For most of us, the defining exercise of political judgment is voting. It is the central activity of democratic citizenship. In a system of republican self-government such as ours, the decision of whom to place in public office is of paramount importance. It sets the direction of our public policy and law, and it has profound consequences for our liberty, the justice of our relationships, and the common good of our political community.

And yet the temptation is always there to vote to serve our private good, our special interests, our favored ideologies—simply because they’re ours. For their part, some candidates cater to the strongest business faction or public sector union, or outsource their own judgment to focus groups, campaign advisers, and opinion polls. By examining issues and ideas at one remove from the pressures of electoral politics, journals like this one aim to give voters and lawmakers alike the material for keeping vigil against such tendencies.

Today, Public Discourse launches a ten-day symposium on “Liberty, Justice, and the Common Good: Political Principles for 2012 and Beyond.” With a view to the next election, we’ve commissioned ten essays, each covering one of the major policy areas that scores of Public Discourse pieces have examined, to give us a survey of the landscape as we scrutinize the candidates who inhabit it. We also hope these articles will prompt the candidates themselves to think through these issues more thoroughly, as they look to enact good policy and not just curry favor with various factions.

These essays make arguments. They appeal to no authority other than the authority of reason itself to suggest a coherent political philosophy and how it applies to many policy particulars. In a way, these essays will be exemplars of Public Discourse’s mission: to put intellectual polish on our political lens, to sharpen our insights into the common good.

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Developing a coherent conservative political philosophy can be difficult. Fiscal conservatives can seem at odds with foreign policy hawks, and both are at odds with social conservatives; but this symposium’s essays make one extended argument that a conservatism concerned to foster the common good—with limited government understood as effective government acting in proper ways, in the proper spheres—can unify and justify all three dimensions of contemporary conservatism.

The Essays

At the heart of political life lies the question, “Who belongs to the political community?” Whose good counts when we speak of the common good? In today’s essay, Carter Snead argues that this question is at stake in the abortion and embryo-destruction debates, and that we get it wrong at the cost of millions of innocent lives. He draws on biological science and philosophy to argue that human life begins at conception, and that all human beings are persons with equal dignity. In a nation committed to the ideals of liberty and equality under law, to remove legal protection from some human beings, thus exposing them to lethal violence, and to tax others to pay for their destruction—is the gravest injustice. To withdraw the law’s most basic protection from an entire class of human beings is to fail to take the common good seriously. The life issues are the most important issues facing any candidate. Snead contrasts the records of our current and previous presidents on these issues to suggest several policies that today’s candidates must embrace.

If a central task of good government is to recognize the equal dignity of every human life and protect those lives in law, our leaders must also recognize that new life is best nurtured in the context of the marital bond of mother and father as husband and wife. In tomorrow’s essay, Maggie Gallagher argues for the importance of the institution of marriage, both for the health of our society and for principles of limited self-government. The state cannot be allowed to redefine natural, pre-political institutions such as marriage. It must recognize real marriage, and seek to protect and promote it. The breakdown of the family has been one of the chief causes of poverty in our nation, and anyone concerned with the wellbeing of children and the economic health of our nation should see the family as the original—and best—department of health, education, and welfare.

Allowing the family to perform its essential functions is an important part of limiting government overreach and fostering economic wellbeing. In Wednesday’s article, Samuel Gregg argues that presidential candidates should champion two principles for reviving America’s economy. First, the government’s economic activities should be primarily limited to those functions it alone can perform. And second, government interventions into the economy beyond core functions such as upholding the rule of law and public order should be limited to instances when intermediate institutions of civil society as well as families are temporarily failing to perform their proper roles. This, he argues, is not only crucial for America’s moral and economic wellbeing; it is also consistent with the Founders’ view of how Americans can live out the ideals expressed in the famous words: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Protecting human life, defending marriage, and limiting government’s reach to its constitutionally proper sphere depend crucially on the activity of the Department of Justice and the Supreme Court. For our elected officials to achieve these good aims, unelected judges and political appointees to the DOJ must soundly interpret, apply, and enforce our laws, particularly our fundamental law, the Constitution. In Thursday’s article, Ed Whelan argues that presidential candidates should appoint constitutionalist judges and justices and use the confirmation battles that inevitably will occur as opportunities for teaching the importance of our framers’ design. The battle over our courts is especially important for returning the issue of abortion policy to democratic processes and, so it seems, to keeping the battle over marriage there. Candidates should commit to selecting DOJ officials who share these judicial concerns, and are willing to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

