Tag Archives: David Souter

Did John Locke Doom America’s Social Safety Net?

The first issue of the Journal of Civic Literacy has been published, and is available at the link. We’re pretty proud of it; it features an introductory essay from former Supreme Court Justice Souter, several academic articles, a book review by Steve Sanders, and an argument for/example of effective civics instruction by Charles Dunlap, head of Indiana’s Bar Foundation.

It also includes an article–you might even say a meditation–on America’s difficulty with the concept of the social safety net.  The thesis is that Americans have internalized John Locke’s libertarianism in a way that does not accurately reflect his philosophy, and by doing so have made it incredibly difficult to have reasonable public conversations about programs like Social Security, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare).

Given the abysmal level of civic knowledge these days, it may seem almost fanciful to revisit Hobbes, Locke and other towering Enlightenment figures (we can hardly encourage people to reread works they’ve clearly never read or even heard of), but a careful consideration of where we come from can often illuminate how in the hell we got where we are.

Anyway, if you’re interested in a somewhat wonky deliberation on our intellectual forebears, I hope you’ll give the article–and the others in the issue– a read. (Admission/disclosure: I am a co-author of the Locke article.)

And if you want to remind yourselves what a really good Supreme Court Justice sounds like, read Justice Souter’s essay.




Missing Souter

I remember when the first President Bush nominated David Souter to the Supreme Court. I listened to the televised session when he appeared before Congress (I think it was CSPAN–it was certainly past my bedtime), fearful after the disappointment that was Clarence Thomas, and I was impressed by the erudition of his responses. I wasn’t disappointed by his subsequent jurisprudence; agree or not (and usually I did agree), his opinions were always reasoned, nuanced and respectful of both the litigants and the Constitutional process.

I was sorry to see him step down from the Court. During the recent coverage of oral arguments, I was struck by the mediocrity of Alito and irritated by Scalia’s usual grandstanding, and really regretted Souter’s absence.

Yesterday, I had a chance to see him in person. I was attending a small conference on civic education at Harvard, co-sponsored by the Law School and former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s iCivics, and Souter was one of the panelists–along with Lawrence Tribe, Justice O’Connor, and Kenneth Starr. (Talk about your heavy hitters!)

Justice O’Connor said very little, but Souter was eloquent. In a day devoted to necessary technical issues–how do we improve civic education, what are the barriers we face, what is the necessary content of an education that will encourage informed, active citizenship–he cut to the chase: America has a tension between the rights of the individual and the common good. That’s a healthy tension. But we must guard against times when we go too far in either direction. When, as now, we place excessive importance on individualism, and neglect the common good, we run the danger of forgetting what it means to be an American, a part of a polity. We forget who “we” are when we focus too narrowly on the “me.”

And “we” are constituted by our commitment to our Constitution. When our citizens are ignorant of American history, American values and our constitutional commitments, we lose our identity.

His actual remarks were far, far more eloquent than my rendition of them. Listening to him, I could only think how much the current Court lost when he stepped down.