Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Sandel - America's Search for a New Public Philosophy

Sandel, Michael. "America's Search for a New Public Philosophy," Atlantic Monthly, March 1996.

Writing in 1996, Michael Sandel explains an important change in America's public philosophy - the way we think about the role of government in our nation. Sandel argues we have drifted away from one of the key aspects of government envisioned by Jefferson - republicanism. A good government is one that is designed to foster virtuous citizens, which in turn can participate as educated members of civic society, to the benefit of all. Sandel sees republicanism climaxing during the Progressive Era, when reformers from the left (like Louis Brandeis) and the right (like Teddy Roosevelt) both sought to increase the size of the government in order to match up with, an balance public society against the dangers of big business.

Public philosophy changed during the Depression, as republicanism gave way to a belief, on both sides of the political spectrum, that government's primary role should be to protect citizens' liberty - liberalism. The welfare state (along with other federal programs throughout the century) was proposed by Liberals arguing that the societal inequalities hampered the freedom of individuals to pursue their own values and ends. Conservatives framed their opposition also in liberal, not republican, terms: big government itself threatened individual liberty.

Sandel's solutions are interesting and occasionally surprising, grand if a bit vague. Foremost, he would like to see a return to republicanism in public philosophy. The turn to liberalism has led to the sense, especially on the Left, that, out of respect for individual liberties, it is improper for government to take a moral stance. But a good government should be moral, so Sandel thinks politicians on both sides should bring morality back into the political arena, wrenching it away from the monopoly on moralism claimed by religious fundamentalists.

Just as Progressive Era republicanism sensed the need to increase government in the face of rapidly expanding businesses, today's good government should acknowledge that, in terms of economics, culture, etc, national boundaries no longer contain the limits of the public community. The government has to be active internationally, and thus (here's where Sandel gets pretty bold) must spread out its sovereignty. But Sandel wants to disperse sovereignty both up (to the international level) AND down (to the state and local level). Power should be more spread out, not consolidated at any one level. Put simply, government needs to feel NEAR to foster civic virtue. Though global boundaries continue to disintegrate, an ideal republican citizen will be most virtuous and civic-minded if he feels connected to his government's structure at a meaningful, local level.

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