In recent weeks — as the present administration and most of congress continue to propose the expansion of state power over people’s lives — more balloon juice has been released endeavoring to justify such programs on the grounds of fostering "the common good." Any inquisitive mind should see, at once, that the idea of a "common good" is almost entirely that: an idea, a fiction. Those who have completed a course in microeconomics can attest to the fact that our tastes, values, and preferences vary from one person to another and, further, fluctuate within individuals. What you and I consider to be in our respective interests will sometimes coalesce and other times deviate from one another. What is to my immediate interest when I am starving becomes far less important to me after I have had a filling dinner. Add to all of this variability and uncertainty the fact that the entire notion of "good" is purely subjective, and it can be seen that the insistent chanting of this phrase has no more intellectual respectability to it than does the stomping of one’s feet.
Is an alleged "common good" intended to convey the idea of a universal good, one that is applicable to everyone? If so, the only value I have found to which all persons would seem to subscribe, is this: no one wants to be victimized. I have yet to find an individual to which this proposition would not apply. No one chooses to have his or her person or other property interests trespassed upon by another. The failure to recognize both this fact and the fact that all of our values are subjective in nature, has given rise to the silly notion of altruism, the idea that one could choose to act contrary to his or her perceived interests. However we act is motivated by a desire to be better off after we have acted than if we had chosen a different course. I have a long-standing challenge to one of my colleagues to present me with an example — real or hypothetical — in which an individual chose to act contrary to his highest value. Even acts of charity are driven by a desire to satisfy some inner need which, to outsiders with contrary preferences, appear to be acts of self-sacrifice. Such thinking amounts to little more than this: "I wouldn’t have done what he just did, therefore, he is being altruistic." The idea of altruism is grounded in the belief that values have an objective quality to them, a bit of nonsense perpetuated by Ayn Rand.
Transactions in a free market occur because people do not have a commonly shared sense of the value of things. If I agree to sell you my car for $5,000, and you agree to pay $5,000 for it, each of us places a different value upon it. To me, the car is worth less than $5,000 (i.e., I’d rather have the money than the car) while to you it is worth more than that amount. The price of the car is objectively defined ($5,000) but its value can never be known to either of us. A condition of liberty — in which property interests are respected — is inherently diverse and in constant flux, as men and women pursue their varied self-interests.
In an effort to overcome the motivation of people to pursue their individual interests, and to accept the purposes of institutions as their own, humans have been indoctrinated in the idea that there is a "common good" that expresses a more fulfilling sense of self. When we have learned to suppress our individual values and interests in favor of an institution, we have become part of the collective mindset upon which all political systems depend for their existence. With our thinking so transformed, we are easily duped into believing that what we might otherwise see as our victimization is the essence of our self-fulfillment. In this way are young men and women seduced to "be all you can be" by joining the Army and having their lives destroyed in state-serving foreign adventures.
The doctrine of egalitarianism has proven useful to the established order as a catalyst for this psychic metamorphosis. Otherwise intelligent men and women internalize the proposition that being victimized by the suppression of one’s personal interests in favor of an alleged "common good" is acceptable, as long as their neighbors are being equally victimized. There is a pro-liberty sentiment in e.e. cummings’ observation that "equality is what does not exist among equals." The statists, however, have a far different meaning for the word: that being coerced by the state can be justified if the compulsion is shared equally by all. So considered, victimization by the state is simply a cost people must bear to bring about their allegedly "greater" personal interest in the "common good."
Such reasoning is generally good enough to entrap those who don’t bother to think through the proposition. Anyone who examined the "equal protection of the laws" concept in practice would quickly realize that no law applies with equal force to people. Laws are enacted for the purpose of imposing restraints on some people for the benefit of others. Proposed legislation requiring everyone to pursue their self-interests would never be enacted because it would not differentiate one group from another and, in the process, provide its advocates with a comparative advantage.
But even if the "equality" principle was given its purported meaning (i.e., to have government restraints operate equally upon all), the absurdity of such an idea would at once become evident: people would be understood to have organized the state for the purpose of assuring their mutual victimization! The nonsensical nature of such thinking would become, in the words of H.L. Mencken, "so obvious that even clergymen and editorial writers [would] sometimes notice it."
Nor can the case for a "common good" be rescued by an appeal to the utilitarian doctrine of the "greatest good for the greatest number." My jurisprudence professor, Karl Llewellyn, responded to this proposition in class one day by asking "what about the greatest good for the greatest guy?" Utilitarianism is just another variation on the collectivist theme that some may be victimized in order to benefit the group. "The greatest good for the greatest number" is the mantra of every cannibal and socialist (or am I being redundant?).
The utilitarian premise has never been the operating principal in politics. It has been used as yet another diversion — like "common good," "general welfare," etc. — to mask the promotion of special interests behind the façade of collective interests. Thus have such ideas been used to advance such corporate interests as defense contractors, banks, insurance companies, auto manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, et al., in their efforts to obtain, through state power, what they cannot obtain in a free market. Major corporations have never been advocates of a free society, preferring to side with the forces of state power to stabilize their interests against the forces of change that attend conditions of liberty. The lyrics to a song from the musical Li’l Abner — paraphrased from former General Motors president Charles Wilson — express the modern corporate mindset: "what’s good for General Bullmoose, is good for the USA."
Politically-structured collectivism, in whatever form it manifests itself, debilitates and disables individuals, depriving each of us of our biological and experiential uniqueness. This, of course, is its purpose. As long as men and women think of themselves as little more than fungible units in a group-think monolith, they and their children will continue to be ground down into a common pulp useful only to their masters. Collectivism is a religion for losers; a belief system that allows the state to marshal the wealth and energies of people for a coerced redistribution to those it favors.
Barack Obama did not invent this vulgar, anti-life concept that he works so assiduously to expand. The collectivist proposition had long been in place when George W. Bush echoed its sentiments in the phrase "if you’re not with us, you’re against us." Nor are the protoplasmic units (i.e., you and I) to be heard questioning the purposes or the costs of our subordination to what is the basic premise of every political system. The state shields itself from such inquiries under the pretense that "national security" would be threatened thereby. Efforts by Ron Paul and others to "audit the Federal Reserve" are met with the most arrogant of all pleas for governmental secrecy (i.e., that revealing to the public the nature of the racket being run by the Fed would jeopardize its "independence"). To the statists, such questions are no more to be tolerated than would a plantation owner feel obliged to entertain inquiries from his slaves about cotton prices!
One of my students recently asked me that most frequent of all questions: "what can I do to change all of this?" My response was this: "are you able to change anything that is beyond your control? Is the content of your thinking within your power to control? Can you become aware of the conditioned nature of your mind?"
Our problems do not have their origins in Washington, D.C., nor will their solutions be found there. We are the authors of our own dystopian worlds, and it is to our minds that we must repair if we are to save ourselves from the playing out of the ugly and destructive premises we have planted there. We might begin by acknowledging that our individuality is about all that we have in common with one another; and that the suppression of this quality in the name of some alleged collective purpose is essential to the creation of every political system.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.