What Is the Common Good?
Which social arrangements are conducive to people’s rights and welfare?
Humans are social beings, and the kind of creature that a person becomes depends crucially on the social, cultural and institutional circumstances of his life.
We are therefore led to inquire into the social arrangements that are conducive to people’s rights and welfare, and to fulfilling their just aspirations — in brief, the common good.
For perspective I’d like to invoke what seem to me virtual truisms. They relate to an interesting category of ethical principles: those that are not only universal, in that they are virtually always professed, but also doubly universal, in that at the same time they are almost universally rejected in practice.
These range from very general principles, such as the truism that we should apply to ourselves the same standards we do to others (if not harsher ones), to more specific doctrines, such as a dedication to promoting democracy and human rights, which is proclaimed almost universally, even by the worst monsters — though the actual record is grim, across the spectrum.
A good place to start is with John Stuart Mill’s classic “On Liberty.” Its epigraph formulates “The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges: the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.”
The words are quoted from Wilhelm von Humboldt, a founder of classical liberalism. It follows that institutions that constrain such development are illegitimate, unless they can somehow justify themselves.
Concern for the common good should impel us to find ways to cultivate human development in its richest diversity.
Adam Smith, another Enlightenment thinker with similar views, felt that it shouldn’t be too difficult to institute humane policies. In his “Theory of Moral Sentiments” he observed that “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”
Smith acknowledges the power of what he calls the “vile maxim of the masters of mankind”: “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people.” But the more benign “original passions of human nature” might compensate for that pathology.
Classical liberalism shipwrecked on the shoals of capitalism, but its humanistic commitments and aspirations didn’t die. Rudolf Rocker, a 20th-century anarchist thinker and activist, reiterated similar ideas.
Rocker described what he calls “a definite trend in the historic development of mankind” that strives for “the free unhindered unfolding of all the individual and social forces in life.”
Rocker was outlining an anarchist tradition culminating in anarcho-syndicalism — in European terms, a variety of “libertarian socialism.”
This brand of socialism, he held, doesn’t depict “a fixed, self-enclosed social system” with a definite answer to all the multifarious questions and problems of human life, but rather a trend in human development that strives to attain Enlightenment ideals.
So understood, anarchism is part of a broader range of libertarian socialist thought and action that includes the practical achievements of revolutionary Spain in 1936; reaches further to worker-owned enterprises spreading today in the American rust belt, in northern Mexico, in Egypt, and many other countries, most extensively in the Basque country in Spain; and encompasses the many cooperative movements around the world and a good part of feminist and civil and human rights initiatives.
This broad tendency in human development seeks to identify structures of hierarchy, authority and domination that constrain human development, and then subject them to a very reasonable challenge: Justify yourself.
If these structures can’t meet that challenge, they should be dismantled — and, anarchists believe, “refashioned from below,” as commentator Nathan Schneider observes.
In part this sounds like truism: Why should anyone defend illegitimate structures and institutions? But truisms at least have the merit of being true, which distinguishes them from a good deal of political discourse. And I think they provide useful stepping stones to finding the common good.
For Rocker, “the problem that is set for our time is that of freeing man from the curse of economic exploitation and political and social enslavement.”
It should be noted that the American brand of libertarianism differs sharply from the libertarian tradition, accepting and indeed advocating the subordination of working people to the masters of the economy, and the subjection of everyone to the restrictive discipline and destructive features of markets.
Anarchism is, famously, opposed to the state, while advocating “planned administration of things in the interest of the community,” in Rocker’s words; and beyond that, wide-ranging federations of self-governing communities and workplaces.
Today, anarchists dedicated to these goals often support state power to protect people, society and the earth itself from the ravages of concentrated private capital. That’s no contradiction. People live and suffer and endure in the existing society. Available means should be used to safeguard and benefit them, even if a long-term goal is to construct preferable alternatives.
In the Brazilian rural workers movement, they speak of “widening the floors of the cage” — the cage of existing coercive institutions that can be widened by popular struggle — as has happened effectively over many years.
