The Havard jurist Adrian Vermeule has published a brilliant essay in The Atlantic arguing that American conservatives should move beyond the legal philosophies that dominated the rearguard of the long defeat to hard liberalism, and adopt a jurisprudence of the common good. Vermeule’s common good constitutionalism shows a deeply Augustinian and Thomist of the educative and directive function of law in helping human beings come to the common life of virtue in peace for which they all yearn (even if they don’t all know it):
unlike legal liberalism, common-good constitutionalism does not suffer from a horror of political domination and hierarchy, because it sees that law is parental, a wise teacher and an inculcator of good habits. Just authority in rulers can be exercised for the good of subjects, if necessary even against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them—perceptions that may change over time anyway, as the law teaches, habituates, and re-forms them. Subjects will come to thank the ruler whose legal strictures, possibly experienced at first as coercive, encourage subjects to form more authentic desires for the individual and common goods, better habits, and beliefs that better track and promote communal well-being.
Michael Hanby, in a recent essay on contemporary integralists (including Vermeule, Gladden Pappin, and me) in First Things, warns that “today’s integralist thought risks degenerating into a conservative Catholic form of Hobbesian power politics.” But Vermeule’s essay shows him to be anything but Hobbesian. Hobbes had a purely subjective and private account of the good: “whatsoever is the object of any mans Appetite or Desire; that is it, which he for his part calleth Good.” Therefore, he thought that there could be no last end or highest good rendering human life intelligible: “Felicity is a continuall progresse of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the later.” For all of Hobbes’s totalitarian conception of the commonwealth, then, the end of his political philosophy is deeply individualistic: the security of each individual in the pursuit of his private desires. Vermeule, by contrast, having an objective understanding of the good sees that the end of politics (and therefore ultimately of jurisprudence) is a common good:
Authority is held in trust for and exercised on behalf of the community and the subsidiary groups that make up a community, not for the benefit of individuals taken one by one.
It follows from this that Vermeule sees the state as being obligated to give subsidium to smaller communities in which true common goods are attained:
The state is to be entrusted with the authority to protect the populace from the vagaries and injustices of market forces, from employers who would exploit them as atomized individuals, and from corporate exploitation and destruction of the natural environment. Unions, guilds and crafts, cities and localities, and other solidaristic associations will benefit from the presumptive favor of the law, as will the traditional family; in virtue of subsidiarity, the aim of rule will be not to displace these associations, but to help them function well.
I could go on, but I would end by quoting every line of the essay, which I urge my readers to go read.