Home > Personal Freedom > What is the Common Good and who gets to decide?

What is the Common Good and who gets to decide?


Supporters of Big Government love to cite the “Common Good” as justification for expanding their control over the people and the states. Mark Twain famously said that “Common Sense is not so common.” A modern variant of this might be “The Common Good is not so good–at least not for everybody.”

The very existence of an achievable “Common Good” assumes that certain things are true:

–         Some things are good for everyone,

–         The means of achieving the common good are also good for everyone, and

–         Someone will have the power, wisdom and resources to achieve the common good in a manner acceptable to everyone.

That’s a pretty tall order. Let’s take them one at a time.

Certain things are good for everyone

While it might seem that certain things are good for everyone, is this ever really true? Can you name something that is good for everyone? For example, is universal heath care good for everyone? Not really. It is good for people whose health care options will be improved by universal health care, but it is not good for people whose health care costs or options will be worse under a universal health care system. It is also not good for those health care providers who prefer a simpler one-on-one relationship with patients without having to deal with the bureaucracy of insurance companies and government agencies.

The means of achieving the common good are also good for everyone

Even if you decide that something is good for everyone, can it be achieved without requiring a sacrifice that some might not be willing to make? For example, let’s say that we all agree that it is good for everyone that we have clean air to breathe. Can we ensure that everyone will have clean air without creating a burden that some might not be willing to share? If I am a retired person in Hawaii who lives on dividends from a utility company in Texas, am I better off when the government imposes burdensome regulations on the utility company? Not at all. My air in Hawaii is exactly the same, but now the check I use to pay my rent just got cut to pay for the cost of cleaning up the air in Texas.

To the extent that achieving the common good requires a forced redistribution of resources among citizens, it is no longer a “common” good. Rather, it is good for some and not so good for others.

Someone will have the power, wisdom and resources to achieve the common good in a manner acceptable to everyone

Here is where things move beyond the impossible to the dangerous. Big Government proponents think that “the government” can know what is good for everyone and should have enough power to impose the “Common Good” on the citizenry. But the government is not all-knowing and the government is made up of countless individuals, each of whom would have to have the wisdom to know what is the “Common Good.”

In reality, the government can not know what is truly for the common good. Instead, it uses its power to impose upon the citizenry the “Common Good” favored by the group that currently holds the political reins. If liberals control the government this year, then they will likely decide that higher taxes and more government regulation of business and personal activity is for the common good. When conservatives take over, they might decide that imposing their view of morality on individuals is in the common good. In either case, the government’s concept of the “Common Good” is not a true reflection of what is good for everyone. Instead, it is a view skewed and filtered by the views of the people who currently control the government—politicians with their own personal belief systems, their own personal and financial agendas, and their own strong desire to stay in power. Too often, politicians define the “Common Good” as that which the people who vote them into power prefer, usually at the expense of those who would vote for somebody else to take power.

Unfortunately, the supporters of Big Government have increased the ability of those in power to impose their will on the citizenry. Politicians and bureaucrats do not know better than each individual person what is best for him or her. They have no business deciding how much each one of us should sacrifice to achieve their personal vision of the “Common Good.” The functions of government should be limited to the bare essentials so that individuals can pursue their own visions of what is good for them, their families and their neighbors.

Advertisements
  1. September 8, 2011 at 6:20 AM

    “For example, let’s say that we all agree that it is good for everyone that we have clean air to breathe. Can we ensure that everyone will have clean air without creating a burden that some might not be willing to share? If I am a retired person in Hawaii who lives on dividends from a utility company in Texas, am I better off when the government imposes burdensome regulations on the utility company? Not at all. My air in Hawaii is exactly the same, but now the check I use to pay my rent just got cut to pay for the cost of cleaning up the air in Texas.”

    the common good, in the example you site, is still available to you regardless of how it affects your bank account. any discussion of the commons requires a decoupling of capital gains ( ie. money above and beyond that required simply to survive) from the notion that the common goods value can be calculated in terms of profitabilty.

    the reason something is defined as a common good is to indicate that the value lies in continuation and conservation of said good, not in the monetary value placed on the good at present conditions. common resources are not owned by the citizens of the present, but citizens of the present and the future.

    to sell off something owned by someone else for personal (present day) profit constitutes theft, but your argument ignores the practical extension of empathy forward into the future.

