Remember The Common Good?

Later this morning, I will speak–via Zoom–to the Danville Unitarians on the  subject of freedom. Here’s a  lightly edited version  of that talk–a bit long, so my apologies.


There’s an inevitable tension between Americans’ love of freedom—understood as our freedom from government rules dictating our behaviors—and the obligation citizens have  to contribute appropriately to the common good. That tension has manifested itself most recently in a series of conflicts in which self-styled “freedom fighters” have challenged government mandates to wear masks and observe social distancing, but we have seen similar conflicts when government has required  us to wear seatbelts or to refrain from smoking in restaurants and bars.

That tension also motivates our continuing political arguments about tax rates and social welfare programs.

Where do we draw the line between our right to personal autonomy and the government-enforced duties we owe to others? What are those duties, who gets to prescribe them, and how important is our willingness to discharge them? What is our duty to contribute to what academics call social solidarity, and most of us would call a sense of community?

The most basic question of political philosophy is: what should government do? The U.S. Bill of Rights is our list of things that government should not do—censor speech, favor religion, search citizens without probable cause or infringe their liberty interests or property rights without due process, among other things—but America hasn’t revisited (or, really, visited) an equally fundamental question: what is government for? To put it another way, what elements of our social and physical infrastructure should we expect government in the 21st Century to provide—and what are our obligations in return?

We recognize physical infrastructure: roads, bridges, sidewalks, sewers, the national electrical grid. Even then, even with physical infrastructure, there is less recognition of the importance of other elements of the built environment: parks, libraries, public transportation, utilities, street lighting and other elements that collectively produce a community’s “quality of life.” What’s worse, despite almost universal agreement about the importance of physical infrastructure, America’s roads and bridges are in serious disrepair, our electrical grid is vulnerable to hacking, and sewer overflows continue to pollute rivers and streams. Aging pipes are contaminating drinking water in numerous cities and towns;  problems with lead in the water are not limited to the widely-publicized situation in Flint, Michigan.

The problems with America’s physical infrastructure are visible, widely acknowledged and await only a rebirth of political will to fix. The defects in our social infrastructure, however, are much less clear-cut, and because they are highly contested, they resist repair.

By “social infrastructure,” I mean programs that help citizens and build community, including access to economic security, health, education, and the right to equal participation in democratic decision-making, most definitely including the right to vote.

Aristotle thought that social infrastructure should facilitate human flourishing– create an environment within which each individual can live, grow and pursue his or her own particular telos, or life goals.

Americans currently face considerable challenges: a rapidly morphing information environment that facilitates spin, disinformation and outright propaganda, an increasingly overt tribalism, deepening economic inequality, widespread civic ignorance, and the accelerating corruption of America’s legal and political structures. All of these elements of contemporary reality, plus the existential threats posed by climate change and a global pandemic, challenge America’s future.

What comes next? Where does America go from here? Do we fix our problems, or relinquish our place on the world stage and terminate our historically uneven efforts to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights?

Clearly, we’re at a turning point. We could continue the Trumpian withdrawal from global alliances and our own historic civic aspirations. We could enter a period of extreme social unrest, with escalating protests and accelerating social factionalism, leading to a very uncertain future. Or we could revisit America’s existing social contract and evaluate the current utility of our governing assumptions—reaffirming    those that have stood the test of time, and modifying those that no longer serve us.

America has always defined freedom in  the negative–as the individual’s right to be free of government constraint unless she is harming the person or property of someone else. That view of freedom has generated significant conflict: what constitutes a harm sufficient to justify government intervention? How much deference to the rights of others is required? Which others? Is the obligation of government limited to non-interference, or do citizens have the right to demand that government pursue positive actions? If so, what are those actions?

Defining liberty has become even more complicated as America’s population and diversity have increased, as equality (another contested term) has become an equally important value, and as society has become more global and more complex. At a minimum, genuine liberty, genuine freedom, requires more than enforcing limits on the reach of government, important as those limits remain. True liberty– allowing individuals to determine and pursue their individual aspirations– requires ensuring that all citizens have both the means to exercise choice, and sufficient information to inform those choices.

Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen argues that freedom is the ability to exercise individual agency, and that personal agency is inescapably limited, inescapably constrained by available social, political and economic opportunities.  Individual agency—the ability of each person to formulate and pursue his or her life goals– is dependent upon what Sen calls “social arrangements”–what I’m call ing“social infrastructure.”

I hate to argue with my libertarian friends, but in today’s complex and inter-dependent society, government’s responsibility cannot simply be to get out of the way.

Anti-government attitudes that permeate contemporary American culture have been profoundly influenced by a Protestant Ethic that exaggerated the ability of  individuals to rise above social and structural impediments, and minimized the extent to which the social infrastructure in which we are all inevitably embedded contributes to, enables—or hinders—individual achievement.

In addition to older, traditional functions, today’s governments must provide citizens with at least a basic social safety net that supports human freedom and allows citizens to reach their potential. That safety net can be constructed in ways that unify or further divide us.

Here’s an example of what I mean: Look at the widespread, negative attitudes toward welfare programs, and then consider the massive support that exists for Social Security and Medicare. Why the difference? Social Security and Medicare are universal programs; virtually everyone contributes to them and everyone who lives long enough participates in their benefits. Just as we don’t generally hear accusations about lazy poor people who are “driving on roads paid for by my taxes,” beneficiaries of programs that include everyone (or almost everyone) are much more likely to escape stigma and much less likely to arouse resentment. In addition to the usual questions of efficacy and cost-effectiveness, policymakers in a diverse polity should evaluate proposed programs and other government actions by considering whether they are likely to unify or further divide Americans. Universal policies are far more likely to create unity, an important and often overlooked argument favoring programs like single-payer health insurance or a Universal Basic Income.

A workable social contract must respect individual rights and subgroup affiliations, but must also connect citizens to an overarching community in which they have equal membership and from which they receive equal support. The challenge is to achieve a healthy balance—to create a society that genuinely respects individual autonomy within a renewed emphasis on community and the common good, a society that both rewards individual effort and talent, and nurtures the equal expression of those talents irrespective of tribal identity.

That society would have the right to expect its members to pay their dues—taxes, of course, but also a stint of military or public service, and discharge of civic duties like voting and jury service.

How do we get there?  How do we turn our cantankerous and tribal society into a cohesive community? There’s a Native American parable that I think is instructive: One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves that are inside all of us. One is evil. The other is good.” The grandson asked, “Which wolf wins?” and the grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”

America needs a social and political infrastructure that feeds—encourages, promotes and rewards—prosocial, pro-democratic, humane behaviors and norms. Assuming we emerge from the angry and difficult period we are going through—assuming that we vote decisively for democracy and decency on November 3d, it will be time to come together and figure out how government can “feed” the good wolf.

It is past time to honor America’s original motto: e pluribus unum, out of the many, one.


  1. “In addition to older, traditional functions, today’s governments must provide citizens with at least a basic social safety net that supports human freedom and allows citizens to reach their potential. That safety net can be constructed in ways that unify or further divide us.”

    In this rapidly changing world, even before Trump and the Covid-19 Pandemic took control, the “me” and “instant gratification” generations born during the 1960’s and 1970’s are still with us and many of them are our elected officials today. Especially the 1960’s, the “common good” was that everyone should have life around them to provide their “wants” which they believed to be their “needs” with no understanding of the difference.

    “It is past time to honor America’s original motto: e pluribus unum, out of the many, one.”

    The current administration has found a way to turn that original motto to mean they are the “one” which “the many” owe homage to. There is no guarantee that November 3, 2020, will result in the way out of our current dilemma, IF we live through the Pandemic, or IF we oust Trump from OUR White House. Continuing Republican control of the Senate and possible takeover of the House looms ahead; that “one” may continue its current control over “the many” and maintain their privately owned and operated “common good”.

  2. There was a day when unions created the glue for the social construct because they gave the working class power against the capitalists. The oligarchy has worked very hard to defeat unions with the assistance of bought politicians and their appointees.

    Who defends the oppressed in society today?

    Not the entertainment media owned by the oligarchy.

    Not politicians owned by the oligarchy.

    Protestors in the street?

