Five Best Monday Columns

Ross Douthat on the consolidation of the elite, Margaret Talbot on Congress's inaction on gun violence, Joel Kotkin on the next American cities, Katherine Stewart on the GOP's position within the culture wars, and Cass R. Sunstein on the virtues of paternalism.

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Ross Douthat in The New York Times on the consolidation of the elite Susan Patton, the author of the controversial letter to The Daily Princetonian suggesting to Princeton women that they look for a husband at the Ivy League school, revealed an uncomfortable reality, writes Ross Douthat. "[Patton's] betrayal consists of being gauche enough to acknowledge publicly a truth that everyone who’s come up through Ivy League culture knows intuitively ... that rather than an escalator elevating the best and brightest from every walk of life, the meritocracy as we know it mostly works to perpetuate the existing upper class." Patton's mistake, Douthat argues, was saying so out loud. "That the actual practice of meritocracy mostly involves a strenuous quest to avoid any kind of downward mobility, for oneself or for one’s kids, is something every upper-class American understands deep in his or her highly educated bones." Though outfits like First Things and The American Conservative praised the column, Hanna Rosin at Slate pointed out that Douthat didn't directly address the implication of Patton's letter — that the point of college is to secure a mate. "You should still totally ignore Patton’s advice," Rosin writes. "No need to snag a man in college. Show up at the tenth or fifteenth reunion and there will still be plenty of available Princeton men to go around."

Margaret Talbot in The New Yorker on Congress's inaction on gun violence Why does the post-Newtown push to legislate greater restrictions on guns seem to be failing? According to Margaret Talbot, it's a misplaced fear of influencing a gun-heavy culture via politics — and the attendant fear of the N.R.A.'s wrath. "A background check would not have stopped Adam Lanza, who had no criminal record, and whose mother had reportedly bought the guns he used in Newtown," Talbot admits. "But laws influence culture, just as culture influences laws, and if Congress enacted a serious piece of gun-control legislation perhaps that might initiate a subtle shift in American attitudes toward guns, and that might eventually lead some parent with a deeply troubled, deeply isolated son fascinated by violence to think twice before turning the family home into a munitions depot." Rich Lowry of the National Review thinks the reversal of momentum is even simpler, though: "Gun control always founders on the fundamental paradox that it is possible to write new laws for the law-abiding but difficult or impossible to reach criminals who don’t care about the laws." Joe Nocera of The New York Times considers the case of the "gun guys."

Joel Kotkin at The Daily Beast on the next American cities Fresh off his sparring match with Richard Florida on the impact of the creative class, Joel Kotkin says that the cities which represent the future of America aren't coastal enclaves of wealth, like New York or San Francisco, but more isolated but geographically larger places like Houston and Charlotte. They're likely to be ignored by urban researchers, Kotkin observes, because they violate the principle that density, more than anything else, defines the greatness and potential of a city. Sprawling places like Austin and Fort Lauderdale, he writes, "grow primarily because they do what cities were designed to do in the first place: help their residents achieve their aspirations—and that’s why they keep getting bigger and more consequential, in spite of the planners who keep ignoring or deploring their ascendance."

Katherine Stewart at The Guardian on the GOP's position within the culture wars The Republican Party's apparent defeat amidst the new realities of gay marriage does not spell the end of the country's so-called culture wars, warns Katherine Stewart, who delves into the nature of the GOP's strategy. "The idea that a shift in Republican positions on an issue like [gay marriage] signals a major underlying transformation of the party ... confuses the alleviation of a symptom with the treatment of a cause," she argues. Issues such as immigration reform and reproductive rights "are all essentially reactive. That is, they aren't so much about achieving specific policy goals as about expressing a certain attitude toward developments in modern culture. They reflect broader fears and anxieties over the pace and nature of social change." Still, there's no rush to change quite yet, suggests Page Gardner and Celinda Lake, who wrote in Politico, "Midterm elections traditionally attract very different voters than presidential races, and Democrats should prepare for what could be a drastic dropoff in voter support" in 2014.

Cass R. Sunstein at The New Republic on the virtues of paternalism With his would-be bans on large containers of soda, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has become something of the face of modern paternalism. But, Cass R. Sunstein maintains, paternalism isn't all that bad in the first place — it just has to be done right. Distinguishing between means paternalism and ends paternalism — the latter of which attempts to dictate what is the good life — Sunstein focuses on taxing tobacco as an illustration of how paternalism can better people's lives. But he's quick to note the difficulty in expanding upon the example. "Smoking is a highly unusual activity," Sunstein notes, pointing to its addictive quality. "... The broader point is that in some cases, there can be real space between anticipated welfare and actual experience, leaving room for a paternalism that respects people’s ends." Issues of freedom certainly obtain in honest discussions of government paternalism, Sunstein emphasizes. But "legitimate concerns about illegitimate paternalism should not be allowed to prevent officials from seeking to identify the best ways to improve people's lives, even if they end up influencing people's choices."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.