Does The Good Of Many Outweigh The Good Of Few?

That the good of the many outweighs the good of the few is gospel truth for a wide swath of the population, including many philosophers, economists, and politicians. It just sounds so good, so right. Upon closer inspection, however, it’s goodness, its rightness, its justice is not so clear.

It can be interpreted a couple of different ways. One, which is often used to rationalize it, is that it is unjust when people, as in the wealthy, benefit at the expense of everyone else, including or especially, the poor. It is certainly true of cronyism, when corporate leaders get their tentacles into the political world and into the pockets of taxpayers and unwilling consumers. It takes many forms, and, ironically, people of both major political parties tend to either support many forms outright or look the other way when their side does it. It includes all forms of economic development, corporate subsidies, special tax carve-outs for special interests, and so many others. It is taking money or other things from the many and giving it to the few. Wind farms are a familiar and particularly vulgar and insidious example because of their assumed “rightness” by people of all political persuasions.

The other interpretation, while garnering a lot of support, is most certainly false. This view is that the rights of any individual are subordinate to the good of the many. If someone with political influence decides that some program will help the common good, the good of the individuals, a few or many, can be sacrificed. As Josef Stalin is reputed to have said, “You need to crack a few eggs to make an omelet.”

The good of the many, the common good, is simply an accumulation of the goods for each individual. The individual is the building block of the many. This is borne out by comparisons of countries by the level of economic freedom and level of prosperity and development. Those societies that are most economically free, where much is left to the individual’s interaction with markets, have advanced rapidly and achieved a higher level of wealth and prosperity. Those societies where the individual’s rights to voluntary commerce are strictly subordinated to decisions by governing authorities and bureaucrats have languished or have fallen from prosperity to despair.

The more tightly a socialist or other dictatorial economy is controlled, the faster and the farther it falls, with Venezuela as only the most recent example. The idea behind socialist thinking is that the governing authorities and their elite advisers know what is best for the common good and can impose that vision on the populace. Control of society in socialist countries often takes the form of government confiscation of productive property to operate in the common good, but as Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and various others had demonstrated, the government doesn’t need to take title to the property. It just needs to threaten confiscation if the business or industry does not cooperate. Either way, the central planners are deemed to know what is best for “the people.”

In all of those cases, imposing someone’s vision of the common good through force of law, violence, and threats has actually destroyed the common good. The other side of the coin, where commerce is not subject political power, individual good drives the incentives to produce and trade. Both parties to transactions benefit, and the benefits are cumulative for society.

In all cases, the destruction of individual rights to life, liberty, and property for the common good must destroy the common good in the long run. Destroying incentives to productivity kills productivity. The individual is the heart and soul of every society and the source of economic activity, prosperity, and, indeed, all dignity.

Dan McLaughlin is the author of “Compassion and Truth-Why Good Intentions Don’t Equal Good Results.” Follow him at daniel-mclaughlin.com

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