While rereading Michael Walzer's Spheres of Justice as part of my ongoing project to study the various serious, anti-libertarian arguments, I was reminded of the following essay I wrote years ago. Long gone from the Internet, I though it would be fun for it to return. It's not perfect, and could be made stronger with a discussion of some of the unfounded assumptions of Walzer's communitarianism, but I'm surprised at how well the piece has held up.
A Marble Temple Shining on a Hill: Reality and Michael Walzer
The world to which [philosophy] introduces you is simple, clean and noble. The contradictions of real life are absent from it. Its architecture is classic. Principles of reason trace its outlines, logical necessities cement its parts. Purity and dignity are what it most expresses. It is a kind of marble temple shining on a hill. In point of fact it is far less an account of this actual world than a clear addition built upon it, a classic sanctuary in which the rationalist fancy may take refuge from the intolerably confused and gothic character which mere facts present. It is no explanation of our concrete universe, it is another thing altogether, a substitute for it, a remedy, a way of escape.
-William James, The Present Dilemma in Philosophy
Lie Tolerated For Its Beauty
-Headline, The Onion, November 3, 2005
Michael Walzer has no idea what he's talking about. In the preface to his communitarian manifesto, Spheres of Justice, he tells us that he isn't writing from "any great distance from the social world in which I live." Instead, he will try "to work my argument through contemporary and historical examples, accounts of distributions in our own society and, by way of contrast, in a range of others." He intends to "stand in the cave, in the city, on the ground." That is, the world in which you and I reside.
After an examination of Spheres of Justice, it becomes clear that, for Walzer, the cave is just large enough to contain the safe and reasonable halls of Princeton, and the positions he advances are illuminated only by the pleasant light of the philosophy wing of the ivory tower. In short, Walzer's communitarianism is not so much about the world in which politics actually happens so much as it is about the sort of world where Walzer wishes it did. Says the political scientist Daniel Drezner, "Too often, theorists come up with great models of the world by assuming away petty inconveniences." This essay is about what Walzer finds inconvenient.
Walzer's Particular Assumption
The failing of Spheres of Justice is in its mission. Walzer seeks to break all aspects of society, from religion to money to work, into circumscribed spheres, forever distinct. "We should consider what it might mean to narrow the range within which particular goods are convertible and to vindicate the autonomy of distributive spheres," he writes in his introduction to the theory. The form that eventually takes is a principle of distribution:
No social good x should be distributed to men and women who possess some other good y merely because they possess y and without regard to the meaning of x.
He believes he is capable to drawing clean lines between the role of money and the role of power, say, or between friendship and influence. For him, society is nothing so much as a molecule to be assembled out of a selection of "justice atoms," and it is his job to give us the periodic table. What Walzer fails to realize is the world is so much more complex than any chemist's construct, especially when you're dealing with the chaos of human interaction. To say there can be such a thing as a sphere of money that should never infringe upon the sphere of politics and to further claim that the boundaries of the two—as well as over a dozen others—can be clearly laid out in three hundred and twenty pages is to maintain a conception of reality that has little or nothing to do with the man on the street or the brutal despot oppressing him. This is justice for the philosopher, not justice for the people. It is a sort of justice—if it can even be called that—that will begin to break down like a biodegradable trash bag when set beneath the sun. This essay seeks to lay bare just how naively reductive Walzer's communitarianism is.
Prohibitions on the Use of Money
Let's start with money. In Chapter 4, Walzer sets out the sphere of money and commodities, beginning with a set of prohibitions on the use of the former. He refers to them as "blocked exchanges," and tells us "it is a feature of the sphere of money that it abuts every other sphere; that's why it is so important to fix its boundaries." Fair enough, but the question is, how distinct are these lines? How capable is Michael Walzer of delineating acceptable from unacceptable uses of money?
"Criminal justice is not for sale. … The services of defense attorneys are a matter of communal provision—a necessary form of welfare given the adversary system." As prohibitions go, this one's rather clear. Walzer doesn't want money to enter into the realm of criminal justice. Instead, the players in the justice system must be communally provided, presumably so as not to permit the wealthy to deny justice to others or to unfairly squeak out from under it themselves.
