Friday, July 11, 2008

Democracy's Discontent

Michael Sandel's Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy is one of those books at the outermost periphery of my field, famous & cited enough that I feel obligated to read it, but not anywhere close enough to the actual subject of my work (law and religion or civil liberties) that it has been a priority. Anyway, the thesis of the book is that political debate in modern America has become almost exclusively centered around the liberal axes of fairness & liberty, while omitting the core value that animated American political life since the Founding: civic virtue, the idea that laws and debates should turn on the question of what will make us better citizens, better able to participate in a democracy and weigh the common good. Sandel's historical analysis of how the notion of civic virtue was the preeminent American political philosophy for well over a century is quite persuasive. The book is lacking, however, in putting forth a substantive analysis of how things would be different if civic virtue came back into vogue. (it's also a bit boring, but that's a failing common to many academic writers).

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