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An Unfunded mandate

Samuel Scheffler

Roemer's attempt to reconcile egalitarianism with individual responsibility rests on a distinction between autonomous choices and circumstances beyond our control. Roemer proposes that society should allow inequalities that result from the former but not those that arise from the latter. We need some way, then, of deciding which aspects of a person's situation count as circumstances in the relevant sense. Rather than attempting "to provide a theory of what aspects of a person's behavior really are beyond his control," Roemer says that each society should decide this for itself. Thus, his proposal is "not metaphysical, in the sense of trying to solve the deep problem of what actually is beyond a person's control; it is political in the sense that it depends on the current views of the society in question." Although Roemer's essay raises questions of many different kinds, I will limit myself to some comments about this dimension of his proposal.

First, the "deep" question of what really is beyond a person's control is intensely controversial; it lies at the heart of many arguments about the legitimacy of the welfare state. This is presumably why Roemer directs each society to answer the question for itself, rather than attempting to provide an answer of his own. However, given that the question is so controversial -- within individual societies as well as across different societies -- how is any society expected to arrive at a unified answer to it? Of course, we can imagine a variety of political procedures that might produce an answer (referendum, decision of an elected body, judgment of designated "experts", etc.). But none of these procedures will eliminate the metaphysical disagreement. Why, then, should any of them be treated as authoritative, especially since what is being authorized is the coercive use of state power against those with different metaphysical views?

Second, if, nevertheless, some social decision procedure is deemed authoritative for these purposes, why shouldn't the same procedure be used to determine whether a society wants to implement Roemer's egalitarian scheme in the first place? Roemer's proposal is asymmetrical. The desirability of implementing some version of his scheme is not itself left for each society to decide. But the content of the distinction between choices and circumstances, which determines how egalitarian the scheme will be in practice, is left up to each society. The result is a partial relativism which represents a seemingly unmotivated compromise between a more thoroughgoing relativism that leaves everything for social decision, and a non relativistic position that is willing to defend a particular version of the distinction between choices and circumstances.

Third, the relativistic feature of Roemer's proposal introduces an element of contingency into the system that seems incongruous with the proposal's motivation. Intuitively, Roemer believes that individuals should be indemnified against bad consequences resulting from circumstances beyond their control. At the same time, however, different societies may have different lists of circumstances, and this means that an individual may be worse off in his own society than he would be if he happened to live in a society with a different list. Yet the fact that the individual is a member of the one society rather than the other may itself be beyond his control, and Roemer's proposal will not indemnify him against bad consequences resulting from his membership in the society with the relatively unfavorable list.

Fourth, the social variation that Roemer builds into his proposal may undercut his own attempts to argue against conservatives and libertarians. For conservatives and libertarians can be construed as maintaining that the "realm of autonomous choice" is relatively large, and the list of circumstances relatively small. (Roemer himself suggests that this is likely to be the position of the United States in relation to that of Sweden.) If a society -- using some unspecified procedure -- endorses the conservative position, then Roemer's own proposal would appear to dictate that the conservative interpretation of equality of opportunity is the correct one for that society. A theory that makes the content of egalitarianism dependent on a social decision provides no basis for opposing conservatism if the social decision is conservative.

Finally, Roemer's characterization of his proposal as political rather than metaphysical is meant to echo John Rawls' defense of "political liberalism" in his recent work. But Rawls' proposal is importantly different from Roemer's. Rawls' defense of liberalism is supposed to be "political" in the sense that it appeals to shared ideas which are implicit in our public political culture, and which can thus be used as the basis for arriving at an "overlapping consensus" that bypasses the deep disagreements in our society about moral, religious, and metaphysical matters. Roemer's proposal is hardly political in the same sense. Because metaphysical controversy is inevitable in a pluralistic society, Rawls seeks principles that don't depend on any resolution of such controversies. But Roemer offers a principle that cannot be implemented without a social decision about a "deep metaphysical problem." In other words, rather than either appealing to an admittedly controversial metaphysical view, as many theorists of justice do, or attempting to bypass metaphysical controversy altogether, as Rawls does, Roemer defends a position that requires each society to make its own collective decision about a controversial metaphysical problem. This requirement is neither political nor metaphysical; rather, it is the philosophical equivalent of an unfunded mandate, which neither avoids metaphysical controversy nor offers resources for resolving it, but instead simply passes it along to a deeply divided society with orders that the society resolve it.

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Originally published in the April/May 1995 issue of Boston Review



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