Paul Tenney is a retired History Teacher who taught for many decades inn the Boston Public Schools. This review appeared in the December, 2011 edition of the Boston Union Teacher, the monthly newspaper of the Boston Teachers Union/ Local 66 / AFT/AFL-CIO:
" This is an important book in American Political history by Paul Nevins, a former teacher in Boston and a former member of the Boston Teachers Union's Executive Board. Mr. Nevins is today a successful attorney specializing in labor relations issues. His scholarship is first rate as he traces the origins of middle class democracy in the Protestant rebellions of Calvin, Luther and Knox against the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th and 17th centuries. These rebellions culminated in the Glorious Revolution in England that installed
the Protestant monarchs William and Mary in 1688. More importantly it established the principle that the people through their elected representatives could and should choose their rulers.
"Justifying these actions were a trio of philosophers including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jeremy Bentham who paved the way for the political theory of democratic liberalism that Mr. Nevins persuasively argues is ill suited for 21st century America. Indeed he argues that its meta-individualistic creed is paralyzing American politics and destroying the very community that made the U.S.A the hope of the world.
"John Locke's ideas were responsible for the US Constitution's rules of personal freedom encased in the Bill of Rights, but these ideas also codified the idea of divided government, states' rights, separation of powers and the like -all of which can frustrate unified action such as the long battle to end slavery, which ended only with bloody Civil War. This is the most dramatic example but the current 50 states and fifty different standards in public education is a more modern, more immediate situation. Even more immediate is the horrific stalemate in the economic collapse-Great Recession of 2008-?, wherein one minority party is able to tie up legislation to resolve this issue. Locke would applaud this, or at least his libertarian supporters would, as a necessary bulwark against oppressive government.
"Mr. Nevins, like Howard Cosell, tells it like it is - The Politics of Selfishness. The Politics of Selfishness is the direct result of decades of indoctrination in the cult of individualism in which even the most sophisticated American believes that every person is the absolute ruler of his or her destiny regardless of its impact on the overall health of the community. In crude terms the libertarian argues that I got mine and screw you. There is the paranoid fear of big government defined as "socialistic" and the "nanny state" and a cavalier attitude towards a massive military-warfare state that swallows up revenue. Big Government is only dangerous when it feebly attempts to narrow the income inequality gap or attempts to ameliorate the ecological health of the planet.
"All of these ideas were extant in the pre- New Deal years in America 1929-1933. The greatest of the 20th century Libertarians, Herbert Hoover, ironically understood the global nature of the Great Depression. But his diagnosis of limiting government and slashing government spending was precisely the wrong tactic as was Franklin Roosevelt's during the recession of 1937. The Republican opposition to President Obama promises to be the same tragic mistake. Even President Obama's plan is mired in the same old individualism- protect corporate capitalism at all costs. This time with a safety net for the poor and vulnerable, albeit somewhat tattered with the cutbacks over the last 30 years. The Republican compassion-free plan is in the time honored every man for himself idea that the 19th century "Robber Barons" would have loved.
"Mr. Nevins writes lucidly, unlike the arid and opaque scholarship of much of the academy, in both philosophy and history. He argues like a lawyer marshalling credible and persuasive evidence from a variety of American political and literary
sources. He mines the rich tradition of Catholicism from Aquinas on to Dorothy Day which emphasizes the responsibility of the individual to the community. He argues further that the federalization (read decentralization) of American public education together with the ignoring of the corrosive and dehumanizing effects of poverty are indicators of the stranglehold that the Lockean philosophy of individualism and reverence for property over people has in American life.
"What is the way out of this pessimism and cynicism ? Liberals and progressives have to more aggressively defend the community that we live in -America. The USA provided the blessed vineyard from which the few accumulated wealth that could not be gained elsewhere and from which they falsely concluded that they gained this mighty station solely through their own efforts. Further this elite says that the poor can do the same if only they would stop whining. It was Anatole France who rebuked an earlier libertarian by saying in this society the rich and the poor have an equal opportunity to sleep under the bridges of Paris. We of good counsel should work with all the members of the have not class to roll back this cynicism. It will not be easy or simple or quick, but it must be done.
