Democracy’s Discontent – The loss of the community in exchange for “rights”

Today it seems like the “self” reigns supreme over the “community”.  As individuals fight to defend certain rights or shed certain civic duties and obligations, the focus is less on how the results will benefit “society” and more about how individuals win.

Currently I am reading Michael Sandel’s book, Democracy’s Discontent, from cover to cover.  As an undergraduate, I read select chapters, but I never digested the book in its entirety.  Also, the work is now almost twenty years old, but the core of its argument remains as true as ever.  The continuation is what I wish to discuss from the first four chapters.  I do not discuss any legal arguments in detail due to conflicts of interest and in part because I have no formal legal education.

The main interwoven theme is our transition from the “procedural republic” to “procedural liberalism”.  Liberalism in this sense is the conception of “persons as free and independent selves, unencumbered by moral or civic ties they have not chosen” (6).  Essentially, to each their own.  Everyone can live their life doing whatever they please as long as they do not violate anyone else’s right to do the same.  Each person becomes an island to themselves and the sense of civic duty seems to fade away.  Their only natural duty is to “not commit an injustice” (14).  This can evolve to mean mere compliance.

In contrast, the procedural republic stresses communal ties and requires citizens to actively participate in government.  Its flaw is that certain “conceptions of the good” end up prevailing and minorities can be prejudiced.  What prevents tyranny of the majority are the balancing forces of multiple communities and associations.  Before the national government began usurping power from the state governments, local and state governments also acted as counterweights to one another.  No standard policy was enacted nationally and multiple conceptions of the good existed, at times in conflict and at others in harmony.

As the liberalism gained ground over communitarianism (the procedural republic) greater efforts were made to “banish moral and religious argument from the public realm”.  It was argued that communities with established moral codes and values did not let individuals “think for themselves” to discover what truly would make them happy.  Today, everyone feels entitled to a plethora of rights that optimizes their own happiness, sometimes at total disregard for the happiness of their neighbors and friends.  There is no calculus or compromise considered when we set forth to get what we want.

Our divided and dysfunctional government today is the result of a population with a lessening sense of civic duty and sacrifice for the “greater good”.  Liberalism in itself can exist under any type of governmentnot necessarily a democracy.  There need not be a culture of political discourse or a foundation of moral and civic resources that are necessary for self-government in order to grant all individual the rights needed to obtain their happiness (23).

Another flaw of liberalism is that as the judicial system and society “bracket” biased communitarian views while formulating laws and policies, legislation and statutes  are produced with less intrinsic meaning.  A moral void opens that encourages even more disenchantment (24).  This is all the result of trying to satisfy the preferences of everyone.

The republican theory does not attempt to satisfy the desires of everyone, but rather it seeks to cultivate characteristic qualities in its citizens.  It puts the common good above all individuals, and many groups of individuals compete to demonstrate why their conception of the good is best.  These various groups included the states in the early days of the Republic.

“Liberty in the early republic had less to do with individual guarantees against government action than with the dispersion of power among branches and levels of government.  The Bill of Rights was not importantly implicated in federal activities, and ‘seemed hardly to matter during our first century’” (38).

The federalists eventually won as national power and individual rights expanded together, at the expense of state sovereignty (39).  As the system became unbalanced, rights had to be enforced by the judicial system (42).

By the early 1900’s supreme court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes conveyed the importance of a constitution that is neutral among ends as a fundamental keystone for the liberalism of the procedural republic.  However this idea was open to two interpretations.  The first was that states were “free to enact whatever such doctrines” they chose.  The second is that the Constitution required states to be “neutral among the ends its citizens espouse[d]” (46).

Regarding the separation of church and state, the original goal was not to create an atheistic society.  Many of the founding fathers noted the importance of religion in establishing a mutual moral code among citizens.  The real idea was to avoid the corruption of both the church and the state when the two mutually depend on one another.

“Justice Black argued that the establishment clause ‘rested on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion’” (61).

Also interesting was the justification for the “neutrality tool” in formulating policy.  Neutrality only has worth when it promotes the free choice between options and equal respect for religious beliefs.  It loses all meaning in a morally void world.   Even Madison and Jefferson argued from the position that beliefs were not really a matter of choice, but followed by the involuntary forces that impose them on their own minds (65).  It would be important for individuals to critically re-analyze their beliefs, but not necessarily the goal to destroy the moral fabric of these societies.    This is a debate regarding the voluntary mode of acquisition versus the end result of obtaining “the good life” (66).

Lastly, liberalism in its extreme perverts the difference between “conscience” and “personal preferences and desires”.

“Once this distinction is lost, the right to demand of the state a special justification for laws that burden religious beliefs is bound to appear as nothing more than ‘a private right to ignore generally applicable laws’.  So indiscriminate a right would allow each person ‘to become a law unto himself’ and create a society ‘courting anarchy’” (70).

So what is the solution for curtailing liberalism and bringing the return of the procedural republic?  A simple dose of tolerance in religious and societal circles would go a long way, while remaining true to our own moral codes that promote the greatest good to the greatest number.  “Higher goods” of conscience should always be pursued over “lower goods” of simple desires and preferences.  Demonstrating that one acts in “conscience” instead of desire or pleasure benefits society overall because the burden of proof is on the individual.  The individual will then always seek to reach their highest potential and be responsible for the justification of their beliefs and thoughts.  This opens up the realm to healthy competition that can strengthen and test these beliefs and moral convictions.

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One response to “Democracy’s Discontent – The loss of the community in exchange for “rights”

  1. Pingback: Rights vs. Civic Duties: Morality as a justification for public policy | peterabraldes

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