Democratic Procedures and Liberal Consensus Review David Archard

Democratic Procedures and Liberal Consensus
By George Klosko
Oxford University Press 2000, £27.50

‘The argument of this study,’ Klosko writes in its concluding pages, ‘is
that the principles of liberal consensus are the best possible that could be
justified to a large majority of liberal citizens’ (p. 242). Such an argument
will be familiar to defenders of Rawlsian ‘political’ liberalism who see the
task facing liberalism as that of securing a consensus on political principles
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in the face of abiding and significant differences on all other fundamental
matters. The consensus which Klosko believes the ‘best possible’ will,
however, be uncongenial to Rawlsians because, although liberal, it is considerably
less robustly and substantively liberal than they would favour. It
is, in essence, an agreement on basic rights and democratic proceduralism
but without agreement on strong individual rights and strongly egalitarian
principles of distributive justice.
Klosko’s argument for the ‘best possible’ consensus is in part normative
but in greater part empirical. If, as he says, the point is to defend principles
that people can accept then it is essential to find out what they actually
do believe. In consequence, he appeals to the evidence supplied by surveys,
polls, and so on. Such evidence should not be accepted wholesale nor
uncritically, and Klosko does not do so. But the originality and attraction
of his study is that it is a work of normative political philosophy solidly
rooted in empirically well established facts about the beliefs and values of
actually existing citizens.
To assess his argument it is necessary to be clear about why he thinks
that the ‘best possible’ principles of his liberal political consensus are both
the ‘best possible’ and the ‘best possible’. They are the best principles
because they are liberal. The key liberal political principle is that of legitimacy.
This prescribes that ‘political principles should be able to be justified
to each citizen, at the bar of his or her own reason’ (p. 19). Such a principle
is defended by liberals from Locke to Rawls.
Klosko, on a number of occasions, characterizes the principle as making
political agreement morally necessary. Such agreement is also a practical
necessity for reasons of ‘stability’. This talk of two reasons for political
agreement does somewhat obscure the fact that there is agreement in two
different senses. There is practical stability if there is agreement between
citizens. Where there is little or nothing to dispute there is no occasion for
nor disposition to conflict. However there is legitimacy if and when the
principles governing the terms of social and political co-operation are
agreed to by each and every citizen; there is agreement between the citizens
only in that each—‘at the bar of his or her reason’—gives his or her consent
to these terms. Practical agreement within a form of government
could of course be secured in ways that would be sufficient to render any
agreement to such a government invalid—by, for instance, indoctrination
or coercion. This suffices to show that it is the moral agreement of the citizens,
severally, to political principles that is crucial. It is not, in short, consensus
as such, but what it is that brings it about that there is consensus—
the unforced and informed agreement of each to some set of principles—
which matters.
Moreover, as Klosko notes, justification is ‘bound up with and entailed
by central liberal values’ (p. 9). Chief amongst these is that persons must
be treated with respect, and, Klokso further argues, ‘human rights are
closely bound up with requirements to treat people with appropriate
respect’ (p. 11). This is largely uncontentious though critics of rights
might still argue that it is not inconceivable that a society which did not
accord its members rights could nevertheless satisfy the liberal principle of
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legitimacy, that is be governed by rules justifiable to each citizen at the bar
of his or her reason.
More crucially for the book’s argument Klosko clearly has, and endorses,
an ideal of liberal principles which are more robust and substantive
than those which can be the subject of a ‘best possible’ liberal consensus.
Such principles would comprise a strong conception of rights and strong-ly
egalitarian principles of justice. A strong conception of rights proscribes
the trading off of rights for other values (p. 58); the weakly egalitarian
principles of justice currently favoured by the ‘dominant ideology’ give
pride of place to equality of opportunity and distribution in accordance
with merit (Chapter 6). Agreement on the basic need for rights and justice
are rooted in fundamental liberal commitments shared by all. But Klosko
concedes that there are different possible interpretations of what that basic
need means. His own preferred understanding—a strong conception of
rights and strongly egalitarian principles of justice—is but one interpretation
contested by others.
Klosko criticizes Rawls for claiming to find an idealized, deep-lying,
intuitive agreement on substantive liberal political principles within the
public culture of a democratic society (Chapter 7). Rather, Klosko argues,
we should aim first at minimally defined, uncontroversial principles on
which all can agree. ‘Once we have determined the range of principles that
can be justified to liberal citizens we can move on to argue for preferred
conceptions of individual rights, democratic procedures and distributive
justice, although … proponents of different comprehensive views will
argue for different conceptions of these values’ (p. 190). Everything, in
short, comes down to the play of views and forces within simple agreed
democratic procedures. Klosko may hope that things move in the right
direction but he cannot claim that the conceptions he favours are entailed
of necessity by the basic liberal commitments all endorse, and ‘[w]ithout
being able to invoke a strongly liberal conception of rights, liberal consensus
is open to decisions that strong liberals could find difficut to accept (p.
