The Common Good Is Best Served By Ignoring It
Developed societies are those in which the common good has been multiplied many times, over a long period of time. It may seem paradoxical that such things happen in spite of virtually all of those societies pretty much ignoring the common good during the period of greatest advancement. Along the same lines, those societies that hold the common good as the ultimate good, in virtually all cases, either don’t develop or decline in prosperity and in the resulting common good. Paradoxes don’t exist in reality, and this is no exception.
The common good is nothing but the accumulated good of all of the individuals comprising the commons. The nebulous “common good” is an intellectual artifact, similar to total scores of a sports league. They are not real phenomena. They are just one way to understand underlying reality. In a sport, the winners and losers are what matter to players and fans. Trying to directly manipulate the total or average scores in the league from the outside will most certainly lead to actions that are counterproductive to the interests of real people who voluntarily involve themselves in the game.
In the same way, the common good is simply a way to evaluate reality. The question is not what some mythical average person should look like. It is not what actions we, as politicians, business leaders, or any other citizen of this world, can take to directly improve the artifact, that average. With people increasing their own good, however they measure it, whether through income, wealth, happiness, or any other yardstick, and with the good of more people improving, society prospers and the common good improves as a result. The real question is how society’s rules can most effectively promote the good of the individuals who comprise it.
We already know the answer to that question. We have many examples of societies that have prospered, many that have languished, and still others that have gone from a fairly high level of common good to a abysmal level in a relatively short time. The characteristics of those various types of societies and economies are fairly generalizable, even if details of specific cases differ. Societies that protect the rights of individuals to their lives, their liberty, and their property have a strong tendency to be among the prosperous nations. Those societies where the individuals are unable to accumulate any level of wealth because the spirit of common good denies their rights or otherwise limits their ability for such accumulation, or induces jealousy and ill-feelings, or those where the common good is used as an excuse for tyrannical leadership and plunder, are those that can’t develop. It is the difference between seeing a rich person and saying “I want to be like that,” and saying “I want him to be just as miserable as me.”
There is a third case that is especially interesting and telling. Nations that have achieved a relatively high level of development can descend into the abyss when they become abusive of the rights of their citizens, with Venezuela as the prime current example. The government-induced hyperinflation erased the value of its money. It distorted and impoverished the entire society and it’s price controls and economic manipulations severely magnified all of the problems, all with the common good as the rationale.
Even countries today that talk about common good as the goal while seeming to be doing well developed their wealth under market-based, free-market rules that didn’t consider the common good. To the extent that they protect voluntary commerce and the right of the individual to accumulate wealth, they will continue to survive. To the extent that they don’t, they will be choosing not the common good, but the common bad.
Dan McLaughlin is the author of “Compassion and Truth-Why Good Intentions Don’t Equal Good Results.” Follow him at daniel-mclaughlin.com