This Week’s Mtg: What Is The Common Good? (5/9/11)

The Constitution gives our democratic government both the power to promote the “general welfare” and the tools with which to do so, such as levying taxes, regulating interstate commerce, etc.  But, the document is completely silent on what the general welfare means.  After two centuries of bruising political (and actual) battles, by the 1980s it seemed that we had more or less agreed on what the general welfare meant and the proper role of government in promoting it.  Not universal agreement, but a broad consensus.

But, now that is in ashes, seemingly.  Now the very basics of what our society stands for and the obligations as citizens we have to one another seem to be up for grabs.  One side wants to expand the social contract (universal health insurance, universal pre-K education) while the other side wants to abolish a lot of it (Medicare, Medicaid, state-level safety nets, environmental regulations, etc.).  So, I agree with Jess that this would be a great time to discuss, “What is the common good?”

In my reading, the story of American political history is the story of the struggle to expand the definition of the common good, in two senses:

  1. Expanding the meaning of “common;” i.e., the definition of our American community, to fully include the common man, people of color, women, the poor, and even children and immigrants; and
  2. Expanding the list of “the good;” the rights and opportunities to which all citizens are commonly entitled, including access to the political system itself, the place where all these decisions get made.

Another way of saying all this is that our politics has always been about: (a) Who is “us,” and (b) What do “we” owe each other?   To generalize, the liberals of their day have fought to expand these definitions, while the conservatives have opposed doing so.

And, the chasm is wider now than I’ve ever seen it!  I will open the meeting with a short presentation on ways to think about the common good, and then open it up with my usual structured questions.  Here’s a little background.


The Liberal View of the common good.

Securing the common good means putting the public interest above narrow self-interest and group demands; working to achieve social and economic conditions that benefit everyone; promoting a personal, governmental and corporate ethic of responsibility and service to others; creating a more open and honest governmental structure that relies upon an engaged and participatory citizenry; and doing more to meet our common responsibilities to aid the disadvantaged, protect our natural resources, and provide opportunities rather than burdens for future generations…

The common good approach recognizes that government is an essential tool for helping people to pursue their dreams while providing a solid safety net for those left behind. A focus on the common good requires citizens and their leaders to pursue policies and programs that benefit everyone, not just a select few with disproportionate access to the levers of power and influence over decision-making.

(Sources: A seminal piece arguing that the core of liberalism is an expansive view of the
common good.
  A much longer companion piece.)

The Conservative view:

I don’t speak for the conservative view, and conservatives divide somewhat between libertarians and social issues/religious conservatives.

However, my understanding is the conservative view of the common good:

  • Values personal liberty and autonomy above all else.
  • Would  leave concerns over economic and social inequalities to private markets – or to no one – to resolve.
  • Would limit state power to a narrow list of functions, mainly national defense,
    defending private property rights, and providing a minimal level of public
    goods (like roads) to ensure markets’ smooth functioning.

Many non-libertarian conservatives would use Big Government power to enforce their
preferred moral order, such as banning abortions and enforcing traditional  family structures.

Objectivism:  This once-obscure philosophy increasingly dominates conservative thought.  The Ryan budget passed by House Republicans really, truly does embody Ayn Rand’s social Darwinist philosophy.  NOTE:  If you think Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is just pro-free market libertarianism, read this, please.  Or this!

Check here for more links on Tuesday and Wednesday.  Tell a friend about this meeting!


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