Saturday, December 13, 2008

Philosophy and Public Policy

Tibor R. Machan

When elections roll around, not to mention when dictators try to rationalize their rule, talk of the public interest becomes endless. Indeed, anytime that pundits chime in with their missives about politics, there is bound to be reference to the common good or public interest. As an example, check out Gail Collins’s Op Ed in The New York Times, Saturday December 13. It’s misleadingly title “The Dreaded Fairness Doctrine’’--it has nothing to do with broadcasting but with the auto bailout the defeat of which the previous day in the US Senate Ms. Collins laments. By her account, the reason the bill failed is that too many folks were obsessing about fairness, which she rightly suggests is a non-starter when it comes to public policy. But then she jumps from the frying pan right into the fire, writing that “The real human trick is to get past the quid pro quo [i. e., fairness] and try to focus on the common good.”

What's that? Given the immense diversity among human beings and any subdivision of them, such as people connected to the auto industry, whatever is good has virtually nothing common about it. The only common good, upon close inspection, is the protection of everyone's right to life, liberty and property. The American Founders had that right--we all benefit from the protection of our basic rights but beyond that what's good for us varies from person to person, or at least group to group, community to community, and so forth. That is the great and ultimately peacemaking insight of American individualism--eliminate the tribe or clan or ethnic group as the focus of concern and focus on the individual. About nearly everything other than our basic rights we differ so much from one another that talk of the common good or public interest has to be some trick to gain power, nothing substantial. And that is indeed what folks who pose as defenders or cheerleaders of the public or common good are after, the imposition of their idea of how everyone ought to live, what everyone ought to be devoted to.

But by pretending that they are concerned about the public good or interest, they get to posture as being above petty concerns of this or that group or individual. They are above all that trivia!

Fact is, however, that the individual’s well being is not trivial, quite the opposite. In human affairs it is the most important thing and virtually everything--apart from our common basic but very general rights--that pretends to trump it is a phony, an excuse for some individuals to lord it over other individuals, with the excuse that they are speaking for the public or common good.

This point needs to be stressed in public debates, over and over again. Those who keep invoking the public or common good are perpetrating a ruse! And they are aiding and abetting the power seekers even if they do it unintentionally. Das Folk, the Working Class, the People, humanity--there are many ways in which the mythical entity of the public is invoked by these deluded or sneaky people. And they all converge on the practical result that some will be put into positions of power over others with the excuse that we must all care about something greater than ourselves. But, once and for all, there is nothing on earth greater than ourselves, nada. We are it, each of us individually!

Sure there are many goals we can pursue that are very worthy but they are all our goals and the peaceable goals of some are no worse than the peaceable goals of others. That is the real meaning of a pluralistic society, by the way, not ethnic, racial, or national diversity and such.

Will you be duped into thinking that the ones who harangue us all about the public interest are really after something other than their own agenda? I hope not. Because therein lies the danger of demagoguery! And that’s not something that’s compatible with a free society.

However, none of this can be grasped without a bit of philosophy and some other adjacent disciplines where we learn whether individualism or collectivism is the sound social philosophy for human beings. Those who hope to do without such inquiry as they approach politics are doomed to fail and indeed wreak confusion.

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