Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Personal is Political

Feminist (e.g. Susan Okin) and egalitarian (G.A. Cohen) critics of liberalism often invoke the slogan “the personal is political”. I also embrace this slogan and thus the version of liberalism I defend (i.e. civic liberalism) is what John Rawls calls a “comprehensive (or partially comprehensive) doctrine”. Civic liberalism invokes ideals of personal character, as well as ideals of friendship and of familial and associational relationships, and much else that is to inform our conduct. I believe a non-ideal theory of distributive justice must have this expansive scope as the choices we make in our individual lives will influence the range of real options collectively open to us as we aspire for a more humane social arrangement.

Recall that one of the central goals of civic liberalism is to reasonably balance concerns of partiality with prioritarianism. Such an aim is stifled by theories of justice that focus exclusively on the principles that apply to institutions. State-centric conceptions of justice focus on the principles that apply to the constitution or political economy, but they are not concerned (at least in any substantive sense) with the daily choices individuals make in their lives. For example, decisions about how domestic responsibilities ought to be divided, or how individuals will spend their spare time and money. Civic liberalism rejects the limited scope of so-called “political liberalism”.

Civic liberalism prescribes that we cultivate an informed and engaged reflective citizenry. Such citizens will have an accurate sense of their position within the distributive scheme as well as the needs of others. This requires some intimate knowledge of our own society- its history, socio-economic prosperity, the needs of the disadvantaged, etc. The reflective citizen will possess the ability to make others imaginatively present in their own minds. Such a citizen seeks to balance their personal and familial obligations with the prioritarian obligation to others.

Virtuous citizens will not engage in rampant consumerist behaviour that unnecessarily jeapordizes their own financial security or obscures the reality of their place in the distributive scheme. Responsible household borrowing will not leave families unduly vulnerable to changing circumstances (e.g. rising inflation, mortgage rates, etc.). Nor do responsible citizens resist increased taxation when such measures will promote important goals of social justice. Virtuous individuals do not demand reduced taxation so they can re-pay the debts they have voluntarily incurred to satisfy their consumerist preferences.

So civic liberalism prescribes that citizens consider the other-regarding implications of their household borrowing behaviour. Something as simple as our attitudes towards our debt can have important consequences for the range of social policies we can collectively pursue. A virtuous polity will not require politicians to make hollow promises of tax cuts in order to have a chance of winning popular support.

According to a recent survey from ACNielsen, Americans are among the world’s most cash strapped people (and Canada ranked #3). Of U.S. consumers who do have spare cash, their first priority for that money is debt repayment (42%). The fact that so many citizens in affluent countries are living in debt is arguably a major obstacle to securing a more just society. By living beyond their means many Americans and Canadians see tax relief as a welcomed short-term solution to paying off their own growing individual debts. And any suggestion that we should raise taxes on the middle class is met with hostility. Such hostility is not surprising given the fact that many citizens who live beyond their means may actually owe more in debt than they possess in terms of assets. Given such dire circumstances citizens are unable to accurately perceive their own position in the distributive arrangement and the best possible remedies of addressing pressing collective concerns of social justice.

So I agree with those who argue that the personal is political. But the story gets much more complex than saying that our household borrowing impacts others. We also need to bear in mind the fact that people are temporal, social beings. Beings that have limited time and resources and demanding commitments to others (e.g. spouses, children, aging parents, etc.). So the challenge of finding the mean between partiality and prioritarianism is complicated by a diverse range of considerations. I will say more about this in a future post.