Published February 28, 2022
Talk of the “common good” is, well, common nowadays in conservative intellectual circles. As a professor of ethics and public theology, I count this as a positive development. Such a conversation necessarily enlarges conservatism’s horizon beyond the stultifying categories of expressive individualism and collectivism. The whole conversation focuses on the idea that there is, or ought to be, some goal from which to understand our reason for existing not only as individuals, but as individuals who are part of families and communities. In that liminal and mediating space is the so-called common good, an idea with a storied history framed largely by Catholic social teaching, but one that is consistent with Protestant ideas such as “sphere sovereignty” and “subsidiarity” as well.
There is not enough space here to give sufficient explanation to the richness of the idea. But the basic explanation for the common good is that government should strive to promote or facilitate the conditions optimal for human thriving. The common good assumes that there are natural goods to human experience that ought to be realized throughout a society. The idea of the common good is that government, whether by ensuring safe roadways, enforcing obscenity laws, or prioritizing the natural family, should secure and promote certain social objectives by protecting the rights of various institutions to live out their respective duties to the whole. All things being equal, the common good allows mediating institutions to cooperate toward the advancement of a just society by experiencing the excellencies that befit their existence. A lot of questions surround the common good: How would we realize we’re experiencing it? How robust or modest must the common good be? Most foreboding: Who gets to define it?
It is the last question that makes some conservatives wince, mostly because some conservatives are uncomfortable with the idea that society should or can be organized around a shared understanding of the common good. It also is this last question that is currently roiling movement conservatism. Whether one believes there can be much of a common good at all determines much of one’s underlying political philosophy. But the common good is not, as I’ve heard some libertarian-minded pundits suggest, conservatism’s own version of “social justice.” It is, in fact, necessarily reliant upon the notions of limited government, as the common good requires a pre-political commitment to human good, which the state is not sovereign in determining, only recognizing. For example, the dignity of persons is an inviolable reality. As such, the common good requires that the government acknowledge this pre-political truth and craft policy that protects it.
If you, like me, are a Christian weary of the West’s growing decadence who believes that God’s natural law demands everyone’s obedience to it for the sake of their own thriving, then you probably understand — or perhaps even have succumbed — to the temptation, currently in vogue among many sectors of the American Right, to see other nations and cultures as more desirable and worth imitating than our own American culture. This temptation arises out of a belief that some of these regimes supposedly demonstrate less decadence and have a more robust common good operating at their center. It is common to see intellectuals on the right offer apologias or equivocations for regimes that are seen as defending either the idea of the Christian West or the blunt notion of “tradition” as the glue that holds a society together. We see such comments about Poland, Hungary, Russia, and even China.
Some of these nations are not like the others. Hence I am fine with conservatives debating the merits of Viktor Orbán’s desire to take Hungary in an explicitly Christian direction. I personally have not bought into all the Orbán hysterics, from either side. But what he’s undertaking is certainly worth paying attention to. Of late, however, I have noticed a very online propensity to downplay the negative qualities of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, or even of the Chinese Communist Party. Sometimes this downplaying shades into outright praise. Russia, we’re told, is seeking national glory. Russia knows who Russia is, and that degree of self-identity is worth imitating. Or take, for example, a recent essay by Arnaud Bertrand in American Affairs extolling China’s anti-poverty campaign.
In the article, we read that:
China might not see eye to eye with the West on individual freedom, but it certainly agrees with American conservative principles of personal responsibility. The difference is that, for China, the government has a large role to play in creating the material and societal preconditions that allow people to exercise that responsibility.
Well, that’s an understatement, to say the least. Moreover, “large role to play” is doing a whole lot of work in that sentence that should give Americans, and especially conservatives, a moment’s pause. But the reason such an essay could be written in the first place is that China’s eradication of poverty is seen as one successful way in which a concern for the common good can justify expansive government planning. Let’s leave aside the considerable objection that Chinese communism represents the only way to address poverty, and that China’s record of doing so is hardly unblemished. But a common good defined by material plenty on the one hand but a denial of political rights on the other is no common good worth pursuing.
Lest I be seen accusing Bertrand of defending communism tout court, I do not want to signal that. But if one reads the essay, there does seem to be a convenient glossing over of human-rights abuses and government oppression. Which is why it was somewhat concerning to see Adrian Vermeule, a Harvard law-school professor and author of the new book Common Good Constitutionalism, praising Bertrand’s article as consistent with his own governing ideals, in which the government is empowered to accomplish a seemingly unbounded number of projects for the sake of its population if they can be reconciled with the common good. Birds of a feather, as they say.
But I won’t caricature Vermeule’s book, which I have read, as a defense of communism (it is certainly not that). Rather, it argues for a constitutional order that puts immense power in the hands of the state to provide for the common good, what he calls “peace, justice, and abundance — including their updated cognates — health, safety, security, and a right relationship to the natural environment — under the conditions of a large and complex modern polity and economy.” In the abstract, that sounds delightful. But navel-gazing intellectualism must meet realpolitik. And that’s where things, as history would show, get more complicated.
That brings me back to the common good. This essay makes no attempt to end the debates over the common good. I’m a Christian — specifically, a Baptist — which means I hold a fervent commitment to the reality of the natural law and the necessity of the common good, but with a hearty distrust in the power of government to get too much swagger in its fulfillment thereof. The common good ought not to be a top-down bureaucratic consistory organized by those whom C. S. Lewis considered the “Conditioners.” Elite technocrats seeking to steward society toward some eschatological vision of the good never ends well. Conservatism reflects the belief that government should reflect the deep social agreements arising from its people. This should be done under the rule of law with a shared balance of power checking human avarice, not under the diktats of philosopher-kings or any other kind of absolute power, the track record of which is historically hostile to representative government or human rights.
I desire a robust common good, but a common good on certain terms. Those terms exclude trading the messiness of our rights-based regime for the offer of a strongman’s imagined omnicompetence. We should not exchange the offer of a “thick common good” — even with the benefits of eradicating poverty — with the pottage of communist rule or, for that matter, more statist rule. It’s not worth the trade-off for America, for conservatives, or for Christians. Call me old-fashioned, but trying to find elements of redemption in the Chinese Communist Party’s regime of oppression and terror is not the formula I’d propose conservatives or Christians move forward with. Give me a common-good conservatism defined by the rich tapestries of religion, family, and civil society — not common-good collectivism or, worse, common-good communism.
Andrew T. Walker is associate professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center and managing editor of WORLD Opinions.