Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Common Good

A friend of mine recently wrote that there is no such thing as the “common good”, that the idea has no cognitive meaning. He argued that a society is a collection of individuals each with his own idea of what is “good”, each pursuing life according to his or her judgments and values. Fostering the common good, as government today claims to do, means that the interests of some individuals are to be sacrificed to the interests of others; an idea that requires coercion by the government.

You cannot argue that government re-distribution is really best for the public. There are no facts to support such a view, no examples in history to prove it. What is good for one group of citizens may actually be bad for another. In fact, an argument can be made that this does not result in any good at all if we look at the results of re-distribution in the many failed societies that have tried the idea. It is impossible to measure such a good and, as my friend says, the idea is cognitively meaningless. There is no such thing as a public good.

I agree with these points, but there is a “sense” in which the term “common good” has a real meaning; and I think this is the sense the Founders meant when they used the term in our founding documents. A case can be made that the Founders thought government promotes the "common good" only by protecting individual rights; in other words, it did not get in the way of the individual’s pursuit of his own happiness and this created a common good, a condition of society that was good for all citizens individually. For those who had succeeded, no one would take their wealth. For those yet to succeed, no one would stop them, and for those who had failed, the possibility of success was still open if they worked hard. So, in this sense, cognitively, the common good is a smoothly running peaceful society based on individual rights.

To support this idea, you must understand that the Founders lived it. They were steeped in their own local communities and they had learned first hand the difference between tyranny and freedom. These ideas didn't just spring up from the Enlightenment alone; they sprang up among these thousands of people living in the wilderness and small communities, many of whom came here to escape tyranny, and who learned to love the freedom found in that wilderness. When they came together to fight for freedom, they already agreed on many of these ideas. It rang true to them from experience.

They would not have used such a term as the “common good” lightly without giving it a lot of thought. They labored over the words in their founding documents and they debated them vigorously. And their experiences made them much more intellectual than we might think. They were thinkers and doers and they experienced first hand the success that comes from living and thinking freely. I think their other statements and their willingness to fight for freedom confirm this view of the common good; a view that is 100% removed from that which is presented by progressives and statists of many varieties. Had the founders thought the term held within it any tinge of sacrificing for the sake of others, they would not have used it. It was completely outside their experience to see the term used in that way.

Their slogan “Don’t Tread on Me” says it well. Collectivists they were not.

No comments:

Post a Comment