The Common Good

Some years ago I was teaching a course in 18th Century political philosophy and had an especially good class. One of my former students had become an attorney and was friends with our Congressman whom he brought to class one day. We had been discussing the Enlightenment notion of the “Common Good” which permeates the thinking of political philosophers at the time, including the founders of this  nation. One of my students asked the Congressman if our government was committed to the Common  Good and he was met with a smirk and a garbled response. I suspect the student was being a bit facetious, but the response of the professional politician was most interesting. I dare say he had never thought about the notion at all.

A particularly striking passage in Santayana’s brilliant The Life of Reason gives us a perspective on this topic that will help us understand better why the notion of the Common Good is almost certainly not being considered in the hallowed halls of our Congress:

“Where parties and governments are bad, as they are in most ages and countries. . . . the private citizen continues to pay a maximum of taxes and to suffer, in all his private interests, a maximum of vexation and neglect. Nevertheless, because he has some son at the front, some cousin in the government, or some historical sentiment for the flag and the nominal essence of his country, the oppressed subject will glow like the rest with patriotic ardour, and will decry as dead to duty and honor anyone who points out how perverse is this helpless allegiance to a government representing no public interest.”

Now, Santayana is using the phrase “public interest,” but the concept is the same. He is speaking about an interest that is common to all, a good that governments that are not “bad” strive to realize. Needless to say, our present government has long since lost sight of such a concept — as evidenced by the reaction of the Congressman in response to my student’s question. But Santayana also points out the “patriotic ardor” of the “oppressed subject” who shouts “foul” whenever he hears any criticism of the country he “loves” — in the form of the flag and the national anthem sung at sporting events by a pretty child, the simple sort of patriotism that so many mistake for the real thing. As Santayana also notes,

“To love one’s country, unless that love is quite blind and lazy, must involve a distinction between the country’s actual condition and its inherent ideal; and this distinction in turn involves a demand for changes and for effort.”

Thus, what he points out in these brief passages is the failure of bad governments to focus on what is most important and the small-mindedness of citizens who are ignorant of what their country truly is and are therefore perfectly willing to go along with the actions of their government — and are critical of those who would point out the shortcomings of their government when it fails to realize the “inherent ideal.”

No man is an island, as the saying goes, and we are all in this together. It therefore behooves us to know what is going on, speak out against violations of the public trust, vote out those who couldn’t care less what the common good happens to be, and acknowledge that ours is a “bad” government to the extent that it fails to respond to the real needs of the majority of its citizens. The notion of the Common Good may have been central concept in the thinking of the founders of this nation, but it assuredly is no more — though it should be. Some concepts are timeless and this one is central to the ideal of good government.

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4 thoughts on “The Common Good

  1. Good read. Santayana’s quote near the end sums it up quite nicely. Because of spin-doctored news and blowhard candidates, the actual condition of our country and planet is as foreign to US citizens as it is Congress. Real problems are masked over, while we make bigger ones out of smaller ones, not to mention actually noting where good things are happening.

    As for the common good, this is why Senator McConnell’s infamous remark that his mission was to make Obama a one term President is so offensive. No, Senator your job is to be a leader to serve the American public.

  2. Thanks for this, Hugh. I’ve often found that paradox interesting and sometimes frustrating, too: the idea that many groups and people rally around a sort of shadow patriotism that is not the common-good type you write about. (the lower- and middle-income families who, in recent wars, have most often sacrificed their children, yet become so stubbornly patriotic; the Tea Party-types who are so opposed to government intrusion and big government, yet want their big-government-funded military and attach a flag to everything they wear and own, [even in ways that violate flag etiquette]; staunch anti-immigrants who will, nevertheless, have small-town and big-city festivals and celebrations in honor of their own ethnic/cultural origins; etc. All those may be fine, but not if the core of the country erodes because of the failure to ensure the common good.

    — on a related note, President Obama said some things again this morning about how he wants to spend his last year in office feeling free to do good government, and that our government always is at its worst when it tries to govern by fear. It’s been common in recent decades for retired presidents and other major political figures to write memoirs once they leave office (and many also write one when they campaign for major office, as a sort of campaign tool, of course.) But many of the post-presidential books haven’t been real, thoughtful policy and governing books. Aside from Nixon, that is, who wrote a whole series of thoughtful, intelligent books on foreign policy and other governing aspects after he left office. (Ironic, of course, given how hideous he was as president.) But I wonder if Obama, already shown to be a strong writer, and who is a constitutional law scholar, will be a president who writes not only for the quick big buck but maybe writes something enduring about democracy and government — more along the lines of what some of our Founding Fathers did. Just a thought. or, maybe, just a hope. It would be especially needed if the Trumpet gets near the White House.

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