Column: The enduring relevance of a tricky concept
Long before the onset of the pandemic, some of the journalists and politicians on the American right began speaking of the “common good.” Back in 2005, Rick Santorum titled one of his books, It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good. More recently, last October Sohrab Ahmari wrote that the common good should replace individual autonomy—i.e., freedom—as the touchstone of a new conservatism. The following month, Marco Rubio told an audience at Catholic University that a “common-good capitalism” would promote dignified work for all and incentivize businesses to reinvest “enough” of their profits to create jobs in the United States.
Reaction to the upsurge of interest in the common good was divided into predictable camps. Social conservatives applauded the introduction of another concept from Catholic social thought into conservative discourse. They hoped that the common good would be added to solidarity, subsidiarity, and the preferential option for the poor as a guidepost to political action and public policy. Economic conservatives rejected the term as meaningless at best and authoritarian at worst. The other day, during a discussion of trends on the intellectual right, a young person asked me in earnest, “And, what is the common good?” It was the right question. There is no easy answer.
The coronavirus prompts us to think about this question a little more seriously. The mounting toll of the disease and the extreme measures governments around the world have imposed to contain it suggest that there really is something called the “common good” after all. It is the flourishing of communities, from family to neighborhood to locality to state to nation, that the virus endangers, and that the authorities hope to preserve. This good both includes and transcends the flourishing of individual persons within the community. A functioning system of public health, then, contributes to the common good. So does the rule of law, and an economy where households do not go bankrupt because of social distancing.
The common good exists. It ought to be recognized. Dismissing the idea would be an error. But it also would be a mistake to deny that the concept is vague and slippery, that in a context of religious diversity it will mean different things to different people, and that American proponents of the common good operate within a system in which popular sovereignty coexists with constitutionally protected individual rights. “How one can square the common good with personal liberty and cultural pluralism,” wrote Michael Novak in 1986, “is most unclear.” He spent a lot of time trying.
Indeed, one of the most dispiriting aspects of the common good revival is its neglect and even derision of Novak (1933-2017). He faced a set of economic, social, and cultural issues similar to the ones that confront us today. And while one might not agree with the answers provided in his more than 50 books, one cannot pretend that those books do not exist, or do not contain at least partial truths. “The economic order of the United States tested a proposition,” he wrote in Free Persons and the Common Good (1989), “viz; whether an economy may raise the common good of all through granting unparalleled economic liberties to free persons. Such an economy is dedicated both to the general welfare and to the freedom of persons.”
As the pandemic reorders society, reorganizes the economy, and diminishes individual liberty, the sustainability of the U.S. proposition has come into question. And so some, like Adrian Vermeule of Harvard University, believe it is time to abandon a jurisprudence of original intent for a “common-good constitutionalism” whose “main aim” is “to ensure that the ruler has the power needed to rule well.” (It is noteworthy that the words “Bill of Rights” and “Amendment” do not appear in this essay on the Constitution.)
Novak acknowledged that references to the common good strike a jarring note in modern rhetoric. The very notion of a “common good” hails from an epoch when there was no distinction between state and society, between public and private. For centuries, liberal writers have defined themselves against authorities to which everyone is subject. Nor has there been a settled consensus as to what the common good actually is. “Catholic writers, one will find, not only frequently disagree about the meaning of the term but make significant errors in discussing it,” he wrote. Still, Novak continued, the common good is located somewhere in the space between individualistic self-obsession and totalitarian mass control. Why? Because both of these systems deny the dignity of the human person.
Critics accuse liberal democracy of being purely individualistic and procedural. Novak pointed to the social-cultural sphere as the potential site of robust communal activity. “The liberal society has its own methods for giving preeminence to the common good—above all, in actually achieving and in progressively raising the levels of the common good,” he wrote. “It does so, to be sure, by taking care to include within the definition of the common good the securing of human rights: that is, the rights of free persons and free associations.”
Associations are key. Under a regime in which government is limited to secure the unalienable rights men and women possess because they each were created in the image of God, society is as important as the state. “The chief and most potent instrument of achieving the common good—in such a novus ordo—is not the state but the society at large, in its full range of social institutions,” Novak wrote. “These include families, churches, schools, workers’ associations, private enterprises, and so forth. Whereas in some earlier systems or social orders, the government was believed to be the chief agent of the common good, in the novus ordo a larger and more various set of social institutions would rightfully become the primary agents of the common good.” Novak often cited the following line from Tocqueville: “If men are to remain civilized or to become civilized, the art of association must develop and improve among them at the same speed as equality of condition spreads.”
So, government is not the only means by which the common good can be pursued. Equally if not more important to human flourishing are the mediating structures of family, religion, community, vocation, and voluntary association. Yes, law, economy, society, and individual character are connected. But social causation does not follow a straight line. And just as the structure of our economic institutions might be traced to political decisions, so might the strength and weaknesses of our social institutions. From Burke to Tocqueville to Robert Nisbet, conservative social thought has catalogued the ways in which the expansive state pushes through the mediating structures by assuming their functions. Then the solitary individual is left to face the Leviathan alone. The common good and the art of association are not separate phenomena. They are linked.
A post-corona politics of the common good that recognizes freedom must be exercised within the constraints of a moral tradition; that encourages able-bodied men and women to work and form families; that makes it easier to enter a profession, buy a home, raise children; that preserves the independence of religious institutions from state interference and resists the separation of religion from society; that protects communities from lawlessness, epidemics, and external threats; and that builds the capacity of public institutions to promote transportation, health, education, research and development, and the defense industrial base would fit comfortably in the American political tradition of “freedom and justice for all.” A politics that pursues a sectarian definition of “the common good”; that models its ideal government after a religious bureaucracy with a decidedly imperfect history; and that imperiously and rather impishly rejects longstanding indigenous norms of liberty and conscience does not.
“It is my hope,” Novak concluded, “that during the next two hundred years, the Catholic tradition and the liberal tradition will work as allies rather than enemies, each correcting the other from its own proper viewpoint. They have different purposes—one focused on the City of God, the other on the City of Man—and operate within two different perspectives. But the free persons that both address, and the common good that both are called upon to serve, dwell under the light of both Cities simultaneously. Both are called upon to promote the common good of free persons. Would that they do so together!” The time of coronavirus is an opportunity to answer Michael Novak’s call.