Friday, January 09, 2009

2008 books in political theory, continued

See this post for part 1.

Ten interesting and important books, by my lights, in political theory in 2008 by young and mid-career scholars. This will be a much more idiosyncratic list built around my own interests than the first one was-- not that the first one represented Objective Truth or anything, but, e.g., I'm pretty confident that there will be APSA panels or conferences or workshops or review symposia about most of the books I named there. Some of the books below are ones I suspect not many people have heard of yet; I want to encourage more people to have a look at them. In any case, well-known or not, consensus choices or not, these are interesting-to-me books published last year. Further contributions welcome in comments!

  • Sharon Krause, Civil Passions
    Must we put passions aside when we deliberate about justice? Can we do so? The dominant views of deliberation rightly emphasize the importance of impartiality as a cornerstone of fair decision making, but they wrongly assume that impartiality means being disengaged and passionless. In Civil Passions, Sharon Krause argues that moral and political deliberation must incorporate passions, even as she insists on the value of impartiality. Drawing on resources ranging from Hume's theory of moral sentiment to recent findings in neuroscience, Civil Passions breaks new ground by providing a systematic account of how passions can generate an impartial standpoint that yields binding and compelling conclusions in politics. Krause shows that the path to genuinely impartial justice in the public sphere--and ultimately to social change and political reform--runs through moral sentiment properly construed. This new account of affective but impartial judgment calls for a politics of liberal rights and democratic contestation, and it requires us to reconceive the meaning of public reason, the nature of sound deliberation, and the authority of law. By illuminating how impartiality feels, Civil Passions offers not only a truer account of how we deliberate about justice, but one that promises to engage citizens more effectively in acting for justice.

  • Burke Hendrix, Ownership, Authority, and Self-Determination: Moral Principles and Indigenous Rights Claims
    Much controversy has existed over the claims that Native Americans and other indigenous peoples have a right—based on original occupancy of land, historical transfers of sovereignty, and principles of self-determination—to a political status separate from the states in which they now find themselves embedded. How valid are these claims on moral grounds?

    Burke Hendrix tackles these thorny questions in this book. Rather than focusing on the legal and constitutional status of indigenous nations within the states now ruling them, he starts at a more basic level, interrogating fundamental justifications for political authority itself. He shows that historical claims of land ownership and prior sovereignty cannot provide a sufficient basis for challenging the authority of existing states, but that our natural moral duties to aid other persons in danger can justify rights to political separation from states that fail to protect their citizens as they should.

    Actual attempts at political separation must be carefully managed through well-defined procedural mechanisms, however, to foster extensive democratic deliberation about the nature of the politic al changes at stake. Using such procedures, Hendrix argues, indigenous peoples should be able to withdraw politically from the states currently ruling them, even to the point of choosing full independence.

  • Dennis Rasmussen, The Problems and Promise of Commercial Society: Adam Smith's Response to Rousseau
    Adam Smith is popularly regarded as the ideological forefather of laissez-faire capitalism, while Rousseau is seen as the passionate advocate of the life of virtue in small, harmonious communities and as a sharp critic of the ills of commercial society. But, in fact, Smith had many of the same worries about commercial society that Rousseau did and was strongly influenced by his critique.

    In this first book-length comparative study of these leading eighteenth-century thinkers, Dennis Rasmussen highlights Smith's sympathy with Rousseau's concerns and analyzes in depth the ways in which Smith crafted his arguments to defend commercial society against these charges. These arguments, Rasmussen emphasizes, were pragmatic in nature, not ideological: it was Smith's view that, all things considered, commercial society offered more benefits than the alternatives.

    Just because of this pragmatic orientation, Smith's approach can be useful to us in assessing the pros and cons of commercial society today and thus contributes to a debate that is too much dominated by both dogmatic critics and doctrinaire champions of our modern commercial society.

