Rights vs. Civic Duties: Morality as a justification for public policy

Today we generally expect that the government be neutral among conceptions of the good life.  Those who propose one system of life over another are seen as narrow-minded and intolerant.  [continued discussion from Democracy’s Discontent – The loss of the community in exchange for “rights”].

However before the New Deal, most economic and social policy was rooted in a morality.  We didn’t always care about the size of the GDP and how to more equally distribute the pieces of the economic pie.  We also were not always obsessed with rights and providing voluntarist answers to address the needs of “individuals” (as opposed to citizens).

Before the New Deal, prominent leaders argued about how to create a “virtuous society” and debated the ideals of what formed educated citizens.  Citizens needed to possess civic virtue, which in turn gave them the capacity to formulate independent and disinterested judgment.  It was thought that poverty bred dependence and that great wealth traditionally bred luxury and distraction from public concerns” (Sandel 136). In order to preserve an American society that could think independently, policy makers were explicitly motivated by formative ambitions.  They were uneasy of large concentrations of land or wealth.  When devising policies they did so with the moral implications in mind.  This contrasts with the contemporary view that everyone is entitled to thousands of rights, but not necessarily the right to live by any set of moral code.

In the early Republic, founders were also obsessed with the producer.  Although there were divides between the agrarians and industrialists, generally policy makers favored small-scale industry that “preserved a favorable moral environment” that would foster civic virtue in its citizens.  Civic virtue was so important because citizens needed to make educated decisions, especially at the ballot box and to address the negative externalities of their societies.

After World War II, the Supreme Court and policy makers began to see Americans more as “individuals” instead members of the American society.  Moral codes and the perspective of a person as belonging to a larger community were discarded.  Everyone became entitled to rights, that effectively addressed the grievances of various populations such as women, African-Americans, and more recently, LGBT. However, in return for “rights” citizens effectively found themselves without communities, or in some situations, witnessed the disintegration of their own nuclear families.

The expansion of rights also made it harder for individuals to solve problems that involved various issues simultaneously.  Not only did individuals identify less with their existing communities, but they also participated less.  Those citizens in need now could find remedy in their “rights” instead of in the support of their neighbors.  Those temporarily at an advantage were under no obligation to be civilly virtuous, but rather they became entitled to rights that they did not even understand.  The priority of the right trumped any interpretation of the good, and elevated the individual above the concerns of their community.  Even though toleration and social peace was achieved, the plurality of communities was lost.

One of the most ironic results of the “expansion of rights” of the procedural republic is that the citizens have lost agency (or power) both economically and politically.  We gained “rights” through increased autonomy, but forgot about our obligations.  We also forgot why the founders were obsessed with dispersing power and the importance of formative ambition and the duties and responsibilities that come with being a citizen.

Sandel does an excellent job at contrasting modern arguments with those of past generations.  I would like to briefly mention two of these:

  • (1) LGBT rights and;
  • (2) the government’s involvement in economic planning.  The second one I will probably discuss in the more detail in a later post.  I have also written about this argument in previous posts such as in Kicking Away the Ladder.



LGBT rights have obviously been at the forefront of debate during the last few years.  The obsession is over the equality of one to marry, however the discussion places less importance on the justification of why one should get married.

The vocal members of the LGBT community have depended on the modern tendency to look for voluntarist answers to defend marriage between two members of the same sex.  Voluntarist answers view choices in the context of autonomous selves, or rather, a desire of an individual implies that there should be a right to protect them.

“A second difficulty with the voluntarist case for toleration concerns the quality of respect it secures. As the New York case suggests, the analogy with Stanley tolerates homosexuality at the price of demeaning it; it puts homosexual intimacy on a par with obscenity—a base thing that should nonetheless be tolerated so long as it takes place in private. If Stanley rather than Griswold is the relevant analogy, the interest at stake is bound to be reduced, as the New York court reduced it, to ‘sexual gratification.’ (The only intimate relationship at stake in Stanley was between a man and his pornography.)” (107).

In contrast to the voluntarist answer, the “old-fashioned” substantive answer would give another justification for LGBT marriages.  Substantive answers would say that these individual rights are not contingent on choices, but rather the marriage in itself realizes important human goods (civic virtue, enhancing civil society, positive externalities, children, etc.).  Substantive answers defend a homosexual union because it is also ‘intimate to the degree of being sacred… a harmony in living… a bilateral loyalty,’ and association for a ‘noble purpose’ (Sandel 104).

This ‘old-fashioned’ reading of Griswold, does not reduce a marriage to whimsical impulses and desires of individuals.  It recognizes a bond that transcends the individual and acknowledges a higher purpose to the marriage than that of satisfying the needs of two persons.



Every year foreigners come to the United States.  They embrace the neoliberal model without real criticism, later to reproduce it in their home countries.  Often times they assume government positions or teach the same lessons there.  Apparently, the United States never enacted protectionist policies, nor used any system of economic planning.  Maybe these explains why certain countries remain stagnant or continuously degenerate for decades or centuries?

As before stated, the civic consequences of economic policy was what worried the leaders in the early years of the Republic: what economic arrangements are most hospitable to self-government (124)?  The government had a stake in “cultivating citizens of a certain kind” (131).  In contrast to the modern interpretation, this does not mean indoctrination, but rather ensuring that citizens are free-thinkers and are free of economic, political, or societal pressures that would prevent them from being so.  These free-thinkers would do the right thing instead of what was convenient for them at the time.  “For Madison, the point of republican government was not to give people what they want, but to do the right thing” (131).

Jefferson and Madison were preoccupied about preserving “the agrarian way of life” which they considered “indispensable to virtue” (137).  Economic embargos and the rapid westward expansion were driven primarily to preserve land access to regular citizens.  These was defended on moral grounds, which stated that independent farmers or cottage industrialists were more “free” and therefore were better able to exercise their democratic duties.

The nonimportation movements were also important in generating domestic manufacturing.  Hamilton saw industrialization as a necessary step for American development, even though his critics said that it would demoralize employees that would work in the factories.

In the 1830s and 1840s, the Whigs (or the Republicans of today) favored an active government and would adopt an industrial policy “to guide national economic development” (155).  There was no reason for government not to promote certain sectors, as long as it preserved a sense of morality in the American citizens.  “According to Jackson, the problem was not how to use government to promote an equality of condition [socioeconomic], but how to prevent the rich and the powerful from using government to secure privileges, subsidies, and special advantages” (156).   Jackson’s attacks on the National Bank were not exactly “laissez-faire” but reflected the formative ambition to cultivate a fertile ground for civil society.  The moral consequences of economic arrangements and the existence of virtue-sustaining occupations were actually often debated before the New Deal.


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