In our current political discourse, virtually any news story can instantly become a flash point for bitter partisan recriminations: COVID-related public health mandates, the January 6 mob actions at the Capitol, and now the Afghanistan pullout. Each of these cases have threatened the interests of the nation as a whole, and in other times, they might have been met by a far more unified response by the American people. Instead, however, each story has been exploited by the most partisan responses it can evoke. So the effort to evacuate people from the Kabul airport was, depending on which media outlets one follows, either a disaster that has demolished America’s standing in the world or a largely successful emergency airlift led by a president gutsy enough to put an end to the misbegotten adventure in Afghanistan.
To many of us, this dissonance is painful and disorienting. So it is not surprising that some are looking with near-desperate hope for any renewal of social solidarity across our deep divides. Nor is it surprising that supply is rising, if slowly, to meet demand. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, for example, published a book devoted to this theme in The Common Good (2018), and Harvard’s Michael Sandel addressed it in The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (2020).
This past spring, Blackfriars Hall at Oxford University entered the arena with its own Common Good Project. Blackfriars is a Dominican institution, so its take on the subject is strongly Roman Catholic. It hosted a series of presentations, all now available for public viewing, by a dozen scholars. The presenters include a mix of American, British, and Irish nationals. They are mostly academics, but a few work outside the academy as well, two of whom are members of the British House of Lords.
What the common good actually amounts to can be difficult to say. Every political leader, from conspicuous do-gooders such as Jimmy Carter to mass murderers like Pol Pot, will claim to serve it. So contributors to the Blackfriars series spent a good deal of time pinning down its essential meaning. The lead presenter, Adrian Vermeule of Harvard Law School, set forth some basics. Reaching back to a medieval formula, he said that the common good includes three basic conditions: justice, peace, and abundance. While peace and abundance seem self-explanatory, justice is perhaps less so. To give firmness to this ideal, Vermeule cites a dictum from the Roman jurist Ulpian: “The precepts of legal justice are the following: to live honorably, to injure no one, and to give everyone his due.”
Since this still leaves matters rather abstract, Vermeule explores three antitypes of the common good. One is the simple aggregation of private goods. But taken together, the sum of private or individual goods cannot equal the common good, which stands apart. Society has an integral, public dimension, which might either thrive or fail. While the two dimensions, common and private, have distinct realities, they cannot be divorced. Our private welfare depends on public goods, such as general physical security, a legal system, and a functioning currency, as well as a healthy culture and an unpolluted environment. Also, the common good implies a concern for all members of society and some responsibility to those who might fail through the cracks under a purely liberal order.
Another of Vermeule’s antitypes to the common good is a state of factionalism, which violates the common good in two basic ways. First, a faction seeks the good of a particular subset of society, and so, by definition, is opposed to the common good. Second, a faction tends to encourage instability in policy, a violation of the steadiness that societies need to thrive. When one faction holds power, it imposes its favored policies, which are reversed when an opposing faction takes over. Vermeule points to Machiavelli’s Florence as a historical example of this instability, but drily notes the way in which recent presidents have used executive orders to make, repeal, and remake policy, which leads to a similar shakiness.
A final antitype of common good governance is what Vermeule calls “monstrous” government. Here, a legitimate government is too weak to rule cohesively, allowing dangerous nodes of power to arise, hydra-headed, in its shadows. We can imagine, for example, rising warlords competing for power within a single, multi-ethnic state. Or, to use a more contemporary example, we might worry about the power held by tech giants and the control they exert over the flow of information within our society.
“We talk Locke, but act Hegel”
One interesting aspect of the conversations in the Common Good Project is the recognition by participants that Americans are notably cool to the notion of the common good, a resistance that seems almost genetic. Nigel Biggar of Oxford University speculated that this resistance goes back at least to our troubles with King George III. The common good inevitably imposes obligations on private interests, and Americans come to these impositions with a degree of reluctance. That reluctance dovetails with the Constitution and its balky legislative mechanisms, its divided powers, and its emphasis on individual rights.
However, some presenters took pains to show that American resistance to common-good thinking is hardly the whole story. Vermeule noted that American law—constitutional, statutory, and administrative—has always embraced notions of the common good, with terms such as the “general welfare” or the “public interest” deeply embedded in our laws. The common good has real legal force in our system of government.
And, crucially, whatever our anti-statist ethos, our governance has yielded a great deal to common-good claims over time. Contributor Edward Hadas of Blackfriars made this point in rather painful terms. “We talk Locke,” he said, “but act Hegel.” That is, while we Americans still love the Declaration of Independence and gush about our sacred rights, we have seen over more than a century a heavy growth in state power relative to the private, largely based on common-good claims. All this time, the state has been absorbing responsibilities in various fields and claiming corresponding powers. Offering just one example, Hadas mentioned public education, a relatively recent development. In addition, we could also point to public health, the environment, housing, worker safety, and consumer protection. As this accumulation of responsibilities proceeds, the state becomes more and more the bearer of our aspirations and the dominant theater in which our shared life is played out.
It is worth noting that Hadas was less than enthusiastic about this development. At the time of his talk, the British government had just relaxed its COVID-related stricture against hugging, about which he seemed distinctly unimpressed.
Comments from Hadas and other presenters suggest an unexpected (at least to this somewhat skeptical American) potential within common-good thought. While the notion of a common good will necessarily impose upon individuals, or at least call us to serve shared goals, it can also act to discipline advocates who might too easily claim the common-good mantle. As participant J. Budziszewski noted, there can be sham appeals to the common good just as there are sham appeals to other goods, such as friendship.
Ultimately, the common good must foster real human flourishing, as Blackfriars professor Ryan Meade pointed out. That flourishing sets a standard that presumptive common-good efforts must meet. As to the meaning and content of human flourishing, perhaps it will be addressed in future discussions organized by the Blackfriars Common Good Project, which will continue this fall.
To view all of the Common Good Project lectures to date, click here.
Image: Ben Seymour, Public Domain