Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Common Good: Difficult to Define

Everybody believes politicians should seek the common good not some particular private or selfish good. But seldom does anyone define what the term means. It turns out to be a complex notion, as slippery as a live, wet catfish.

A beginning can be made by saying a good is common if all participate in it. Two dimensions can be specified:

A. it refers to the general structures and processes necessary to there being a community at all worth living in -- a well-functioning democracy, a system of law and law enforcement, a peaceful social order, and the like with all the conditions that undergird them.

B. Closely connected but distinct are particular goods from which everyone benefits. Roads, bridges, a postal system, an electrical grid, and the like benefit us all or nearly everybody and certainly are essential for a functioning society. Other things benefit many or most but not necessarily all -- airports, e. g., except in some diluted or secondary form. If we don't fly, we may get UPS packages that came most of the way by air.

After that it get more difficult. Take the trio all, some, or none. Some things benefit all or almost so. Few, if any, things generated politically help absolutely no one. "It's an ill wind that blows no good."

I suspect that most goods benefit some and not others and may harm others. This is what we fight about most of the time. Who is helped and who is hurt and who is not affected at all? Politics, we say, determines who get what.

We all like to identify the good we seek with the common good. "What is good for General Motors is good for the country." (former GM CEO Charlie Wilson) We were told that Main Street had to to help bail out Wall Street, or we would all go down together. Enough people in power believed it to make it happen.

What about the auto bailout? Agricultural subsidies, NAFTA, state subsidies to foreign car makers versus a federal bailout for the American Big Three, etc., etc., etc.

Too much of our discourse is conducted in a Manichean framework in which a sharp dualism of good and evil reigns -- a policy is either good or bad, right or wrong, desirable or undesirable, common or private. Is it safe to fly in an airplane? Meaningless unless you define safe. Then we can state facts and don't need personal opinions, unless we are just asking whether someone is afraid to get on an airplane, i. e., feels safe. Are we safer now than before 9/11? What does that mean?

Approve or disapprove? Ask me if I approve of Barack Obama, and I will ask you whether you mean in all respects, in some particular respects, or in no respect.

Social reality is complex and ambiguous -- a mixture of good and bad, costs and benefits. But we cheapen and trivialize discourse by framing it in terms of of a shallow dualism.

The press, including print and electronic media, could serve a valuable service by helping us sort all this out instead of simplifying most everything to sound bites and offering us banalities, pablum. Thank goodness for PBS and C-Span -- a small oasis in the "vast wasteland" of TV (Newton Minnow).

We cannot do without reference to the common good, but it would serve us all if we defined what we mean by it and insist that all everyone else do the same.

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