233).
That much is honest. It would have probably been even more honest to
drop the honorific adjective ‘strong’ (and its pejorative contrary ‘weak’).
Klosko’s own commitments amount to but one contested construal of the
liberal consensus with which he must enter the democratic battle in order
to secure support but with no greater guarantee of success or better assurance
of ultimate liberal provenance than other interpretations. Ye t ,
throughout, Klosko cannot help characterising his own ‘strong’ views as
the evidently most favoured interpretation of liberalism. But, if there is an
argument to these views from the basic liberal commitments (such as,
respect for persons), it is not to be found in this book.
Why are the principles of the liberal consensus the ‘best possible’?
Klosko follows Rawls in believing that pluralism— a diversity within liberal
societies of moral, religious, and philosophical views—is significant
and ineradicable. In contradistinction to Rawls, as already mentioned, such
a pluralism extends to the political in that there is widespread disagreement
amongst the citizens of liberal societies about how to understand the
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basic general principles of rights, democracy and justice. Such political
pluralism is well attested to by the impressive array of empirical findings
Klosko musters. Most will find this evidence discomfiting if not entirely
surprising. Large numbers of people who profess their support for democratic
principles and for the protection of individual rights would be pre-pared
to abridge the liberties of unpopular minority groups. Many are
intolerant in the sense of being unsympathetic to the canons of public rea-son
and open minded inquiry which, it is conventionally believed, must
animate democracies.
Nevertheless Klosko insists that there is agreement on democratic procedures
and a general willingness to see the outcomes of such procedures
as fair. Klosko thus endorses ‘procedural’ as opposed to ‘substantive’ liberalism,
that is a liberalism exhaustively defined by its prescription of certain
agreed basic democratic procedures and its acknowledgement that any
more substantive commitments cannot secure the acceptance of a stable,
enduring consensus. He shares this view, which has much to commend it,
with Kurt Baier who speaks of a mere ‘constitutional consensus’, and per-haps
also, though in a less straightforward fashion, with Stuart
Hampshire’s recent Justice is Conflict (1999).
Klosko does not believe that the democratic process is itself transformative
in such a manner as would secure eventual consensus on substantive
justice—as the theorists of deliberative democracy such as Habermas
would argue. Nor is he prepared to exclude as ‘unreasonable’—on epistemological
rather than political grounds—some comprehensive views, and
thereby make a more substantive consensus more likely, as Joshua Cohen
and Gerald Gaus would argue.
What he also refuses to countenance is the use of education, general and
civic, to play a transformative role. The argument here is less developed.
What the evidence shows is that there is a clear direct connection between
education and tolerance (pp. 46–7, 50, 64–50) just as there is a clear inverse
relationship between tolerance and religion (Chapter 4). But although he
believes thus that ‘education presents the greatest hope for increased political
tolerance and so general agreement on democratic rights into the
future’ (p. 114), Klosko also believes that an education in civic, non-religious
beliefs and values may be claimed as an abrogation of a parent’s or
community’s right to practise the religion of its choice (pp. 104 and 113–4).
It may be but the claim here is not undisputed, and, given its acknowledged
importance, Klosko might have devoted more space to a proper
critical consideration of it.
In his ‘Conclusion’ Klosko represents the problem he is addressing in
terms of a graph (pp. 237–8). On one axis is the ‘liberal content’ of the
principles to which there is general agreement; on another axis is the percentage
of the population accepting these principles. The area captured by
lines running to the appropriate points on the two different axes represents
the ‘best possible conensus’ that can be achieved. The intended idea is
clear enough. But it is strange to see the numerical size of the support for
some principles described as a ‘value’ which must be traded off against the
value of the principles found acceptable. This is in part because of the
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ambiguity in the term ‘agreement’ noted earlier. It is also because the mere
fact of support for some principles lacks evaluative force without further
epistemic qualifications about the source of such support, qualifications
Klosko is unwilling to make to any great degree. This is perhaps just to say
that Klosko’s refreshing attention to what is ‘possible’ is at the expense of
a more considered examination of what is ‘best’. Nevertheless this study
overall sets a fine example of how normative political theory might in particular,
and must in general, engage with the messy facts of the real world,
a world whose citizens are not the ideal deliberators nor completely reasonable
individuals an idealized liberalism would wish them to be.