Good Work

Alexandria, VA With a day to go before the midterm elections, we witness again with pronounced clarity that the fundamental divisions in our political arrangements today come from distinct understandings of the respective agent in society whose role is to secure the common good. For conservatives, “the market” is the best mechanism for ensuring good societal outcomes; for liberals, there is wide latitude for government to ensure common weal. From this basic difference comes many of our contemporary political debates and distinct policy directions. The two positions represent the opposite poles of our current political alignments, and are widely perceived as a yawning gulf separating unbridgeable worldviews.

While the differences between these two positions cannot be denied, what largely goes unnoticed is that the current divide masks a more fundamental similarity: both positions essentially relieve members of the wider society from personal obligation to think and consider, much less to act on behalf of, the common good. In each case, there is a function in the society that works to effect the good of society without reliance upon the conscious and ongoing efforts of the citizenry. In both cases, current political arrangements ask and expect little of citizens.

As is the case every several years, we are asked to tune in briefly to decide which impersonal agent in the society will work to effect the common good – whether the market or the government. We are then expected, and largely welcome, the freedom to tune back out. And, predictably, our present discontents are born of the fact that neither of these agents is very good at providing for what’s promised, giving birth to extensive civic disillusionment and frustration. Yet, rather than noticing that we are presented with false choices, we continue to oscillate between these two impersonal agents, blaming them – rather than ourselves – for failing to live up to their promises.

Conservatives take their cue from the theories developed in the early modern period, particularly the political and economic philosophy of thinkers like Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith. Smith famously declared in his work The Wealth of Nations that the market functions not out of a sense of beneficence, but from the logic of productively-employed self-interest. Writing of the “division of labor,” Smith wrote that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” As individuals we are not charged with considering the societal good that is achieved through our self-interested transactions; rather, the accumulation of those exchanges, through the agency of the market, gives rise to general prosperity and opportunity that becomes widespread throughout the society. While Smith acknowledged a necessary role for government in enforcing contracts and even providing some relief for the poor, Smith’s acolytes regard most government activity today as an interference in the good working of the market. Republicans in this election cycle have vociferously asserted the need to reduce government intervention in the “free market,” better to secure the common good of general society.

Liberals take their cue from critiques of the “free market” model, ones that arose in part from thinkers like Rousseau, Marx, Mill, and Dewey, as well as many subsequent liberal thinkers who rejected calls for the dominion of “private vices.” It was argued by such thinkers that a society dominated by self-interest would reward the most rapacious; that commercial society tended toward a crass materialism and the degradation of the workers; and that capitalist arrangements inevitably resulted in titanic inequalities that undermined any shared sense of common weal. Each in turn called an active role of government to provide relief to the respective baleful consequences of the free market system, and gave rise to iterations of the modern welfare State through such functions as public education, redistribution and regulation.

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