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.

In both cases an agent within society – not the whole of society itself – is responsible for securing the common good, whether the market or the government. In both cases, the citizenry is largely relieved of the responsibility to consider the ways in which their work contributes to the good of society. Both the market and government exist as impersonal agents that separate “commoners” from common weal.

Lying behind both of these early modern articulations was a distinct new notion of the “division of labor.” For early-modern “classical” liberals, a new conception of the division of labor was to encourage each of us to concentrate only on our small piece of work, and to remain oblivious to its ends or purposes, or the ways that it contributed – or did not contribute – to the common weal. By doing so we were ensured of greater productivity through the magic of specialization. There would be no “specialist” whose job was to ensure the good functioning and contributions of our varied forms of work – “the market” would ensure good outcomes. Self-interest could thus be transformed into “public benefits.”

Reacting to the impersonalization and alienation of this arrangement, Marx and subsequent critics on the Left called for an addition to the specialization of labor, namely, government itself (in the case of Marx, this arrangement was theoretically supposed to be temporary until the state would “wither away,” but so far that theory hasn’t worked well in reality). That is, government – its various representatives and bureaucrats – were to have as their form of specialized work the duty of providing for the common weal. This was particularly the arguments underlying many of the reforms of “Progressive” era, when “graft” was roundly attacked and a preference for a permanent “civil service” bureaucracy was proposed. A class of experts was to be tested and selected to ensure the propounding of the common good. Yet, this work was itself a form of specialized work: they were to perform their particular jobs, again relieving the citizenry of the burden of having to think about the nature of their own work (or the work of bureaucrats). No less than in the previous arrangement, the citizenry was to be relieved of the burden of thinking about the common weal.

Early modern articulations of conservatism and liberalism both summarily rejected a more ancient understanding of work and its relationship to common weal. As expressed in the Christian tradition (and echoing the philosophy of Greek antiquity), every person in society should understand themselves as having two jobs – the work they immediately undertake and the work of striving to understand the role of that work in providing for the good of society. This view was expressed most powerfully in the Christian tradition in those famous passages of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, in which he urges the Christian community of Corinth to put aside their divisions and to understand their respective positions not as the source of individual status, but as parts of a greater whole. According to Paul, “to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the profit of all…. For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body…. When one member suffers, all the members suffer with it. Or when one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. (12:7-12:26). As Paul goes on to argue, the basis of common weal is not interest or disinterest, but love. A society that does not have love at its base is a society that will likely cease to pay attention to the ways our work is to contribute to the common weal. And lacking such attention, bad work is the likely result.

Contemporary conservatives and liberals are inheritors of a tradition that rejected this alternative as a way of liberating individuals from the obligations of having to pay attention. We are now exclusively holders of one job, and we rely either on the market or government to attend to the common good. The first liberation – market capitalism – has freed us in ways that have at once made us wealthy but also prone to rapacity. The second liberation – relying on government to regulate the market’s excesses – has allowed us to retain our lifestyle autonomy without the need to devote excessive personal attention to the remediation of injustices. In both cases, impersonal forces have replaced the second job that was once thought to be our true common work: widespread and personal investment in achieving the good of the community as a whole. This will be the political platform that is, and remains, missing from our current political arrangements. And, while tomorrow many of us will engage in what we believe to be our civic duty, instead we will be indicating our resignation from the same.


  1. Good post Patrick.

    The ‘market’ and ‘government’ are what the anthropologists Boyd and Richerson would call ‘work-arounds’ developed as society evolved beyond the hunter-gatherer stage. For a more detailed explanation see their paper:-

    For human beings to resume their ‘second job’ requires that they can exercise greater control in their workplace since what happens there impinges on society which in turn determines how government responds. But this is a chicken and egg issue. To have greater control within their existing workplace will require intervention by government to reduce minority control in the workplace. This doesn’t seem unreasonable since the minority controllers of the workplace rely upon government to consolidate and extend their power. For example, American corporations manufacturing in China rely upon suckling the teat of Communist government to keep Chinese workers wages and the Chinese currency low.

  2. And, while tomorrow many of us will engage in what we believe to be our civic duty, instead we will be indicating our resignation from the same.

