30 March 2009

Passings ~ Brian Barry (1936~2009)

“Social justice became the rallying cry of social democratic parties everywhere in Europe, but argument raged over the institutions that were required to realize social justice. ... Although no generalization can cover every case, it is broadly correct to say that in the period following the Second World War social democratic parties had converged on a handful of key ideas:

1 The power of capital must be curbed by strong trade unions (perhaps also worker representation) and by regulation to ensure that people come before profit. As far as public ownership was concerned, non-socialist parties had already, from the nineteenth century on, put public utilities and public transport under municipal ownership or control in most countries, but its extension beyond this was not essential to social democracy. ...

2 The distribution of income and wealth created by capitalism was unacceptably unequal and should be changed by appropriate measures of taxation and transfer. In particular, the market mechanism failed to provide support for those unable to earn enough to live on at a level consistent with social justice. Institutions (the 'welfare state') must therefore be created to provide adequate incomes.

3 Education and health services of uniformly high quality should be provided universally in such a way as to be equally available to all, thus eliminating the market criterion of 'ability to pay'. Although housing was not treated in the same way across the board, it was a universally recognized as too important to be left to market forces, though intervention might take different forms.

My object in this book is to elaborate a conception of social justice of a kind that will support the case for institutions of the kind that I have just outlined. I shall seek to show that the reasons that have been given for abandoning this analysis are flawed. Conditions have not changed in ways that make the social democratic prescriptions inappropriate: in some ways they have in fact changed so that social democratic institutions are more necessary than ever.” ~ Brian Barry, Why Social Justice Matters (Polity, 2005), pp. 5–6.
I have recently learned that one of my old teachers, Brian Barry, has died. As far as I can tell there have been no obituaries. That is odd given Brian's contributions to political theory and philosophy in terms of scholarship, teaching and institution-building. The passage I quote here summarized what Brian was about. He was a committed egalitarian and thought that the general run of right-wing, libertarian 'argument' was mostly crap. When he thought you were full of it he'd say so. But he also was incredibly gracious and generous to students and junior colleagues. You can find notices along with comments from many of Brian's former students and colleagues at Crooked Timber - here and here.

PS: Formal obituaries are now starting to appear: You can find one from The Guardian here and The Times here. (Thanks Gail!)

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