"Paul Nevins has written an important and, I hope, an influential book that should be in every labor home and library in America. Ideas do matter. Ideas do generate action. I learned a great deal from this book. I hope that you the reader will too."
Labor journalist, lawyer, organizer, and author of Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home (Monthly Review Press, 2009)
"Paul Nevins is a practicing attorney and former public school teacher who has found
a way to make key tenets of America's founding political philosophy better understandable to citizens now trying to repair the damage that Lockean individualism has done to our society. If more of us had read this book in our high school civics classes or college political science courses, we'd be far better equipped to defend "the public interest" today against conservative voices who claim there is no such thing. The Politics of Selfishness is a wide-ranging account of what's wrong with our schools, courts, workplaces and civic life. It's a wonderful work of scholarship and, unlike so many others, highly readable as well."
Edward Ayres, aka Smooth Edward
Stand-up comedian and musician with a Jersey attitude:
"I am humbled by the ability of this author to analyze and articulate the cause of our national paralysis, and how our imprisonment by the 18th century mind causes us to believe we are inherently right in all we believe and do. We seem to incapable of conducting the necessary prison break so we keep reaching backwards for solutions that will only make matters worse. Unfortunately, many Americans are so sure about the infallibility of our systems and the beliefs underpinning them, we even think reading and questioning our cherished beliefs is a waste of time. Ignorance is bliss only until the roof caves in on you.
"This book is a must-read for me."
William J. O'Brien
Economic Consultant, Global Insight
has laid out an ambitious and persuasive argument in The Politics of Selfishness that John Locke's political philosophy
has crippled modern American discourse and marginalized the ideal of the common
"He traces the historical development of Locke's liberalism - the idea that men are selfish and the purpose of government is the protection of property - to a range of overarching problems evident in our under-regulated financial system, dismal public schools, the slow death of labor unions, violent crime, and pervasive antisocial behavior. We know these symptoms all too well, but Mr. Nevins articulates how the dominance of the liberal tradition, and the exclusion of competing political philosophies, has limited our ability to see their root causes and alternatives to the status quo. In a time when even the most benign government action foments shrill accusations of "socialism" from the far right, his thesis is particularly relevant.
"This is the story of how John Locke's ideas have shaped who we are as Americans."
Chair, Philosophy Department, Suffolk University
takes seriously an essential but often forgotten truth: that the birth of our
nation was conceived in philosophy, that at the core of that philosophy lies
John Locke, and that Locke's thought has exerted a profound influence on the
character of our country and on liberalism in the classic sense. In a trenchant
and wide-ranging analysis, Nevins diagnoses a fundamental crisis in American
liberalism rooted in Locke, and he traces that crisis through its historical
and contemporary strands. From economics
to law, from social norms and practices to the current collapse of the markets
and ethical standards in the business world, Nevins discerns a selfishness and
lack of concern for the common good at the heart of America's Lockean
liberalism. One need not agree with all of Nevins' conclusions to agree that we
do indeed now face a crisis that goes to the very foundations of our republic
and to accept wholeheartedly Nevins' invitation to debate the meaning of our
founding in philosophy. This book represents a welcome opportunity to begin
Nevins (a practicing civil litigation trial attorney) argues that the root of many of the United States' most intractable political and economic problems lies in the largely unquestioned internalization of the ideology of liberalism pioneered by John Locke. By defining the self-aggrandizing individual as the irreducible unit and concrete reality upon which political societies and governments are based, Lockean thought turns the promotion and protection of the individual and the individual's interests, particularly in terms property, into the prime objective of public policy, thus precluding alternate means of approaching political and social challenges. Over the course of the work he describes the development of Lockean thought as it became the American Creed and its stranglehold over contemporary American political discourse, institutions, and political processes. He proceeds to blame Lockean liberalism for growing antisocial behavior, educational disintegration, increasing inequality and poverty, and the re-emergence of plutocracy. He concludes with a discussion of how to ameliorate the harmful consequences of Locke's political philosophy. (Annotation ©2010 Book News Inc. Portland, OR)