Renegotiating the Social Contract

Despite an economic recession and record levels of personal bankruptcy filings due to healthcare costs, President Obama’s healthcare reform initiative sparked a season of protests. A “public option”-not to mention a single-payer system-was off the table even before the discussion began. As the question of the reform package’s constitutionality wound its way to the Supreme Court, it became clear that a substantial number of American people do not want their government helping them stay alive. In this climate, it is difficult to imagine an America in which the state is an accepted partner in meeting the challenges and responsibilities of family life. We seem to be reflexively opposed to the European-style social welfare state, “European-style” being understood as a term of denigration. Democrats are confounded by the public’s widespread adherence to an ideology of liberty that conflicts with self-interest. In The Supportive State: Families, Government, and America’s Political Ideals, Maxine Eichner argues that part of this contradiction stems from flaws in our political theory. Modem political liberalism is premised on individual liberty as its highest value and nonintervention as the presumptive posture of the state. This theory fails to account for individual vulnerability or collective interdependence (pp. 21-22). As a result, proponents of social welfare programs lack a persuasive theory of the state on which to rest their arguments. Because liberal theory hides vulnerability and dependence inside the private “black box” of the family, public support for that vulnerability remains exceptional and stigmatized. The Supportive State tackles this dilemma by rethinking liberal theory from the ground up, incorporating dependence and families rather than pushing them aside. It is a careful, beautifully written renegotiation of the social contract on behalf of real people, rather than the idealized, autonomous- yet-isolated rights-bearers who are the subjects of traditional liberalism. Eichner preserves the best of liberal theory-its jealous concern for individual liberty, its premium on a diversity of human flourishingwhile adding the complexity that the theory needs to cope with real lives. The result is an important contribution both to liberalism and to feminist theory, which in the past has focused primarily on criticizing liberalism for the failings that Eichner corrects. This review discusses The Supportive State from the perspective of feminist theory and considers the extent to which Eichner has answered the concerns of both the critics and the defenders of liberalism.