The Common Good, or Rethinking Liberty

C. Bradley Thompson, writing at The American Mind (“The Rise and Fall of Pajama-Boy Nietzscheans“, May 13, 2020) takes on the radical right. There is much in Thompson’s essay with which I agree, and much with which I disagree. But I will focus here on these paragraphs:

There is no such thing as the “common good” unless one means the sum of the interests of all men and women in a particular society, and the only legitimate “good” common to all men and women as rational beings is freedom, which is the necessary condition from which they pursue all the goods necessary for living and living well. To the extent that the “common good” can mean anything at all, it describes the freedom and rights that all individuals must be guaranteed in a civilized society.

But the standard idea of the “common good” as used by [Sohrab] Ahmari [one of Thompson’s targets] is an abstraction that is greater than the sum of the individual men and women who make up a society. Thus the central problem with the anti-concept “common good” is that has no basis in objective reality, which means that it’s literally nothing other than a philosophic fantasy—a creation of the human imagination.

So far, not too bad. “The common good” as used by Ahmari is just another term for social-welfare function. And Thompson is right when he says that it has no basis in objective reality. It is, indeed, a creation of the human imagination. How can anyone meaningfully measure and sum the happiness or unhappiness of the hundreds of millions more persons now living in the United States. (or the billions more now living on Earth)? How, for instance, can anyone say that A’s enjoyment at inflicting pain on B (a non-masochistic) exceeds the pain suffered by B, resulting in an increase in “the common good”? Or conversely?

But the first paragraph quoted above is problematic. Freedom — or liberty — isn’t the necessary condition for living well. Liberty is living well, that is, in peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.

The preconditions for liberty are mutual trust, respect, and forbearance. The third member of that triad requires trust in a transgressor’s ability and willingness to correct himself, either voluntarily or through a socially accepted sanction ranging from reproof to harsh punishment. For the sake of social comity, incorrigibility must therefore be treated by permanent removal from society, through exile, imprisonment, or execution.

Liberty, in sum, isn’t just a personal state of affairs. Rather, it’s a social state of affairs. And attaining it requires social agreement as to what constitutes expected and permissible behavior, and how to treat failures to behave as expected or to behave impermissibly. For, contrary to libertarian dogma, the underpinnings of liberty — mutual trust, respect, and forbearance — require the fulfillment of understood obligations, such as the obligation of able-bodied men to defend a community against invasion; the obligation of parents to instruct their children in society’s mores; or the obligation of men and women to enter into marriage before having children, the better to ensure that the children are raised in a secure and stable environment.

But what if the members of a polity differ strongly and fundamentally in their views of behavioral expectations and how to treat deviancy from those expectations? Where that is the case, there will be irreconcilable differences between factions within the polity, and those factions will strive constantly to rise to power so that they can impose their views on other factions. Where that is the case, liberty is impossible because mutual trust, respect, and forbearance are impossible.

Liberty, in other words, is a chimera in any polity whose members hold strong and irreconcilable views about behavioral norms, and where exit is practically impossible. The Founders and Framers overlooked those conditions because America was then much more homogeneous, culturally; the States were far more independent of each other; and migration to open territory was a real possibility.

Thus the Declaration of Independence opens with this high-flown sentiment:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

And the Constitution begins just as glibly:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

But neither document delves the meaning of liberty or its essential — social — prerequisites, because such delving was unnecessary in the conditions of the time: great cultural homogeneity, weak central government, and the real possibility of exit. Political union, loose at was, was conjoined with something much closer to cultural homogeneity than is now the case.

Paradoxically, America was far more united, culturally, at the time of the bloody Civil War than it is today, when cosmopolitan elites and “real people” are engaged in a bitter and socially and economically destructive cold civil war.

Unless the present clash is resolved in a way that enables the opposing cultures to coexist independently of each other (except for voluntary, arms-length commercial transactions), liberty will continue to be an empty word in the United States.

Related page: Social Norms and Liberty (with a long list of related posts at the end)