    Did you notice how quickly Barr and Trump reacted to the murder of the “Antifa” protestor in Olympia, WA? Federal officials shot at him 30-40 times, according to witnesses. Barr and Trump applauded while they defend a 17-year-old with an assault rifle for killing “Antifa” and “BLM” protestors.

    Can you see the theme from the oppressor’s point of view by now? They are not done until everybody is silent and obedient to the oligarchic demands. We are morphing into a totalitarian/security/police state.

    For those interested, check out the home security devices called Ring owned by Bezos and how they are working with local law enforcement. The network they are building is alarming, and if the homeowner doesn’t provide copies of video, law enforcement can get copies from Ring directly.

    So much for what the constitution says the government cannot do. Who is going to check the power of the oligarchy when they own everything?

  3. As regular readers of this blog know, I have an “uncommon” interest in the phrase, “Common Good”, as the founder/leader of a nearly 900 person citizen community, CommonGoodGoverning that works to elect servant leaders to the US House.

    We have no website and do much of our very successful “recruiting” via a Google Alert for that phrase. After 3+ years of reading hundreds of citations, I am amazed at the importance of this concept in communications from across the globe and especially encouraged by the large number from the US calling out concern over our current political environment.

  4. When I look at the democratic socialist countries of Denmark, Sweden etc, it seems to me that they clearly decided that the greater good is just as important as individual freedoms. Our extremely individualistic society leads to divisiveness, to the belief that everyone should just pull themselves up by their boot straps and march on which is not possible for many people. In most 1st world countries, no one has to declare bankruptcy due to health care bills.

    We have corporate welfare. The Supreme Court decided that corporations are people and as a result, corporations do not have to pay their fair share of taxation. And when SCOTUS decided that money is free speech, they created a political system that is easily corrputed by big money. Those 2 decisions have undermined our democracy and dare I say, the rights of the people on main street.

    Some people believe that if you live in poverty you were predestined to be poor, that if you were born disabled it was due to your parents’ sinfulness. Jesus would be appalled with these beliefs.

    How can we get people to think less of just themselves and more about the greater good? How do we get people engaged in our communities? How do we create a country where the ethos of caring for one’s neighbor and the Golden Rule drives our governmental policies? Such a government would address the oppresive systems of bigotry for people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community.

    How do we create a country that is outraged because of gun violence ? How do we move toward better gun ownership regulations that do not create loop holes? How do we bring the NRA to agree to better gun regulation?

    Republicans wrongly believe that the only thing that will motivate people to work, to create innovation is the fear of becoming poor or homeless. I believe that people have an inherent desire to work, to create, to contribute and be productive.

    What was it Ghandi said? “Be the change you want to see in the world” That means that unlike my neighbors who had a very loud party till after 3:30 am, I won’t do that! I won’t deprive people of the need for sleep.

  5. America’s mad scientist experiment with Steroid-Crony-Capitalism has produced a Frankenstein Monster. The idea was always in evidence that The Market knows best. “The Market” is not some iron rule or scientific theory, that knows best or is always right.

    The Stock Market crash in 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression proved, the Market could be manipulated and the Proles would suffer the consequences. This has happened many times in the past. When “The Market” fails we now have some social supports in place – They are grudgingly allowed. There are hoops to jump through and hurdles leap over and of course there are always those “Bootstraps” to pull up.

    There is that other old meme of give a person a fish and he comes back for more. Teach him to fish and he can feed himself. What if the person cannot afford a boat, fishing pole, fishing line, bait and hooks??? The presumption at it’s base is the person is too lazy to fish on his own, when in reality the person has no way to buy the equipment to fish or the expertise.

  6. Monotonous – kudos on the fish allegory! The “equipment support” needs to be paired with the teaching…

  7. Vernon, great poetry, thanks for posting it.

    Sheila writes about “social infrastructure” and its importance to grace in society. Is that different than culture? People may know that I am a strong believer in the definition of personal culture as what we observe starting as infants as the behavior of others who we deem to be like us as we watch the adults we were born into regular contact with. It seems that personal culture is at least the foundation for social infrastructure.

    The problem is that government, especially national, cannot contribute to the formation of personal culture but only take advantage of its application to the even greater good.

