The Common What?

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The pastor was asking our prayers for a variety of intentions. Most of them were forgettable, but not this one: "Let us pray for those in public service, that they never fail to act for the common good." It received a round of Amens, and why not? Isn’t it axiomatic that the people we elect to represent us should act on our behalf? That belief is at the heart of our political system; indeed, all political systems. We put these people in office so they can do what is best for We the People; in other words, look after the common good. Who could deny that?

Well, almost anybody who looked beyond the platitudes to the facts. What is "common," and what is "good?"

There were, no doubt, some workingmen in the church that day. Their "good" is employment secured, if necessary, by high tariffs on imported goods, and union rules that limit the number of workers. The consumers among us, on the other hand, regard as "good" low-priced imported goods, or domestic goods produced at the lowest possible labor costs. What’s the "common" good?

Automobile buyers want to buy a car at the lowest possible price; automobile manufacturers want that price to include items that many buyers might not, if free, order: pollution controls, air bags, seat belts, etc. What’s the "common" good?

What good is "common" between the workers for the Transportation Safety Administration, and the average airline passenger? Being frisked? Long waits while luggage is X-Rayed and sniffed? Metal detectors? No-fly lists?

In the final analysis, there seems to be a sizeable chasm between what most people would regard as their "good," and what those people who call themselves public servants would regard as their "good." You and I might differ as to the best container for transporting a half-gallon of gasoline home for the lawn mower, but when both of us are told by (anonymous) strangers who "serve" us that we must use the sort of container they recommend, or else!! — whose "good" is being served?

The tavern owner certainly finds it to his best interests — his "good" — to permit his customers to smoke, if they want to. Those who object to smoking, after all, can patronize some other place. But the "servants" we pay to look after the common good might decide that no one in that tavern can smoke, with threats of punishment for the owner if he allows it in "his" establishment. So the owner loses money — and perhaps even goes out of business, and his erstwhile customers must find another smoking establishment, if they can. Is their common good being served?

Isn’t it strange that, when the virtues of democracy are being presented to us ad nauseam, no vote is allowed on this matter, or, for that matter, any other? Increasingly, we are being told what we must do, or not do, with no reference to what we might think about it; and always because it’s for the "common good." Bureaucrats might argue that good health is surely a common good, and that would be hard to deny. But how much risk to health is the second-hand smoke one might encounter in a tavern with smokers? How much risk to one’s "good" would result from skipping the pat-down prior to boarding an airliner, or taking gasoline home in a glass bottle? And does individual safety, health, etc., constitute a "common" good? The bureaucratic assumption is that the individual is too stupid or indifferent to know what is good for him, but the bureaucrat knows! Does that concept constitute the common good?

In a large, complex society, examples abound of what is good for one group being bad for another. An organization — government — that issues rules enforcing this behavior, or forbidding that, cannot possibly be working for the common good, because, in many regards, there is no common good. Thus we have the absurd paradox that the organization ostensibly to guard the common good is the principal violator of that good, to the extent that such a common good exists. What passes for the common good is, all too often, the good of a well-organized and powerful special interest group. It’s like the assertion that lawyers are working to secure justice for their clients, but, obviously, prosecution and defense can’t BOTH be working for justice, unless "justice" means either acquittal or conviction.

Even at this advanced stage of societal decay, couldn’t it be said that freedom is the ultimate "common good?" Can freedom co-exist with government? Only the freedom of the concentration camp — or military camp.

The common good is a wonderful, heart-warming, comforting concept — until you actually think about it.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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