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.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Buzzards and Journalists: How They Are Alike

  • The cartoon pictured two gaunt buzzards, obviously very hungry, sitting on a bare limb on a leafless tree in a barren wilderness. One says to the other, "Patience, hell! I'm gonna kill something."
  • The election excitement is over. Obama's moves have been flawless and his appointments impressive. We are in the holiday season when much else clamors for time and focus. What are the poor political journalists to do to grab attention?
  • You would think the bleepin Blagojevich scandal would be bleepin juicy enough for them. But Obama is the center of the political world right now, so they are straining every nerve, looking under every rock, parsing every word he or his staff utter or write, following every lead large or small and otherwise turning the universe upside down to find something that stinks linking Obama to the Governor. Leading the pack, of course, are the slobbering Republican operatives who have been dispirited since November 4. Right alongside is Fox news drooling at even the prospect of some hint of scandal. But even the more sober journalists can't resist the hunt.
  • Meanwhile, out in the real world many struggle to pay the mortgage, keep or find a job, and otherwise stay afloat in these perilous times. The rest are too busy with Christmas, Hanukkah, or the non-offensive generic "holidays" to care about the trivial pursuit the hungry birds are undertaking.
  • So leave Obama alone unless you find something worth reporting and go spend some money shopping. That would at least help the economy, while all this furor over trivialities merely annoys.
  • Be patient, you buzzards, until something dies, and you can follow the bad odor to relieve your post-election hunger for some Obama excitement. Meanwhile, I can understand your feeling that you may be forced to kill something.