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Law and Government

Government, Law, Politics

James Madison on Populism and Right and Wrong

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There is no maxim in my opinion which is more liable to be misapplied, and which therefore more needs elucidation, than the current one: that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong. Taking the word “interest” as synonomous with “Ultimate happiness,” in which sense it is qualified with every necessary moral ingredient, the proposition is no doubt true. But taking it in the popular sense, as referring to immediate augmentation of property and wealth, nothing can be more false. In the latter sense it would be the interest of the majority in every community to despoil & enslave the minority of individuals; and in a federal community to make a similar sacrifice of the minority of the component States. In fact it is only reestablishing under another name and a more specious form, force as the measure of right; and in this light the Western settlements will infallibly view it.

Federalist #1

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To the People of the State of New York: AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the union, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.

Aristotle on the Rule of Law

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For Nature requires that the same right and the same rank should necessarily take place amongst all those who are equal by Nature; for as it would be hurtful to the body for those who are of different constitutions to observe the same regimen either of diet or clothing, so is it, with respect to the honours of the State, as hurtful that those who are equal in merit should be unequal in rank; for which reason it is as much a man’s duty to submit to command as to assume it and this also by rotation; for this is law, for order is law; and it is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens; upon the same principle, if it is advantageous to place the supreme power in some particular persons, they should be appointed to be only guardians and the servants of the laws, for the supreme power must be placed somewhere; but they say that it is unjust that where all are equal one person should continually enjoy it. But it seems unlikely that man should be able to adjust that which the law cannot determine; it may be replied, that the law having laid down the best rules possible, leaves the adjustment and application of particulars to the discretion of the magistrate; besides it allows anything to be altered which experience proves may be better established. Moreover, he who would place the supreme power in mind, would place it in God and the laws; but he who entrusts man with it gives it to a wild beast, for such his appetites sometimes make him; for passion influences those who are in power, even the very best of men for which reason, mind is law, without desire. [Emphasis added.]

James K. A. Smith on Good Regulation

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This is why we should care about regulation: because it is the banal way that the modern, liberal, democratic state tries to secure some baseline of justice and flourishing. Government regulations are one of the sorts of “nuts and bolts” that hold together the girders of our social architecture—and are best complemented by other sorts of “regulations,” such as social mores and cultivated virtues. But when we think “regulation,” we generally picture government oversight. ¶ Even if we grant that licensing and state management of commerce have in some ways run amok, we can still witness tragedies and injustices that result from a lack of regulatory protections. As my colleague, Brian Dijkema, noted in the wake of a 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh, the tragedy was in no small part the result of weak social infrastructure. The challenge is to be able to both critique a choking regulatory Leviathan and still affirm the good of regulation as an institutional expression of care for our neighbor. For every overreaching, micromanaging tentacle of the state that wants to mediate every form of social transaction there is the unnoticed, taken-for-granted inspector or regulation that is preserving health, safeguarding fairness, or even saving lives.

Barack Obama on Kindness as a Political Principle

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Kindness covers all of my political beliefs. And when I think about what I’m fighting for, what gets me up every single day, that captures it just about as much as anything. Kindness; empathy — that sense that I have a stake in your success; that I’m going to make sure, just because Malia and Sasha are doing well, that’s not enough — I want your kids to do well also. And I’m willing to help to build good schools so that they get a great education, even if mine are already getting a great education. And I’m going to invest in infrastructure and building things like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hoover Dam and the Internet because I’m investing for the next generation, not just this one. And that’s what binds us together, and that’s how we’ve always moved forward, based on the idea that we have a stake in each other’s success. And that’s what drives me. And that’s what will continue to drive me.

William Voegeli on the Codependence of Helpers and Helped

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Sometimes empathizers, such as those in the “helping professions,” acquire a vested interest in the study, management, and perpetuation — as opposed to the solution and resulting disappearance — of sufferers’ problems. This is why so many government programs initiated to conquer a problem end up, instead, colonizing it by building sprawling settlements where the helpers and the helped are endlessly, increasingly co-dependent. Even where there are no material benefits to addressing, without ever reducing, other people’s suffering, there are vital psychic benefits for those who regard their own compassion as the central virtue that makes them good, decent, and admirable people — people whose sensitivity readily distinguishes them from mean-spirited conservatives. “Pity is about how deeply I can feel,” wrote the late political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain. “And in order to feel this way, to experience the rush of my own pious reaction, I need victims the way an addict needs drugs.”

