The Politics of Selfishness: How John Locke's Legacy Is Paralyzing America
by Paul L Nevins
Is a preoccupation with the self at the root of America’s present political and economic problems?
Barnes & Noble.com
Most observers acknowledge that current state of American politics is abysmal but, as the country continues its descent to second-world status, the electronic and print media continue offer the same tired analysis and nostrums from those whom New York Times columnist Frank Rich has derided as the “Sabbath gas-bags.” Before solutions can be offered, the right questions need to be asked, but in the current political climate, the noise and political bickering obscure this need.
Why, in fact, are the political and legal systems of the United States unresponsive and on the verge of implosion? Why can’t self-regulation of the market economy work? Why are American labor unions and employees virtually powerless to effect change in the workplace? Why has economic inequality continued to grow and poverty become intractable in the United States? Why do lobbyists and special interests now exercise disproportionate influence over public policy? Why is America’s public education system dysfunctional and why does it fail to educate our citizens in contrast to Western Europe? Why are lawlessness and anti-social behavior so pervasive in this country?
The Politics of Selfishness directly addresses a number of the questions which dominate contemporary American politics. The book attempts to provide answers based upon a coherent perspective which is admittedly outside the paradigm of what passes for conventional political discourse in this culture. The book examines the reasons for the inability of the political system of the United States to address, in any meaningful way, the problems which underlie the questions asked, despite the evidence of widespread suffering, disillusionment and anxiety among the American populace. Nevins’ book also predicts, based upon the existing evidence which is examined, that, if left uncorrected, things are likely to get even worse.
The author explores a theme which runs throughout American history, politics, economics and law. The central thesis of this important and unconventional work is that the United States has begun to experience a number of profound, interrelated problems that are caused, both directly and indirectly, by our dogmatic and often unconscious adherence, collectively as a political culture and individually as Americans, to the political philosophy of John Locke. That ideology, which is the bedrock upon which the American liberal democracy has been founded, asserts that human beings are by nature solitary, aggrandizing individuals. Hence, preoccupation with the self in all of its manifestations and attributes - as opposed to the whole, the public interest - has become the primary focus by which political, economic and societal decisions are made. Consequently, the preferred form of social and political relationships with others, including the state as the organized expression of political society, is solely contractual and is designed primarily to protect private property in all of its forms.
The Politics of Selfishness provides compelling historic and contemporary evidence that our institutions, at all levels, are failing because of our uncritical embrace of the anti-social individualism which is John Locke’s legacy. As such, the book documents the malaise so evocatively described by Jonathan Franzen in his most recent work of fiction, Freedom: The Novel.
In a political culture such as the United States, suffused as it is by the classical liberal tradition, and where its institutions, its sacred texts, the conventional wisdom, the "group-think" of the political and pundit classes, and the popular culture itself regularly reinforce and echo one another, the grip that Locke's paradigm exerts is powerful and tenacious. It is as if we are not merely locked in Locke, but entombed within his political philosophy.
It is true, as we have seen, that, throughout American history, individual thinkers and occasional political leaders have periodically appeared who argued that the vision which Locke inspired was incomplete or warned that the liberalism - because of its individualistic tenets - has been unable address many political, economic, social and ethical concerns. However, much like the apocryphal story of King Canute, their often singular entreaties have not been able to command the waves of cultural viscosity to be stilled.
Substantial changes in public policy will not be achieved within the existing liberal political paradigm. A new political paradigm will need to be conceptualized and articulated. That paradigm, which is rooted in recognition of the continued vitality of Western political theory, should seek to incorporate into the existing liberal project the best, the most useful and most enduring contributions of conservative and socialist thought. That kind of a synthesis, one may hope, would inspire the development of policies and initiatives which would enable individuals to achieve their full potential as human beings, to improve the number and kind of public goods and services available, and to encourage and support the meaningful participation of each of us as citizens in a democracy.
Ideas can - and have - changed the course of civilizations. They remain the most powerful instruments, for ill or for better, that mankind has ever possessed.
Paul Nevins takes seriously an essential but often forgotten truth: that the birth of our nation was conceived in philosophy, that at the core of that philosophy lies John Locke, and that Locke’s thought has exerted a profound influence on the character of our country and on liberalism in the classic sense. In a trenchant and wide-ranging analysis, Nevins diagnoses a fundamental crisis in American liberalism rooted in Locke, and he traces that crisis through its historical and contemporary strands. From economics to law, from social norms and practices to the current collapse of the markets and ethical standards in the business world, Nevins discerns a selfishness and lack of concern for the common good at the heart of America’s Lockean liberalism. One need not agree with all of Nevins’ conclusions to agree that we do indeed now face a crisis that goes to the very foundations of our republic and to accept wholeheartedly Nevins’ invitation to debate the meaning of our founding in philosophy. This book represents a welcome opportunity to begin that conversation.
Gregory Fried, Chair, Philosophy Department, Suffolk University
Paul Nevins is a practicing attorney and former public school teacher who has found a way to make key tenets of America's founding political philosophy better understandable
to citizens now trying to repair the damage that Lockean individualism has done to our society. If more of us had read this book in our high school civics classes or college
political science courses, we'd be far better equipped to defend "the public interest" today against conservative voices who claim there is no such thing. The Politics of Selfishness is a wide-ranging account of what's wrong with our schools, courts, workplaces and civic life. It's a wonderful work of scholarship and, unlike so many others, highly readable as well.
Steve Early,Labor journalist, lawyer, organizer, and author of Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home (Monthly Review Press, 2009)
Paul Nevins has laid out an ambitious and persuasive argument in The Politics of Selfishness that John Locke's political philosophy has crippled modern American discourse and marginalized the ideal of the common good. He traces the historical development of Locke's liberalism - the idea that men are selfish and the purpose of government is the protection of property - to a range of overarching problems evident in our under-regulated financial system, dismal public schools, the slow death of labor unions, violent crime, and pervasive antisocial behavior. We know these symptoms all too well, but Mr. Nevins articulates how the dominance of the liberal tradition, and the exclusion of competing political philosophies, has limited our ability to see their root causes and alternatives to the status quo. In a time when even the most benign government action foments shrill accusations of "socialism" from the far right, his thesis is particularly relevant.
This is the story of how John Locke's ideas have shaped who we are as Americans.
William J. O'Brien,Economic Consultant , Global Insight
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