What really is 'the common good?'
Sunday, February 09, 2014 9:00 PM
One of the most distorted terms today for justifying government programs is "the common good." When government wants to put up another building or create some new "economic development" scheme, it seems all it has to do is utter the words, "it's for the common good!" and we're all supposed to immediately hand over our wallets or else be labeled as opposing the common good. We're told that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, that a few people will have to sacrifice their personal rights for the "common good" of the rest of the community. The classic example is eminent domain, in which the government seizes private property without the owner's consent to make way for some taxpayer-funded project "for the common good." Today, its definition has been twisted from its original meaning by politicians trying to play on people's emotions to convince them to support their agenda.
But the Christian meaning of common good is fundamentally different: It is the social conditions which allow people to reach their full potential as human beings more easily, and requires three elements. First, public authorities have to respect the inalienable rights of the individual. When true common good is there, the conditions are there for an individual to exercise all his natural freedoms needed to develop his life as he sees fit. For example, it means he is confident his government won't take his property away or deprive him from being able to make decisions on how his property is used. He is free to buy or sell with whomever he wants in whatever manner he wants, as long as he doesn't defraud someone in the process. He is free to educate his children how he thinks best for their future, by either homeschooling or having a direct say in what his public school teaches them. He is free to exercise his religion, to associate with whomever he pleases, and is free to complain about government without fear of reprisal. His privacy is respected. His government operates by the rule of law and due process, not the arbitrary rule of men.
Second, common good requires the well-being and development of the community itself. Government has a role in arbitrating a disagreement between two people. Government should not interfere with an individual's access to food, clothing, healthcare, work, education and culture, information, the right to establish a family, etc., or the ability of private associations to provide these things to people who need them. The community must be free to develop these things on its own.
Third, common good requires peace. Government should provide for security of the community and its members, but only in a morally acceptable way that respects the rights of every individual. Most importantly, an individual should never be deprived of his legitimate right to self-defense, including keeping and bearing arms.
Common good doesn't mean government should be mandating these social conditions. In fact, government should be the last resort. Instead, society should encourage voluntary associations and institutions for helping provide the common good. In contrast, excessive intervention by government threatens personal freedom and initiative. Left unchecked, government intervention grows and eventually leads to socialism where all aspects of society are controlled by government. Christianity opposes socialism and other forms of collectivism. This is because a community of a higher order (e.g., government) should not be allowed to interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order (e.g., private community charity), depriving it of its functions. Instead, the community of higher order should support the lower order if asked and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, but always with the common good as the objective.
The common good is always focused on the progress of persons. The order of "things" always comes second to the order of persons. The quickest way to tell if someone is perverting the term "common good" is if his explanation fails to respect the human individual.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Doubleday (1995), paragraph 1906.
CCC, paragraph 1907.
CCC, paragraph 1908.
CCC, paragraph 1909
CCC, paragraph 1882
CCC, paragraph 1885.
CCC, paragraph 1883.
CCC, paragraph 1912.
John Pickerill is the Montgomery County Republican Party Chairman. His column is part of a series of columns that appear in The Paper of Montgomery County on Mondays from public officials.