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What is the Common Good and who gets to decide?

September 8, 2011 8 comments

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.

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