The Promise and Peril of the Political Common Good

Published February 3, 2022

The New Criterion - January 2022 issue

Conservatives are once again debating the nature of the political common good. This is salutary, for no political community should ignore the actual common good, nor avoid the concept of the common good. The common good plays an essential role for thinkers as profound as Aristotle and Aquinas, and for the Western tradition ever since. For Aristotle, whether or not a regime governs for the common good is the decisive factor in determining whether a regime is just or not. For Aquinas, the very definition of law—“an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated”—requires reference to the common good. Given the centrality of the common good, we might want to gain clarity about it.

Every community has a common good: a good that perfects that community as a community, giving its members reason(s) to cooperate in a variety of ways, a good that all of the members participate in and benefit from as common, not private. You can think of the common good of a family, those ends that make the family flourish not as a mere collection of individuals but precisely as a family and as members of a family. Likewise there’s a common good of a school, a sports team, a religious community, a book club, a business, and every other human community. Human beings form communities in order to pursue certain common ends—the common good of that particular community. We form families to pursue domestic bliss, the generativity of spousal love, and generations of interpersonal connections. We form schools to pursue knowledge, businesses to serve customers while earning profits, churches to worship God and attain holiness.

So why do we form political communities? What is the end or good (you can use the terms interchangeably) that perfects the political community just as such? For some “state of nature,” “social contract” thinkers, the political common good is merely about protecting the freedom to do what you want as long as it is consistent with a like freedom for others. The idea is that in a state of nature our liberty is insecure, so we form government to protect our liberty. Now, it is certainly true that government serves the common good of a political community by protecting the honorable liberties of its members, but why think that in a so-called state of nature only our liberty is insecure? So, too, is our flourishing in a vast range of its dimensions. Outside of a political community, both our rights and our goods, our liberty and our flourishing, are insecure. So if we form a social contract, why would it be only to protect human rights and not human goods? The social-contract theorists have never had a persuasive response. So even on their own terms, the social-contract theorists fail to justify a political concern focused solely on liberty rights.

Better, then, not to think in terms of a “state of nature” and “social contract,” where political community is something artificial to human nature and human flourishing. Better to see that it is part of man’s natural perfection to live in political community. Man is a social and political animal. And membership in a political community is a perfection of man’s nature. Indeed we can’t fully flourish outside of political community. As John Finnis put it in the opening sentence of his magisterial Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980), “There are human goods that can be secured only through the institutions of human law, and requirements of practical reasonableness that only those institutions can satisfy.” We form political community in order to perfect our nature to better pursue various human goods in a reasonable way. Apart from political communities—and its focal form of authority, law—we cannot reasonably attain our end.

That is, apart from living in a political community under the rule of law, our families won’t flourish, our churches won’t flourish, our businesses won’t flourish, our schools won’t flourish—we won’t flourish. None of those institutions would achieve its common goods outside of a functioning political order. Just look at how they fare in failed states. So, the political common good isn’t some super-good above and beyond human flourishing as such; it’s the various common conditions that allow for, promote, and facilitate the flourishing of the members of the political community and the various societies they form. These aren’t an aggregation of private goods, but a set of shared institutions that allow everyone to flourish. The political community flourishes when the families, schools, churches, businesses, and institutions of civil society that compose the political community all flourish. And that means the state—which serves the political community—and her laws are all at the service of this end, which is the political common good.

This also means that the state necessarily must be limited. Human beings won’t flourish, their families, schools, businesses, and churches won’t flourish, if the state usurps their rightful authority and autonomy. Likewise, this means the state will have an important role in protecting liberty. Human beings won’t flourish, their families, schools, businesses, and churches won’t flourish, if they don’t have a certain amount of space to freely author their own lives: not an unlimited amount, but an appropriate amount for reasonable self-constitution. Disagreements about this appropriate amount, like disagreements about the limits of rightful authority and autonomy, are what political debate is all about. Reducing politics on the one side to just protecting negative liberty, or on the other side to promoting collective statist actions, are two ways of going wrong. Conservatism is neither liberal nor libertarian. It seeks to promote the common good, which entails an appreciation for constitutive human goods and the appropriate freedom to pursue them.

Kim R. Holmes is suspicious of the common good, referring to it as “common-good ideology.” He namechecks a variety of thinkers (myself included) and refers to us as “common-good ideologists.” Holmes’s fear is that the “common good ideologists” are in favor of “collectivism” and “statism”—indeed they advance a “statist philosophy” that entails the “state administering a public ‘morality’” as it sees fit.

Most disconcerting for Holmes is that these “ideologists” are “questioning traditional American conservatism’s commitment to limited government, individual natural rights, and economic freedom.” He says they are doing so in ways that “call into question their commitments to liberty and freedom.” The purpose of “common-good ideology,” he claims, “is to undermine and ultimately overturn traditional American conservatism. Specifically in the crosshairs are the ideas of individual rights, civil liberties, limited government, constitutional originalism, judicial restraint, and economic freedom.” He closes the essay with this dire warning: “If traditional conservatism dies, who will stand up to the extreme Left who will surely use state power to come for your rights and liberties? You may not be able to count on the common-good ideologists, because many of them are as skeptical of freedom and rights as the progressives are.”

