Politics of the Common Good Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Politics of the Common Good

Tom Shulich ("ColtishHum")

In "A Politics of the Common Good," Michael Sandel defends the idea of reintroducing the concept of "virtue" into American political debates (261-269). Sandel contends that our political discourse has become impoverished in recent decades, reduced to only two concerns: welfare and freedom. Welfare has to do with economics and freedom has to do with respecting people's rights (Sandel 262). Rather than limiting political debates to questions on how to grow the economy or what laws we need protect the rights of aggrieved groups, Sandel would have public policymakers address a more basic question of what constitutes a "good life" and what the government can do to promote the prospects of a good life among its citizens.

Sandel quotes from a March 18, 1969 speech by President Kennedy in which, going beyond problems of poverty and injustice that the nation faced at the time, Kennedy criticized Americans' complacency and challenged them to examine their core values. Sandel would like more of our political leaders take up this challenge. To this end, Sandel suggests four principals along which such an examination of core values might be organized: (a) citizenship, sacrifice, and service, (b) the moral limits of markets, (c) inequality, solidarity, and civic virtue, and (d) a politics of moral engagement.

The principal of citizenship, sacrifice, and service argues against purely privatized notions of the good life. Sandel asserts that a just society must include a strong sense of community and concern for the common good. Although ideals of civic duty and responsibility to the nation are still themes of military service, civic duty and self-sacrifice on behalf of the nation are not emphasized in public schools to the extent they once were. Sandel would like to see mandatory public service programs promoting shared sacrifice for the good of the nation.

The principal of the moral limits of markets refers to the trend of contracting out traditional government services to private businesses. Some examples are private mercenary armies such as Blackwater deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan alongside U.S. armed forces, and for-profit prisons. Sandel would like to see politicians directly debate what public services should be appropriately run by government bureaucracies and which ones are better organized by market norms and the profit motive.

The principal of inequality, solidarity, and civic virtue covers divisive issues of rich vs. poor. Sandel bemoans the tendency for income inequality to corrode social solidarity, so the wealthy live in a different America than the poor, attending private schools, living in gated communities, with greater access to superior health care and legal representation. Sandel suggests that progressive taxation of the wealthy can be justified not in the name of income redistribution but rather in building a shared infrastructure of public services -- public transportation, health care, schools, parks, museums, libraries, and so forth -- to such a level that citizens at all socioeconomic levels would benefit from them.

Finally, the politics of moral engagement argues against relegating "core values" to the private domain of religion, as may result from a misplaced interpretation of separation of church and state as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Instead of keeping values out of public discourse, core ethical positions, Sandel proposes, should be open for political debate. This would entail an invitation for religious believers to enter a dialogue with non-believers in political forums. Faith-based values should be seriously considered by nonbelievers and debated against secular values as part of normal interfaith/non-faith as part of the national public discourse.

Sandel contrasts his approach to social justice with two competing approaches: libertarian and liberal egalitarian. Libertarians argue for a minimal government regulation, limited mostly to enforcing business contracts and protecting private property claims in order to maximize freedom for business ventures and consumers in a competitive capitalist marketplace. Liberal egalitarians are concerned with social justice and advocate legal protections and government programs to ensure that the most vulnerable members of society are protected from being exploited, victimized, or sinking below a minimal level of poverty.

John Locke (1932-1704) and John Rawls (1921-2002) have written books on political philosophy that are relevant to American public policy debates. In The Second Treatise of Civil Government Locke argues that a primary purpose of government is to protect private property from theft, so Locke's arguments are relevant to libertarianism. Rawls argues in his Theory of Social Justice that leaving wealth distribution entirely to market forces results in social injustices, in which some members of society receive less than their due, and excessive wealth will concentrate in the hands of an undeserving few, and concludes that this outcome is morally unjustifiable. So Rawls' critique of unfair wealth distribution is relevant to liberal egalitarian concerns.

It is hard to imagine Locke would have had much sympathy for Sandel's first principal of citizenship, sacrifice, and service. Locke's treatise is all about the duty of government to protect private property. So Locke's limited government is about protecting a private rights, not promoting public duties. Rather than promoting a positive ideology of shared sacrifice for the good of the whole, Locke conceived of government as a necessary punitive force to protect citizens against theft under threat of force: "POLITICAL POWER, then, I take to be a RIGHT of making laws with penalties of death and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property" (Chapter 1, section 3).

Sandel's first principle of public service may be implemented in the creation and maintenance of parks and nature preserves that may be enjoyed by everyone but are not the property of any private business or individual citizen. Locke seems not to consider such common goods as environmental preservation or national pride in the unspoiled beauty of a shared natural heritage that no individual is allowed to fence of or claim as their private game preserve. Locke's argument for the necessity of the rule of law or even the necessary evil of taxation does not ask citizens to make personal sacrifices in the name of a general public good. For Locke, nature's resources were seemingly limitless and free game for anyone who wishes to exploit them:

The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being. ...all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of nature; and no body has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state: yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man. (Chapter 5, section 26)

Locke reasons that natural resources have no value in themselves, until a human extracts something from the environment. Once a person has taken something from nature, it becomes his or her private property by virtue of the effort or labor that the person exerted in extracting it (Chapter 5, section 27). Similarly, once a farmer tills the soils, he is entitled to put up a fence around the plot of land and claim it as his private property (Chapter 5, section 32). Locke speculates that humans invented money in the form of silver and gold by mutual consent, while still in the state of nature, prior to developing governments (Chapter 5, sections 47, 50). This invention enabled some individuals to accumulate vast stockpiles of personal wealth in nonperishable form, something that was impossible when the only things of value were perishables people gathered for immediate personal consumption.

For Locke, the only justification individuals have to cede some of their personal freedom to the government is to protect private property from theft (Chapter IX, section 123). There is no argument here about government organizing people to sacrifice some of their personal wealth or labor for the common good or to participate as a citizen in some ennobling community endeavor. Locke's government does not demand such self sacrifice of its citizens, only that they grudgingly accept the government monopoly on violence in the form of police protection as a price they must pay in order to preserve their claim to private property:

The supreme power cannot take from any man any part of his property without his own consent: for the preservation of property being the end of government, and that for which men enter into society, it necessarily supposes and requires, that the people should have property, without which they must be supposed to lose that, by entering into society, which was the end for which they entered into it; too gross an absurdity for any man to own. (Chapter XI, section 138)

John Rawls' arguments are a way to think about fairness and social justice, so they could be appealed to in support of Sandel's principle of inequality, solidarity,…

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