The Common Good: Lessons in Liberty (Part V)

By Merrill Ring
 
Freedom is something we care for deeply  – but it is not the only thing of value to us.  People’s freedom can be restrained without denying that liberty is a major aim of our political lives. But such restraints must be justified.  What justifications are used, can be used, in political life, to properly restrain people from doing what they want?
 
In the previous essay I examined one particular case in some detail:  the justification for requiring people to have vaccinations, whether for smallpox or measles.  The justification for doing so is that it is for the common good, that not being vaccinated places other people at risk and to prevent harm it is necessary to require that people be vaccinated.
 
What about that notion of ‘the common good’ appealed to in defending the restriction on people’s liberty?
 
There are other terms roughly equivalent to ‘the common good’:  ‘the general welfare’ (as that occurs in the Preamble to the U.S. constitution) and ‘the public interest’ are approximate variants.   Here, however, I shall prefer the phrase ‘the common good’.
 
Appealing to the common good certainly does occur in American political discourse.  We talk of some course of action or policy which typically requires some group of people to do something that they may not of their own will wish to do or it forbids some from doing something they may well want to do: and we justify that by saying that it is for our common good.  A requirement that people do such and such in order to achieve the common good constrains people from pursuing their private good.
 
Although the common good is a notion alive in American political talk and thought (I notice also that Pope Francis appealed to it in his comments before Congress), it is not without problems. 
 
The libertarians, inheriting the view from Ayn Rand, hold that there is no such thing as the common good.  Their view is justified by saying that since only individuals exist, there is no common good.  They of course mean by individual’s individual human beings. 
 
The premise of libertarian argument is quite wrong.  There are also organizations: the United Nations came into being, into existence, in 1945 and is not even composed of individual people.  Contrary to the Supreme Court, General Electric (etc.) is an organization and not a person, not an individual.  One wishes the Klu Klux Klan no longer existed but sadly it does. 
 
In trying to deny that society or the state or the public exists, libertarians defend a form of political atomism parading as metaphysical atomism.   
 
Not only is the premise false, but the conclusion, that therefore there is no common good, doesn’t follow.  More of that in a minute.
 
However, rejecting the libertarian view does not solve all the problems with the notion of the common good.  For it can still be asked, in a philosophical tone of voice, ‘What kind of thing is the common good?’  Here there are two conflicting answers.
 
The modern liberal tradition shares with its libertarian cousins the atomistic idea that only individuals exist, but holds that nonetheless sense can be made of the concept of the common good. For liberal thought, the common good for a political order can be determined by adding up the preferences of its individual citizens where everyone’s preference counts equally. 
 
(Actually Ayn Rand, unlike her libertarian off-spring, more or less accepted that possibility.  “…there is no such thing as ‘the public interest’ (other than the sum of the individual interests of its individual citizens.)”  She starts by denying that there is such a thing as the common good, but then ends by granting what the liberal tradition holds to be the way of making sense of the notion.)
 
Modern progressives (often called communitarians in this context), however, have a different interpretation of what kind of thing the common good is. That view starts with a denial of social (and metaphysical) atomism and insists that groups, organizations, communities are also included in the furniture of reality.  What is good for, say, a given family may not even be recognized by, much less preferred by, any member of that family. 
 
At this point very treacherous waters are drawing near – it is possible here to start drawing very totalitarian conclusions from the claim above, conclusions certainly not those of the progressive tradition.  How one reasons in detail about the common good is beyond the purposes of this piece.
 
It is enough for my purposes to have pointed out that there are adequate justifications available for employing the notion of the common good as a way of successfully defending some particular restriction on people’s freedom to act as they will. That is a lesson about liberty that needs to be learned by the radical right.