    It would appear that the country who first defined government as supportive of social infrastructure lost the personal culture that it and therefore the Constitution defined as necessary for true equality and freedom.

  8. ML,

    EVERYTHING REPUBLICANS TOUCH DIES. Give them an economy and they will fuck it up by pandering to their rich donors. Give them a healthy retirement fund, and they will fuck it up so their rich donors can have more money. Give Republicans publicly funded schools and they will fuck that up too, because their rich friends want to make money off of educating our children for THEIR good, not the good of the nation.

    We’ve defined this kleptocracy that is the Republican party far too often. I’m glad I’m old, because the end of the United States will be a horrific thing to see. Vigilante justice is just the beginning of the end.

  9. Robin; ever wonder how European countries started from behind the U.S., the richest and strongest country on earth, and leaped so far ahead providing education and medical care for the common good for their citizens? Could American greed and avarice have something to do with the conditions we are living with today which is two steps from becoming a full caste system? And we are losing our individual freedoms such as civil rights and the right to vote; our quality medical care has become much costlier for less care for almost four decades. The richest country on earth now holds another world record; the most cases in the world of Covid-19 during this Pandemic with the highest death rate for our population and continues to grow daily. The “common good” is now restricted to the 1-2% of the population who can afford to pay for it.

    And we can thank Pete for this astute observation of our current situation; “It would appear that the country who first defined government as supportive of social infrastructure lost the personal culture that it and therefore the Constitution defined as necessary for true equality and freedom.”

    J’accuse! (1848) Emile Zola’s cry for justice for one man wrongly imprisoned
    “Ah, what a cesspool of folly and foolishness, what preposterous fantasies, what corrupt police tactics, what inquisitorial tyrannical practices! What petty whims of a few higher–ups trampling the nation under their boots, ramming down their throats the people’s cries for truth and justice, with the travesty of state security as a pretext.”

    Simply put; the “common good” applies only to the wealthy today.

  10. We list three or four basic individual freedoms, which we understand that our Constitution guarantees us, and then we say, “Now, let’s talk about social infrastructure.”

    Why the sudden leap from freedom talk to something else?

    I say in all our conversations extend our list of individual freedoms to include those things we recognize as social infrastructure, at least some of them. And use the freedom terminonology in every discussion until it is assumed nationwide, generation after generation, that freedom is what we are really talking about.

    Freedom from medically induced financial ruin, instead of using the term single pay medicine.

    Freedom from the bankrupting cost of education, instead of saying free higher ed.

    Freedom from financial ruination because of bad luck or accident or recession or depression, instead of the term “universal basic income”.

    Freedom from impoverished dependency in old age, instead of using the term Social Security.

    Younger people will be quick to catch on, and resistance against those new freedoms will dissipate quickly, simply because of a change in terminology. As long as we speak of two or three basic freedoms followed by, “Now, let’s talk about…”, we have automatically admitted that what we are now talking about is subordinate to and has nothing to do with freedom.

    Truth will not win the prize you want. But good propaganda will win it.

  11. I feel like a silly fool lecturing a school of attorneys on how to win a case. But then, I’m merely passing on what another attorney told me.

    She wasn’t known as a legal scholar nor did she teach law, but she had an almost unbeatable record in contested jury trials.

    She said, “It’s simple, really. Hit their weakest point and your strongest point repeatedly, repeat, and repeat again, until the jury has it memorized like a little nursery rhyme. If you do that, and don’t come off too smart, especially if you’re a woman, you can’t lose.”

    That is exactly how the Republican party wins elections it should not win, and it is how the Democratic party loses elections it should win.

    Fewer talking points and hit them hard.

  12. So who gets to define that hazy concept “common good.” Does the adage of “The guys that’s got the gold make the rules,” or should it be the voters. Theoretically, it’s the latter, but that was before we had gerrymandering and Citizens United on steroids. What to do? Clean up the standards that the minority has managed to control the majority. How? By electing those who are ready, willing and able to do so in the hope that we can avert a 1789 storming the Bastille.

