Democratic Procedures and Liberal Consensus reviewed by John Horton

Review of: Democratic Procedures and Liberal Consensus by George Klosko
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999.
x + 271 pages. £27.50.
ISBN 0198292341

Reviewed by: John Horton
Keele University
Reviewed in: Political Studies
Date accepted online: 5/11/2001 Published in print: Volume 48, Issue 4, Pages 830-927
Political Theory

A striking feature of much contemporary liberal theory is the tension between its claim to justify a set of basic political principles which cannot be reasonably rejected and the fact that many citizens in reality do reject at least some of those principles. One familiar response, particularly associated with Rawls, is to claim that this rejection is unreasonable. George Klosko, however, finds this response unsatisfactory. He argues that if liberalism is to redeem its promise to articulate political principles acceptable to those governed by them then what citizens actually do believe needs to be taken much more seriously. A fair proportion of his book, therefore, is devoted to reporting and evaluating evidence, principally from surveys and mostly but not exclusively of American provenance, directed towards establishing what are the basic political values held by most citizens. On the whole the results are unsurprising, if for liberals rather discouraging. However, what they do show, Klosko argues, is that liberal democratic procedures are much more widely supported than either a robust conception of individual rights or strongly egalitarian principles of distributive justice. It is procedural justice on which there is most consensus.

Klosko’s argument is throughout careful and lucid; relevant distinctions are made and some objections anticipated. Most dispute, though, is likely to focus on the attenuated normative role afforded to ‘theory’; and to the ethical underpinnings and seemingly conservative implications of the appeal to what most citizens happen to believe. While the puncturing of the hubris of theory is to be welcomed, Klosko is too shrewd a thinker not to know that this appeal is less theoretically innocent than he makes it sound.