Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sometimes Only For Certain People

Tony Judt has a piece in a recent New York Review of Books called 'What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy', in which, along with ascribing neo-liberal dominance in part to the influence of lessons taken from the collapse of inter-war Austrian democracy, he asserts that the best way for social democrats to market themselves is in terms of a social democracy of fear. The idea is supposed to be analogous to Judith Shklar's liberalism of fear, the idea of which was to argue for various foundational liberal rights as protections as things everyone has reason to fear; centrally, political oppression. Likewise, Judt wants to say that everyone has reason to endorse government-run schemes of protection against sickness, unemployment and the like. This seems to me a mistake much like that which David Runciman points to in his review of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's Spirit Level for the LRB, in that it elides the difference between some property being held the average member of some group and it being held by all members of that group. It is almost certainly true that most Americans would be better off in a more equal society; it must be as true that some Americans would be worse off. A liberalism of fear works because anyone can be picked up by the secret police and tortured, because we all have our little pecadilloes, because we could all end up on the wrong end of some political decision. However, not everyone is plausibly going to run out of money to pay their medical bills, notwithstanding the fact that even if you might, you nonetheless might be better off pooling that risk on terms of your own choice than being required to do so with everyone. There's that old line about a liberal being the guy who won't take his own side in a knife-fight: arguing for a social democracy of fear seems to try to make it true, and in particular forgets that if in the end someone gets stabbed, usually at some point someone else was holding a knife.

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