  13. Yes, Gerald, in theory, you are correct — oppression is the problem and it has been this way since our inception. We’ve won some small battles, but continue losing the broader war.

    For the past 40+ years, we have been losing big and have once again (from the other direction) reached a Gilded Age.

    But like you mentioned, the weapons available to us via democracy, have been removed from us. We cannot “vote” our way out of this since the political and media institutions have become corrupt beyond repair. What you are seeing in the streets for the past several years is the beginning of Bastille or ‘us versus them’.

    However, the dopes on the right see the ‘us versus them’ as the whites versus the blacks. They are literally the white crackers on the plantation ordered to keep the slaves oppressed.

    How do you get the crackers to see that their problem is the plantation owner — NOT the slaves?

    Divide and conquer is the winning strategy of oppressors. It’s been used effectively for centuries.

  14. “Fascism supposedly represented a collective vehicle for the expression and tuning of an authentic being.”

    “The individual and collective desires of the people were embodied in the persona of the leader. The leader was, in a sense, the expression of fascist ideas of sovereignty. To be sure, this sovereignty was rooted in the collective will-but only nominally. Only the leader was the ideal representation of sovereign desires. He fully understood the collective aspirations of the nation, or to put it differently, he knew better than the people what they truly wanted. As Hitler saw it, the role of leader was to fulfill the desires of the people because “the common people themselves harbor indefinite desires and have general convictions, but cannot obtain precise clarity regarding
    the actual nature of their aim or of their own desire, let alone the possibility of its fulfillment.”

    So Trump will make it real clear and put it all on the Jews. That’s a proven formula for success. Trump is no dummy when it comes to anti-Semitism, that’s one thing for sure. No better place to have perfected it than being a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

    “A Brief History of Fascist Lies” by Federico Finchelstein (University of California Press, Oakland, California, 2020) pages 58-9.

  15. Jared Kushner, Trump’s Jewish son-in-law, is playing much the same role as Roy Cohn did for Senator Joe McCarthy in suppressing the fact of McCarthy’s strong anti-Semitism.

    This arrangement is now being publicized in a new book, as if no one knew all about it before.

    Let’s get real folks before all of this gets COMPLETELY out of hand. I would strongly suggest, not to wait around for George Soros, Southern Poverty Law Center, or the Anti-Defamation League to take any effective steps, before this DISASTER gets completely out of control. Maybe for once, history might not repeat itself.

  16. Because of being put in a “double bind” with their support for The State of Israel, the American Jewish Community is like a SITTING DUCK. Anyone disagree? I’ve been attempting to warn about this pending disaster the past five years I’ve been participating in this blog to no avail.

    I wonder what the problem has been? I hope it hasn’t been an “undercurrent” of anti-Semitism.

  17. From “The Oster Conspiracy of 1938” by Terry Parssinen: “Their failure to overthrow Hitler in 1938 was the result not of their lack of will but of the tumultuous state of international relations in 1938 and the MYOPIA OF THOSE WHO WERE RESPONSIBLE FOR GAUGING HITLER”S INTENTIONS AND RESPONDING TO HIS THREATS. Sound familiar?

  18. Marv – Excellent reference to The Oster Conspiracy of 1938 and I here note that it was indeeed “the tumultous state of international relations in 1938 that blinded those who were responsible for Gauging Hitler’s intentions and Responding to his threats,” including the missing response of the U.S. 1938 was a year of recession from a recovery within the Depression occasioned by Republican resistance to further spending by FDR, an anti-Keynesian tactic which had international as well as domestic consequences, sending our recovery back into a further deepening recession within an already sick economy while taking our attention away from the expansion-minded dictators of Germany, Italy and Japan. The Depression was world wide, and thus the British, French and other countries around the world had problems of their own and were similarly inattentive to what was happening, as demonstrated by the “Peace in our Time” the British brought back from Munich.

    Great reference, and one to think about today, a day when we are inundated with Trumpism, but (per Oster’s advice) one in which we should be keeping a wary eye out for what is happening in Belarus, Syria, China, Russia and other such countries in the throes of dictatorship, and to such end I look forward to a new Secretary of State in January who will leave domestic politics to Congress and deal with the niceties and nuances of international diplomacy.

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