But Walzer hasn't thought the issue through. Communal provisions likely mean that all defense attorneys are paid the same, without regard to merit. After all, if the goal is to even out the spread of justice so as not to advantage some at the expense of others, we must require that all our attorneys be equally qualified. Otherwise, I would have cause for considerable complaint—and possibly legal appeal—if I found out I was provided by the community, through sheer luck of the draw, with a less than stellar lawyer while the guy down the hall managed to score Clarence Darrow. If defense capability isn't evenly distributed, there is little reason to worry about how money will distort the distribution in the first place.
So all our attorneys are now the same. Is this a good thing? No, it isn't. An attorney only gets better through hard work and, for most people, that work must come with an incentive or the extra time and energy it takes isn't worth the trouble. Higher pay is a strong incentive. A defense attorney who builds a reputation for winning cases will be highly sought after and will therefore be able to demand greater fees. If he didn't have the carrot of those fees, he might never have put up with the requirements for winning cases in the first place. This is not just the case with lawyers. Economist Thomas Sowell writes:
Incentives matter because most people will usually do more for their own benefit than for the benefit of others. Incentives link the two concerns together. A waitress brings food to your table, not because of your hunger, but because her salary and tips depend on it. In the absence of such incentives, service in restaurants in the Soviet Union was notoriously bad.
Do we want the same lack of service/quality in our attorneys? Definitely not. In fact, if there is any career where we want strong incentives for members to be better, it is law. This means, of course, that some will be able to afford better services than others. But if the baseline quality is higher because of the inequality, all are better off. Walzer's communal provision would leave each of us with defense lawyers as dedicated to our wellbeing as those Soviet waitresses.
Exceptions from Civil Duty
After earlier in the chapter discussing Civil War conscriptions, Walzer lays out the following prohibition: "Exemptions from military service, from jury duty, and from any other form of communally imposed work cannot be sold by the government or bought by citizens." Now, a strong case might be made that the government cannot sell exemptions, much as it might be wrong for the Church to sell indulgences—provided, of course, those indulgences were shown to be anything more than snake oil. But what's wrong with my accepting money from you to enter the army in your place?
Walzer hints at grasping this argument early on in the chapter when he writes, "Conceived abstractly, money is simply a representation of value." But then he quickly falls into complete misunderstanding of the nature of value at the bottom of the same paragraph:
But often enough money fails to represent value; the translations are made, but as with good poetry, something is lost in the process. Hence we can buy and sell universally only if we disregard real values; while if we attend to values, there are things that cannot be bought and sold. Particular things: the abstract universality of money is undercut and circumscribed by the creation of values that can't easily be priced or that we don't want priced.
It seems his complaint is that, while money is a representation of value, it often represents the wrong values. I.e., it is used to purchase things that are too valuable—priceless—or can allow for the buying of things that shouldn't be bought. Nowhere else in the book is it more clear that Walzer is arguing entirely from personal likes and dislikes. What money really represents is an abstraction of everyday trade-offs. Because I do not have an infinite time in which to do as I please, I must weigh different possibilities on how to spend it. I can sit at home and watch television, I can attend class to earn a degree, or I can go to work. When I watch television, I either pay for cable service or sit through commercials (or both). I do this because, by watching shows, I am using the time of other people—namely those who worked to produce the programming. Therefore I am using their time for my benefit. As such, I need to somehow reimburse them for that time. So I pay for cable or I watch commercials that are in turn paid for by others. This same system of trading, weighing, and assigning time holds true for the other activities I might engage in. I pay tuition for college courses because the professors (and administrators, office staff, janitorial crews, etc.) are giving up time they might otherwise use for more fun or desirable activities to be in that classroom teaching me.
