religious values on the rest of society in the name of the higher good. But it's an irksome fact that virtually all of the societies in which they operate have become very secular, and Catholics, in particular, are a minority in the United States. And so it's very, very hard to actually make heads or tails of what it is that this post-liberal society would look like. This still does not appear to be an obvious competitor ideology, and the travails of the post-liberals in making up a competitor ideology seems only to underline that point.
Walzer: What emerges from Deneen's second book, which I've only looked through, is the idea that there is around the world a populist revolt against liberalism. It is badly led by people like Donald Trump, but they believe that they can seize it and lead it into political power for the Aristoi, for the few intelligent, well-educated, traditionally-committed people. They think they can be empowered by the populist impulse. They're riding a tiger, obviously, and I don't see success. But what is most striking about their commitment to what they call classical and Christian values, constantly reiterated in their books, is that they never give us a concrete description of the society in which they think those values prevailed. And it would be, in the classical case, a society of slavery, and war.
It would be a society of persecution of heretics—the Inquisition, the pogroms of the Crusades against Jews and then Muslims; deep poverty; hierarchy that is not committed to classical and Christian values at all. They never talk about that. They never talk about the society to which they look back. They just read Aristotle and Aquinas. They aren't doing social history, they probably don't believe in social history.
Mounk: You've been a leading voice of the American left for many decades. What do you think is the state of the American left at the moment? And how do you feel about the shift that, in my mind at least, has taken place over the last three or four decades and particularly over the last ten years, from a politics that tends to focus on questions of economics and social class to a politics that tends to focus on questions of sexual, racial, and gender identity.
Walzer: Let's look at the history of the last 70 years of leftist endeavor. The Civil Rights Movement was obviously a very important movement in American history, and if it didn't win complete victories, it won partial but real victories. The state of black people in the United States today is significantly different from what it was 70 years ago. The women's movement has won real victories. The role of women in politics and economics in the United States today is significantly different than it was 70 years ago. Gay rights have been established in law. The victory is incomplete. But still, we are far from where we were. Okay, those are significant victories, and, yet, America has become a less egalitarian society. And that's a great problem, a paradox of the contemporary left. By giving up on class and on the old social democratic programs, by pursuing particular versions of inequality and repression, which needed to be pursued, we have somehow created, or participated in the creation of, a less egalitarian society. We need to think through how that happened and why that has happened. And we have not begun a serious think-through of that. I think there are people on the left who would like to go back to the old social economic left program. President Biden's Build Back Better was a version of New Deal politics.
In addressing this paradox of identity politics successes and social economic failures, the left has gotten somehow diverted into this search for ideological purity on all of the identitarian issues. I don't totally understand where that comes from. But it has definitely produced, on many of our campuses, an illiberal left, and not a left that can ever be effective in American politics. I'm not sure I could give you a definition, any more than Ron DeSantis can, of what woke means. But it does seem to carry the connotation of “I am more purely and strongly committed to this or that than you are. And you'd better measure up to my commitments.” And that's not an attractive politics.
Mounk: When you read George Orwell, when he goes to a meeting of PEN, I suppose, in the late ‘40s, he complains that not a single person talks about the threat to free speech in the Soviet Union. And you read about the history of the British Labour Party in the second half of the 20th century, and there was always a strongly illiberal strain that seemed to have deep sympathy for any enemy of the West.
Is this just an illiberal temptation that periodically rears its head on the left? Is today's moment worse than past moments? How do we think about those illiberal instincts that are so prominently on view today in conversation with the history of these temptations in the United States and and beyond?
Walzer: Well, there have always been illiberal leftists, from the beginning. Marx may have been the first. And there have always been liberal, anarchist or independent leftists opposed to the authoritarianism of many leftist movements. And that's a fight. It's a fight. It has always gone on. I don't see it ending anytime soon.
I do think, right after World War II, there were the glory years of social democracy, which was also generally a liberal politics. Clement Atlee was not an authoritarian figure. I like to think of those social democrats who came after some towering figures—like Willy Brandt after Konrad Adenauer, or Clement Attlee after Churchill—there was a tendency to celebrate the heroic figures and not to understand the value of the people who come after, the Atlees of the world. But that was a glory time. And we, for various reasons, have lost that moment and can't figure out how to get it back. I think some of the Biden people did really intend to get it back. But they didn't have anything like the political support in Congress or even, perhaps, in the party.
I think it's very, very important for the left—this was the original purpose of Dissent magazine—to reckon with its own authoritarianism, its own history of authoritarianism. And it is a historical reckoning, and then it involves contemporary battles; the authoritarian tendency, the belief that I am ideologically correct, and you aren't; that I know the course of history, and you don't; that I understand why party discipline is necessary and you don't—that is a permanent tendency. It goes along with individual examples of self-righteousness and a certain kind of collective narcissism, but you just have to be against it.
Mounk: We've talked about lots of interesting topics, and we've been lamenting, at least for the second half of the conversation, various ideological developments. But what is it that makes you hopeful?
If, in 2050 or 2100, some historian were to sit down and write a positive story of how America and, perhaps, the world, transformed over the course of the 21st century, what do you think the main plot points in that history would be? What would need to happen for us to live up more fully to some of the ideals that you've written so eloquently about?
Walzer: I think it's a problem of old age to think that better times lay behind us. I am greatly encouraged by the participation of young people in environmental politics. I think that may be the absolutely crucial politics of our time, of the next decades, and crucial not only because of the impending ecological disasters, but also because if those disasters come, there is likely to be a very, very strong authoritarian response. Because that's the way one responds to crisis. You need “strong leaders,” “strong government.” And I think we have only a decade or two in which to establish some kind of democratic control over the environment before we face crises which will encourage authoritarian responses. So I greatly value every young person I meet who is talking about, thinking about, or working on the environment.
And then there are a lot of local or small-scale political efforts on things like mass incarceration, or helping immigrants. I know young people who volunteer to collect furniture and resources for immigrant families to help set them up comfortably in the United States. And I know young people who are helping prisoners after they are released to return to ordinary civil society. There is a lot of goodwill among America's young. It has not found a national political expression. I confess, I thought the environmental movement would be a national or international movement of much larger scope than it actually is today. But that's where I would look for hope, that's where I think the crucial work has to be done.
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