This is overstated and overheated.

A sound understanding of the common good, of human nature and human flourishing, is the best defense against the extreme Left and the best protection of authentic rights and liberties. But it’s a mistake to equate America with “rights,” “freedom,” and “liberty” without any mention of “morality,” “virtue,” and “goodness.” This is because rights, freedom, and liberty require morality, virtue, and goodness at both the conceptual and practical level—they’re meaningless without them. Indeed, a younger generation of conservative thinkers is recognizing that Holmes’s myopic conservative vision doesn’t actually conserve what has always been best about America. Luckily, the nation’s founders and the founders of the conservative movement made no such mistake. Regardless, a sound understanding of the common good, of human dignity and human flourishing, provides a stronger defense of freedom and rights than “the a priori reasoning and abstract nature of rights” defended by Holmes. Freedom is, of course, essential to any community and the pursuit of any community’s common good. But freedom just as such is merely instrumentally valuable—instrumental to our flourishing. We exercise our freedom rightly in pursuit of the good, wrongly in pursuit of evil. This, after all, was how the founders were able to distinguish liberty from license. Liberty was freedom exercised in pursuit of authentic human goods, governed by the natural moral law directing us to goodness, while license was the abuse of human freedom, seeking either perverse ends or pursuing good ends in evil ways. This is why we can speak of both the blessings of liberty and the abuses of liberty. Refusal to acknowledge such distinctions is entirely foreign to the American political tradition. The best defense of true liberty is a clear-eyed understanding of true human flourishing. Skepticism about the human good—and the common good—is no defense of liberty at all.

This, of course, requires us to distinguish rightful forms of liberty from base ones. Doing that entails some conception of human wellbeing and the role liberty plays in securing such well-being. Conservatives used to know this. In his 1983 classic, Statecraft as Soulcraft, George Will argued that “The most important four words in politics are ‘up to a point.’” He went on to explain: “Are we in favor of free speech? Of course—up to a point. Are we for liberty, equality, military strength, industrial vigor, environmental protection, traffic safety? Up to a point.” As his (non-exhaustive) list made clear, the political common good is multifaceted, and the various components should be considered—up to a point. And liberty is an aspect, but not the only aspect.

Those who support a sound conception of the common good will, for example, defend certain free-speech provisions, but only insofar as those provisions better protect our pursuit of the truth. This is why appeals to free speech historically did not, and today should not, protect obscenity, defamation, intimidation, extortion, or incitements to violence, to name just a few. Those verbal acts don’t help us pursue truth, and thus need not be protected as valuable acts of speech. Likewise, we are in favor of the “freedom to marry,” but that requires a sound understanding of what marriage is. An appeal to liberty or rights doesn’t get us anywhere when it comes to clear thinking about the common good of marriage and family. For one final example, consider the claim of those who appeal to a “right” to physician-assisted suicide or the “freedom” to engage in such lethal acts. Is that a liberty the conservative movement should be embracing? Or would that undermine the common good of our medical profession and intergenerational obligations of solidarity? To answer that we’d need to know something about the nature and purpose of medicine and of the family and the various ways assisted suicide would be contrary to them.

Holmes doesn’t seem to appreciate the wisdom of (the early) George Will. Far from embracing “up to a point” as the four most important words in politics, Holmes doesn’t think rights have limits unless “they [have] violated the rights of others.” But how do we determine the scope of these rights in the first place without some account of human flourishing and the common good? Does a woman’s right to bodily autonomy violate the baby’s right to life? Or does the baby’s nonconsensual presence in a womb violate the woman’s bodily autonomy? Does my right to go to the park naked violate your right to a decent moral ecology? Or does your right to a decent moral ecology violate my right to let it all hang out? Who’s to say, without some conception of what it means to be a human and to flourish as the type of creatures we are? Only with a sound conception of human flourishing can we answer that the unborn baby isn’t an intruder in a mother’s womb and that the streaker is exercising license not liberty. We see this most clearly, for example, in the case of transgenderism—without some understanding of human nature and flourishing, why isn’t it a violation of the “rights” and “liberties” of citizens not to treat transgender people in accordance with their self-proclaimed “gender identity”? Just appealing to freedom and liberty and rights won’t answer these questions.

The same is true of conscience rights. Yet Holmes writes that while “civil government has a duty to protect the conscience of individual,” it “was not up to the government to define what the limits of that conscience should be.” Really? Provided Holmes is speaking meaningfully about conscience rights not merely as the freedom to believe whatever one wants, but as the freedom to act according to one’s conscience, then of course the government must set limits—that’s what law is all about. If the government couldn’t define the limits of conscience, then it couldn’t make law. If we protect the conscience rights of a pro-life doctor, must we also protect the conscience rights of an abortionist? How about the conscience rights of parents who want to place their children on puberty-blocking drugs?

