Hidden Springs Lane, VA. Americans typically don’t think in terms of the common good. Our individualist bent tends to make us wary of anything that smacks of collectivism, duties to the community, or even mutual obligations between neighbors. This is not to deny that Americans are frequently generous with their time and resources. They often are. However, in recent decades we have tended to embrace, whether implicitly or explicitly, a notion of human nature that is stripped of anything other than the will, which would seem to provide us with maximal freedom to do as we please. We idolize “the self-made man,” extol “rugged individualism,” and glibly tell our children they can be whatever they want to be (as long as they work hard).
Such a desiccated account of human nature is relatively new. Most people have, throughout history, recognized that a human person consists not only of a body but an immaterial soul. And while it is easy enough to identify physical needs all humans share, it has also been recognized that there are goods that extend beyond the merely physical. For instance, humans need friendship, for we are naturally social creatures and do not thrive in solitude. In that vein, we require healthy relationships, beginning in the family and extending beyond. We naturally long to know about the world; ignorance is not conducive to thriving either physically, mentally, or spiritually. We all long for some degree of security even though some people seem to place a higher value on security than others. At the same time, all humans desire freedom; although, again, the strength of that desire varies, and the way freedom is expressed varies by individuals and cultures. Finally, humans seem naturally disposed to worship something, for knowledge of the divine and a relationship to it ostensibly helps us make sense of ultimate questions we all must confront: What is the meaning of my life? What is the source of moral value? Where did I come from and what happens when I die? The language of “common good” gathers these basic common longings under one heading, and when we see matters in this light, it becomes obvious that all humans have much in common even if we express those commonalities in various ways.
The recognition that we share a common nature and thereby share a collection of common ends provides a powerful binding force for any society. One way to understand the nature of our current fragmentation is to recognize that the concept of a common good has been largely eclipsed by the notion that each person is an autonomous individual who ultimately chooses the goods he will pursue. If there is no common human nature, there are no essential common goods. There are only individuals with desires, some of which may happen to overlap with the desires of others. In this way of thinking, the state ostensibly functions as an umpire settling disputes between citizens whose desires happen to collide. However, it is clear that the state does much more. In recent decades, political actors have begun identifying new rights, and this opens up vast new areas for government intervention to enforce those rights. The state has also gotten into the business of dispensing wealth and services to mollify an increasingly proletarianized citizenry who intuit that the game is rigged to favor those with wealth and access. It is clear that, even apart from a crisis, the state is oriented toward consolidating its power by means of dispensing benefits to citizens who come to depend on the energetic presence of the state.
But setting aside for a moment the threat of expanding state power, the coronavirus pandemic seems to provide a counter to my claim that Americans tend not to think in terms of the common good. Look at how many Americans have willingly submitted to inconveniences and even hardships in order to “flatten the curve” and in the process reduce the fatalities inflicted by COVID-19. Isn’t our current situation a remarkable example of Americans stepping into the breach and embodying, in practice, the ideal of common good thinking even if the language of common good is not our native tongue?
I’m not sure that this is the case. At the very least, it’s not the whole story. We must recognize that in times of crisis a common fear can elicit behavior that appears similar to actions born of a commitment to the common good. Commitment to the common good is rooted in a normative account of human nature that provides an intelligible vision of human flourishing. It naturally calls forth virtues such as courage, self-control, and wisdom, along with kindness and generosity to others, as we together strive to secure the goods that are proper to all human creatures. A common fear does precisely the opposite. It is born of an external threat that drives frightened individuals together for the sake of safety. A common fear tends to eclipse all goods other than security, and if a people lack the habits of thinking in terms of the common good and therefore lack the language to express it well, the eclipse can be total except for a reactionary cadre who will oppose the value of security with that of individual freedom. In such a context, the “debate,” such as it is, will oscillate between the demands for security and the demands for freedom: the former rooted in fear, the latter rooted in a demand for individual autonomy, both representing a badly deficient account of human flourishing that lacks any coherent conception of the common good.