William Voegeli on the Government Coercion Needed for Political Goals

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The problem with liberalism may be that no one knows how to get the government to do the benevolent things liberals want it to do. Or it may be, at least in some cases, that it just isn’t possible for the government to bring about what liberals want it to accomplish. As the leading writers in The Public Interest began demonstrating almost 50 years ago, the intended, beneficial consequences of social policies are routinely overwhelmed by the unintended, harmful consequences they trigger. It may also be, as conservatives have long argued, that achieving liberal goals, no matter how humane they sound, requires kinds and degrees of government coercion fundamentally incompatible with a government created to secure citizens’ inalienable rights, and deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.

The Underground Man on Free Will

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Dostoevsky’s unprecedented short story, Notes from Underground, is a philosophical treatise of striking originality. In the early nineteenth century, with the remarkable successes of science in controlling nature, social and political theorists began to conceptualize human persons as just one more cog in the Newtonian “world machine“. As such, it was thought, human society could likewise be controlled through social engineering, ensuring its proper functioning toward desired outcomes. In this excerpt, Dostoevsky voices his revulsion toward this mechanistic view of humans, renouncing the notion that humans can be relied upon to act in the predictable, law-like fashion that characterizes the physical world. On the contrary, we humans are radically free, often acting irrationally and self-destructively for no other reason than to assert our independence from custom, convention, and social pressure. The larger story, from which this excerpt is taken, recounts the inner dialogue of an isolated and contemptuous civil servant whose quest for vengeance against perceived slights leads him to alienate himself from all others. Though this “Underground Man” is especially unseemly, Dostoevsky takes it that his rationalizations will resonate with the reader’s own inner thoughts, and will thereby undercut the deterministic, materialistic view of man current in his day. Dostoevsky’s protest on behalf of free will remains a spirited rebuke to the standard narratives of human events that offer explanations only in terms of psychology and instinct, of nurture and nature, both geared towards self-preservation. ~ Nate

John Siracusa on Bureaucracy

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By this point in my life, I’d also had enough experience with government, corporations, and academic bureaucracies to understand what happens to organizations as they get larger. The middle-managers and empire-builders start to take root. Each problem results in a new guideline or process meant to prevent the problem from ever occurring again. Metrics are added, because managers can’t manage what they can’t measure. Individual incentives shift so far from the stated corporate goal that they actively work against it. Intrinsic motivation wanes. The ability to do truly great work all but disappears.

Roger Ebert on Kindness, Happiness, and Politics

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Kindness’ covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

A Plea for Civil Disagreement

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We interrupt this broadcast for a rare excursion into contemporary politics, but only to make a broader plea. Last night, here in the U.S.A., the Democratic controlled House of Representatives passed a very controversial health care reform bill. Apropos of our last article, the debate on the floor was intense, the differences irreconcilable. For the minority, John Boehner deplored the bill, characterizing it as striking at the heart of the American Dream. For the majority, Nancy Pelosi beamed that it was a final step toward ensuring the American promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. As bitter as the debate has been, it was to be expected that the conservatives who opposed the bill would be angry and frustrated. Sure enough, this morning I overheard radio talk show host Mike Gallagher mid-tirade, calling the Democrats “filthy”, “vile”, “bastards”, “vermin”, and for good measure, “bastards” several more times. It recalled Rush Limbaugh recently calling Democrats “cockroaches”. These despicable comments do not represent the best of conservative commentary, and I am very aware that such rhetoric is as bad and worse on the other side. What is ironic is that such voices bemoan the demise of the American republic even as they undermine the civil discourse that is vital to it. It is perfectly appropriate to offer withering critique of ideas and actions, but these ad hominems are themselves worthy of severe reproach. Many of the conservatives who are angry and frustrated this morning are Christians, and to you I make a special plea. May we exemplify Jesus’ exhortation to “love our [ideological] enemies, to treat them as our friends”. May we treat them as we would wish to be treated. May we speak what we consider the truth in love. May we chasten each other when incivility speaks. May we be exemplars of civil discourse. This is our calling.

Barack Obama on the Size of Government

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You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter — that at that point we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.

Dennis Prager on the Nanny State

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A thirty year old who is still relying on mom and dad, it’s not a good sign right? So why is a society relying on government a good sign? Tell me the difference between relying on your parents as an adult and relying on the government as an adult? … If you knew somebody were forty, and on virtually every major financial debt of their life they could turn to their parents, you would think that this is a person who has not grown up. Well, why if you turn to the government are you grown up? What is the difference between nanny-family and nanny-state? This is one of the many reasons that all the founders — especially Jefferson — were so adamant about keeping government small, their belief that humans needed to work out their lives for themselves. Everybody believes that there are a number of individuals who clearly have been hit by such tragedy that the state must come in if nothing else works. And we want other things to work.

Dennis Prager on the Fragility of Civilization

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One major difference between Left and Right is that the Left does not understand the fragility of civilization. If I have to go beneath every political position to a core distinction between Left and Right, it would be that I am not on the Left because I do not believe that good civilization is normal. I believe it is an aberration and that it is entirely fragile.

Os Guinness on American Ideals

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As history’s first new nation and the current lead society in the modern world, the United States is distinctive for the way it was founded by intention and by ideas. American ideals and institutions do not trail off into the mists of antiquity as do those of many nations. They were born in an unprecedented burst of brilliant thinking and political building, and from the very beginning they engaged constructively with many of the central challenges and characteristic features of the modern world. ¶ Freedom, equal opportunity, the rule of law, mutual responsibility, representative government, the separation of powers, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, justice grounded in due process and the presumption of innocence, universal public education — as words, these ideals trip off the tongue lightly; but as principles, they form the bedrock on which the greatness of America has been built.

Os Guinness on the Culture Wars

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To be sure, it is as dangerous to exaggerate the culture wars as it is to minimize them. At the core of these wars is a battle between two sets of elites, with their corresponding battalions of activists, organizations, and supporters. And on most issues, the great majority of Americans find themselves between the two sides, somewhat ambivalent and often confused. But when all the issues have been clarified and matters of style separated from matters of substance, it becomes clear that the issues dividing the traditionalists and the progressives are important and will be decisive for the future of of the republic. They are, after all, disagreements about the very nature and destiny of human beings, so they cannot be swept under the rug. ¶ In short, the issues at the heart of the culture wars will be decisive for the American future, and they will have to be settled — but not in the present, destructive manner.

Os Guinness on Nationalism and Worshipping Ourselves

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Yet over the course of time the United States has given rise to its own soft civil religion, and the reason lies in the character and function of civil religion. In the absence of an official religion, what binds a nation together becomes suffused with a sense of the sacred and surrounded with a religious or semireligious aura until it becomes its civil religion. Thus, in essence, civil religion is a nation’s worship of itself.

A Conflict of Visions

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This latest work by Sowell examines two competing visions which shape our debates about the nature of reason, justice, equality, and power. These visions are the &quot;constrained&quot; vision, which sees human nature as unchanging and selfish, and the &quot;unconstrained&quot; vision, in which human nature is malleable and perfectible. The book builds a convincing case that ethical and policy disputes are ultimately based on the differences in these visions. It covers a wide variety of political, philosophical, and economic thought. Although occasionally abstract, this volume is an important contribution to our understanding of current social issues. Recommended for large public and all college and university libraries. ~ <em>Library Journal</em>

Utopia

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Sixteenth-century classic by English ecclesiastic and scholar envisioned a tolerant, patriarchal island kingdom free of private property, violence, bloodshed and vice. Forerunner of many later attempts. Since its publication in 1516, Utopia has provoked a hailstorm of debate. The minute details More ascribed to his "perfect world" make Utopia still a work of the future. • "There were utopias before this book that Thomas More wrote in the early 1500s, including Plato’s Republic. This, however, is the book that gives us the word ‘Utopia.’ The book is brief, barely over 100 pages, and only 60-some describe the place itself. That is enough, and makes me nostalgic for the habit of writing briefly and to the point. It’s easy to sum up More’s heaven-on-earth in a few words. It portrays a communal, democratic society. It is paradoxically unregulated and tightly regulated — overwhelmingly, More’s citizens just want to do what is best for their society, and that covers a remarkably narrow range of possibilities. There are, of course, some who break the laws of the land, and More deals with them harshly. "Harsh" is a relative term, though, and his punishments were hardly harsh in a day when it was a hanging offense to steal a loaf of bread for your starving family. It’s also a strongly religious society. Religious tolerance is a matter of law, a novelty by the standards of More’s day and the standard of his own behavior. ‘Tolerance’, however, meant tolerance of any monotheism that wasn’t too animistic, and certainly didn’t tolerate the unreligious. This translation from More’s original Latin is modern and smoothly readable. Even so, I wonder how another translator would have handled some of More’s neologistic names, like the unpleasant ‘Venalians’ who are the Utopians’ neighbors. No answer is right, but other renderings may convey more and grate less. Those are quibbles, though. It’s a good book as well as being a Great Book, and casts an interesting shadow into modern communism, theocracy, and ideas of the good life. I recommend it highly." ~ wiredweird at Amazon.com

Fareed Zakaria on the Democratic Age

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We live in a democratic age. Over the last century the world has been shaped by one trend above all others — the rise of democracy. In 1900 not a single country had what we would today consider a democracy: a government created by elections in which every adult citizen could vote. Today 119 do, compromising 62 percent of all countries in the world. What was once a peculiar practice of a handful of states around the North Atlantic has become the standard form of government for humankind. Monarchies are antique, fascism and communism utterly discredited. Even Islamic theocracy appeals only to a fanatical few. For the vast majority of the world, democracy is the sole surviving source of political legitimacy. Dictators such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe go to great effort and expense to organize national elections — which, of course, they win handily. When the enemies of democracy mouth its rhetoric and ape its ritual, you know it has won the war.

Donald W. Shriver, Jr. on What Trials Cannot Do

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Court trials cannot: prosecute the dead, secure direct testimony from the dead, or repair damages done to the lives of the dead; truly match punishments to crimes when the crime consists of the murder of many victims; put institutions and systems on trial; within usual rules against self-incrimination and torture, compel perpetrators to confess; summon classes of offenders newly tagged as such without engaging in the ambiguities of ex post facto prosecution — an ambiguity abolishable by legislative grants of general impunity; avoid, in most societies, the skewing influence of money and power on the effectiveness of prosecution and defence; always implement distinction between retribution and vengeance, especially in response to public demand for the latter; guarantee ‘closure’ or satisfaction among victims that justice has been done once a perpetrator has been punished, a problem further exacerbated by the traditional western judicial system which largely keeps victims on the margins of the whole process; always avoid adversarial abuse of plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses; avoid scapegoating, especially in trials of leaders who required large constituencies for carrying out their crimes; or escape from the danger, inherent in the adversarial trial system, that the courtroom will become a playing field in which the most skilled, rather than the most truthful, side will win.

PJ O’Rourke on Conservatism at Worst and Best

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In its worse forms, conservatism is a matter of “I hate strangers and anything that’s different.” But in its better forms, conservatism simply says that the structures of society, both civil and political, religious and so on, are the result of a long series of trial-and-error experiments by millions of human beings, not only all over the world, but through time. And that you should toss out received wisdom only very carefully. Obviously there are some ideas that were around for centuries that were not good (slavery comes to mind). But when people have been doing something for a millennium or two, there is probably a reason. And you better be pretty careful before you just throw it out.

James Waller on the Thin Veneer of Civilization

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In Rwanda and the Balkans, neighbors often killed neighbors. How did they turn on people they’d known all their lives? And in the Holocaust you had incidences of this, too — I’m thinking of Jan Gross’ book, entitled “Neighbors,” about a small village in Poland named Jedwabne where the Catholic half of the village killed the Jewish half simply because they were given permission to do so. You realize how thin this veneer of civilization is that we put up. We say we live as neighbors and in a community, but when something happens structurally that says now you have permission to persecute, to take from, to even kill people that you’ve lived with for years, the relative ease with which people can do that is incredible.

Cary Tennis on Alcoholism and Redemption

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It’s that experience of utter hopelessness, or moments of clarity, or hitting bottom, at which some sufferers typically call out to a higher power for help and others seek the aid of psychiatrists, healers and scientists. The common paradox in all these experiences is that personal powerlessness is twinned with personal responsibility: You suddenly realize that while no one can cure you, neither can you cure yourself on your own. You need God, or friends, or an institution, or a belief system, or something — anything — not yourself. And thus begins, in myriad forms, the archetypal untangling of epistemological knots that results, ultimately, in an unaddicted ego that knows it is both profoundly free and profoundly interdependent. And that’s the basis of a healthy society. For that reason, many recovered addicts view with suspicion systems of government aid that seem to prolong dependency and/or to shield sufferers from the fundamental hopelessness of their situation. Thus we would expect Bush, not just as a political conservative, but as somebody who’s experienced deep hopelessness, aloneness in the universe and the need for God, to view welfare and other government attempts to eliminate suffering as simply, and wrongly, shielding people from their true problems, the recognition of which alone could catalyze deep change.