The Common Good

I’ve now listened to two of the four lectures in the BBC World Service series of Reith Lectures this year, given by U.S. political philosopher Michael Sandel. He spoke at length on his call for a “new politics” geared toward the “common good.”

I’m not a fan of the notion “common good,” and Sandel’s lectures clearly outline some of my major problems with the concept. But first, I’ll try to do some justice to Sandel’s views. First, his single biggest problem with the last 20-30 years of politics in the West — especially in Anglo-America — was a surrender of morality to the cost-benefit analysis of the market. And that governments, especially the Blair-Clinton governments (following in the wake of the Thatcher-Reagan regimes) were too willing to let markets “work” or to have governments pretend to be markets as ways of attempting to provide state services for all (or as many as need) without actually making the hard political — and moral — choices to provide those services. In this, politicians have handed over actual policy making to technocratic elites, who have too much say in means and ends.
In the end, there are some goods markets (and economists) cannot price, and so some things cannot simply be subject to a cost-benefit analysis. Politics is all about moral choices — will all citizens of an allegedly democratic polity have access to health care is a moral, not an economic choice. Sandel apparently believes that electorates would — no, better, should — choose the social democratic welfare state if given the chance.
Missing entirely from Sandel’s calculus on the subject is the reality of force — violence — as a tool of government. (Any question of government policy or law must always begin with “who are willing to shoot in order to get your way?” It is the only question to ask.) Who is he willing to shoot in order to get his idea of the “common good” enacted? Assuming that an electorate has the “conversation” he wants, the reality of electoral politics is that 50%+1 win the vote. That means that minorities, say people who don’t believe that access to health care is a moral issue or a civic and social right, can be compelled to participate, to support, policies and programs that they otherwise do not wish to support. Sandel assumes consensus, but how does that consensus come about, aside from propaganda — ahem, excuse me, education — coercion and all that goes with it? There is little room for dissent, and that’s the problem with assuming the moral validity of the nation-state as “communities” in this instance. Can there be consensus on anything in a polity of 300 million people and more than 100 million voters? And what happens if that consensus happens to be something other than Sandel’s happy liberal democratic social welfare state? Do we have to discuss and vote — like certain European electorates in dealing with the EU constitution — until we get it “right?” Is that what consensus is? Then why bother with the voting? Why not just send in the soldiers first and create “consensus” at gunpoint? Because it all amounts to the same thing.
In this regard, I do not understand Sandel’s disdain for technocrats. (Maybe he’s using that term solely to disparage Chicago-school economists, investment bankers and central bankers — all well worth disparaging — I don’t know.) Ever since the American welfare state was born (more or less at the University of Wisconsin, with help from the University of Chicago), it was an elite and technocratic exercise, America’s version of Britain’s Fabian Socialism. It was heavily dependent on planners, on data, on the social sciences to measure, regulate and control human existence. Laws were passed, such as compulsory public education, with no popular demand and almost no popular support. Indeed, politics was not about determining the direction of government, but ratifying decisions already made. And linking the people “mystically” to those who ruled them.
Sandel’s politics is an endless committee meeting in which no real choices can be made and no real dissent can be accepted. This is, of course, always how the “common good” is presented to us, which is why there is absolutely no such thing as the “common good.”
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As an aside, Sandel was at his best when responding to a young George Washington University Republican. Not that he answered well, but when the foolish young GOPer said that America is the only country in the world where people can live out their dream, Sandel rather bravely took on such nonsense, noting that there are plenty of countries where people can pursue dreams.
The attitude by the young Republican is, of course, not only a Republican attitude — it is most reflected in Wilsonianism, a monstrous worldview invented and embraced by Democrats. But it is the kind of attitude that effectively says: human flourishing can only truly happen in the United States. (Sandel and his ilk are little better, since they believe that human beings can only truly flourish in the social democratic welfare state.) It is the kind of attitude that says: America must be open to all so that they may realize their dreams, and that the world must become America so that all may realize their dreams. The realizing of human dreams in the context of being American is the end (the conclusion and the purpose) of human existence. Which makes Republicanism a false religion that worships a very false god, the United States of America. Again, Democrats are no better, since they worship that same damn false god with a dollop of health care atop.