See in this light, it is obvious where Walzer's thinking on value goes wrong. In a world defined by scarcity—both in natural resources and time each of us has to live—value is a measure of how much we are willing to give up for a given product, service, experience, and so on. As such, to say something is priceless is to say that it is more valuable to its present owner than any amount of resources or services he might gain by giving it up. And, while Walzer would be loathed to admit it, even life has a value. If it didn't, if every life was truly priceless, we would all drive five miles an hour on the freeway so there would be no car accidents. But we don't and that's because, as cold as it may seem, we think getting to our destinations in a timely manner is worth more than the lives lost to traffic fatalities.
To illustrate this point, take the above prohibition against buying one's way out of military service. Let us say you have been drafted. You don't want to go. This could be for many reasons, from being scared to die to having a family you want to spend time with to not particularly liking the food. Regardless of why, you have a strong desire not to spend a few years in the army. On the other hand, I'm fine with military service. Maybe it isn't the first thing I'd like to be doing, but I can certainly think of worse. Somehow, perhaps through chance or via a matching service, we find each other. You say, "Look, I don't want to go into the military. In fact, I don't want to go so much that I'm willing to pay someone $10,000 to take my place." I think about this and respond, "I'm not thrilled at the notion of military service but that money sounds awfully good. There are a lot of things I could do with it, like get a new car, pay for my kid's tuition, or maybe save for retirement. All of these are desirable and are of greater value to me than the three or four years of lost time in the army. I'll tell you what: Raise it to $20,000 and we have a deal."
Where is the injustice in that exchange? Why ought it be prohibited? I certainly have not been forced into taking your offer, just as you have not been forced into making it. The problem for Walzer is that he does not share the same sense of value you and I do when making the sale. For him, no amount is worth getting out of or selling into military service. And that's great for Walzer. He doesn't have to accept the deal. But that doesn't mean he, or society as a whole, has any right to tell you and me that we can't do what is advantageous to each of us.
He might fall back on the argument that such an exchange exploits the poor but this would be unfairly paternalistic. He would in effect be saying that the poor aren't smart enough to know what's good for them and that they can't be trusted to make decisions about their own lives. While it is true that not everyone is as intelligent as Michael Walzer, it is also true that not everyone needs to be in order to be fully capable of making reasoned decisions.
As a part of the limit placed on the use of money in desperate exchanges, Walzer argues that "the eight-hour day, minimum wage laws, health and safety regulations: all these set a floor, establish basic standards, below which workers cannot bid against one another for employment." He might be surprised to learn this, but the minimum wage in America was originally conceived of as a way to keep women out of the workforce—by making them too expensive—and thereby protecting men from competition. "Progressives, including Richard Ely, Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, the Webbs in England etc., were interested not in protecting women but in protecting men and the race. Their goal was to get women back into the home, where they belonged, instead of abandoning their eugenic duties and competing with men for work." These early advocates of the minimum wage knew that it would cut down on the number of jobs available. Walzer doesn't seem to understand this. And there are other reasons to be suspicious of the minimum wage.
The average income of minimum-wage workers increases by 30% within one year of employment on the basis of learned skills. Which is why any artificial barriers to learning those skills—which is what the minimum wage is—represents a cruel hoax to the working poor. Wage increases due to increased skill levels explain the remarkable fact that only 2.8% of workers over the age of 30 are receiving the minimum wage. (Edward H. Crane, "The Minimum Wage Myth." Cato Institute, October 28, 1999)
The arguments could continue ad nauseum. The point is simply that Walzer, in his role as grand definer of societal justice, hasn't done his homework. He's made a blanket statement that conflicts with the available data.
That's not the only error in this particular prohibition. The mandatory eight hour workday is a similar instance of Walzer mistaking his own preferences for the greater social justice. If I want to work more than eight hours, why shouldn't it be just for me to do so? Why should society say, "No, you can't work more than anyone else because it wouldn't be fair."? Just as is the case with wages, employers and employees ought to be free to decide between themselves the characteristics of a particular job—including the hours worked—without society or government imposing artificial limits.
The trouble is that Walzer has a strong aversion to allowing the market—i.e., individuals making individual choices about their own lives—to set employment standards. Instead, he wants the nation as a group to vote, knowing full well different outcomes will be produced by the two processes—and knowing that it is likely the latter will result in something closer to what he finds tasteful.