  • Annelien De Dijn, French Political Thought from Montesquieu to Tocqueville: Liberty in a Levelled Society
    This study makes a major contribution to our understanding of one of the most important and enduring strands of modern political thought. Annelien de Dijn argues that Montesquieu’s aristocratic liberalism - his conviction that the preservation of freedom in a monarchy required the existence of an aristocratic ‘corps interm√©diaire’ - had a continued impact on post-revolutionary France. Revisionist historians from Furet to Rosanvallon have emphasised the impact of revolutionary republicanism on post-revolutionary France, with its monist conception of politics and its focus on popular sovereignty. Dr de Dijn, however, highlights the persistence of a pluralist liberalism that was rooted in the Old Regime, and which saw democracy and equality as inherent threats to liberty. She thus provides a new context in which to read the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, who is revealed as the heir not just of Restoration liberals, but also of the Royalists and their hero, Montesquieu.

  • Elisabeth Ellis, Provisional Politics: Kantian Arguments in Policy Context
    If we are to vindicate moral reasoning in politics, Elisabeth Ellis argues in this original and provocative work, we must focus on the conditions of political discourse rather than the contents of any particular ethical system. Written in an engaging, direct style, Provisional Politics builds on Ellis’s prize-winning interpretation of Kant’s theory of provisional right to construct a new theory of justice under conditions of agency and plurality. She develops this new perspective through a series of cases ranging from the treatment of AIDS widows in Kenya to the rights of non-citizens everywhere, as well as the clash between democratic decision-making and the politics of species conservation. The book concludes with a sobering discussion of the probable limits of political agency.

  • Jenet Kirkpatrick, Uncivil Disobedience:
    Studies in Violence and Democratic Politics
    Uncivil Disobedience examines the roles violence and terrorism have played in the exercise of democratic ideals in America. Jennet Kirkpatrick explores how crowds, rallying behind the principle of popular sovereignty and desiring to make law conform to justice, can disdain law and engage in violence. She exposes the hazards of democracy that arise when citizens seek to control government directly, and demonstrates the importance of laws and institutions as limitations on the will of the people.

    Kirkpatrick looks at some of the most explosive instances of uncivil disobedience in American history: the contemporary militia movement, Southern lynch mobs, frontier vigilantism, and militant abolitionism. She argues that the groups behind these violent episodes are often motivated by admirable democratic ideas of popular power and autonomy. Kirkpatrick shows how, in this respect, they are not so unlike the much-admired adherents of nonviolent civil disobedience, yet she reveals how those who engage in violent disobedience use these admirable democratic principles as a justification for terrorism and killing. She uses a "bottom-up" analysis of events to explain how this transformation takes place, paying close attention to what members of these groups do and how they think about the relationship between citizens and the law.

    Uncivil Disobedience calls for a new vision of liberal democracy where the rule of the people and the rule of law are recognized as fundamental ideals, and where neither is triumphant or transcendent.

  • Jason Maloy,The Colonial American Origins of Modern Democratic Thought
    This first examination in almost 40 years of political ideas in the seventeenth-century American colonies reaches some surprising conclusions about the history of democratic theory more generally. The origins of a distinctively modern kind of thinking about democracy can be located, not in revolutionary America and France in the later eighteenth century, but in the tiny New England colonies in the middle seventeenth. The key feature of this democratic rebirth was honoring not only the principle of popular sovereignty through regular elections but also the principle of accountability through non-electoral procedures for the auditing and impeachment of elected officers. By staking its institutional identity entirely on elections, modern democratic thought has misplaced the sense of robust popular control that originally animated it.

  • Dana Villa, Public Freedom
    The freedom to take part in civic life--whether in the exercise of one's right to vote or congregate and protest--has become increasingly less important to Americans than individual rights and liberties. In Public Freedom, renowned political theorist Dana Villa argues that political freedom is essential to both the preservation of constitutional government and the very substance of American democracy itself.

