Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Politics: The Prudential Balance of Individual Rights and the Common Good

Michael J. Gerson


August 10, 2012

By Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa. 

In the aftermath of a tragedy such as the Aurora shooting, it is a natural human tendency to attempt an explanation.  We want the world to be explainable in order to make it more controllable.  So people respond according to their predispositions.   Aurora, we were told, resulted from violent entertainment, or lax gun control laws or failures in the mental health system. 

There may be truth in all these arguments.  But a mass murder is a rare and singular act, defying an easy attribution of cause and effect.  There was much wisdom in President Obama’s reaction:  “Such violence, such evil is senseless,” he said.  “It’s beyond reason.” 

Tragedy in our own lives often points to the limits of reason.  The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.   And tragedy also points to the limits of politics.  Not every form of human evil or suffering has an ideological explanation or an ideological cure.  

Properly understood, politics is not the search for cures.  Employing political methods in an attempt to perfect life or remove risk or change human nature has often been a source of oppression.  Utopianism is politics beyond its proper bounds.  

But within its bounds, government has a role and a responsibility.  It seeks—not to change or perfect human nature—but to restrain the worst impulses of human nature for the sake of social peace.  And here the law has a role to play. 

A mental health system better prepared to deal with severe illness—better able to identify threats of violence—would not stop every mass murder.  But it would serve both the mentally ill and the broader community.    

Reasonable gun control laws will not stop a smart, determined mass killer. But they might limit the destructive options of those intent on violence.  We already restrict the sale of tanks, shoulder-mounted missile launchers and fully automatic machineguns.  It is reasonable to ask if 100 round magazines—of the kind the Aurora killer used—should also be restricted.  This would not end gun violence in America.  But it might produce a modest gain in public safety.  

Such decisions are based on prudence, not ideology.  Americans have a right to self-defense, just as they have a right to free speech and the free exercise of religion.  But none of these rights is unlimited.  Free speech is not the right to create public dangers.  Freedom of religion is not the right to fraud or child abuse.  And the Second Amendment is not a right to weapons of mass destructive capacity.  This is the reason prudence and judgment are among the highest political virtues.  It is often necessary to balance individual rights and the public good.     

This is the spirit that people of faith should bring the political enterprise.  It is beyond the power of politics to solve every problem—and it can be destructive for government to try.  But it is possible to make incremental, patient gains in the common good. 

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010). 

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”