Intended as a sustained critique of modern communitarian thought written from a constitutionalist perspective, Beau Breslin'sCommunitarian Constitution is a handy primer on modern communitarian thought and a provoking consideration of the impact of communitarian thinking on contemporary politics.
The foundation for Breslin's fundamental argument--that constitutionalism provides a viable alternative to communitarianism, while liberalism cannot--is not laid as well as one might wish. There are other points where his logic ought to be more rigorously developed, most notably in his assessment of the role and power of the rule of law in a constitutionalist system. He rests his reliance on the rule of law as the core of a constitutionalist system by asserting that the rule of law has almost universal authority: “The conviction that the rule of law is somehow better or more virtuous than uncontrolled governance has swept across the globe, and even though many regimes have not yet adopted a similar posture, the believers outnumber the nonbelievers” (p. 125). Perhaps this is so, though legal historians have not been so convinced of the rule of law's power or ubiquity. But more to the point, even if the rule of law has become the strong value that Breslin asserts it is, it remains a value, and its power and scope depends on the fact that the majority of the members of any given society share that value. How, then, can the rise of alternative values (or the lust for power, or fear) be prevented from overcoming its authority? Breslin's book raises these questions, but does not sufficiently engage them.
That having been said, there is much to recommend about this book. It is a good introduction to the works of many of the major communitarian thinkers and to constitutional theorists like Charles McIlwain. It engages a range of contemporary political issues in the context of examining communitarian and constitutionalist thought, and in the process reveals much about the impact of those debates on our constitutional regime. Breslin's failure to fully develop the constitutionalist alternative he offers is a disappointment, as is his weak sketch of liberalism. But that does not detract from the contribution the book makes as an introduction to the study of contemporary communitarian ideas and thinkers.