Ronald Dworkin on mistakes, the Tea Party and secondary education | Philosophy on Blog#42

Ronald Dworkin took part in the panel, “Is Democracy at Risk?” on 06/26/2011 at the Vienna Akademie Theater. The participants included: Emma Bonino, George Soros, and Guy Verhofstadt.

I am posting this short clip with my transcript ahead of an essay on a related topic.

Here, Professor Dworkin explains the effects of Libertarian ideologies on Democracy and the rise of Tea Party, and offers a counter.

The result of the effectiveness of manipulation in a democracy like ours dominated by media and inattention is confusion. I want to give you examples of mistakes. They’re patently mistakes which, nevertheless, enjoy great currency throughout the popular press and throughout politics as a whole.

The first of these confusions has to do with liberty. People now have come, in the United States particularly, to embrace two propositions: the first is that liberty is a matter of transcendent value. Above all, we must be free people. We must enjoy liberty. The second proposition is a certain definition of what liberty is. It’s the definition presented by famous philosophers John Stuart Mill, Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls. This holds that people’s liberty is a matter of people’s freedom to do what they want, without constraint by government. Now, these two propositions, put together, are poisonous. They give us the anthem of the libertarian movement. They give us the song of an apparently influential political movement in the United States, called the Tea Party. The idea is that whenever government takes over some area, for example to provide public services or to run some essential area or to run some essential utility, like railroads, that whenever that happens, people are, of course, to be given less power to do what they want, and that is a diminution of their liberty.

Now, that’s a deep confusion. If we want liberty to be a value, then we can’t define liberty in that mechanical way. We have to pick out the liberties that really matter and say government does wrong when it invades those values.

The whole question of taxation is another example. Why do people whose own taxes would not be raised hate the idea that taxes on the rich should be increased. It’s an apparent paradox and I think, again, it comes from a mistaken idea, that this mistaken idea that the success of people’s lives can sensibly be measured in the amount of money that they have made. Once you accept that idea, then you see taking money away from those who have earned it and giving it to people who have not earned it by way of redistributive programs as a treat. It’s a treat and a cosmic distortion because it undermines the kind of success at which people should aim.

These are two examples. There are many others. I call them mistakes. They’re false. One of the problems in our intellectual world today is that we’re reluctant to speak of political ideas as true or false. But these ideas are false in the sense, direct sense, that they cannot bear sustained reflection. I, therefore, propose – I must do so very quickly now – that the only remedy for these ills of Democracy, of course we have no option but Democracy, the only possible remedy is education that will introduce complexity.

We – must – we have, for many decades, thought automatically that politics must be kept out of the school. I think that is a maligned additional mistake. I think we must find a way to introduce the complexity of politics into secondary schools, in all our countries, in ways that show that these are not simple crude ideas, captured in slogans – well-captured in slogans – but are ideas that require sustained attention and further thought.

This is a monumental undertaking. It needs pilot studies to see if this can be done. I’ve mentioned this in various places, always with a very enthusiastic reaction. But, so far, nothing was attempted. In any case, and I suggest to you, if we want to save liberal Democracy, the key is through a more enlightened electorate.


  • Ted Gemberling

    In some ways it doesn’t seem like it’s all that complicated or requiring of education. Bill Gates has something like $60 billion. Is he that much more talented and hard working than someone who flips hamburgers at McDonalds? The level of wealth some attain is way out of proportion to any merits they might claim.

    When I’ve made this point on the web, occasionally a conservative will say something like “Apparently Bill Gates’ customers disagree with you.” But no, I’m sure they’d agree. When they buy his products, they’re not making any judgment on his personal merits, but on the merits of the products.

    Conservatives often seem to envision just two kinds of people: hard working people who deserve everything they get and not-hard-working people who deserve nothing. But that’s a gross oversimplification of the world. There are lots of hard working people who can barely feed their families. Only some degree of redistribution can give everyone a level playing field.

    • Exactly! The thing is that this sort of view is a spectrum that very much exists on the neoliberal and liberal side of the equation and as Dworkin points out, is a function of our system of education and what it is designed not to promote. The result is an increasingly narrow-minded, less broadly educated populace that is increasingly polarized. States’ Rights drive what students learn in each state at the local and state level. We do not have a national font of knowledge and it shows across the board.

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  • LF

    The tea party supporters think government should give tax payer dollars to Twitter in S. F. but not to renters who are being priced out of their homes in the form of housing vouchers. It is still redistribution of wealth from the tax payers to the wealthy. Small business owners who are also working class do not get those breaks either.

    • Their view of everything is warped by the false knowledge they have.