A lot of libertarians are fond of saying there is no such thing as the “common good.” Rightfully, we shake our heads at politicians who do all kinds of unseemly things to our rights and freedoms in the name of the common good. Public Choice theory teaches us that “public benefit” is usually evoked most loudly when political actors are helping special interests in the brothels of K Street. Never mind that the very idea of public benefit is elusive, especially when we start to consider individual actors in particular circumstances.
But I want to urge that there is a common good toward which we can work: equal freedom. The problem is, the real common good is tough for most people to get their heads around, clouded as the idea has become by collectivism.
FEE President Larry Reed just published a little piece for a local Georgia paper where he lives. Reed was writing about a congressman serving during the time of Grover Cleveland. He pointed out that the House speaker from Georgia (one Charles Frederick Crisp) had been agitating for “cheap money.” These inflationary policies would move the United States away from the gold standard and help certain Georgians with interests in silver. The President, Grover Cleveland, fought to protect the gold standard.
“Do you know what this means to me?” Crisp asked. "My people in Georgia are for silver. My political career will be ruined!”
According to Cleveland biographer Alyn Brodsky, the President roared back: “Mr. Speaker, what is your political future weighed in the balance against the fortunes of the country? Who are you and I compared with the welfare of the whole American people?"
Crisp’s reply? “Well, if you put it that way, I’ll consent.”
Thanks to Cleveland’s wisdom and Crisp’s support, the veto was sustained. America’s dollar remained “as good as gold” for the next 20 years until the Federal Reserve System was established—much to our nation’s long-term detriment, I might add.
In the wake of the shameful displays of recent times, can we imagine a politician willing to stand up for the “fortunes of a country,” much less an opposition politician willing to consent in the face of reason? If we must live in a representative republic, the only way we can sustain it is for people of character to act as the republic’s stewards. And people of character are supposed to act in accordance with the real common good.
So what is it?
This is a tough question. But I’d say, roughly, the common good is that good that arises out of the rules all people would choose (or better, actually do choose) in order to cooperate. That requires a superstructure of law that doesn’t operate to the benefit of any person or group, but rather embodies equality before the law. Such law should increase the likelihood that any given person living under its auspices is freely able to pursue his or her particular idea of happiness—without making anyone worse off. Because the "common good," under most other construals, benefits individuals or groups at the expense of others, it cannot truly be common. That's why the common good inheres in equal rights and freedoms, such as those enumerated in the Bill of Rights.
The common good, seen as the Founders saw it, severely restricts the powers of politicians and populists.
So by our lights, the common good would include liberty for all, private property, and sound money. But for those who don’t share our starting points, the fortunes of a country might be built on other, decidedly illiberal, foundations. Our job is to persuade them otherwise. For if we don't, more and more people will find themselves living in a nightmare created by those who see the common good as somehow inhering in State power.