One of the most contentious legal issues is religious liberty. In Friday’s article, Helen Alvaré argues that candidates must pledge to protect the conscience rights of religious communities, not least because they make innumerable contributions to our country and perform vital services to the weakest and most vulnerable among us. The state should not use its coercive power to force religious institutions to perform abortions, offer contraceptives, recognize same-sex unions as marriages, place children for adoption with same-sex couples, or force any citizen to pay for any of these activities. Doing so commits a grievous political injustice by violating religious liberty, and thus weakens the rich contribution that religious communities make to the common good.

Of course, America also plays a role in fostering liberty, justice, and the common good outside our borders. In next Monday’s article, Jennifer Bryson argues that credible U.S. foreign policy abroad begins with great leadership at home. We need a president who can take on our domestic financial challenges and honor the kinds of democratic values we seek to promote abroad. America needs leadership that can act swiftly and wisely, so that the United States can be an effective partner of pro-democratic forces in the current Middle East revolutions.

Recent healthcare reforms trample conscience rights in various ways, but healthcare issues (including healthcare entitlements) also contribute to our fiscal problems. In next Tuesday’s article, Yuval Levin argues that fixing America’s healthcare system must be a central concern in the election but that the Left’s preferred approach—which boils down to the centralization of decision-making power and the rationing of medical services—is economically and ethically unsound, and likely to result in poor care. Levin outlines several steps for good reform.

One oft-neglected topic in debates over marriage and the family is the role that parents should play in directing the upbringing and education of their children. In next Wednesday’s article, Jane Robbins defends parents’ authority in childrearing. Government should support parents, not usurp their roles and just authority. But the current administration, through several initiatives, is trying to impose a national educational scheme in keeping with the views of early-20th-century progressives that only experts can efficiently manage the country. Parental control over education can be protected only by adherence to the 10th Amendment, which reserves authority over education to the states or to the people. For the sake of our constitutional freedoms and out of respect for the values of parents and families, Obama-era initiatives must be resisted.

The education of our nation’s children isn’t the only part of their development that ought to elicit deep public concern. Another is their ability to mature into sexually responsible adults. With respect to that goal, it is no exaggeration to call pornography, especially child pornography, a plague on our nation. In next Thursday’s article, Patrick Trueman argues that candidates must pledge to protect our children from pornography, which entails committing to vigorous prosecution of illegal adult pornography as well as child pornography.

Pornography’s spread in our country has encouraged our contemporary form of slavery: trafficking in sex slaves and sexual tourism. Though this might seem like a problem for other countries’ leaders, the Department of Justice reports that 83% of victims in confirmed sex-trafficking incidents are United States citizens. In next Friday’s essay, Laura Lederer argues that a culture of exploitation and violence, especially sexual exploitation of children, is at epidemic levels here in the United States and around the world. The current administration’s response is anemic, and more must be done. She identifies six different ways in which our government can better protect its citizens from becoming sex slaves.

A Postscript

We hope that our readers find these essays informative as they cast their votes next November—and in the meantime as they contribute to broader debates in their own discussions, campaign contributions, and volunteering efforts.

Two weeks from today is the South Carolina Presidential Forum. One of the three questioners for that forum is Public Discourse editorial board member and Princeton constitutional law professor Robert P. George. He’ll be drawing from these essays as he shapes his questions. And after the debate, he’ll share his reflections with readers in the final essay of our series here on Public Discourse.

Ryan T. Anderson is Editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good. This essay is the introduction to the 2012 Election Symposium. Read all of the entries here: