For the considerable body of people in the western world who still believe in self-government, and in the preservation of their nations’ traditional moral identities, the overreaching of the contemporary human rights project will perhaps lead them to reconsider natural law, presented in a prudently modest formulation. This is a crucial undertaking to which Pierre Manent’s new book is a worthy contribution.
Pillar: Politics & Law
The third pillar of a decent society is a just system of politics and law. Such a government does not bind all persons, families, institutions of civil society, and actors in the marketplace to itself as subservient features of an all-pervading authority. Instead, it honors and protects the inherent equal dignity of all persons, safeguards the family as the primary school of virtue, and seeks justice through the rule of law.
The term “social justice” is typically associated with an aggressively progressive political agenda led by a muscular Uncle Sam. But there is an alternative understanding of social justice—one that is especially well-suited to helping the nation address many of today’s most troubling challenges. It’s time for conservatives to explain this approach and articulate an agenda for the future based on it.
In The Age of Entitlement, Christopher Caldwell chronicles our increased willingness to eat our seed corn and inability to propagate the future. But the questions he raises require a treatment other than borrowing the frameworks of progressive theorists and drawing different conclusions that suggest an inescapable logic of racial resentment.
The common good is the final cause of political association, not least because practical decisions are always decisions about achieving what is good and avoiding what is bad. But invoking the common good under the influence of De Koninck, Maritain, or even Aquinas doesn’t on its own advance the political conversation that characterizes a healthy polity.
Integralism delivers a more realistic view of how states actually function—including states that are secular—than do models currently dominant in political and legal philosophy.
As much as I would like to believe that the COVID-19 crisis will produce a future where evidence-based policies triumph over other forms of governance, the sad reality is that the COVID-19 crisis will leave us in a much more authoritarian Venezuela.
One can certainly debate the scientific warrant of a quarantine, its effectiveness in a given region or country, its proportionate value in the face of its economic consequences, and its psychological effects on citizens. Still, in principle, the state may legitimately request Catholic Christians to undertake such a quarantine, in accord with the natural law. There is nothing illegitimate about such a request, if it falls within certain parameters of temporary and just use, nor is it historically unprecedented.
In the effort to combat COVID-19, making the public aware about the truth of the pandemic has been more effective than government lockdowns. China’s suppression of information, the WHO’s dilly-dallying with declaring a pandemic, and President Trump’s refusal to take COVID seriously enough from an early date all cost lives. Once Americans understood the gravity of the problem, they began social distancing on their own, before government-mandated lockdowns began. That has been the most effective measure in controlling the virus’s spread.
Chief Justice John Roberts complained five years ago, in the Obergefell marriage case, of some of his colleagues’ “extravagant conception of judicial supremacy.” To understand how such a conception has come to grip the judicial mind, studies of some of the Supreme Court’s most notable cases make for instructive reading.
Many policies provide public-health benefits in pandemics, such as making facemasks mandatory, cancelling school, and banning large assemblies and long-distance travel. But ordering people to cower in their homes, harassing people for having playdates in the park, and ordering small businesses to close regardless of their hygienic procedures has no demonstrated effectiveness.
Michael Lind’s The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite addresses the growing gap between the successful and those left behind in the United States and in other developed Western societies. Contemporary “demagogic populism,” he argues, is a symptom of the disease of technocratic, neoliberal elitism, the cure for which is a return to democratic pluralism.
When times become difficult, people come to help each other as a rule. It’s not really a case of our better angels emerging; it’s our regular angels doing what they almost always do when the chips are down.
Bradley C. S. Watson’s new book Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea points scholars in new and productive directions regarding the political thought of the Progressive Era. Watson writes with vigor and verve, making the book of great appeal to anyone trying to take the true measure of the legacy of Progressive political thought in American history.
Liberal doctrines necessarily require disenfranchising and punishing those who hold rival beliefs. Liberal ideology is jealous, and will have no other gods before it. American conservatives should reject this revolutionary liberalism and the attempts to make it the central principle of our national heritage. We need not deny that liberal ideas influenced the Founding, but we ought to follow our forefathers in tempering them.
An oddity about our current debates over liberalism and America is that both sides view the American Founding, and thus America, as fundamentally influenced by classical liberal ideology. They only disagree over whether classical liberalism is good or bad. But the historical record shows that liberal ideology was one influence among many, not that it was the definitive one.
It would be a mistake to believe that the current decline in historical literacy is due to the loss of some homogeneous version of the American story that used to hold the nation together. The problem is rather that younger generations are no longer being exposed to the historical themes that would most attract their interest.
While the post-liberal right often asks good questions, many of its answers are flawed, grounded on mistaken premises, and deeply misleading.
Thanks to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the government cannot use significant penalties to coerce a religious adherent into violating his faith, no matter how trivial the government considers the adherent’s beliefs to be, unless doing so is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling governmental interest.
Ross Douthat’s depiction of our society in his new book, The Decadent Society, should unsettle defenders of the status quo; his assessment of its potential resilience should give pause to those who are eagerly awaiting its fall and planning for what comes next. Decadence may be worse, and yet more permanent, than we think.
Hadley Arkes and Robert Miller go one more round on the moral norms that govern speech and the government’s authority in prohibiting immoral speech.
As civility becomes a contested value, we would do well to look to the example of Roger Williams, whose understanding of civility was grounded on the natural law. It depended on common human virtues and fostered the freedom of conscience and freedom of expression for members of a pluralistic society.
The Constitution itself directs us to use metaphysical and moral truths that lie beyond it in its interpretation. Indeed, a contemporary judge can be faithful to the Founders only by relying on these truths.
The Christian moral tradition provides a solid foundation for the right to privacy by linking it to the act of communication and sharing information, a fundamentally relational activity oriented toward both the personal and common good. The failures of Capital One, Ring, and others illustrate that it cannot be left up to individual institutions to protect their clients’ privacy. We must therefore develop stronger legal institutions that embody the principles of both privacy and transparency.
The US Supreme Court seems likely to rule in a way school-choice advocates will welcome. The Court will likely overrule the Montana court and hold a ban on scholarships for students at religiously affiliated schools unconstitutional—an important ruling, to be sure. But a sweeping opinion seems unlikely. Rather, Espinoza is shaping up to be one of those closely divided, narrow decisions that have become familiar in the Court’s Religion Clause jurisprudence.
Catholic social teaching can serve as an important source of wisdom about how to order personal action and social policy toward the ultimate ends of human life. Still, invoking this tradition does not obviate the need for detailed and mundane policy debate.