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Democracy's Place.

Henry S. Richardson, Georgetown University

This collection of previously published essays erects a multi-tiered scaffold in preparation for constructing an ambitious normative theory of democracy. As platforms offering critical purchase, the essays represent models of penetrating analysis and assertive synthesis. Insofar as they hint at the shape of a theoretical edifice to come, however, they indicate that the builder will have a difficult task: The criss-crossing levels of scaffold rule out most common ways of building democratic theory. This is no accident: Shapiro deliberately sets out his view "in contrast to liberal, socialist, conservative, and communitarian views" (p. 221). He writes against the social contract theories of Rawls, Nozick, and Dworkin; against the "public choice" or efficiency-based views of Buchanan and Tullock, Riker, and others; against the neo-Schumpeterian, interest-based views of Przeworski, Di Palma, Horowitz, and Huntington; and against Lijphart's consociationist approach. With so much to be against, it would take a bold stroke of theoretical innovation to find a new and acceptable theoretical home. Shapiro's attempt to preview his new view is hampered, however, by a fashionable disavowal of abstract theorizing.

Taken individually, the critical essays in this volume are well worth reading. They exhibit an impressive range and versatility. While Shapiro's essay critical of social contract theories presents little in the way of novel argument, it neatly organizes its complaints around the connection between justice and individual workmanship. Breaking newer ground, the essay attacking public choice theorists elaborates the central insight that there is no reason to grant realism, let alone normative privilege, to a hypothesized state of society absent government "intervention." Here, Shapiro's arguments uncovering false presuppositions are trenchant, forceful, and reinforced by concrete examples from U.S. constitutional law. Neo-Schumpeterians and consociationists are attacked in a more empirical mode, with special reference to the recent transition of power in South Africa. This case study (coauthored by Courtney Jung) generates interesting empirical hypotheses about how the dynamics of negotiated transitions of power affect the health of the ensuing democracy.

From Shapiro's criticisms and from a pair of programmatic essays, some of the main features of his plan for a theory of democracy do begin to emerge. Normative political theory in general, and democratic theory in particular, he holds, have to do with the proper handling of power relations. These, it turns out, are everywhere. Not limited - as liberals tend to suppose - to interactions between individual and state, they also occur pervasively in civil society: in the workplace, in glee clubs, and in the family. Putting Kenneth Arrow's attack on all-purpose social choice functions together with Michael Walzer's idea of different spheres of society, each with its own appropriate principles and institutions of social choice, Shapiro argues for a "semi-contextualized" approach in which democracy calls for different decision procedures in different spheres. Labeling his approach "democratic justice," Shapiro repeatedly emphasizes that while democracy is of some value in its own right, it is not the ultimate criterion of political justice. Instead, it must take its place as an element of a broader approach to the justice of power relations.

One of Shapiro's central themes is that to require unanimity or consensus is to privilege the status quo. He argues that a thriving opposition is an essential element of a just democracy. Against the public choice theorists, this complaint is well taken, and this theoretical positioning is attractive. Against the appeal to consensus by social contract theorists such as Rawls, the argument overlooks the degree of dissension allowed within an overlapping consensus. Shapiro's emphasis on continuing dissent qualifies his incorporation of Walzer. The principles appropriate to the various spheres cannot be derived from extant "social meanings," as these are subject to constant conflict.

Shapiro's attention to multiple spheres draws him toward the civic republican camp. The chapter critical of the Supreme Court's decision in Wisconsin v. Yoder (written with Richard Arneson) argues that the power of Amish parents over their children does not rightly override the children's right to an education in which critical thinking abilities would be fostered. These abilities are particularly important, Shapiro notes, in nurturing effectively oppositional democratic citizens. While this position is not cozily communitarian, it does place emphasis on what Michael Sandel has called the "formative project" of educating citizens. Of course, if politics is as pervasive as Shapiro suggests, citizens are no more important to democratic theory, in the first instance, than family members or choristers are. We may speculate, however, that Shapiro singles out the project of creating citizens because political measures are necessary for checking power in any sphere.

We must speculate about this, for in this series of preparatory exercises Shapiro is neither explicit about the definition of power nor particularly forthcoming about its sociology. With respect to his observation that the recognition of marital rape was a watershed in the balance of spousal power, for instance, we are left guessing whether that power is to be understood as having had a physical basis (in the male's musculature) or a legal one (in the earlier lack of legal recourse). Shapiro associates power with hierarchies - which should be "presumed suspect" (p. 238) - but does not pause to define those, either. As part of his qualified endorsement of Walzer, Shapiro emphasizes the multiplicity and incommensurability of social goods, which block simple comparisons of more and less. It is surprising, then, that he seems simply to presume that one may always speak of power, despite its presence in every sphere of social life, in terms simply of the more and the less, the "underdog" (p. 51) and the dominant.

That such important points remain unclarified is perhaps accounted for by Shapiro's facile antitheoretical stance. He attacks abstract theorizing as idealistic and as insufficiently contextual, stating by contrast his own affinity with Dewey's pragmatism. While Dewey's observations about the interdependence of end and means in political deliberation deserve our attention, his antitheoretical rhetoric was immoderate, belying his own engagement with metaphysics and too often constructing its "theoretical" opponents out of old shirts and straw. Besides, it is clear that Shapiro is engaged, by means of these essays, in building a normative theory of democracy, one which revolves around an unusually abstract (if still too vague) definition of power. If he is really to make good on his aim of developing a view neither liberal nor communitarian, socialist nor conservative, and is not just going to give us an eclectic theory built of bits and pieces of each, then he will have to continue and deepen the highly abstract exercise of conceptual positioning and integration begun here. Like the shimmering, fabric-sheathed scaffold with which Christo covered the Reichstag, these polished studies make us curious to see the edifice that will emerge from under the wraps and eager to see it sharply defined. Shapiro's essays pique our interest in the democratic theory he is constructing. We ought to be interested in it even if we are skeptical that it will be as novel as it promises to be.
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Author:Richardson, Henry S.
Publication:American Political Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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