- Political Realism, Freedom, and Priority of the Good:Response to Chan, Huang, and Pang-White
I am extremely grateful to the three commentators for their instructive and challenging criticisms and for giving me the opportunity to make my position more plausible and, where it is bound to remain controversial, clearer than it is in my book.1 In doing so, I will sometimes be concerned simply to clear up what I consider to be misunderstandings on the part of my commentators, in full awareness that my own lack of clarity or emphasis may well have contributed to them. This I take to be worthwhile in its own right, but especially for the sake of locating more precisely the issues where real disagreement exists and facilitating useful engagement on these issues. As the line between these tasks is seldom sharp, clarification often merging imperceptibly into substantive engagement, I will for the most part not attempt to keep an arbitrary separation between them.
Thinking about China with Political Realism
I must begin by emphasizing the unusual degree of realism that informs most of the normative discussion in the book. In this regard, I am rather drawn to Machiavelli's way of approaching political matters, especially in The Discourses. I find it instructive, for example, that, champion of republicanism that he is, Machiavelli is nevertheless prepared to say: "Let, then, a republic be constituted where there exists, or can be brought into being, notable equality; and a regime of the opposite type, i.e. a principality, where there is notable inequality." Why? Because "otherwise what is done will lack proportion and will be of but short duration."2 Here is an exemplary case of forming one's realistic or effective normative political preference in the light of the socio-economic circumstances (this is what Machiavelli has in mind in speaking of notable equality or notable inequality) that happen to prevail and are likely to endure. This does not mean that such circumstances must be passively accepted. For there could be every reason to work for their transformation or, as more often happens in the evolution of human societies, to wait, with readiness to respond, for the unintended consequences of countless individual actions to result in their transformation. Until then, however, no normative political preference can translate into reality and endure that does not fit with these socio-economic circumstances as they stand. Political thinking as I understand it, then, and as I intended to pursue it in Moral China in the Age of Reform (hereafter Moral China), is an imaginative and resourceful response to such circumstances largely not of one's own making, or else one would be indulging in what John Dunn once called normative reverie. [End Page 603]
On the basis of this brief explanation, I would like to dispel three misunderstandings on the part of my commentators. The first misunderstanding has its source in the fact that I attach great importance to understanding the relevant socio-economic circumstances, a degree of importance that may be inordinate by the standards of mainstream political philosophy and is likely, partly for this reason, not to be clearly noticed. I do so because getting the relevant socio-economic circumstances right is, for me, essential preparation for thinking politically in response to them and under their constraint. Such work is essentially descriptive, not normative, although it has a normative intent that is responsible for its unavoidable selectiveness. Much of what I have to say in the book is descriptive in this sense and for this purpose. This applies, for example, to my account of the priority of liberty over democracy in modern liberal democracy, based as it is largely on Benjamin Constant's classic thesis. Hence, much of Huang's criticism of my stance regarding the priority of liberty over democracy rests on a misconstrual of it as normative. Not all of it does, though, and I shall identify and deal with a point of substantive disagreement later.
The second misunderstanding is due, it seems, to the common habit of placing advocates of freedom, often correctly, in the category of those who subscribe to so-called universal values. But this is a...