It’s time for a political post, so if you are one of the Letters Blogatory readers who likes coverage of cases of the day but has sent me very polite and reasonable emails asking for less politics, avert your eyes. Read on for two political ideas that are on my mind.
First: with all the upheavals of the past few years, what politics should we be aiming for? What would a just society be like in the United States? To me the answer today is more or less the same as it has been for a long time, though people can dicker about the details: a just political society is one that recognizes fundamental civil rights and liberties for everyone and that distributes social goods in the way that we would all agree is right if we had to agree on the rules without knowing in advance the social and economic circumstances we would be born into, whether we would be healthy or prone to illness, and so forth. A just society, in other words, is a fair society. We know what justice is, we just have never really managed to put it into practice. It’s important to say this because this kind of theory of justice, which is one of the many varieties of liberalism, is under attack from the right, of course, but also from the left.
Second: what would the founders say about our current predicament? I think I know what they would say. Put in modern language, it would be something like this: “You had a good run. All republics fail when the citizenry no longer has the civic virtue that made a republic possible in the first place.” The founders were not utopians. They set up a form of government that was meant to channel and restrain our worse impulses and to mix monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements in a way that made good sense to those who had read Polybius, Livy, and Machiavelli but might make less sense to the typical American, or even the typical American with what passes for an elite education in 2020. People talk a lot about how badly we are doing with basic high school civics education, but I think that how we educate our elites, what we choose to teach and not to teach, is probably more consequential and more concerning. And the gross inequality we can all see is particularly dangerous because the benefits of great wealth today do not seem to come with the societal obligations that high social station ought to carry. Maybe it is no wonder that we are in real trouble.