We can extend the image to think of the cage of state institutions as a protection from the savage beasts roaming outside: the predatory, state-supported capitalist institutions dedicated in principle to private gain, power and domination, with community and people’s interest at most a footnote, revered in rhetoric but dismissed in practice as a matter of principle and even law.
Much of the most respected work in academic political science compares public attitudes and government policy. In “Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America,” the Princeton scholar Martin Gilens reveals that the majority of the U.S. population is effectively disenfranchised.
About 70 percent of the population, at the lower end of the wealth/income scale, has no influence on policy, Gilens concludes. Moving up the scale, influence slowly increases. At the very top are those who pretty much determine policy, by means that aren’t obscure. The resulting system is not democracy but plutocracy.
Or perhaps, a little more kindly, it’s what legal scholar Conor Gearty calls “neo-democracy,” a partner to neoliberalism — a system in which liberty is enjoyed by the few, and security in its fullest sense is available only to the elite, but within a system of more general formal rights.
In contrast, as Rocker writes, a truly democratic system would achieve the character of “an alliance of free groups of men and women based on cooperative labor and a planned administration of things in the interest of the community.”
No one took the American philosopher John Dewey to be an anarchist. But consider his ideas. He recognized that “Power today resides in control of the means of production, exchange, publicity, transportation and communication. Whoever owns them rules the life of the country,” even if democratic forms remain. Until those institutions are in the hands of the public, politics will remain “the shadow cast on society by big business,” much as is seen today.
These ideas lead very naturally to a vision of society based on workers’ control of productive institutions, as envisioned by 19th century thinkers, notably Karl Marx but also — less familiar — John Stuart Mill.
Mill wrote, “The form of association, however, which if mankind continue to improve, must be expected to predominate, is . the association of the labourers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers electable and removable by themselves.”
The Founding Fathers of the United States were well aware of the hazards of democracy. In the Constitutional Convention debates, the main framer, James Madison, warned of these hazards.
Naturally taking England as his model, Madison observed that “In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place,” undermining the right to property.
The basic problem that Madison foresaw in “framing a system which we wish to last for ages” was to ensure that the actual rulers will be the wealthy minority so as “to secure the rights of property agst. the danger from an equality & universality of suffrage, vesting compleat power over property in hands without a share in it.”
Scholarship generally agrees with the Brown University scholar Gordon S. Wood’s assessment that “The Constitution was intrinsically an aristocratic document designed to check the democratic tendencies of the period.”
Long before Madison, Artistotle, in his “Politics,” recognized the same problem with democracy.
Reviewing a variety of political systems, Aristotle concluded that this system was the best — or perhaps the least bad — form of government. But he recognized a flaw: The great mass of the poor could use their voting power to take the property of the rich, which would be unfair.
Madison and Aristotle arrived at opposite solutions: Aristotle advised reducing inequality, by what we would regard as welfare state measures. Madison felt that the answer was to reduce democracy.
In his last years, Thomas Jefferson, the man who drafted the United States’ Declaration of Independence, captured the essential nature of the conflict, which has far from ended. Jefferson had serious concerns about the quality and fate of the democratic experiment. He distinguished between “aristocrats and democrats.”
The aristocrats are “those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes.”
The democrats, in contrast, “identify with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interest.”
Today the successors to Jefferson’s “aristocrats” might argue about who should play the guiding role: technocratic and policy-oriented intellectuals, or bankers and corporate executives.
It is this political guardianship that the genuine libertarian tradition seeks to dismantle and reconstruct from below, while also changing industry, as Dewey put it, “from a feudalistic to a democratic social order” based on workers’ control, respecting the dignity of the producer as a genuine person, not a tool in the hands of others.
Like Karl Marx’s Old Mole — “our old friend, our old mole, who knows so well how to work underground, then suddenly to emerge” — the libertarian tradition is always burrowing close to the surface, always ready to peek through, sometimes in surprising and unexpected ways, seeking to bring about what seems to me to be a reasonable approximation to the common good.