It is undeniable that a common fear can be used to justify state overreach, and such overreach rarely disappears completely even after the source of fear subsides. James Madison grasped a vital principle that anyone who thinks seriously about political matters should keep in mind: power is of an encroaching nature. Power’s natural tendency is to expand and to consolidate. A crisis provides, among other things, a perfect opportunity for the expansion of power. This is the reason that those who long for greater centralization of state power frequently employ the language of crisis to describe political challenges. A crisis is qualitatively different from a problem to be managed or solved. A crisis calls forth a sense of urgency, and the specter of insecurity leads citizens to submit to commands that they would refuse to acknowledge or obey in normal times. Doubtless all nations will eventually face a legitimate crisis. This may require that the good of security is temporarily prioritized over other goods. Thus, all nations will regularly encounter situations where averting disaster or even surviving may require temporary concentrations of power and consequent diminishments of liberty. Of course, the difficulty for political leaders (and for citizens) is discerning the real crisis from the sham crisis, the legitimate threat from the frantic rhetoric of the power hungry, or what is perhaps even more pernicious, a combination of legitimate threat and manufactured fear.
It is important to keep in mind that even in times of real crisis the good of security must not be allowed to completely overshadow other goods. It must never be forgotten that the good of security is important insofar as it allows us to enjoy other goods. It is not a good in itself and therefore only makes sense in light of other goods. The desire for security becomes irrational, and politically dangerous, when we lose sight of the higher goods that security helps us attain.
In the same way that a common fear can foster behavior that to some extent mimics behavior consistent with the pursuit of the common good, so too, can a common fear, along with expanded state action, prompt a reaction that appears to be motivated by a commitment to the common good. Collective action aimed at pushing back government overreach is motivated by an affection for liberty, but like security, liberty is a good insofar as it allows for the enjoyment of other goods. When individual liberty eclipses all other goods, the ability to explain why freedom is preferable to security is lost. In practical terms, citizens will speak incessantly about their rights, but this is just another way of asserting one’s individual freedom. Any attempt to explain why freedom is a good worth defending is lost in the haze of rights claims.
When political discourse is reduced to a standoff between security and individual liberty, the stage is set for the steady expansion of state power. While it is easy to see how those who focus on security can aid in this expansion, it is not, perhaps, clear how the defenders of individual liberty can work for the same end. This is a subtle but important point: the only thing capable of resisting the expansion of power is other centers of power. Federalism is a structural admission of this principle: the states are tasked with limiting the expansion of the national government. If they fail (and in many ways they have), the federal government will expand without resistance.
At the social level, groups of citizens, associating for a common purpose, can provide a legitimate mechanism for resisting the centralization of power. During a time of crisis, those who join together to check government overreach are exhibiting this principle. However, it is during times of peace, those periods between crises, that determine how a people will respond to a crisis. A commitment to the common good is a powerful motive disposing citizens to associate during times of peace. This will amplify their individual power and, in the process, limit the expansion of government power. For instance, when voluntary associations of citizens care for the poor, the state’s role, and therefore power, diminishes. The practice of associating during times of peace will prepare citizens with the necessary habits to wisely confront the problem of power in times of crisis. Without those habits, resistance to the abuse of power during times of crisis will take the form of reactionary protests where citizens demand their rights, but the moral wisdom rooted in an orientation to the common good will be absent. Furthermore, peace-time individualism provides little organized resistance to peace-time expansions of power (less dramatic but no less real) and creates the false impression that vigilance is only necessary when a crisis is at hand. In short, a peace-time commitment to the common good is the best means to resist the consolidation of power both in times of peace as well as times of crisis.
Finally, the language of duty comes naturally to common good thinkers. But it, too, can be co-opted in the presence of a common fear: it is your duty as a loyal citizen to submit to the dictates of the state. Again, the times of peace between crises provide the best context for detecting the degree to which common good thinking permeates a society, for it is then we can best hear the moral vernacular of a people. Do they naturally speak in terms of duty? Do they think in terms of responsibility both for their own actions and for the good of others? Is the virtue of neighborliness commonly practiced? Do they actively practice what Tocqueville called the “art of association”? Such a people will, when difficult times arrive, possess the inner resources, the established relationships, and the practical habits necessary to confront the peril without sacrificing the complex array of goods that are proper to human flourishing. Some American citizens and communities still possess these habits and resources. And while they are too often drowned out by the overwrought voices of the fearful and the boisterous rants of the protesters, they can generally be found quietly serving their neighbors. A nation lacking such citizens will, in times of crisis, find only disorder, fear, and the dramatic centralization of power.