A wide-ranging critique of American liberalism that, unlike many other current books on the matter, seeks its restoration as a guiding political ethic. ``Despite the achievements of American life in the last half-century,'' political theorist Sandel (Harvard) writes, ``our politics is beset with anxiety and frustration.'' He suggests that the growing public mistrust in the federal government, whose manifestations range from the conservative sweep of Congress in the last election to the Oklahoma City bombing, can be addressed only by reevaluating the liberal assumption that ``government should be neutral on the question of the good life,'' and by putting in its place a social-democratic concern for the spiritual well-being of the citizenry. The ``utilitarian calculus'' of the past has helped preserve individual liberties, Sandel observes, but it finds little room for weighing the finer questions of morality in recommending action. (For instance, Sandel remarks, minimalist liberalism of the sort that is practiced today could scarcely find room for the antislavery arguments of the abolitionists a century and a half ago, relying as those arguments did on ``appeals to comprehensive moral ideals.'') This indifference to the character of the citizenry, Sandel adds, is not the province of liberalism alone; where liberals have defended abortion rights on the grounds that government has no place in moral issues, conservatives have likewise argued for laissez-faire economic policies, claiming ``government should be neutral toward the outcomes'' of a market economy. Sandel is strong on tracking the history of this value-neutralization of government; he is less successful in identifying the particulars of a practical yet value-laden ethic that can ``repair the civic life on which democracy depends'' while not trampling on anyone's liberties—one of the thorny dilemmas of current reformist politics. A book rich in ideas, if not in blueprints for action.
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