A New Public Philosophy

Second Amendment

Irving Berlin

Child Labor

In "America's Search for a New Public Philosophy" (March Atlantic), Michael J. Sandel makes the argument that Democrats and Republicans both have "an impoverished vision of citizenship" and that the country cannot articulate a public philosophy that deals with civic virtue. Sandel is right in his assessment of the "national 'funk,'" and he points out that both conservatives and liberals subscribe to a Rawlsian version of neutral liberalism which is at the root of the problem. But Sandel overlooks contemporary alternatives that are being generated at the grassroots level--for example, the New Party--to counter the "threat to self-government" that both big business and the federal government pose to the republic.

The New Party, which includes the likes of Noam Chomsky and Cornel West, has won several local elections in Milwaukee, Chicago, and even Missoula, Montana, and has worked with unions and community organizations in St. Paul and Milwaukee to pass "living-wage" legislation to increase the minimum wage paid to employees of firms that receive public money. Truly the heir of the old Progressive movement, the party supports full employment, democratization of the banking system, fair (rather than free) trade agreements, and a reduction in military spending, among other things. The New Party is a localized phenomenon of regular people doing their civic duty--on a small scale. Its philosophy is one of civic involvement rather than the special-interest, individualistic philosophy of the Democrats.

D. Shawn Pruitt

Michael J. Sandel did a good job of explaining how political philosophy in the United States has evolved over time in response to economic and technological change. He also presents an interesting way of classifying the political arguments that resonate throughout our national history by introducing the concepts of civic republicanism and liberal freedom. Sandel is balanced in his portrayal of the virtues and vices inherent in each system. In the end, though, he favors civic republicanism, at least at the local level, as being the bedrock on which the survival of democracy ultimately depends. I would agree.

But Sandel does not correctly identify the most potent group interested in restoring civic republicanism to the United States today. In fact, he goes so far as to single these people out for slanderous depictions uncharacteristic of his otherwise reasonable article. I am referring to the Christian conservatives, whom Sandel chooses to condemn as "undesirable" and "intolerant." The agenda of these groups--for example, to outlaw abortion, reintroduce prayer in public schools, and return homosexuality to the closet--is really nothing more than an attempt to restore standard American civic culture. As recently as 1960 all these civic norms were the uncontroversial law of the land and enjoyed wide support from citizens of all ethnic and religious backgrounds along with politicians across the spectrum. If this is not civic republicanism, what is?

Erik Peterson

Michael J. Sandel has brilliantly diagnosed the problem, but his remedy--even bigger global government--flies in the face of reason. If big government and big business are the problem, bigger international government would only add to it.

Sandel writes that Thomas Jefferson worried, with good cause, that "large-scale manufacturing would create a propertyless class, lacking the independence that republican citizenship requires." Louis D. Brandeis's remedy of bigger government to control bigger corporations did nothing to address Jefferson's concerns. Instead it ratcheted up the race to greater bigness by both. Brandeis's and Sandel's remedies would leave the individual feeling smaller and less empowered.

Aristotle was correct in asserting that, in Sandel's words, "self-government [is] an activity rooted in a particular place, carried out by citizens loyal to that place and the way of life it embodies." The challenge of our times is to apply Aristotle's principle to contemporary society.

Bratimir Ilic

"America's Search for a New Public Philosophy" is, in my opinion, a shot straight to the heart of the problem. I would presume to add just one thought about the principle involved. The members of a complex modern society are simply not free to "choose their own values and ends." Their presence within that society implies a commitment to surrender to the "values and ends" of the majority of their fellow citizens.

The concept of a "New Federalism" was launched by Richard Nixon, not Ronald Reagan. I can speak with some assurance on this, because I was on the Office of Management and Budget team that prepared a report for the President, delivered (fatefully) in May of 1974. The term was rumored to have been suggested to President Nixon by William Safire, then a White House speechwriter. What distinguished the Nixon-Roy Ash version from those that followed was the idea of devolving taxing authority to the states along with responsibility for decentralized program management. The Reagan staff transformed this theoretically workable plan into a "dump" of social programs whose objective was clearly to see them wither on the vine.

Kelly Campbell

Second Amendment

In her article "Second Thoughts on the Second Amendment" (March Atlantic), Wendy Kaminer characterizes the Supreme Court's decision in Presser v. Illinois (1886) as being based on "now discredited" reasoning. As her article notes, that case held that a state-law prohibition of private militias did not violate the Second Amendment, because that amendment was a limitation on federal, not state, power. However, her characterization of its reasoning leaves the unfortunate impression that today the Second Amendment limits a state's power to control firearms to the same (uncertain) extent that it limits the power of the federal government to control them. This is emphatically not the case. Although some of the reasoning of Presser may not have stood the test of time, its conclusion that the Second Amendment does not apply to the states has been followed by every court to consider the matter.

Before enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment, in 1868, it was settled constitutional doctrine that none of the first eight amendments were limitations on state power, only on federal power (Barron v. Baltimore, 32 U.S. 243 [1833]). Since ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, however, the Supreme Court has gradually come to hold that most of the rights expressed in the first eight amendments do limit state power--not by their own force but because they are part and parcel of the "liberty" protected by the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee that no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. However, the Supreme Court has never held that the right to bear arms is one of the liberties guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Unless it does, Barron v. Baltimore and Presser v. Illinois must be taken to defeat any argument that the states may not constitutionally control firearms.

Lower federal courts and state courts that have addressed the question have uniformly upheld the power of the states to control firearms. When petitions have been submitted to the Supreme Court to review these decisions, they have always been denied.

Thomas F. Rutherford

Wendy Kaminer misrepresents the views of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. First, "gun control" does not cause genocides: murderous politicians and government bureaucrats plan and carry out genocides. In the twentieth century, enforcement of gun-control laws is a necessary pre-condition for genocide. Rwanda, where as many as 800,000 people were murdered between April 7, 1994, and the end of June, 1994, enacted a "gun-control" law on November 21, 1964. This law explains what is otherwise inexplicable: how so many were murdered so fast by so few.

A New Public Philosophy

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