Is There a “Common Good” in America?

Nichaolas Lemann, in a review of Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, which is a legislative, administrative and social history of the New Deal, notes something very interesting about America politics:

Political scientists use the term “pluralist” to describe a system in which interest groups compete incessantly for advantage, and there is no overarching, determinative notion of the public interest. The side that wins gets to define the public interest, and the system’s moral commitment is to the procedure, not the outcomes. The final product of the New Deal, Katznelson argues, was a pluralist, “procedural” state in domestic affairs, and a far more expansive and less democratic state—corporatist, committed to planning in the “national interest”—in military affairs. This amounts to a liberal nightmare (and also demonstrates that one should not be confident that reducing interest-group influence in politics would necessarily produce pleasing results): the aspect of government liberals focus on was constrained, the aspect conservatives focus on was unbridled. And it was the South’s doing.

Katznelson deals mostly with how the New Deal was implemented, and why it took the shape it did. I’ve not read the book, but Lemann’s review is fascinating, and it’s why I pulled the above graf out.

One of the political and social arguments I’ve long been most suspicious of is “the common good.” I’ve said before I don’t believe there is any such thing as the common good, and I generally stand by that statement.

But I would like to nuance it a bit. There is no common good in the American context. Not really. The common good is not an abstract statement of fact, but rather an arrived-at social consensus that, in order to be effectively realized politically, must pre-exist politics. A particularly defined community may say to itself “we care for each person in this community” and then express that care in any number of ways.  The American Left much admires very liberal Scandinavia, all the while ignoring most Scandinavian states are small and very homogenous, and have arrived at their welfare states less through deliberate policy than through shared social understanding of obligations to others — others who are an awful lot like themselves. (We also see a fraying of this in Northern Europe as migrants who do not share the social understanding don’t completely assimilate to it.) So a common good requires a common understanding, and that understanding is a communal feeling or sensibility that precedes political action.

Absent that, all you have are assertions. “Every American child should be educated in a state school,” for example, was an assertion of a common good from the late 19th century that was strongly opposed just about everywhere it was asserted (if John Taylor Gatto can be believed). It has become a “common good,” though one widely questioned (and frequently challenged, and a “good” I would suggest we are forever uncomfortable with). And as Lemann notes, “the side that wins gets to define the public interest.” The “common good” is a product of who can bring the most brute force (in political terms) to bear in a struggle.

This is the risk of a pluralistic society. It is my understanding that in history, most pluralistic societies were empires, ruled by a tight but sometimes very open ruling class that very definitely rules. Non-majority communities were subject, but also had some degree of autonomy, to rule themselves according to whatever traditions they had, so long as those traditions did not threaten (or were not seen to threaten) the empire. In trying to build a pluralistic, multicultural democratic society, we are doing something that has never been done before. That may be possible, but I’m something of a conservative when it comes to human organization: there are only so many ways people can organize themselves. If the kind of society we are trying to build doesn’t show up in history, well, there’s probably a reason for that — it cannot be done. It is likely, I think, that such a state will become democratic in procedure only, as any outcome that challenges multicultural pluralism will simply not be allowed. If what you are making is an empire, than empire will eventually out itself.

I’m not sure how asserting a “common good” and then imposing it via political fiat isn’t authoritarianism. (This is why I am deeply mistrustful of progressivism, because of its authoritarian bent.) On the other hand, it has become clear that contentious political impositions in this country have become part some notion of “common good,” although they remain disputed and challenged.

But in the end, I do not believe you can create with politics and ideology the things that need to hold a society and nation together, if those things — language, culture, shared outlook and understanding, shared stories — don’t already exist. Politics can shape all that, and over time, even create it (much of Europe exists because of someone’s say so, whether it be the nation of France or surnames), and those changes can become very stable and durable. But not when they are frequently challenged, even by a tiny but vociferous group. That usually ends in bloodshed.

My personal preference is for bottom-up organizing, not top-down. Which is why I am generally suspicious of most grand attempts to remake the world using political power. Or assertions of the “common good,” especially on a national level. I’m not sure what a “common good” for 300 million people looks like. I’m not sure there can be such a thing.