    “The English people believes itself to be free. It is greatly mistaken; it is free only during the election of the members of Parliament. Once they are elected, the populace is enslaved; it is nothing. The use the English people makes of that freedom in the brief moments of its liberty certainly warrants their losing it.” (Rousseau, The Social Contract, 3.15)

    Not exactly on your point, but pretty damn close. Once again, whatever the limitations of Rousseau’s diagnosis of the modern condition, or the abuses to which it has been used, it remains perceptive. The complexity and divisions–and, let us be honest, great benefits and joys, along with its many harms–of modern life make it easy for us to believe that we have no choice to but to leave much “good work” to someone or something else. Not exactly a recipe for liberty, that.

  3. Professor Deneen,

    This is a good article, but I think you could have described the problem of alienation a little more fully.

    You are right to complain that we (i.e., modern Americans) shift responsibility to bureaucracies and experts when we should be assuming responsibility ourselves. What you do not mention, however, is the second side of alienation, which is that we also feel we need to take responsibility for many things that we really should just ignore. We end up in a weird situation where we don’t have responsibility for things for which we should bear responsibility, yet we also feel responsible for things for which we should bear no responsibility. For example, many meritocrats today leave their children’s upbringing as much as possible in the hands of the “expert” day-care “professionals” and teachers in the public schools, yet at the same time feel they have to worry about minute issues of foreign policy, over which they have no control and regarding which they possess no particular expertise. Part of our alienation, then, results from not having control over things which we should control, but another part of our alienation results from being told to worry about things over which we have no control.

    I think the way to combine both your insight into the failure to assume meaningful responsibility and my suggestion about our eagerness to assume meaningless responsibility is to return, as you suggest, to the philosophers of Greek antiquity, specifically Plato and Aristotle, who recognized that not everyone can be expected to bear responsibility for the common weal. Those who should bear responsibility for the common weal need to assume it, but those are unsuited for such responsibility should not be encouraged to assume responsibility. Nowadays, the problem is that democratic dogma preaches that we are all responsible for everything.

    Perhaps, though, we should begin by defining “common weal” at various levels–everybody is responsible for the common good of those immediately around them, i.e., in families, but as we move further away from the family toward broader forms of political organization, fewer people should be entrusted with this responsibility. This restriction of political power to an elite happens naturally in any political system, but as you rightly point out, the key would be to return to the idea of love as the basis of society, rather than self-interest. This is certainly not democratic (Plato and Aristotle certainly were not democrats), but it might help mitigate the unnecessary feeling of alienation produced by the division of labor and the consequent exaltation of impersonal bureaucracies and anonymous experts.

    • Referencing Elton Mayo’s hallmark study of industrial organization in Modern society, Robert Nisbet I think helps to reconcile the two contradicting sides of this rift you’re referring to rightly as being the accidents of alienation:

      “Increasingly modern industry [and at the heart of this is the division of labor Professor Deneen is speaking about] tends to predispose workers to obsessive responses, and the number of unhappy individuals increases. Forced back upon himself, with no immediate or real social duties, the individual becomes a prey to unhappy and obsessive personal preoccupations. There is something about modern industry that inevitably creates a sense of void and aloneness. The change from what Mayo calls an ‘established’ to an ‘adaptive’ society has resulted for the worker in a profound loss of security and certainty in his actual living and in the background of his thinking…”

      Nisbet points out that along with the reduction of tangible and substantive obligations, there is also the realization that moral values become increasingly inaccessible. But, being creatures both moral and inclined to take upon ourselves duties and responsibilities, we inevitably tend to seek these out in the increasingly remote and abstract if they are not available amongst the near and the particular. There is a wide distribution of fear and unease amongst alienated people, and with that an ever more nubilous paranoia. While our families and our land and our churches and our schools all seem ever less demanding, remote concerns — like national security and foreign affairs, as well as obsession with the market and distant events — exhibit a remarkable and ineffable gravity.

    • This of course also infects our sense of even the most trivial concerns such as fashion and general appearances — issues to which we exert immense energy. We sense a bewildering imperative to surround our bodies and our homes with the proper symbols of our social position, and further, an increasing demand to define exactly what that position is. The problem is that our deep seeded feelings of ennui and discontent ensure that the moment we have arrived at what would, we presume, be some sort of satisfactory point, the mass rush to get there has advanced once again, and we must struggle yet simply to keep up. These obsessive demands are abstractions and so bear no real weight; this is why we heap so much on to ourselves — we long for REAL needs to tend — and it is exhausting precisely because, being abstractions, they are untenable.

