By David Miller
We are living in a time of profound social and political disruption. Politics is profoundly unpredictable and it often seems as though we are approaching new and uncharted territory. Uncertain times call for us to take a step back, and to think about the issues that have underpinned politics since the advent of the modern city-state. Even in a time of huge change and dislocation some eternal political principles remain and will be debated and discussed until the end of human history.
In Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, David Miller presents an accessible and informative introduction to some of the key subjects of political thought. In its brevity and scope, it is a very ambitious book. The overview is located exclusively firmly within the western tradition and religious or eastern philosophies are not given any ground.
Miller’s book skirts around many deep and profound themes but this review will not attempt to provide an overview of all of them. Instead, I will try and cover the most consequential to elucidate a better understanding of our politics today.
From the outset, Miller attempts to provide justification for why political philosophy is even needed in the first place. Thousands of work of political philosophy are written each year, but few of them actually break through into public consciousness, let alone have any quantifiable impact on public debate. But as Miller points out, it is only in retrospect that we can see the impact that political philosophers have had on modern thought. Hobbes’s Leviathan or Rousseau’s Social Contract did not seep into public consciousness until long after they were initially published. So whilst political philosophy may seem like a removed and distant affair, it is, in fact, shaping our politics and our societies in ways that are barely perceptible to the naked eye.
Political authority and Democracy
Miller begins with a discussion of the nature of political authority and he begins by posing some fairly basic questions. Why should people obey the state? By what right is it allowed to tell people what to do? These are questions that have been at the heart of political philosophy for generations.
Miller shows that there are various reasons that we obey the state. One key reason is that we recognise that the relationships between the state and the citizen is premised on a notion of trust. People need to have faith that society will be better with when a strong powerful state is in place than it would be if none existed at all. Under this conception of authority, the state has legitimate power to force people in to order to protect society from descending into barbarism. Miller draws heavily on Thomas Hobbes when recounting such an understanding of political authority. Hobbes famously had a very pessimistic view of human nature and saw the state as a necessary evil to prevent peoples worst impulses from being unleashed.
“Hobbes had experienced the partial breakdown of political authority brought about by the English Civil War, and the picture he painted of life in its absence was unremittingly bleak.”
“Hobbes’s real point… is that cooperation between people is impossible in the absence of trust, and that trust will be lacking where there is no superior power to enforce the law.”
Miller dismisses alternatives that try to dispense with the role of the state in modern society. Communitarian systems work well on a small scale but are not so good for complex societies. And Miller dismisses market anarchists who would propose to get rid of the state and just let the market decide how goods are allocated. His primary objection is that the market will not be the best mechanism for distributing public goods, like education or health care, to those most in need.
He then turns to explain why democracy is the best way to legitimate political authority. Democracy is premised on the idea firstly of fairness, that no one is naturally superior to anyone else, and secondly, decision makers are entrusted to carry out the will of the people whilst protecting minority rights. But democracy has real limitations in that it only gives people cursory opportunities to actually participate in the democratic process. People will go out to the polls every few years, but the opportunities that ordinary people have to influence public policy decisions are very limited. Millers solution is to encourage a form of active democratic participation in which people get involved through local or judicial processes.
“We need to develop forms of participation, either at local level, or through selecting members of the public at random to sit on citizens’ juries and other such bodies, that give everyone the experience of active citizenship.”
Miller then turns to the question of justice which is undoubtedly a crucial area of political inquiry. He tries to outline what the notion of justice looks like and how it can be applied in varying contexts. He identifies two key factors in providing this definition: firstly equality, the notion that everyone is regarded the same before the law, and relevance, that differences between the treatment of people have to be justified and proportionate– the crime should fit the punishment. Justice is more than simply a virtue that leaders require but it is central to establish the notion of trust that turns a mass of people into a wider political community.
But Miller goes beyond discussing justice in purely procedural terms and turns to the issue of social justice and the role of the state in promoting redistribution of wealth and resources. As we see with the emergence of the modern state in the 19th and 20th centuries Governments have a greater capacity to use their power to direct resources to those who are most in need. Government then has grown to act not just as a neutral arbiter but a powerful actor that can be used to rectify bad situations for those who have inherited bad outcomes through no fault of their own. Miller, therefore, conceives of justice in such a way that people should be treated equally unless there are relevant differences between them.
Miller draws on the pioneering work of John Rawls to provide a notion of how a just society might work in practice. Rawls in his seminal work, A Theory of Justice, argues for the same protection of basic liberty to all peoples, that society is able to promote equality of opportunity and that inequalities in income and wealth are only justified when they serve to benefit the least well off. Miller extends these points even further to argue for a legal framework which promotes a greater correlation between what people receive in terms of their contributions to society and what they receive by way of income. This would seek to eliminate the existing rules of property ownership and inheritance which allow people to reap huge rewards by virtue of luck.
There are of course considerable challenges to these conceptions of justice that are advanced by anarchist philosophers. Miller is a classic Rawlsian liberal and so dismisses the literature around anarchism out principally for reasons previously described.
Perhaps the more controversial chapter of the book is the one in which Miller attempts to dissect the contributions from feminists and multiculturalists to the practice of political philosophy. It is a somewhat odd coupling and each is not given the full attention that they arguably deserve. It is a cursory attempt to give the modern trends of cultural politics and the rise of so-called “identity politics” their due. He dismisses the concerns of identity politics in favour of a focus on the more established issues of political philosophy outlined elsewhere in the book.
“The issues raised by feminists and multiculturalists are certainly very important, and should shift the way we think about politics. But they should not displace the older questions, which remain as urgent as they ever were.”
He outlines the feminist critique of the public and private divide and the wider contention of the feminist movement that the personal is also political. Miller advocates for exercising caution when trying to designate certain types of power relationships as political ones. Feminists are concerned about the power dynamics that are evidenced in society that cannot be escaped, not just between the state and the citizen but also the power that men have over women. But he rejects the notion that all power relationships are necessarily political. He cites examples like the power of a student over a teacher or the power of a general over his soldiers. Each of these relationships exercises a certain power dynamic but they are not in themselves inherently political.
“What feminists are pointing out about relationships between men and women is not so much their inherently political nature as the failure of politics to address them.”
Miller also discusses the frequent critique of feminists and multiculturalists that there has been a lack of group representation in legislatures which has served to undercut the ability of society to address the issues of minority or suppressed groups. Miller counters that it matters not so much whether there is representation form a particular group in parliaments but that their views are generally expressed through some means or mechanism. He argues that it is not necessary for numbers to be proportional to the population for a minority perspective to be articulated.
In all, Miller has produced a very accessible and enjoyable book that provides the reader with a broad overview of some of the key intellectual currents driving political activity. By its nature, the book is terse, and would undoubtedly benefit from a fuller presentation of the counter-arguments to some of the propositions that he articulates. He underplays some elements like Marxist and anarchist philosophy and heavily accentuates the western liberal perspective. But he equally makes no attempt to pretend to give a completely unbiased and objective accounting. Overall this short guide is well worth a read.