    Through intense close readings of theorists such as Hegel, Tocqueville, Mill, Adorno, Arendt, and Foucault, Villa diagnoses the key causes of our democratic discontent and offers solutions to preserve at least some of our democratic hopes. He demonstrates how Americans' preoccupation with a market-based conception of freedom--that is, the personal freedom to choose among different material, moral, and vocational goods--has led to the gradual erosion of meaningful public participation in politics as well as diminished interest in the health of the public realm itself. Villa critically examines, among other topics, the promise and limits of civil society and associational life as sources of democratic renewal; the effects of mass media on the public arena; and the problematic but still necessary ideas of civic competence and democratic maturity.

    Public Freedom is a passionate and insightful defense of political liberties at a moment in America's history when such freedoms are very much at risk.

  • Alan Houston, Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement
    This fascinating book explores Benjamin Franklin’s social and political thought. Although Franklin is often considered “the first American,” his intellectual world was cosmopolitan. An active participant in eighteenth-century Atlantic debates over the modern commercial republic, Franklin combined abstract analyses with practical proposals. Houston treats Franklin as shrewd, creative, and engaged—a lively thinker who joined both learned controversies and political conflicts at home and abroad.

    Drawing on meticulous archival research, Houston examines such tantalizing themes as trade and commerce, voluntary associations and civic militias, population growth and immigration policy, political union and electoral institutions, freedom and slavery. In each case, he shows how Franklin urged the improvement of self and society.

    Engagingly written and richly illustrated, this book provides a compelling portrait of Franklin, a fresh perspective on American identity, and a vital account of what it means to be practical.

  • Adrian Vermeule, Law and the Limits of Reason
    Human reason is limited. Given the scarcity of reason, how should the power to make constitutional law be allocated among legislatures, courts and the executive, and how should legal institutions be designed? In Law and the Limits of Reason, Adrian Vermeule denies the widespread view, stemming from Burke and Hayek, that the limits of reason counsel in favor of judges making "living" constitutional law in the style of the common law. Instead, he proposes and defends a "codified constitution" - a regime in which legislatures have the primary authority to develop constitutional law over time, through statutes and constitutional amendments.

    Vermeule contends that precisely because of the limits of human reason, large modern legislatures, with their numerous and highly diverse memberships and their complex internal structures for processing information, are the most epistemically effective lawmaking institutions.

    Russell Arben Fox said...

    Thanks very much for this list, Jacob. As you might expect, the Dennis Rasmussen book on Rousseau and Smith particularly caught my eye; I'm going to have to track down a copy of that and give it a read. (You wouldn't happen to have a spare copy, would you?)

    Jacob T. Levy said...

    Bought my one and only copy at full list price, and it's worth it! No extra copies sitting around, I'm afraid.

    djw said...

    Thanks again, Jacob. THere's at least 3 or 4 on the list I'll need to look at, starting with Krause's book.

    One further addition I'd recommend to these two lists (which list it belongs on is unclear becuase it's co-authored) is Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the Moderns by Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson. K & K argue that to read the republican and liberal traditions as competitor is to miss an important dimension of late 18th/early 19th century thought. They examine six theorists (Smith, Ferguson, Paine, Madison, Constant and the unknown to me Germaine de Stael) who are often read as either liberal or republican are more accurately read as republicans whose attempt to make republican theory make sense in the changing world they lived in lead them towards a liberalism borne of republican inspiration but sometimes eclipsing republicanism. It's very well written and convincing, especially, to my mind, the Ferguson chapter.

    Jacob T. Levy said...

    djw-- ah, good one; don't know why it slipped my mind. I second the recommendation.

    Russell Arben Fox said...

    They examine six theorists...who are often read as either liberal or republican [who] are more accurately read as republicans whose attempt to make republican theory make sense in the changing world they lived in lead them towards a liberalism borne of republican inspiration but sometimes eclipsing republicanism.

    David, I'm sure the book is good, and I don't know what new historical evidence and/or conceptual framework the authors may bring to bear on the question, but it seems to me that this argument itself (especially in regards to Paine and Madison) is one that's been developed a few times before, most prominently by Gordon Wood and Isaac Kramnick.

    Mordu said...

    Thanks. I find myself interested in any number of the selections, most especially the Maloy one. The real question though, is, if you will at all blog your opinions of the books. I know any number of us would be interested in your judicious evaluations!