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

Prudential Politics: A Positive Role for Government

Michael J. Gerson


September 9, 2011
by Michael J. Gerson

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

With the presidential campaign now in full swing, Republicans are judging the quality and electability of their top tier prospects. But they are also getting a chance to hear from candidates with little shot at the nomination, but who hold strong views about American politics.

I’ve been involved in three presidential campaigns at one time or another.  I respect people who are willing to embark on that exhausting journey.  Leaders such as Rick Santorum and Herman Cain are making contributions, even if they don’t end up as their party’s choice.  Santorum urges the Republican field to remember the moral issues—especially the issue of life.  Cain adds the perspective of a corporate leader.   

Representative Ron Paul of Texas also plays an instructive role in the presidential field.  During the recent Republican debate at the Reagan Library, Paul came out against federal car safety regulations, drug safety regulations and the air traffic control system.  He criticized TSA agents as sexually abusive and called for abolition of the agency.  He argued that the 9-11 attacks took place because “there was too much government,” which prevented pilots from carrying guns. He called for the abolition of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.  He claimed that the prohibition of drug use is killing thousands of people.  He argued that the Constitution does not authorize any element of the welfare state.

Paul is a libertarian.  And he demonstrates how too much emphasis on a single idea can distort a political philosophy. The protection of individual liberty is one of the most important measures of a just government.  Political oppression is an attack on human dignity, because human beings are endowed with the right, capacity and responsibility to make choices about their lives. This autonomy is part of the image of God we share.

But for millennium, Christian reflection on politics has also included an important, even noble, role for government. Government pursues the common good, which should be shared by the weak and vulnerable—people who can’t compete under the normal rules of the market.  A government secures public goods—such as public safety and public health—that individual’s cannot adequately achieve on their own. 

This two-fold belief in the rights of individuals and the duties of government requires a balance.  People can’t be protected from every bad choice.  But addictive drugs, for example, impose a form of slavery that ends the possibility of genuine choice.  And the broad prevalence of those drugs turns a community into a shabby, dangerous, violent place—violating the rights of all who live in it. 

So nearly every political choice involves the weighing of competing priorities—freedom and the common good.  This is the reason that prudence is the highest of political virtues.

And prudence is exactly what some political ideologies lack.  Socialism places an unbalanced emphasis on equality above all else—resulting in the routine violation of individual rights.  Libertarianism places an unbalanced emphasis on autonomy above all else—resulting in a nation without airport security and food safety laws. 

Raising a single, pure, simple principle in politics can be powerful—but it is almost always dangerous.  Complexity is the nature of politics.  It is also the sign of a serious political thinker or candidate.   

—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).






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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.”