Leaving money by the wayside, it's now time to turn our attention to Walzer's peculiar notions regarding hard work. He defines it as work that is "harsh, unpleasant, cruel, difficult to endure." He goes on:
This kind of work is a negative good, and it commonly carries other negative goods in its train: poverty, insecurity, ill health, physical danger, dishonor and degradation.
That doesn't sound too nice. In fact, this work is so bad that "it would be hard to say what the hard workers of this or any other society have done to deserve the danger and degradation their work commonly entails; or how they, and they alone, have qualified for it." One activity of dishonorable degradation Walzer references frequently is garbage collection. "People should clean up their own dirt," he says. "Otherwise the men and women who do it not only for themselves but for everyone else, too, will never be equal members of the political community." Does this mean that all the garbage men in America are to be pitied because of the constant degradation they must endure and because of their oppressive inequality compared to the rest of us? Of course not.
What Walzer seems incapable of grasping is that people take the jobs they do voluntarily. He's of the opinion that the only reason anybody would stoop to becoming a garbage man is because the only other option available is death by exposure. As such, it is our duty to spread such work out across the whole of the population, forcing each person to spend at least some time during his or her life riding around on the back of a truck and scooping up trashcans and dumpsters:
Work of this sort might be done as part of a national service program. . . . Perhaps the work should be done by the young, not because they will enjoy it, but because it isn't without educational value. Perhaps each citizen should be allowed to choose when in the course of his life he will take his turn. But it is certainly appropriate that the cleaning of city streets, say, or of national parks should be the (part-time) work of the citizens.
But here's the thing: There are tons of jobs available. Unemployment is currently sitting at about five percent. That means that at any given time, five percent of the workforce are currently available for work and have been actively looking for a job during the prior four weeks. Note, though, that this doesn't track individuals over time. It's just a snapshot. That means that the total number of people who have been without work for the long term is even smaller than five percent. In short, jobs are everywhere.
Sure, they might not be ideal jobs. If I had my way, someone would hire me for a couple of million dollars a year to argue politics with random people I meet on the street. At the very least, I'd like to be paid a living wage to write essays like this one. But that's not the way it works. There just isn't enough of a market for this type of writing—no matter how nail-bitingly exciting it may—to support my doing it full time.
So I have to find other work. And so does everyone else. Where Walzer goes wrong is in assuming that there exists a category of jobs into which people only go when they've exhausted all other possibilities. It is as if he imagines a world where a huge line of employers many miles long awaits each potential worker. The line is ordered from "most desirable" to "least desirable" and each worker starts at the top. Our hypothetical worker is standing in front of the booth for "NFL Quarterback." He's hopeful. But then the guy behind the booth sadly shakes his head and our worker has to shift down to "Major League Baseball Pitcher." This employment rejection continues as the worker moves down the scale towards more and more degrading work, passing from Pitcher to Actor to Chef to Hockey Player and so on. And at the very end, after it has been made clear that nobody wants him, the worker sees the final booth: Garbage Man. That's it. Pick up trash or starve. He has no other options.
This is ridiculous. Once a week, garbage men drive through my neighborhood, doing the most degrading work, while right there, across the street, is a Starbucks with a sign in the front window advertising that they're looking for baristas. Sure that is a less degrading profession than garbage man? Yet if Walzer is right in his assessment, why aren't those guys jumping of the truck immediately, running over to the coffee shop, and filling out applications? Surely that would be the rational thing to do? Or is it that they have such a low self-image from years of toiling in the worst job imaginable that Starbucks is like the ball for ugly, little Cinderella?
No. The simple fact of the matter is that garbage men choose to be garbage men. Perhaps they enjoy it. Perhaps they like the pay. Perhaps—and this will surely shock Michael Walzer—they don't see it as degrading at all.
But let's say Walzer is right. Eventually, in the ideal society, everyone would refuse to do degrading work. What happens then? There are three possibilities. The first is that the garbage would keep piling up until civilization collapsed under a prolonged assault by refuse born pathogens. That isn't terribly likely.
