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New Left Review I/171, September-October 1988

Alan Carling

Liberty, Equality, Community

It is widely believed that at some time over the last fifteen years the political values of the left were hijacked and the social theories of the left discredited; and that this intellectual reverse bears some relation to the ascendancy of Thatcherism. Whatever the merits of this case, four recent books make clear how much of the intellectual ground has been retrieved. If ideas count for anything, the right does not look that strong; not half so clever. Richard Norman’s Free and Equal and John Baker’s Arguing for Equality are mainly about political values. John Roemer’s Free to Lose and Michael Taylor’s The Possibility of Cooperation are also about social theories. [1] Richard Norman, Free and Equal: A Philosophical Examination of Political Values, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1987; John Baker, Arguing for Equality, London, Verso, 1987; John Roemer, Free to Lose: An Introduction to Marxist Economic Philosophy, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, and London, Radius Books, 1988; Michael Taylor, The Possibility of Cooperation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987. I should like to thank Jerry Cohen, Norman Geras, John Roemer and Michael Taylor for their critical commentary on an earlier draft of this paper. The four books share a concern for the institutional arrangements which would realize equality while respecting liberty. The books share something else which is no less significant for being a matter of style rather than content. It is something like a recovery of common sense and the idioms of dominant expression for the intellectual purposes of the left. Richard Norman begins by contrasting two traditions of political philosophy: the tradition which opposes freedom to equality and the tradition which does not. Suppose, for example, that freedom is defined purely negatively, as the absence of constraint; that the only options of social organization are the State and the market, and that the State is identified as the only source of constraint. Then freedom will be maximized the more activities are taken from the unfree State and given to the free market. If the operation of the free market generates, or perpetuates, inequalities, then one must choose between freedom and equality. This is the kind of decision forced upon us in the first tradition of political philosophy, and it comes as no surprise that the political right tends to feel most comfortable in this tradition. Freedom is recommended as the primary value, with greater or lesser regret at the loss of equality which seems to be entailed thereby.

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