Much of the motivation for today’s conservative thinkers is a response to oversimplifications from people like Holmes, who recast the conservative movement and American political tradition as concerned solely with “liberty and freedom,” “rights and liberties.” This in turn has sparked a backlash that downplays the importance of liberty and rights in the name of the common good. In reality we need—and America has historically embraced—both. And we need to understand the connections between the two, namely, that rights and liberties (like freedom of speech) are shaped by the human goods that they serve and protect (like truth and its pursuit).

Holmes writes that “the more successful the common good movement is, the more it will erode the idea of liberty as one of the key pillars of American conservative thought.” But this need not be the case. Liberty is, and ought to be, one of the key pillars of conservative thought. But it needs to be true liberty, and it needs to be just one of the key pillars, not the only pillar. That means the conservative movement will need to articulate the limits of various liberties. And doing that will require an understanding of human dignity and a conception of human flourishing, in addition to the role that the government plays in protecting human dignity and promoting human flourishing.

It simply won’t do to argue, as Holmes does, that the government is only to protect “freedom” and “individual rights” while “civil society and religion” are to promote human goods. This is false both as a matter of sound philosophy of government and as a matter of the American political tradition. Holmes seeks to buttress his position, however, by casting the American founding as fundamentally Lockean and Locke as fundamentally about the protection of rights. On this, Holmes is once again the mirror image of the sort of conservative he attempts to critique. They both embrace an oversimplified historical narrative in which America equals Locke and Locke equals protection of rights; they only disagree on whether this is a good or a bad thing.

In reality, the founding was influenced by Locke, but not by Locke alone, and certainly not by the libertarian reading of Locke advanced today. The founders read Locke as a Christian thinker developing a tradition of political thought, and they weren’t influenced only by Locke. The American founding was an amalgam of the classical tradition, the biblical tradition, the common-law tradition, the natural-law tradition, Protestant political thought, and Enlightenment rationality. Any attempt to reduce the founding and its influences to one tradition is doomed to failure. The Founders read widely and were influenced by a variety of schools of thought.

Most importantly, the system of government they established was not concerned merely with the protection of rights. This is particularly clear when one considers that the states enjoy the traditional common-law police powers to promote public health, safety, and morality. The states run schools, hospitals, and homeless shelters; they prohibit prostitution, narcotics, and obscenity; they offer curbside recycling and leaf removal and enforce various building codes and zoning laws. We have national days of prayer and thanksgiving and some states still have Sunday-closing blue laws. Government in America does, and always has done, much more than protect “rights” and “liberties.” Our debates need to focus on whether any of these given items truly advances the authentic common good. Only a simplistic historical view that equates the Declaration of Independence with all of American political thought could fail to grasp this point.

Reading Holmes’s essay left me disappointed that he had so clearly failed to understand what he sought to criticize. He certainly didn’t provide readers with any sound conception of what the various thinkers he criticized actually think—or why they think it. For example, he sought to debunk the national-conservative project launched by Yoram Hazony, whom he repeatedly mentions but never quotes. Hazony published a good book, The Virtue of Nationalism (2018), which Holmes would have benefitted from engaging. There Hazony argues that a system of nations, rather than international organizations and global governance, will best serve the human goods at stake. His nationalism is opposed to internationalism. You wouldn’t know that from Holmes’s essay. Hazony seeks to influence political thinkers to consider what the national good is, rather than simply think in terms of instrumentalities—like rights and liberties—that might serve that good.

Likewise, in his section on Aristotelians, he doesn’t quote a single Aristotelian. In fact, he doesn’t quote anyone at all. He lumps together a diverse group of scholars—“Pierre Manent, Ryan T. Anderson, O. Carter Snead, Patrick J. Deneen, and Adrian Vermeule”—as if we all thought the same thing. If only he knew! He claims we all “reject intrinsic-rights philosophy because [we] believe it is at odds with the tenets, as [we] understand them, of natural law.” Yet he never explains what “intrinsic-rights philosophy” even is, or how we reject it. He makes outlandish claims about what “some of these philosophers” believe, without ever specifying which ones or citing sources. He seems unaware that Locke’s moral philosophy is in fact “hedonistic” in the philosophical sense— and that it’s not a slur to acknowledge that, though it is a criticism. He refers to the Catholic integralists as “the most militant of the new natural-law advocates.” But none of the people he identifies as integralists are new natural law advocates—in fact all of them are critics of it, as is well known by anyone who is minimally informed about these debates.

One is left with the impression that Holmes simply hasn’t done the reading and doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And after several pages of his denunciations of “common-good ideology” and “common-good ideologists,” one begins to wonder who, exactly, is the one, to borrow Holmes’s own accusation, “so vitriolic in [his] denunciations of other conservatives.”

Ryan T. Anderson is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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