the “common good”

(Wisconsin) Thanks to regular reader Joe Sinatra, I recently read an article in which Michael Tomasky argued that the Democrats should use the language of “the common good” instead of emphasizing rights for various groups. David Brooks then did Tomasky no favor by endorsing his view in the New York Times and making him sound like a scathing critic of a caricatured version of “identity politics” (which he isn’t).

I’ve mainly considered the rhetoric of the “common good” in connection with the Progressive Movement. In 1900-1924, the original Progressives assumed that “the moral and the general were synonymous, and that which was unworthy [was] the private, the partial, interest.”* It was on this basis that they fought various forms of corruption and expanded the powers of the central state over the market. Appeals to the “common good” and “public interest” have been made at other times and from other points on the ideological spectrum. However, the Progressives contrasted the common good against special or private interests with striking consistency and fervor.

Mainstream liberalism since the 1960s has been quite different. I don’t endorse simplistic accounts of identity politics, but surely modern American liberals have been suspicious of the common good and more concerned about rights for distinct groups. Why?

1. In practice, the “common good” can mean the interests of the median voter, who (depending on how one describes the electorate) may turn out to be a white, working-class guy from the Midwest. That’s precisely the constituency that Brooks thinks the Democrats have lost by courting minorities, gays, immigrants, women, and so on. However, white, working-class guys from the Midwest are just one group with interests of its own. Liberals don’t want to identify those interests with the common good, even if doing so would help win elections. It wouldn’t be fair.

2. The phrase “common good” can be vacuous–available to anyone, and equivalent to saying that one’s positions are right or good. For instance, people claim the mantle of the “common good” in arguing that wealth should be redistributed, or that individual economic freedom should prevail. Some equate the common good with private liberty; others claim that it means improving public morality. Maybe it means nothing at all.

Nevertheless, I’m not sure that Tomasky is wrong. Talking about the common good has several advantages.

First, it’s explicitly moral language, and that’s good for liberals. It forces the speaker to justify his or her proposals in terms of universal principles: to show why, for example, a tax break or a federal program is fair for all. It provokes deliberation.

If people think of government as a device for helping them individually, many will prefer market mechanisms and private choice. That’s especially true when the median income is pretty high, as it is in the USA; then many voters don’t believe that the government (seen as a service-provider) offers a particularly good deal. Citizens are more likely to favor government if they believe that it has idealistic purposes and offers them a chance to deliberate and participate in high-minded ways. The language of duty to a common good can be motivating–and for morally legitimate reasons. Tomasky: “This is the only justification leaders can make to citizens for liberal governance, really: That all are being asked to contribute to a project larger than themselves.”

Second, talk of “the common good” makes us think of genuinely common assets and the need to preserve them. Thus we will focus on un-owned goods, such as the ozone layer, the oceans, our cultural heritage, scientific knowledge, and the Internet.

Third, this language draws attention to problems with our political procedures and our political culture. I think Rousseau was the first to note that people tend to disagree about concrete issues but can often reach consensus about procedures and norms. Thus political leaders who invoke the “common good” naturally think of procedural reforms, such as anti-curruption measures, tax-simplification, transparency, and rule-of-law: causes that can attract broad popular consensus. Progressive leaders (such as Wilson, TR, and La Follette) were often vague about how to address specific economic and cultural disputes, but passionate about matters like campaign-finance reform, lobby regulation, direct election of senators, and women’s suffrage.

Why would it be good to emphasize procedural reforms today? Because there are serious problems with our current political procedures and political culture that have to be fixed before we can get better policies.

*”Otis L. Graham, Jr., An Encore for Reform: The Old Progressives and the New Deal (New York, 1967), p. 70O.

1 thought on “the “common good”

  1. Peter Levine

    From David Airth, via email:

    I liked your article on ‘common good’. It emphasizes the natural vagueness and ambiguity that exists and should exist to a certain extent in our organization and governance. But this vagueness and ambiguity is good because it offers the ‘bigger tent’ in which more can participate. It is an inclusive term rather than an exclusive one. It offers the anvil on which diverse subjects can be hammered out mutually without limitations . As you suggested, it is a vehicle for continuos discourse, always leaving doors open for additional stuff.

    The ‘common good’ is an abstraction. This is how I see it: In the context of human governance, abstractions like the common good essentially are techniques for containing and transcending the divisive, conflictive nature of humankind.

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