Political Political Theory: Essays on Institutions.

Author:Farris, Jeremy D.
Position:Book review

POLITICAL POLITICAL THEORY: ESSAYS ON INSTITUTIONS. By Jeremy Waldron. (1) Harvard University Press. 2016. Pp. 403. $35.00 (cloth).


Political theory has not always been a self-confident discipline. In 1961, Isaiah Berlin, the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, wondered whether it continued to exist. His answer was irresolute. Berlin thought that political theory's existence was assured because it poses normative questions that are unanswerable by empirical political science. (4) Certain questions elude resolution by empirical observation--e.g., How should scarce goods be distributed? Why should persons comply with law? What actions may a state permissibly coerce? Ironically, such normative questions also seem to have eluded Berlin. Instead of positing and defending a coherent set of answers to these questions, Berlin's approach to political theory was far more circumspect, concerned foremost to recite the history of answers supplied by the mighty dead, whom he chided for ignoring either the irreducible plurality of value or the mischievous tendency of "positive" liberty.

Then came John Rawls. After the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971, Rawls's critic and colleague Robert Nozick wrote, "Political philosophers now must either work within Rawls's theory or explain why not." (5) Most have chosen to work within or against Rawls's framework, using tools supplied by analytic philosophy. The lion's share of the work has been focused on clarifying the meaning and requirements of justice and explaining the relationship of justice to other normative concepts. Representative of this tradition is G.A. Cohen, late Quain Professor at University College London and previously Chichele Professor at Oxford. Cohen began his Oxford graduate seminar on contemporary political philosophy by teaching that the subject, properly understood, concerned three distinct questions: What are the correct principles of justice? What should the state do? And which social states of affairs ought to be brought about? (6)

Today, those normative questions delineate much of the discipline of political theory. But compare those questions with this one: Are there decisive reasons for or against a supermajoritarian cloture rule in the upper chamber of a legislative assembly? Like Cohen's triptych of questions, the "filibuster question" is neither empirical nor legal, but straightforwardly normative. As such, the inquiry about the filibuster rule falls somewhere within the discipline-organizing question about what the state should do. Yet, having begun at Cohen's high level of generality, it is unclear how, or even if, the specific "filibuster question" will be addressed. This is because the general question--What should the state do?--leads naturally to subsequent inquiry about which goals states should pursue and what states must not do in their pursuit. From that point of departure, a political theorist likely proceeds to further discussion of the justification of those goals that the state should promote and the foundation of the rights that constrain state action. Political theory never gets to questions about cloture rules; unless, of course, it begins there.

And that is just what Jeremy Waldron has in mind. With the publication of Political Political Theory, the latest (though, not current) holder of Oxford's Chichele Professorship, now University Professor at New York University Law School, hopes to "encourage young political theorists to understand that there is life beyond Rawls" (p. ix). Although one may doubt whether the refocusing that Waldron has in mind really is to be found "beyond Rawls"--for Rawls was also deeply focused on the justification of democratic institutions--Waldron's meaning is clear: For those working in political theory, he says, there is life "beyond the abstract understanding of liberty, justice, and egalitarianism..." (p. ix). Instead of attempting to elucidate the meaning of our largest normative concepts, instead of testing the soundness of hypothesized normative principles against all manner of counterfactual thought experiments, political theory should focus on the evaluation of the rules and structure of state institutions.


    With the exception of three chapters, the book collects part of Waldron's already-published work on law and political theory. Together, the individual pieces amount to a program to reorient the focus of political theory toward constitutional law and institutional design. For Waldron, political theory ought to be more concerned, in the first instance, with the design and justification of the institutions that comprise constitutional, democratic republics. This is what he means by calling for a return to political political theory. Three chapters, the first and the two last, frame Waldron's project--viz., Chapter 1, "Political Political Theory" (pp. 1-22), Chapter 12, "Isaiah Berlin's Neglect of Enlightenment Constitutionalism" (pp. 274-289), and Chapter 13, "The Constitutional Politics of Hannah Arendt," (pp. 290-307). It is in these chapters that Waldron most clearly issues his call to refocus the task of political theory. There, he most clearly provides the reasons demanding a reorientation.

    In a way, Waldron's call for reform seems to issue from the oak-paneled Senior Common Room. No one would seriously dispute that the United Kingdom is undergoing a period of constitutional change and institutional upheaval. Only a few reminders are needed: Brexit, the potential secession of Scotland or Northern Ireland, the establishment of the UK Supreme Court, the reform of the House of Lords, and the Fixed Term Parliament Act. There is a concern that the present curriculum of the "Theory of Politics" course, which is compulsory for Oxford's flagship Philosophy, Politics, and Economics degree, is not endowing its graduates with a better-than-par understanding of the normative issues involved in the United Kingdom's institutional transformation. Waldron suggests that the academies in the United States may be more attuned to institutional questions, given the acute public sensitivity to the countermajoritarian aspect of judicial review (p. 18). One would like to hope so; however, we cannot help but wonder if American law students, much less undergraduates majoring in public policy or political science, are comparatively better prepared than their Oxonian counterparts to analyze analogous American institutional questions concerning, for example, the basis of reapportionment, the institutional actors responsible for redistricting, or the growth of executive power and the possible limits thereto. Perhaps American law students were at a comparative advantage during the days when the legal process school informed the curriculum, but those days have passed.

    Waldron's project to reorient political theory toward questions of the value and design of institutions is not only motivated by the pedagogical concern that students of politics should be able to think through the institutional challenges that they will inherit. His call for reorientation seems to be motivated by a much darker concern--specifically, the threat posed to constitutional democracies by the concentration of executive power. We, the inheritors of "Enlightenment constitutionalism," should deeply understand how our institutions legitimate and channel the exercise of state power, lest we sign such power over to an executive who neither apprehends the values of constitutionalism, nor cares.

    Hinting at this greatest concern, Waldron refers, both in the first and the last chapter, to Christian Meier's biography of Julius Caesar. (7) The reference illuminates what Waldron perceives ought to be political theory's animating fear. In the book, Waldron quotes Meier twice for the particular threat that Caesar represents:

    Caesar was insensitive to political institutions and the complex ways in which they operate.... He could see them only as instruments in the interplay of forces. His cold gaze passed through everything that Roman society still believed in, lived by, valued and defended. He had no feeling for the power of institutions... but only what he found useful or troublesome about them.... In Caesar's eyes no one existed but himself and his opponents.... The scene was cleared of any suprapersonal elements (pp. 14-15, 306). The reader is to take the lesson that, from a certain viewpoint, those institutions that structure and limit state power may be de-reified--that is, seen through, as really nothing more than the individuals who comprise them and, thus, as nothing more than sets of friends or enemies. Once the institutions that separate and protect individuals from concentrated executive power are bathed away, warns Waldron, what remains is politics at its most unmediated and perilous. Once institutional bulwarks are discredited and are seen to be nothing more than "parchment barriers" after all, only unmediated power remains.

    Such unmediated power can manifest in different forms. For instance, it can be highly concentrated in the executive branch. Waldron succinctly characterizes the view of the executive who, like Caesar, successfully devalues, discredits, and even "sees through" the institutions that previously existed to constrain his or her power: "Now there is just you, and me, and the issue of my greatness" (p. 15).

    By contrast, the unmediated power that threatens constitutional institutions may also be highly diffuse. The political action characteristic of mass movements that express...

To continue reading