From National Catholic Reporter
Issue Date: August 25, 2006
The difficult case of the common good
Do a Google search for “common good” and it returns millions of entries. Perhaps that’s as good a sign as any of why we might, as a society, have trouble ever again talking about the concept.
For years we have lamented on this page that the notion of common good seems to have been scrubbed from our national vocabulary. We have been given over, intellectually, emotionally, financially and certainly politically to the individual good. We have taken individualism to the extremes of greed and self-aggrandizement, often with the tacit permission and even encouragement of our leaders.
From education to the workplace, from environmental policy to foreign policy, the emphasis is on the individual’s interest or, in the case of the state, U.S. interests, often to the exclusion of all else. This is not to denigrate individual initiative or success. But the individual, in the end, can’t exist without the community at large; and no matter how anti-government the rhetoric becomes, sometimes the only entity with the resources and power to bring needed change or to extend benefits throughout the entire community, is the government.
So, can the common good be revived? Do issues or causes exist, besides war, that can inspire a concern for and even a consensus about the common good?
Some, like American Prospect magazine, suggest the time is right. The neoconservative experiment seems to be unraveling in every direction, particularly in the projection of U.S. power abroad; the gap between rich and poor is expanding; the wide sense of confidence in the Bush administration is eroding. So what’s the big idea that will newly capture the imagination and swing our politics in a new direction?
“Liberal governance,” wrote Michael Tomasky in American Prospect in May, “is about demanding of citizens that they balance self-interest with common interest. Any rank-and-file liberal is a liberal because she or he somehow or another, through reading or experience or both, came to believe in this principle. And every leading Democrat became a Democrat because on some level, she or he believes this, too.”
That idea of service -- other than military -- had a brief time in the sun in our modern politics with President John Kennedy’s line, “Ask not what your country can do for you.” But does a party or an individual dare introduce the politics of discomfort in an era when the best instruction our president can muster at a time of unprecedented national tragedy is that we should all keep shopping?
Can a call to common concerns be heard in a country where more than 40 million people lack even the most basic health care coverage? If something like that won’t interest us in the common good, what will?
A recent Economist piece on inequality in America details the growing gap between rich and poor, a gap greater “than in any other advanced country,” but one that has elicited little outcry. “Americans do not go in for envy,” the Economist said. “Whereas Europeans fret about the way the economic pie is divided, Americans want to join the rich, not soak them.” And yet, some wonder, is the middle class disappearing, is the gap widening to a point where some may begin to see inequity, not opportunity?
The Democrats today, as Joe Feuerherd explains in his analysis (see story), are taking up the cause of the common good in their search for a theme in the upcoming congressional races and perhaps even for the 2008 presidential campaign.
It is, in many ways, their response to the religious right and all the God talk and alleged “values” voting of the 2004 presidential election.
But translating the common good into a political platform could be not only difficult but also dangerous. (And one might add a plea here that Democrats spare us any more incidents of Rep. Nancy Pelosi quoting Pope Benedict XVI on the floor of the House, as she did when invoking the pontiff’s blessing on her opposition to cutting the estate tax. Even from our far perch in the middle of the country it was transparently disingenuous.)
Talk of the common good by necessity becomes a broad and diffuse conversation. Whose good? How common?
It is a conversation that necessarily engages themes that are familiar to religious people: concern for the poor, for the least among us; the intrinsic value of every human being; the welfare of all, not only those who have the means to provide for themselves. Religion informs the debate and no one, particularly candidates, should run from the religion question. In fact, all ought to speak out of their own experience of the influence of religion and whatever else helped shape their ethics and thinking on public policy questions.
At the same time, no one should attach his or her religion to a political program; no one belief -- or lack of it -- should be made to feel more at home or influential. God doesn’t register to vote, nor does he carry the card of any political party.
It is good to see common good back in our public discussions. We can only hope that by the end of this political season it is not rendered as meaningless as was “values” in the last election or as splintered as a Google search.