February 6, 2012
By William McKenzie
President Obama made the case for the common good, as he saw it, in his State of the Union address. Jackie Calmes of the New York Times summarized his theme this way: "Government and citizens are responsible together for the common good, even as they celebrate individualism and free markets."
Of course, you might say. Shared responsibilities and creating room for the individual to flourish are major elements of our national creed.
But how do we build a common good today?
The president, for example, wants clean energy, better schools and housing opportunities for more Americans. Good goals, but they cost money. And we are $14 trillion in debt. Someone has to pay for all these new ideas, including the ones that Republicans offer. Often, it is the rich who are asked to pay, which leads some to wonder why they are singled out to pay for the common good.
I'm not here to ask you to give readers a balanced budget plan. Others can take on that unenviable chore.
But I would like you all to talk about how the country can create a greater sense of the common good. We hear plenty about how political bodies can shape it, but I'd especially like to hear what other institutions could play a role. And how they could shape the common good, or perhaps are shaping it....
WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States clearly states that the purpose in crafting such a document was to "...form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty..."
Those were and are noble aims. They demonstrate with unmistakable clarity that America is committed to being one nation that values the common good. The systems of government are ordained by the Constitution, committed to these purposes, and envisioned by the entire social order. It is not necessarily imagined that only the systems of the government will pursue these aims. But it certainly is imagined that the systems of government will do so.
From the perspective of the constitutional vision, the preeminent concern is not how much individuals will be asked to pay to achieve it but rather that all in the nation shall be provided with the opportunity to experience it. It is therefore the case that the common good is a higher priority than an individual's good. In providing for the "common defense," for example, we all understand that an individual in the military must function as part of a team and might have to sacrifice even his or her life for the good of the nation. We honor those who do so.
Similarly, to "promote the general welfare" will require adequately funding a system of public education for all children and youth, not limited by the private comfort of individuals who want to reduce their personal taxes but expanded for the common good to make education available to all. Similarly, health care is not a commodity to be marketed to those who can afford it but it is a quality to be distributed to all for the common good. Whether it is offered by religious organizations or by governmental agencies is not the point--the common good is what matters.
Ironically, when the common good is the prevailing value, then the private and individual sectors of society are also beneficiaries. Education not only provides for the general welfare of the social order, it also means that a trained cohort of potential employees can be provided by society for the benefit of entrepreneurial interests. A business does not have to teach basic math to its employees for five years before putting them to work. Where education has been valued for the general welfare of society, potential employees join the work force with the skills already honed. And when health care is available for the common good of all, individuals in society have less reason to fear that critical illnesses might erode their financial resources or that infections bred in impoverished neighborhoods could bring disastrous results upon persons from more prosperous sections of town.
The founders of the nation expressed the values on which America was built when they crafted the Constitution. We should not flee from those values or forsake them, just to preserve our private profits.
MATTHEW WILSON, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University
In a society that stresses, somewhat paradoxically, both individual rights and group identities, it can be difficult even to identify, let alone achieve, the common good. Clearly, however, there are certain goals that, if achieved, truly would work to the benefit of the overwhelming majority of the citizenry--prosperity, security, environmental protection, etc.
Genuine national defense (which is different from unlimited military spending) is a public good. So are law enforcement, clean air and water, and a safe and efficient transportation infrastructure.
Finally, one of the greatest public goods that we as a nation could achieve would be fiscal solvency--something of which we now fall woefully short, with inevitably negative consequences for people of all levels of wealth.
So how do we build public support for these necessary things?
The perception of fairness, in both the raising and the spending of public revenues, is critical. As the president has said, part of this involves making sure that wealthy people pay their full share. The tax code needs to be simplified so that it does much less to reward creative accounting, and so that effective rates of taxation are more nearly equal across individuals.
At the same time, however -- and this is something that the president has not acknowledged -- we need to make sure that everyone in our society has some "skin in the game." Right now, half of the population pays ZERO federal income tax. This means, effectively, that the top half of the population (and, to a large extent, the top quarter) foots the entire government bill for national defense, federal highway projects, the National Science Foundation, public television and radio, unemployment and poverty relief projects, and everything else the federal government does, apart from Medicare and Social Security (which are theoretically funded through a payroll tax paid by a broader segment of the population). It is hard to get more affluent citizens to buy into the notion of the "common good" when they believe that they are being asked to pay for virtually everything that government does.
One of the problems with our societal discourse about these issues is that we tend to default to one of two extremes -- either individuals need to fend for themselves, in a very atomized, libertarian view, or we need massive national government programs to create some sort of collectivist utopia. An alternative, in my view, is provided in the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity, which emphasizes the common good and our responsibility for one another, but urges that all needs be addressed at the lowest, most localized level that can realistically deal with them.
In other words, nations should not jump in to solve problems that can be handled by states, states should not usurp the legitimate functions of local communities, and community governments should not trespass into territory more properly handled by families. This approach (about which, of course, much more could be said) avoids the extremes of individualism and statism, and can get a more comprehensive buy-in for notions of the common good.
Religious institutions can and should play a role in fostering this approach -- something that I hope to able to expand on in a future post....