The University Bookman


Summer 2014

Books in Little

Alexis Carra

book cover imageThe Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government
by Philip K. Howard.
W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.
257 pages, $24.

It is obvious that the current system of government is failing—higher expenses, increased waste, and little (if any) improvement. Reaching viable solutions has also become much more difficult than expected. Yet Philip K. Howard, in his book, The Rule of Nobody, accepts this challenge; he outlines the origins of our broken government and offers some practical solutions.

Howard believes that one of the main problems pervading government is the suppression of moral decision making. Government officials do not ask, “What’s the right thing to do here?” Instead, they simply ask, “What does the rule book say?” There is much more concern with upholding the legal rules, as opposed to actually doing what is morally right. Howard pinpoints this as the “core flaw” of modern government; it seeks to “make choices without human judgment at the moment of action.” Therefore, the current state of government is really a system of automatic law combined with the fear of human decision-making. Modern government has ultimately become an attempt to attain a perfect system of government. The prevailing logic is that it is better to go by the predetermined rules, so as to not risk making a wrong decision. Yet such system is incredibly defective; it is impossible to have a functioning government without any real human decision-making.

What can be done? First, Howard believes that America needs to simplify its operating system. Bureaucracy and complex regulation—the “fruits” of automatic law—have stifled people’s freedom to be practical. Yet it is important to note that Howard is not calling for much less regulation or much more regulation. Instead, Howard is calling for a middle approach; he is calling for simpler and more targeted regulation. He also believes that government must be “re-rooted” in human responsibility. As such, Howard proposes a “Bill of Responsibilities” to the Constitution. But the lingering question is whether or not the American people will take the necessary steps to repair their failing government.  

book cover imageBoundaries of Toleration
edited by Alfred Stepan and Charles Taylor.
Columbia University Press, 2014.
328 pages, $27.

As society becomes more heterogeneous the potential for conflict also increases. Conflict can be avoided, however, if toleration is exercised. But is toleration enough? In Boundaries of Toleration, a compilation by Alfred Stepan and Charles Taylor, contributors analyze toleration in various contexts and examine its limitations. The overriding theme throughout the volume is that toleration is not enough. Instead, what is really needed is “mutual respect.”

The compilation begins with Salman Rushdie, who reflects on the interplay between religion and tolerance, especially as it relates to the Kashmir of his childhood. Ira Katznelson continues the discussion by framing toleration in a different light; in the West, toleration is a “layered institution.” Next, Charles Taylor introduces secularism into the dialogue. Taylor advocates for a new approach to secularism, while Akeel Bilgrami responds with constructive criticism. Continuing the discussion on religion and tolerance, Nadia Urbinati explains why the classical ideal of “Concordia” was not used to allay religious conflicts amongst Christians. Next, Rajeev Bhargava examines the reign of King Asoka in India; perhaps Asoka was not as tolerant as commonly thought. Karen Barkey then compares toleration within the differing Habsburg and Ottoman Empires. Furthering the discussion on toleration in the East, Sudipta Kaviraj examines the complexities of tolerance on the Indian subcontinent. Finally, Alfred Stepan analyzes how tolerance has interestingly flourished in several democratic but Muslim-majority countries.

Stepan and Taylor have undoubtedly put together a compelling volume that offers fresh interpretations of secularism, toleration, and diversity. Yet the volume leaves the reader with several questions unanswered. The contributions do not fully address the limits of toleration; that is, there may be circumstances in which tolerance is the best possible modus vivendi and which are unlikely to proceed to acceptance. Perhaps certain groups cannot go beyond toleration. Toleration is a virtue, but must one tolerate all things? Stepan and Taylor never really address situations in which intolerance may actually be an appropriate response.  

Alexis Carra is an assistant editor for the University Bookman.

Posted: July 27, 2014

The survival of any culture, or of the material fabric of civilization, requires vigorous imagination and readiness to sacrifice. By dullness and complacency are intellectual and social orders undone.

Russell Kirk


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