Political theory for everyone: Adam Swift has just published a book called How not to be a Hyprocite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed. (Disclosure: Swift was my doctoral supervisor at Oxford.) As Will Hutton notes in his review, Swift is asking some tough questions: "Is it hypocritical to send your child to a private school while acknowledging it should not exist? Is there a reasonable way of navigating the right of choice and proper responsibility to your child while also discharging your responsibilities to society at large?" These sorts of questions come up in the U.S. every once in awhile, usually when prominent Democrats send their kids to private schools. For example, when Bill Clinton sent Chelsea to Sidwell Friends, could he have been anything but hypocritical? Swift forces us to ask the same question about ourselves. If we believe in public education, how can we send our kids private?

This question is linked to the more general one raised by Jerry Cohen in his book If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? Cohen argues that our commitment to justice must be reflected in our everyday social and economic decisions--and not just in the social and political institutions that make up the "basic structure" of society. If you think Cohen is asking an important question--and it's a question that liberal egalitarians, at least, must take seriously--then you can think of Swift's project as working out an answer (or set of answers) to it within one very important area of our lives. Swift has made a significant contribution to how we should think about personal decisions involving education that often seem to be in tension with our highest moral principles.

Swift has also written what I think is the best introduction to contemporary, Anglo-American, analytic political philosophy. The book is called Political Philosophy: A Beginners' Guide for Students and Politicians. The book has become the standard among Oxford undergraduates, but it was intended for a much wider audience. Swift is committed to the idea that political theorists should try to make their ideas available to lay people. The new book, and the beginners' guide, are both written with that end clearly in mind.

A couple years ago, Swift published a terrific article in Prospect (August/September 2001) about why political philosophers should pay more attention to politics and why politicians should pay more attention to political philosophy. I've tried to find this article on-line, but I'm afraid you have to subscribe to Prospect to read it. At any rate, here is some what of Swift has to say about the relationship between politicians and philosophers:

Philosophers can help [in making hard political decisions]. We may draw the line at logos and slogans, but that leaves plenty of room for attempts to make our ideas available to a wider public. It is not easy. It takes courage for those accustomed to the rarefied discourse of academia to leave behind the careful qualifications, the dealing with every objection, the familiarity of the arcane. Also, they have to handle the snootiness of those for whom only the cutting-edge research is worthwhile. Still, scientists have managed to create a reading public for a genre which is entertaining and difficult. The intelligibility problem can be overcome.
What about content? It is hard not to be sympathetic to politicians' impatience with the utopianism of much academic political philosophy . . . We [political philosophers] should think hard about how to tailor our proposals to the realities we seek to improve. But let's be clear about what exactly is being tailored, and why. Philosophers must not allow practical constraints to infect their ultimate principles. What social justice requires of us, or what it would mean to take community seriously, are questions which cannot be answered by considering how far Middle England will go along with them . . . Politicians can be relied on to dilute the truth about justice if feasibility constraints require it. Philosophers must prevent that truth from slipping out altogether. Our job is not to accommodate public opinion, but to change it. Politicans have been known to do some of that, too.

At least some political theorists and philosophers should be in the business of writing for lay audiences. We, too, need a Dawkins or a Gould to give our ideas a wider hearing. Maybe one of these days the left will dump enough money into think-tanks to make more of this kind of writing possible.

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