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

Government and the Responsible Society

James W. Skillen


by James W. Skillen

This article is excerpted from an essay originally published by the Center for Public Justice in the Public Justice Report in June 1996. This was the sixth in a series of articles articulating the fundamental principles of the Center for Public Justice.

On the day I began to write this article the newspapers announced a decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that struck down a University of Texas law school admissions policy that incorporated a form of affirmative action. […]

This decision comes at a time when Americans are struggling to build a new consensus about what constitutes legitimate unity and diversity in the United States. What may government and the courts do to try to achieve greater social and economic equality? What is government's proper responsibility in relation to universities, business corporations, families, churches, and other institutions?

The fifth of six basic principles that govern the Center for Public justice touches on questions such as these. It reads:

 "The policies of government should display the recognition that the ongoing development of human culture can thrive only in responsible freedom. Government therefore has no authority to try to direct the whole of society by attempting to gain direct control of the internal life of non-political communities, institutions, organizations, and human relationships. Rather, it should restrict itself, in accord with the principles of public justice, to the protection and balanced treatment of the social and cultural life of its citizens."

What are the implications of this statement for some of the difficult social and economic issues of our day?

This principle clearly argues in favor of government protecting the lives and livelihoods of all citizens in a fair and balanced way. It begins, however, by recognizing that people are always more than individual citizens in relation to government: they are family members, employers and employees, church members, teachers and students, and much more. Justice demands that government protect this variety of nongovernment organizations and institutions. If, for example, government policies and court decisions force academic institutions to compromise academic standards, on the one hand, or hinder the creative efforts of those institutions to enroll a diverse student body, on the other, then government will fail to do justice to citizens, universities, and society. Of course, this way of formulating the matter raises questions about internal conflicts of principle when government itself owns and operates academic institutions. Government may need to give up such ownership and control or begin to treat publicly owned universities on a par with private universities and allow real diversity to blossom.

A new book by Michael J. Sandel, Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, confirms that more and more Americans are coming to recognize that our political and economic systems cannot survive without strengthening independent institutions and organizations such as families, churches, universities, schools, and various voluntary service groups. Even federal officials are now talking about how to reform welfare and other programs by turning responsibility over to non-profit organizations. We can say, therefore, that the debate over the shape of "civil society" has now been joined in a big way, but until Americans reach a new consensus about government's proper relation to these institutions, they will not be able to agree about how to handle a host of economic and governmental questions.

In an article in The Atlantic Monthly, Peter F. Drucker has come to the same conclusion after decades of looking either to government or to big business to meet our major social needs. Most of these needs, Drucker now believes, can be met only by the social sector—by churches and schools and parachurch agencies—not by government or large corporations. For this to happen, however, we will have to have effective government, according to Drucker, and that means something quite different from a small nineteenth-century government or a big twentieth-century bureaucratic government. Effective government today will require a new "theory of what government can do." None of the major political thinkers of the past 500 years has given us the theory we need for today. "None deals with the substance. None asks what the proper function of government might be and could be."

One of the chief purposes of the Center for Public Justice is to address the challenge of developing a substantive political philosophy that will help answer the question of how government can do justice to all citizens while protecting and giving balanced treatment to the social and cultural life of our complex society so it can thrive in responsible freedom.

—James W. Skillen served as President of the Center for Public Justice from 1981 - 2009.

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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.”