The Irony of the Common Good
Confusion is frequently created by conflating two different senses of an idea under the same name, with “common good” as an example. Acting unselfishly, as in helping your neighbor or helping clean a park, is often seen as acting toward the common good instead of just the good of the unselfish individual. In these cases of voluntary action, individuals and society benefit when all aspects are accounted for, including emotional and psychic considerations. Society is better off in many ways and civilizations flourish when people help each other.
There aren’t too many people who would contend that this type of thing is bad. Being voluntary transactions, it is pretty clear that all parties, the givers and the receivers, feel that they are better off and that it was worth it. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have done it.
A different view of the common good is where individuals sacrifice or are sacrificed in some way, assuming that it will be beneficial to the common good, society in the mythical sense of an organism separate from its individual members. It is the Stalinist view that you must break a few eggs to make an omelet, or in his case, many millions of “eggs.”
Conversations sometimes proceed as though the two views are one and the same. Writers and commentators will use both senses at the same time with no apparent sense of discomfort. The common good, however, is nothing more than the sum total of all of the goods of the individual members.
A society progresses when the welfare of the members actually progresses. The irony of the common good throughout history is that it is best served politically when it is ignored. As a case in point, benevolent neglect made Hong Kong what it is today, an economic powerhouse, with per-capita income among the highest in the world. For the first fifty years of its existence, the political leadership didn’t even collect economic statistics for fear that they would be abused to try to steer the economy toward the collective good. Under those conditions, with a high relative level of economic freedom and markets totally open to international trade and competition, Hong Kong flourished. In spite of growing political intervention, it is still the most economically free country in the world, with results to show for it.
The common good proceeds whenever the welfare of society’s members improves. That happens when people are productive and trade that productivity with others. Investors pay multiple billions of dollars for a microchip plant to provide goods and services for which customers will be willing to pay. They and the customers are better off and society progresses. When farmers, shop owners, and automakers produce and sell, their voluntary commerce serves the common good in the most real and tangible way. People are better off by cooperating in trade. Roads are considered a common good provided by government, but even in this case, people tolerate taxes with the anticipation of their own benefit, the use of roads and services to make their lives better.
Ignoring for now the problems of corruption and siphoning of resources, the fundamental problem with focusing political action on the common good is that it perverts the incentives for individual progress upon which the common good depends. When people are not able to reap the benefits of their own efforts or when they are not held accountable for the consequences of their actions, the overall productivity of society is hindered and the common good suffers. Politics substitutes force for voluntary cooperation and concentrates power. Common good thinking is simply political cliques vying for power to promote their own good as though it was common to all.
Originally published on Daniel-McLaughlin.com.