What Common Good?
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
Just as the Supreme Court is poised to achieve many of the stated aims of the conservative legal movement, including overturning Roe v. Wade and striking down affirmative action, leading conservative thinkers are hotly debating alternative approaches to interpreting the Constitution. Originalism—the notion that the words of the Constitution should be read according to some version of their original historical meaning—has been the standard-bearer for decades, promoted initially as a strategy to undermine national economic regulation and limit the protection of civil rights.
But a conservative competitor to originalism has recently emerged in “common good constitutionalism.” For its leading proponent, Adrian Vermeule, a Harvard law professor, the point of constitutional interpretation isn’t to discern what the Founders thought or what some legal text meant to ordinary readers when it was enacted. Instead, the aim is to promote the “common good.” Vermeule claims that within the “classical legal tradition”—which extended from the Roman Empire through early modern Europe—political officials, including judges, understood that the purpose of the state is to secure the goods of “peace, justice, and abundance,” which he translates now into “health, safety, and economic security.” But in Vermeule’s telling, American conservatives have lost sight of that tradition and its influence on our own legal system. They have been blinded by originalism, which has become a stultifying obstacle to promoting a “robust, substantively conservative approach.”