Wednesday, August 12, 2009

On the “Common Good”

In the interest of the common good, I’d like to discuss the use of words and phrases such as “the common good.” Others that come to mind are “fair,” “equality,” “social justice,” and “economic justice.”

These are favorites of demagogues, and are most often used as trump “cards” to bludgeon opponents into quiet retreat. “You mean you don’t support the common good?” “You oppose equality?” “How could you be against social and economic justice?” “Your ideas are so unfair.”

The first thing to notice is that these terms are absolutely and unequivocally subjective. Try asking the person who uses them to say what they mean, and you’ll likely endure two minutes of hemming and hawing and stuttering, followed by the classic “you know what I’m talking about,” or “how could you not understand?” I did so to an author who was quoted in a Times Record story some years back, and she flatly denied ever using the terms. When I responded with a direct quote from her published works, she went AWOL.

As Thomas Sowell, the brilliant economist, author, and columnist said:
"Fairness" here, as in so many other contexts, means nothing more and nothing less than the exercise of arbitrary power by third parties, since everyone has a different definition of what "fairness" means.

On a petty personal level, a former legendary Brunswick Town Councilor, who often took issue with my positions and comments, loved to say she “supported fair taxation.” Try pinning her down on that one; I did, and the results were predictably futile.

The second thing is that use of such terms is a clear admission that the user is playing the emotion card, and this virtually always occurs because the speaker is completely absent an objective case for the merits of his proposal. Alarm bells should go off and red flags should go up whenever you read or hear such abuse of precise discourse.

What got me stirred up on this subject is repeated recent exposure to the ploy. The Forecaster’s paid regular opinion writer (see “A MoonBeem, A MoonBeem”) is prone to resort to his love of the common good when confronted with logical arguments that challenge the wisdom and cogence of his posturing, as if it excuses lapses in rational thought.

Charles Lawton, who writes a weekly column in the business section of the Sunday paper from our biggest town, and who wanders all over the political landscape, invoked the common good in his most recent offering addressing the role of government.

And Brunswick’s revered Bowdoin College has a service oriented program for its students focused on the common good.

Great…as I said a few paragraphs ago, how can you possibly be against anything that advances the “common good?”

Very easily, it seems to me, depending on what the specifics are. Here are some illuminating examples:

• Some think it’s in the common good for Congress to spend whatever taxpayer money they want on luxury business jets to schlep them all over the world, no matter how deep in red ink the government is.
• Some think it’s in the common good to have taxpayers fund the creation and exhibition of “The Piss Christ” – an ‘artwork’ consisting of a Crucifix in a jar of urine.
• Some think it’s in the common good to completely eliminate all aspects of the military, including the Navy ships built by BIW, in order to advance world peace.
• Some think it’s in the common good to have 10% of the populace pay for the entire cost of all levels of government, while the other 90% enjoy the benefits and “services” provided by said governments.
• Some think that in the name of the common good we should disestablish the Sovereign United States to join a “one world” global new order.
• And then there are folks like me who think it’s in the common good to return to the limited government principles of our founding, and to elevate the concept of individual liberty and responsibility to its former stature, where it ranked higher than identity group interests.

The foregoing argues for abolishing the useless emotional free for all that attaches to the terminology I began this essay with: the common good, fair, equality, and social and economic justice.

As an alternative, I offer the following.

1. If we are to have any semblance of a workable and lasting society, we need certain inviolate foundations to define it. I suggest the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are the finest examples of founding principles ever developed.

2. We accept that ordered liberty is in “the common good,” and that core elements of government including law enforcement and public health and safety are necessary to establish and protect it.

3. We further accept that there are other vital functions necessary to a desirable existence for which no viable alternatives exist other than for government to provide them. Examples include national defense and the infrastructure required for the effective conduct of our daily lives.

At the moment, I assert that “the common good” as it invokes government of the people, for the people, and by the people goes no further. We’re fond of saying that government education is in the common good, but it is arguable that government has completely botched it, and we know that non-government alternatives are available and are quite successful, thank you very much.

And now the punch line…the reason I began this excursion. I assert that other than the items briefly outlined above, the notion that it is in the common good to forcibly compel one group to provide for another group that which they provide for themselves is tyranny to put it simply, and when you get right down to it, a form of indentured servitude.

Some will interpret this as an argument against any and all forms of governance and any and all forms of taxation. Those who do so need to carefully read all of the foregoing, and if calmly doing so doesn’t settle them down, they should aim a fire extinguisher at whatever hair they have left.

What I was attempting to explain was not “if” government and taxes should be part of our lives, but “what” government and taxes should rationally pertain to.

In this era, the concept of “limited government” has been turned on its ear, and as a result we are on a course that is predictably suicidal. Instead of a firm grasp of the rightful limits of government as a constraint on accumulation of power and deliberation of policy and law, we find ourselves in the completely opposite circumstances.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we have evolved to where constraints as a matter of principle are non-existent, and the only limits are those that a shrinking and feeble opposition can find a way to impose on an otherwise unfettered permanent governing class.

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