Subscribe via RSS Feed

Brian Barry, RIP

[ 1 ] March 11, 2009 |

I see via Harry Brighouse that Brian Barry has died. I’m not a good candidate to offer an evaluation or overview of his work. He’s an engaging and enjoyable writer with a voice that made him particularly pleasurable to read when you agree with him, and somewhat maddening when you don’t–he was an impressive wordsmith in a way that few political theorists are. I endorse Why Social Justice Matters with few reservations, but on the subject of Culture and Equality I’m afraid I have to wholeheartedly endorse Jacob Levy’s critical review.

Barry’s writing possessed a dry wit and some delicious snark. I’m somewhat hesitant to highlight a book review, given his career’s worth of substantive work, but as a fan of the genre of devastating reviews of deserving targets, I can’t resist taking this opportunity to excerpt from his review of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia:

Finally the intellectual texture is of a sort of cuteness that would be wearing in a graduate student and seems to me quite indecent in someone who, from the lofty heights of a professorial chair, is proposing to starve or humiliate ten percent or so of his fellow citizens (if he recognizes the word) by eliminating all transfer payments through the state, leaving the sick, the old, the disabled, the mothers with young children and no breadwinner, and so on, to the tender mercies of private charity, given at the whim and pleasure of the donors and on any terms that they choose to impose. This is, no doubt, an emotional response, but there are, I believe, occasions when an emotional response is the only intellectually honest one. The concept of a “free fire zone,” for example, could appropriately be the subject of black comedy or bitter invective but not dispassionate analysis. Similarly, a book whose argument would entail the repeal of even the Elizabethan Poor Law must either be regarded as a huge joke or as a case of trahison des clercs, giving spurious intellectual respectability to the reactionary backlash that is already visible in other ways in the United States. My own personal inclination would be to treat the book as a joke, but since it is only too clear that others are prepared to take It seriously, I shall do so as well…..
Nozick’s vision of “utopia” as a situation in which the advantaged reinforce their advantages by moving into independent jurisdictions, leaving the poor and disadvantaged to fend for themselves, could be regarded as the work of a master satirist, since it is in fact merely the logical extension of pathologically divisive processes already well-established in the United States: the flight of the middle classes to the suburbs while the inner city decays from lack of resources, and the growth of “planned communities” for the wealthy aged and other specially selected groups who are able to shed much of the usual social overhead. Unfortunately, there is no sign that Nozick, jokiness personified in other respects, sees this particular joke, but, thanks to the direction given to public policy by Nixon and Ford and their Supreme Court, the American people have an increasing opportunity to enjoy the joke personally.