      Mr. Berry’s lines are appropriate enough here:

      Every place had been displaced, every love
      unloved, every vow unsworn, every word unmeant
      to make way for the passage of the crowd
      of the individuated, the autonomous, the self-actuated, the homeless
      with their many eyes opened toward the objective
      which they did not yet perceive in the far distance,
      having never known where they were going,
      having never known where they came from.

  4. I would suggest that since as a species we engage in ‘self-love’ as well as ‘other-love’ it is better to concentrate on acquiring ‘balance’ rather than ‘love’.

    • We as a species engage in incest and chicanery as well, but I wouldn’t say we need to work them into our mission statement…

      I imagine the Church fathers would say because self-love is not a human need and is a corrupt element that we should strive to overcome it rather than find an equipoise between it and “other-love.” That we are loved sufficiently so long as we turn our hearts to glorifying Him, and therefore through Him who sustains all things we love all things. The reciprocity of this is that we, likewise, are loved infinitely and completely — no self-love can improve upon this. It is, in fact, that inchoate turn toward love of self which is the beginning of the turn from real love — caritas — altogether. We spill ourselves empty when we engage in love, and through the trust that comes with love, we know we will be filled.

      This sounds all fluffy and maudlin to many of us — sure. The image above is not, not yet anyway, the world we live in right now, and we have no reason to presume it will be anytime in the foreseeable future. It would seem to offer little practical advice. It is, however, if the Church is correct, the unalterable fact of our nature. However we presume to edge our way forward, we are lost if we forget it.

      And of course, any thoughtful soul can rest assure that the proper consumption of good things — be they pumpkin pies or pumpkin ales — in the proper contexts and at proper quantities, is a perfectly acceptable love of other….

  5. Both the market capitalists and the statists are banking on a human based institution being self correcting. This comes from their roots in the Enlightenment, where it was hoped that through knowledge of Newtonian mechanics and clockwork design, we might learn enough to be able to establish self correcting institutions that would automatically provide optimal human outcomes.

    Sadly, neither markets nor governments are self correcting, because they are run by flawed human beings, and in both cases, frequently by sociopaths. Both approaches may look fine in theory, but have major problems in practice.

    One of the reasons I support localism, is that a smaller local government is close and familiar enough that one can approach the local rulers, and when they deserve it, punch them in either the nose or in the ballot box. That becomes impossible at the county level or above.

  6. The last point here may be the best: that voting–sanctioned by all the noise we make about “doing our duty”–has become little more than a means of getting out from under the heavy burden of responsible membership. I think it was Postman who said voting is not the first but (merely) the last act of citizenship.

    At any rate, a political theorist could do worse than channel John Winthrop.

  7. One important distinction not brought out is that between a polis and an alliance. In an alliance, there is no common good, because the end of it is something sub-political, such as wealth, security, etc. America, and all nation-states for that matter, are alliances pretending to be polises. I think a main reason people have dropped out of participating in the common good is that there really is none, or could be, and that they unconsciously recognize this.

    In many ways, the governments of modern nation states attempt to quash those emerging polis-like structures that threaten to expose the fact that the nation-state contains no common good, that is, those polises that threaten to take the citizens’ primary allegiance away from the alliance.

    In a very real way, citizens are not permitted to participate in the common good of those actual polises that do exist within the alliance of the nation state. They are not permitted psychologically because the overarching alliance habituation (and in this way it acts just like a polis is supposed to act) teaches them that only the nation-state’s preoccupations are worthy of attention (personal autonomy), And they are not permitted physically because any polis that is not adequately alliance-like (Obama is seeking to ensure that Catholic colleges provide birth-control now, I think) is persecuted, violently (Waco) or otherwise (Georgetown). And now we are persecuting violently non-alliance-like polises in other countries in the Middle East.

  8. As a Red Tory via libertarianism, I’m quite intrigued by a society that avoids the excesses of both the State and the Market. My only question is: In complex modernity, are we just destined to be reformists in the welfare capitalist state? (And after I just came around to liking social spending…)

Comments are closed.

Exit mobile version