The Common Good
Tibor R. Machan
Liberal Democrats are having a conniption fit about the lack of any vision that unites the Democratic Party. So several of their pundit-philosophers are writing essays in which they lament this and propose remedies.
Among those doing this is Michael Tomasky who, in a recent piece for The American Prospect, suggests that “Democrats need to become the party of the common good.” Then he goes on to write, as one of his critics put it, “breathlessly,” that “We are all in this ... together, and ... we have to pull together, make some sacrifices, and, just sometimes, look beyond our own interest to solve our problems and create the future.”
I have a better idea. Let Democrats, Republicans, and the rest recover the powerful idea that got the country going in the first place, one laid out pretty neatly in the Declaration of Independence. This idea is that the common good is pursued precisely when government does what justifies its existence, namely, secure our rights. That, indeed, is THE common good in the American political tradition.
The reason is that in that tradition there are millions of disparate goods individuals pursue but only one unites them, only one is their common good. This is the protection of their fundamental individual rights. This was part of the revolutionary idea that animated the Founders and put the country in opposition to so many others, including those in Europe from which so many of its initial population fled.
In most countries throughout human history the idea was promoted that there is a rich common good, a whole slew of objectives that we all must pursue. In other words, the common good was really the collective goods of all the people, as if they really did share goods galore that they needed to promote. The one size fits all mentality was encouraged by rulers, monarchs, tsars, and the rest who needed to hoodwink us into thinking that their goals are really our goals and we cannot really, individually, have goals of our own. That was the common good—the leaders’ good peddled for the rest as their good, too.
The American Founders, guided by the classical liberal social-political philosophies of John Locke and Co., saw through this. They realized that in a big country, the millions of inhabitants, citizens, share but very few goods. (Of course, small associations—churches, clubs, corporations, professional groups and so forth—can have some common objectives all right. It is only that no such common good or objective exists for the millions of us!) And the most important—probably, in fact, only—common good we share is the protection of our individual rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. It’s the one good that’s indeed good for us all, that we have in common.
If government, which is instituted to secure these rights, does its job right, it will stick to little more than making sure that everyone’s liberty is safe. Why? Because then all the millions of different individuals, and some of the groups they voluntarily form amongst themselves, will quite successfully embark on the task of pursuing all those goods that suit them. Securing our rights does that for us!
But today’s public pundit-intellectuals don’t get it. They want to find some thick public good—a whole, humongous basket of allegedly common goods—which government will set out to achieve. And they are surprised that there isn’t such a basket—in a largely free society people have their own basket of proposed goods they want to obtain for themselves. And this isn’t because they are selfish and will not make sacrifices—notice how looking out for yourself is being demeaned in Tomasky’s call to arms—but because even in what they consider appropriate objectives for which sacrifices should be made the citizenry differs significantly. They don’t need having one idea of what’s worthy of a sacrifice shoved down everyone’s throat. No, they want to choose those objectives, as well as the ways of making the sacrifices for them if need be.
Maybe the Democrats—and Republicans—ought to recover the Founders’ vision. Then they wouldn’t have to concoct an impossible one behind which they cannot manage to unite folks at all.