Twenty years ago, social scientist Theodore Lowi wrote a much-quoted book called The End of Liberalism. A few months ago, the University of Oklahoma Press issued his most recent book, The End of the Republican Era. The title is a play on…
Twenty years ago, social scientist Theodore Lowi wrote a much-quoted book called The End of Liberalism. A few months ago, the University of Oklahoma Press issued his most recent book, The End of the Republican Era. The title is a play on words: Lowi refers not only to the Republican party, but also to our republican form of government.
There is much in Lowi’s current work to recommend it, both as analysis and as political philosophy: unfortunately one of the most important points he makes is almost certain to be misquoted and misunderstood. Lowi takes direct aim at those who believe that law and government must be "moralized." This is not to say that law does not rest on commonly accepted moral principles (murder and theft, for example, are generally seen as morally wrong as well as socially harmful). But Lowi argues that, to the extent rightwing Republicans use government to enforce a particular view of personal moral behavior, they endanger not only the electoral prospects of the Republican party, but also the continued experiment we call America.
I was finishing Lowi’s book on a trip to Kansas City, where the local paper coincidentally ran a front page story on a bill just introduced into the Missouri legislature. Representative Pat Kelley proposes to have the State of Missouri pay $1000 to every couple who delay marriage until they are 21 and sign a sworn statement that neither has had a child, an abortion, or a sexually transmitted disease. Couples would be subject to penalties for false statements and the state treasurer would be required to conduct "random checks" to verify the accuracy of the information. The bill further requires the state to levy a $1000 fine against a spouse who broke up a marriage, and in every divorce proceeding, the court would have to decide which spouse that was.
Kelley says his bill will lead to a decrease in crime, drug use and low test scores. (As Dave Barry might say, I am not making this up). Scholars concerned with the loss of perceived legitimacy by government might consider Lowi’s thesis and proposals like Kelley’s.
Lowi sees govenment as an instrumentality, a mechanism that citizens use to accomplish tasks broadly conceived to be necessary. When government is so understood, it can serve a broad and diverse constituency and retain its legitimacy. People espousing vastly different theologies, people from a variety of cultural backgrounds can agree that government ought to pave the streets, prevent crime and inspect meat. Once government ceases to be an instrument of such common needs–once it invades the provinces once reserved to ministers and moral theologians–it is no longer legitimate.
A government that demands evidence of our past sex lives, that snoops into our medical records, that fines us when our marriages don’t last, is not the government envisioned by the founders of our republic. A government of moral busybodies and peeping toms will neither command our respect nor merit our obedience.