    “we the people…” includes everyone, even those humans yet to be. to frame the common good in so shallow a notion as profit is disrespectful to the coming generations.

  2. September 8, 2011 at 8:41 PM

    But who gets to decide? Who determines if the cost (present and/or future) justifies the value? Who decides how to distribute the sacrifice to attain a “common good”? Your perspective actually makes my point even stronger. Under your analysis, not only would those who assert themselves as arbiters of the common good have to allocate sacrifice among the living, but also have to allocate costs and benefits to future generations. There’s no way that anyone is capable of doing that scientifically, and so ideology will drive the decision making.

  3. September 9, 2011 at 2:28 AM

    hmmm.. i see your point. arbitrary arbitration….

    but perhaps my point was that the commons isn’t a resource in terms of value to an individual. to define air quality in terms of survivability or health impacts, and the loss of productivity for a given population would allow better estimations of costs. the comparison between the cost and profit, both short and long term, is important for estimating the ‘true’ value of resources we hold in common.

    ideology can be manipulated to accomodate even the most brutal of oligarchs and strongmen, but resources can be quantified and qualified, double-checked… and this fact makes scientific study the best tool for prediction, which, in truth, is what this boils down to.

    can the ideology alone predict accurately? i don’t believe it has the tools to adapt quickly enough.

    i recently posted some research on democratic structures and why they haven’t had the desire effects of removing dictators from the world. check it out below…

    http://jonnydropout.wordpress.com/2011/09/06/the-netherworlds-of-shadowy-strongmen/

    or not… either way, i enjoy the spirited discourse.

  4. September 9, 2011 at 2:42 AM

    Interesting article. Your general point that authoritarianism often derives from non-ideological roots is additional fodder for my thesis that centralized power is a bad thing. Whether dictators justify their tyranny by ideology, religion, science or don’t bother to justify it at all, in the end, it is still tyranny. The apparatus of centralized power is too tempting a target and too easily controlled by those who wish to seize control. That is why our founding fathers advised against allowing the federal government to gain too much power–even under the guise of serving the common good.

  5. September 9, 2011 at 7:41 AM

    hmmm… maybe. i think my point was that the idea of the common good is usually what ideology attempts to impose, and that the destruction or perversion of this idea allows tyranny the room to operate. without the wider viewpoint of commonality, the oppressed can’t see past the end of their individual outcomes. this blindness gives authoritarianism unguarded mechanisms of control.

    after all, “man can only be held in cages he doesn’t see”

  6. September 9, 2011 at 8:56 PM

    Well, then, let’s just agree to agree! My primary argument in the article was that what is usually done in the name of common good is almost never common and often not good. Perhaps we differ on the prospect of there being some transcendent, objective common good that man can discern–your altruistic concept of commonality. I get the sense that you believe such a thing is possible, whereas I don’t, at least not with any degree of universality. However, I think both of us would be wary of authority figures imposing their vision of the common good upon the people.

  7. September 9, 2011 at 8:58 PM

    Btw, @jonnydropout, I very much appreciate your thoughts, insights and willingness to contribute to this discussion. Have a great day!

  8. September 10, 2011 at 12:39 AM

    you got it, dude… it does seem like we’re arguing about altruism’s existence rather then specific instances of common good in today’s context.

    you’re right in assuming my distrust of authority figures, or at least their abilities to determine what’s best for all of us.

    so perhaps our common ground is a distrust of humanity, and our lack of confidence in mankind’s abilities.

    regardless, i’ve enjoyed this discussion….

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: