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Tolerance in a pluralistic society

May 17, 2014

In The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, William Stuntz makes a profound observation about the human tendency to impose your beliefs on others:

All contested cultural battles constitute, in part, debates about the proper structure of government: one side argues that different jurisdictions should be left free to adopt different rules to suit the preferences of their local populations; the other side maintains that the nation as a whole should take a stand on matters of moral principle.

These are the positions that Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln took in their iconic debates about the status of slavery in America’s western territories in the 1850s. Douglas won the election campaign of which those debates were the most famous part, but Lincoln won the larger argument about slavery–and about federalism. State lotteries, prostitution, and drug dealing are smaller matters than slavery; they are the sort of crimes that one might suppose should remain the job of local officials familiar with local norms. Douglas-style live-and-let-live federalism seems an appropriate approach to the issues such offenses raise. Yet there, too, Douglasite localism lost out to Lincolnian nationalism. Why?

The short answer is this: because voters care about the rules that govern people who live in other jurisdictions. Americans may be a tolerant people, but when faced with an issue of moral consequence about which many feel strongly and few are inclined to yield to their opponents, national politics and federal enforcement quickly come into play.

To live in a democracy is to work towards a shared culture. It is—at least partly—the freedom to impose your views on others. But what are the limits to that freedom? And how much freedom is too much? What would we grant those we disagree with?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Agellius permalink
    May 17, 2014 9:36 pm

    “What would we grant those we disagree with?”

    This is a very good question in the context of the evolution question. But I must admit that creationists, i.e. fundamentalist Christians, when they were in the ascendant also imposed their values on others. So in a sense, they’re getting what they formerly dished out. As you said, Stuntz’s is a profound observation.

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