The second is that we invent machines to handle the work. This might happen someday, but it isn't much of a solution now. If all garbage men quit tomorrow, it isn't as if we'd have sophisticated robots to replace them in a couple of weeks.
So this brings up the third scenario. Everyone stops having any desire to be garbage men and, in fact, adopt the attitude that even death is a better option. Because we can't let the garbage simply rot in the streets—not unless we want to return to the glory days of 19th Century New York City—there will have to be garbage men. But how do we convince people to sign up? Simple. Pay them a lot to do it. You can be sure that, within days of waste management trucks driving around with notices proclaiming "Become a garbage man! Earn $100,000 per year plus benefits," the garbage collection companies would be crawling with applicants. Sure, we'd all be paying out the nose in collection fees but, hey, that's better than a mount of trash in the front lawn.
Furthermore, it seems clear that one major contributing factor to a job's prestige is how much it pays. Certainly there are low paying jobs that garner high respect but they tend to be the exception, not the rule. What this means is that garbage men would soon become respected members of society. Their jobs would be seen as important—one hundred thousand dollars important—and children just might stick with it when they tell their moms, "I want to be a garbage man when I grow up."
And so is exposed the lazy thinking behind Walzer's stance on hard work. I feel safe in asserting that anyone who resides at one of the extremes of the political spectrum, whether left or right, is operating on a grossly simplified world view. In Walzer's case, his leftism takes the form of excruciatingly condescending paternalism. He just can't imagine a world where someone would choose to do a job he finds distasteful. Therefore, anyone who does must be a victim of society, business, the market, or whatever bogyman Walzer thinks lives in their closet. It is his duty, then, to save those people. Government should sweep in and force rich white children of privilege to take over much of that work. Then, not only is the garbage man free from being crushed under society's boot, but those little yuppies can get a taste of what it's like to be oppressed.
Of course, this system would mean putting all the garbage men in this country on the unemployment lines, but such a concern is likely beneath Michael Walzer.
A Bigger Problem Than Money
Walzer falls prey to a logical trap that ensnares many political philosophers. He confuses a priori claims with those requiring empirical verification. It is as if, now that he knows what justice entails, the actual policy decisions can be grabbed out of thin air. Want a just healthcare system? Make it communal. Want fair and beneficial employment? Have the workers own the factories. The problem—and it is one that should be obvious to nearly anyone who has thought about and studied these issues, even in passing—is that it's far from clear what sort of system best produces just results. Canada, for example, has the socialized medicine Walzer favors and the result is a country where a "teenager was advised she would have to wait up to three years for surgery to repair a torn knee ligament" and "the average wait for surgical or specialist treatment is nearly 18 weeks." Clearly, Walzer needs to spend some time fact checking before offering blanket solutions to society's ills.
So what is he missing? In this case it is an understanding of marginal costs. The reason Canada's healthcare system is in shambles is because the marginal costs associated with it are stacked against efficiency. Marginal cost can be defined as the "cost of an additional unit of output is the cost of the additional inputs needed to produce that output. More formally, the marginal cost is the derivative of total production costs with respect to the level of output." To make this a little more clear, imagine the following scenario: You and I are out having dinner at a nice restaurant. Before sitting down to our meal we agree that each of us will cover ninety percent of the other's bill. So I'll pay for ten percent of my meal and you'll pay for ninety percent, just as you'll pay for ten percent of your meal and I'll pay for the remaining ninety. Now, let's say we each buy a ten dollar meal. I'd pay a dollar of the charges I racked up and you'll pay $9. Looking over the menu after the plates have been cleared, though, I see a tasty looking crème brule that goes for five bucks. If I order it, the total cost of my meal will jump to $15. However, because of our prior agreement, I'll only pay fifty cents extra. You'll soak the additional $4.50. This makes the marginal cost to me of that dessert fifty cents. i.e., it is the amount I pay in order to increase the amount of food I'm eating one crème brule worth.
