The Common Good
“Humans live through their myths and only endure their realities.” Robert Anton Wilson
To me, and throughout history, there is nothing more dangerous to the wellbeing of mankind than a vision of the common good and the means to impose it. The rock band The Who said it best, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
I read all the time, articles and blogs where we are supposed to embrace some politician who promises that the government is going to fix some social ill. Usually the solution includes skimming the payment off the rich, though that isn’t what happens. I’m not that keen on vilifying the rich anyway. The rich are a side effect of being free. You let people be free long enough and somebody is going to figure out a way to become rich. You can confiscate all of their wealth in a temporary fit of “not being free”, but as soon as you go back to the free part, those pesky rich people will reemerge.
What generally happens, is that the government passes some vague law, cobbled together by adding bonuses for their fellow lawmakers, giving an agency of the government the power to regulate some segment of the private sector based on the whims of popular culture’s view of fairness and justice. What emerges, is a larger bureaucracy, that takes a greater cut. They keep their cut forever, as the lawmakers think up some new law to mitigate the problems created by the old one.
There is no vice that can’t be grown to an unmanageable size by the government declaring war on it. Eventually, we simply decide that the targeted vice is a virtue and incorporate it into polite society. The old saying of “if you can’t beat them, join them” should be our national motto. “In God We Trust” has taken a beating. My view, is that the common good can’t really be determined by the elected elite anyway. What would they know about it? To most people, simply being able to live without worry would be enough common good to last a lifetime. Governments can’t give you that. Universal prosperity would be nice but it can’t be legislated.
The sheer number of people harboring ideas about what is good for them is the dilemma. No matter how many people certain of what is good for us show up, more of us discover it doesn’t really help. So we compromise. Consensus doesn’t make anybody happy so we have conflict built in to our way of life. The ideal is to build a nation that applies just enough force to manage the conflict, without turning a sizable portion of the population into a raging mob. Raging mobs are what drives revolutions. Revolutions remove the current governors and replace them with new ones. There is never a guarantee that the new ones are any better equipped for managing consensus as the last batch. It’s a cycle.
History is filled to overflowing with the idealism of the common good…as are the world’s graveyards. Perhaps, someone, somewhere has the answer to the problem of fulfilled lives for the masses. That person will probably die in poverty someplace and perhaps an entire generation of soldier aged young people will be grateful. The only solution I have is to divide up the people between those who want someone else to tell them what to do and those who want to be left alone. Build a giant wall separating them and make the migration voluntary.
Of course, such a solution would be temporary, as one side would eventually decide that the other one had things they needed and declare war. It wouldn’t be enough that the unhappy people could simply migrate. The lure of the common good would be too great. Imposing it would be their duty to the masses. Those people with all the labor, technology, land, water, freedom, vices, false faiths, creeds, buildings, food, etc. would need to pay for their oppression of the have nots.
The problem may lie in the existence of the ideal of equality. Don’t get me wrong, equality is a wonderful ideal as ideals go. We strive to meet the ideal using force. Some ideals don’t lend themselves to good outcomes among a species that is self-aware and universally unequal. Any solution to any problem that requires effort is doomed to fail among those who aren’t willing to put in the effort. Unfortunately, that’s most people. Everyone has an opinion of how much effort is enough and everyone has an opinion of who is carrying enough of the burden. Somebody is going to think that their effort deserves more stuff. Those with the most stuff to begin with are going to resist the ideal from the start.
I know this all sounds a little hopeless. I’m guessing that we will have to hope for some and settle for less.
Phillip J Hubbell is a writer, project manager and job seeker living in the American Midwest.