I was first introduced to Michael Sandel a couple of years ago on YouTube while I was looking for a productive way to spend my newly free summer days. His course at Harvard called "Justice" is one of the fastest in the entire university to fill up - not something I had to worry about, since I could watch all twelve of the lectures at my leisure. The lectures were filmed in an enormous hall (over 1,000 student register for his class every time it is offered), and are full of students who would never think of necessarily majoring in philosophy, but are still interested in deep, meaningful questions like "What does it mean to be a citizen in a democratic society?" and "How does one pursue the good life in a world of so many competing interests?" This searching quality, and Sandel's open, interactive maieutic method of engaging his students were some of the best parts of his lectures.
That same Socratic spirit continues within the pages of this book, a series of previously published essays. Sandel's willingness and insistence on being a knowledgeable cicerone through the history of liberal political theory is a sincere and much-appreciated one. However, some of these pieces are simply too short, both in length and in moral force, to merit inclusion in what otherwise could have been an extremely powerful collection. Most of the short pieces I'm talking about are in Part II, "Moral and Political Arguments." These are articles (I use this word instead of "essay" because they almost look more like, and it pains me to say it, op-ed pieces than they do well-considered philosophical arguments) discussing the relative positives and negatives of state lotteries, advertising in public classrooms, the morality of buying and selling pollution credits, affirmative action, and the Clinton imbroglio. Some of these sound a little dated, having been written while the public discussions behind these issues was still hot; some of them haven't been updated, not to mention more fully fleshed out as they should be.
The lengths of the pieces here are pretty proportional to their quality. The opening essay, "America's Search for a Public Philosophy," (p. 9-34) nicely sets the tone and informs the body of concerns that resurface throughout the book: our shift away from a kind of communitarian liberalism toward a more rights-based, autonomy-based, voluntarist liberalism in which the state is value-neutral. (This seems to be an essay-long distillation of his book, "Democracy's Discontent.") The best essays point out some of the contradictions residing within liberalism (liberalism in the broad philosophical sense, not the narrow sense pundits use the word): for example, is toleration a good in itself if the thing being tolerated is morally dubious, like the neo-Nazis marching in Skokie, Illinois? In other words, which is more morally fundamental - the toleration itself, or the inherent goodness or badness of the thing being tolerated? Sandel is right to point out that rudimentary questions like this rarely present themselves in the matter of public discourse.
Two more essays, "Dewey's Liberalism and Ours" and "Political Liberalism," a discussion of some of the readings and misreadings Dewey has incurred since his death and a critical discussion of John Rawls respectively, are both equally worthy of attention. In fact, Dewey's influence on Sandel looms large; both are extremely concerned with the cultivation of a democratic citizenry, and what precisely this would entail. Both are also clearly disenchanted with the rights-based, voluntarist liberalism that has come to be almost unquestioned in the United States over the last century.
While some of the shorter pieces come to the conclusions that you would expect of someone of a Deweyan, communitarian liberal bent who values goods before rights, the longer pieces that I mention above really are good places to see the various ways in which philosophy dovetails into practical political concerns. They are consistently thought-provoking and critical of the liberal tradition within political philosophy when necessary. The short articles, while not totally worthless, are more cursory and may be of interest to those with a passing or historical interest interest, but they don't provide the intellectual sustenance found in other parts of the book.