Monday, August 24, 2009

The Common Good

By Hanno

Hand in hand with the discussion of Socialism last week is the notion of 'the common good.' Some political commentators as well as ordinary citizens equate actions done for the common good with Socialism.

Socialism arises out of the rise of Capitalism and the industrial revolution. Well prior to that, John Locke argues for a system of government dependent upon the consent of the people governed, rooted in the ownership of real estate (property) and the laws of nature. Government is created to solve certain problems, such as the need for impartial judges to end feuds and the miscarriages of justice due to its vigilante nature in the state of nature. Government was also created to protect property, i.e. the ownership of land. Is governmental authority limited? Yes, argues Locke, by the laws of nature. A governmental official may not violate the laws of a state when he abuses his power, but can violate the laws of nature, and hence justify revolution in the defense of those laws. This may create some other problems, but it should be clear that Locke's view was used by the Founding Fathers (Jefferson in particular) to justify the revolution they started.

Less understood was the role of the common good in Locke's thought. Locke argues, though not necessarily consistently, that the authority government has is limited by the common good. If a government (Parliament, Congress, King, President) orders something which is not in the common good, then it transgresses its authority. This in turn allows for the legitimacy of revolution. The difference between a tyrant and a King, between the legitimate and illegitimate exercise of power, is the common good. He writes in section 131 of the Second Treatise of Government that "Men... be so far disposed of by the legislative, as the good of society shall all require...", meaning that the power of the law is allowed for anything the good of society requires, and "can never be supposed to extend farther than the common good."

There is more to say about just what that means. But for the moment, I want to leave with this: If the view that the exercise of political power for the common good is the same as socialism, then Jefferson and Locke were Socialists.


Anonymous said...

Right you are!

Hence, any anti-socialist rhetoric would be anti-American, would it not?


Anonymous said...

Of course the so called "conservatives" in the USA use the word socialism as a fear inducing emotionally manipulative catch-cry.

But what would a half-way decent culture begin to look like?