Can the ‘common good’ make a comeback?

Published 6:08 am Saturday, June 9, 2018


Contributing columnist

Our democracy’s traditional public morality of the common good has been in a slump. And there is too much at stake to take this decline lightly. The good news is that some writers with good batting eyes have stepped up to the plate and launched a comeback.

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What is at stake is the fostering of civic virtue or zeal for the public good. Without its persistent presence in the character of a democracy’s citizens, “we the people” can deteriorate into a fragmented collection of self-interested individuals and tribes with no vision of a larger community in constructive conversation about the common good.

Before the Constitution spoke of “promoting the general welfare,” John Winthrop set the communal tone for New England political thought when he wrote of the obligation to supply “others’ necessities (and) make others’ conditions our own … as members of the same body.” Founding father  James Madison wrote of “the public good … as the supreme object to be pursued” by government.

From the beginning, however, there was what Robert Bellah called the conscious conflict over whether “virtue” (i.e. civic virtue) or “interest” was to be the basis of the new American polity.    The founders did not start us off with an inclusive common good, but they did enunciate “self-evident truths” that would ultimately lead to a more inclusive society.

When Bellah and his team wrote Habits of the Heart in 1985, it was apparent to them that extreme individualism had gotten the upper hand at the expense of community and civic virtue.  As matters stand now, the “Me Generation” continues to hold sway, and the common good is in peril as an essential norm of a democracy.

One suspicion of the common good roots in the libertarian claim that government becomes tyrannical when it taxes me on behalf of improving others’ welfare or contributing to the common good. “Be responsible if you wish, but don’t make me be responsible for others,” is the retort.

One popular source of this position is the writing of Ayn Rand, which has been acknowledged as a major influence by numerous current national leaders. According to political economist Robert Reich, who has served three national administrations, in his newest book, “The Common Good,” this is true of President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (who required his staff to read Ayn Rand). As Kentuckians, we can add that Senator Rand Paul and Governor Matt Bevin are also acknowledged fans of hers.  

For her, the common good did not exist. When government tries to promote the general welfare, it becomes the problem. It should leave autonomous, self-seeking individuals alone.  The result will be a society that benefits the greatest number of people — except of course for those who lack equal opportunity, equal health, equal education, and equal familial support.  

It is wise to be suspicious of any power monopoly that reserves the right to define the common good for everyone at the expense of the powerless. (Recall that Aristotle felt that the common good was well served by having a portion of the population as slaves.) However, to deny that a representative democracy should not tax or regulate to support equal public education for all or protection and preservation of the environment is to deny the possibility of a community identity that transcends our tribalisms.

The expression of our tribalisms in identity politics triggers another opposition to pursuit of the common good. Since our ethnic, racial, religious, professional and other interest-group  communities are so absorbed in their own group’s welfare, efforts to find common ground and common cause can be dismissed as exercises in futility. This dismissal forgets, however, that individual selves are or can be combinations of several communal or tribal loyalties. What is more, there are city-wide, statewide, nationwide and earth-wide problems and challenges in which we all have or should have a stake. Climate change and nuclear proliferation come to mind.

While some defenders of the common good choose individualism as the name for the offending ideology, Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen (in his recent book “Why Liberalism Failed”) faults “liberalism, which is, in turn, founded upon “the fiction of radically autonomous individuals” with no social bonds. Both Republicans and Democrats want to free individuals of restraint to pursue their own self-interest, and both see the government’s sole purpose as securing individual rights. “Classical liberals” (Republicans) want the market to monitor the individual pursuit of self-interest, and “progressive liberals” (Democrats) want the government to level the playing field so that individuals can compete fairly. Neither party gives people a larger sense of purpose.

Journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill offers another stinging critique in “Tailspin: The People and Forces behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall—and Those Fighting to Reverse It.” His subject is “the new divided America” characterized by income inequality, the inordinate influence of money in politics (appealing to special interests, not the common interest), and the recklessness that brought the Great Recession. The real split is between “the protected few,” who have realized the American Dream and are now making it harder for others to do so, and “the unprotected many,” who need good public schools, good mass transit and good health care if they are to pursue the Dream.

The protected few can opt out of the public schools and public transit. They have fashioned a meritocracy rigged in favor of the children of those who have it made. He argues that the protected few need to be reoriented into thinking about the common good as well as their own good. There is need for accountability for violating the common good and “serious reforms that put people together into the foxhole, one way or another.”

Reich too laments the lost sense of “being all in it together.” His tracing of the decline of the common good vision through three structural breakdowns since the mid-Sixties has similarities to Brill:  (1) whatever it takes to win politics; (2) whatever it takes to maximize profits; and (3) whatever it takes to rig the economy. Reich touches all the bases. He spares no violators and overlooks few elevators (such as John McCain) of the common good.

The welfare of the stakeholders has been sacrificed to the maximized wealth of the stockholder. Education has become a private investment yielding private returns (so why should anyone but the investor pay for it) instead of a public good that teaches civic virtue, that brings us into the conversation about what we owe each other as members of the same society, even as members of a global community.

These are only a sample of the sounders of alarm on behalf of the common good. As we plunge ahead in the current election cycle, where are the leaders that can move us beyond our present polarization? Where are the leaders who can bring us together to discover common ground and common cause instead of aggravating our polarization?