Some Bleats About the ‘Common Good’

James Davidson Hunter is doing commendable work trying to restore the interest, of Christians especially, in the ‘common good.’  Not a bad thing, but first we have to think about what the ‘common good’ is.

1.  First of all, we must recognize that in any ‘community’ there is a tendency for the ‘common good’, or the ‘good of the community’, to come to mean ‘the good of the more powerful and influential members of the community.’  This often means the wealthier members, but not always; it can mean the most organized, or sometimes, especially on the neighborhood level, it can mean empty nesters who have time on their hands!

2.  There are also different levels and sizes of the ‘commons.’

a.  The ‘common good’ of the neighborhood may differ from the desires of the property owner, but it also differs from the ‘common good’of the region or the metropolitan area.  The neighborhood desires to exclude Locally Undesirable Land Uses and housing attainable to certain kinds of people [at one time by race, now generally by income and culture], whereas the metropolitan region is interested in accommodating all of the functions of an urban center, locally undesirable or not, and all the necessary populations to make an urban economy function, including the servant classes.  The neighborhood is interested in residential property values being higher; the metropolitan area as a whole, if it fears it will be priced out of the marketplace, may actually want residential property values to be lower!

b.  There are also ‘communities’ that coincide with linguistic and cultural groups, and with religions, and with recreational sports like surfing and motorcycling; these may be geographically concentrated, but in a large metropolitan area they are more a community of interest than a geographical entity.  And cyberspace has made it possible for ‘communities’ of this sort to be scattered worldwide, sometimes given physical reality on the local level by the ‘meet-up’.

c.  The national state is also a ‘community’ of sorts; the ‘common good’ of the citizens of a nation, often versus the rest of the world, is expressed in national defense, national welfare programs, and in tariffs and import restrictions.

d.  And there are those who concern themselves with the ‘common good’ of the whole world; these range from environmentalist types on the one hand to advocates of globalization and international free trade on the other!  [Though ‘the environment’ is also used by neighborhood advocates defending against the individual landowner and the desires of the metropolitan region as a whole, also.]

e.  It occurs to me as I write this that there is also a tension between the ‘common good’ of the existing members of a community and of those who desire to join a community, and that by definition it is the existing members of the community that determine whether adding people to it is a good thing.  Of course there are some communities, such as churches, which are more or less constrained by their purpose to expand; but most communities are not offering eternal salvation!

f.  Margaret Thatcher was not quite right when she declared “There is no such thing as society.” There is such a thing, in my view, but it does one thing; it ordains manners, customs, and the rules of languages.  And its units are ethnic and cultural groups, not state.  [The attempt, early in the 20th century, to try to make ethnicity and political citizenship fully congruent was a spectacular failure.]  Society does not ordain the state or the family, though it may help shape them to a certain cultural pattern; and society does not ordain transcendent morality, though it may help to interpret how it should be worked out in a culture; and society does not feed the hungry or clothe the naked or visit people in prison or make the lame to walk and the blind to see; nonprofit organizations do that, sometimes with an assist from the state.  And, ‘society’ enforces its rules, not by coercive punishment, but by social discrimination and exclusion, requiring the support of the state and private property to support this.  These are the points I think Margaret Thatcher was trying to make.  I have pointed out in an earlier post that in my view the word ‘God‘ in the political realm refers to no particular theology, but is a code word for, on the one hand, ‘not the isolated individual narcissistic self,’ and on the other hand, ‘not society’ because society does not create the other social institutions and spheres, though it influences their form.

g.  Christians have not generally considered their philanthropies and kindnesses as ‘giving back’ to society, but as ‘giving back’ to God, and when they give to people outside the Church, they view it as not ‘solidarity’ with the nation, or the world, but as ‘outreach’ into a field.  [Catholic social teaching may be slightly different at this point.]  As a Christian myself, I tend to take that view; but one argument for a different perspective is that to some degree my affluence may be due to the fact that I am in the United States, and that someone from Tanzania with the same level of talents may have a far lower level of affluence to give [though she can be generous with what she has, which is what matters to God] largely because she is in the context of Tanzania.  This is a point that ‘liberals’ might make back to us.

So, I conclude that the problem of the ‘common good’ or the ‘public good’ is a more complicated one than we might think.

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