How does this cause problems for socialized medicine? Go back to the same dinner analogy but this time pretend that someone at random in the restaurant is going to pay for my food or, closer still, that the 90% of my meal I don't pay for is divided evenly among everyone in the restaurant. Whereas earlier I likely wouldn't have bought ever last expensive thing on the menu because I'd be forced to look across the table at you angrily paying for it, now I have no real connection to the people forced to take up that burden. In short, the marginal cost to me for all that extra food are nearly nothing, both in terms of money and self respect.
In a system like Canada's—or the single payer setups bandied about as wonderful solutions by some in the United States—the marginal costs associated with increased use of medical facilities are as low as for the additional food in the restaurant where everybody's paying. As such, we can expect that people will over use these services, thereby reducing the amount available in emergency situations. And, because the total use is going up, the cost per taxpayer will rise as well. Eventually, the system will either collapse when the costs are too high to be maintained or the quality of service will drop substantially. Marginal costs are crucial in any system where demand outstrips supply. That Walzer seems unaware of them is further proof of the disconnect between his philosophy and the world he wants to inflict it on.
Still on the subject of healthcare, Walzer makes the truly bizarre claim that "the market would not be responsive to need; nor would the market provide adequately for medical research."
It is difficult to even know where to begin when critiquing a statement such as this. The multi-year waiting lists for even basic surgery referenced above are a start. But it is baffling that Walzer isn't aware that
America offers the world's highest-quality health care. Most of the world's top doctors, hospitals and research facilities are in the United States. Eighteen of the last 25 winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine either are U.S. citizens or work here. Half of all the major new medicines introduced worldwide in the last 20 years were developed by U.S. companies. Americans played a key role in 80 percent of the most important medical advances of the last 30 years. By almost any measure, if you are diagnosed with a serious illness, the United States is where you want to receive treatment. That is why tens of thousands of patients from around the world come here every year. (Michael Tanner, "In praise of U.S. health care". The Washington Times, October 1, 2005.)
It is the market that provides incentives for responsiveness, not central planning and communally provided services. One need only look at the history of Europe's economies in the time between World War II and the 1980's to see that.
The prior pages may come across as nitpicking and to a great extent they are. But that is exactly the point of the argument. When building a theory designed to guide society, with hundreds, thousands, or millions of people living by its rules, the minor details must be taken into account—the nits must be picked. Such ideas as incentives and personal choice, free from the pressures of the majority, cannot be ignored.
It might be comforting to think that, when dealing with a large theory of justice, it is okay to set aside the details. After all, what can they hurt if the overall edifice is good? We need only turn back to the horrors of the last century to witness the effects of such thinking. A particularly poignant example comes from the grandest of ideological nations:
In the Soviet Union, collectivization was introduced in the late 1920s as a scheme to boost agricultural production through the organization of land and labor into collectives called collective farms (kolkhozes) and state farms (sovkhozes). At the same time, it was argued that collectivization would free poor peasants from economic servitude under the kulaks. It was hoped that the goals of collectivization could be achieved voluntarily, but when the new farms failed to attract the number of peasants hoped, the government blamed the oppression of the kulaks and resorted to forceful implementation of the plan.
Due to unreasonably high government quotas, farmers often got far less for their labor than they did before collectivization, and some refused to work. In many cases, the immediate effect of collectivization was to reduce grain output and almost halve livestock, thus producing major famines in 1932–33.1 In an extreme episode, over seven million peasants, mainly in Ukraine, died of famine in 1932–1933 after Stalin forced the peasants into the collectives (this famine is known in Ukraine as Holodomor).
No matter how sound Walzer's system may appear when judged only on the criteria of completeness and non-contradiction, the simple fact is that the real world—the world where any political theory must ultimately be tested—doesn't care about such things. Human beings cannot set aside their fears and foibles, needs and desires, just because Michael Walzer tells them to. A political theory must work with the world we have and be truthful to that world's constraints. Spheres of Justice cannot be tolerated when all it has to offer is philosophical beauty.