Friday, July 29, 2011

The Crumbling Idea of the Common Good

When we are born we cry that we have come to this great stage of fools.
Shakespeare, King Lear

     I have taught political philosophy for many years, and no matter how often I have shot down the bogus claims of one ideology after another, the idea that a common good was possible always remained firmly in the background of my approach to the issues.  Indeed, all the great political thinkers from Plato onward strove to unpack this idea of the common good and argue for the best ways to make it happen.  Hobbes tells us we get it by contracting with a government that keeps us firmly in line so that we will not resort to our aggressive and self-centered humanity.  Rousseau makes the case for a democracy where everyone votes with the public interest in mind.  John Rawls draws a picture in which the fundamental principles of justice are built into the basic structures and arrangements of the political society.

     Lately, however, one has to wonder if the very concept of a common good might be an illusion--maybe even an hallucination.  Perhaps some such thing might still obtain in the small towns and cities--I grew up in a town that was governed by a Town Meeting where everyone voted on just about everything.  Yet on the national level things are quite different.   I used to believe that even in a society as wildly pluralistic and contentious as ours, it was always possible that the clash of particular interests would somehow result in an outcome that reflected pretty much everyone's welfare.  Of course, most groups would not always get what they wanted and maybe never get all that they wanted, but we all accepted the rules of this game and held that the result had genuine value for all of us.  Some groups, of course, would never get what they wanted--nor should they.  The interests of racists, bigots, and others who did not accept the basic values that anchored the process were clearly destructive of the community's well-being and would not be represented in the end result.

     It was the job of those we elected to reach this outcome by representing our interests, by rationally inspecting these wants from the perspective of what long-term merits they offered the commonweal, by debating them honestly and intelligently, and by finding ways to merge them into policies that worked out to substantively benefit our country.

     Now, I have never been foolish enough to believe that this representative governmental process actually did its business in pristine altruism or Nobel Prize brilliance.  But it was democracy at work, and we accepted it with its warts and other blemishes.  When our elected officials screwed up or screwed us, we believed we generally had ways of handling the problem.

     The current situation in Congress on the debt ceiling is, I think, a perfect illustration of my loss of faith in a common good for the nation.  No matter when or how this crisis is resolved, it underscores how feeble the pursuit of a genuine public interest now appears. Yes, much of the blame has to be pinned on the so-called Tea Party ideologues who seem to think they were elected to stand against any government program, whether they understand it or not and whether or not it actually helps anyone.  Many of these characters, however, are joined by ersatz 'libertarians' who believe we must never seek a truly common good anyway, since it might get in the way of the absolute and glorious pursuit of everyone's own selfish objectives.  Add to this strange mix the many dozens of members of Congress who have signed 'pledges' not to ever raise taxes, or to oppose same-sex marriage, or not to do a whole list of other things, formally announcing by their signatures that rational thought about policy is simply not going to be allowed on their watch.  These 'statesmen' and some of their colleagues live in constant fear of talk show hosts who might make their re-election a slim probability, and so they are sure to follow orders without so much as a visible twitch.  And then plug in the growing list of Representatives and Senators who live their total legislative lives in and on the bulging money clips of the lobbying firms who contribute substantial funds to them in order to make sure their interests are given priority, whatever the benefits to other groups. Bring into the pot those in office who flaunt their colossal and appalling stupidity like a merit badge, and the stew is complete.

     What can come out of this ugly situation we now find ourselves in?  A common good  or impenetrable chaos?  The public interest or gridlocked idiocy?

     We are, I fear, living through the saddest chapter in the story of our Republic.

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