Tibor R. Machan
The Libertarian Perspective #75 Tue, 24 Oct 2006
The Common Good
Liberal Democrats are having a conniption fit about the lack of any vision that unites the Democratic Party. So several of their pundit-philosophers are writing essays in which they lament this situation and propose remedies.
Among those doing this is Michael Tomasky, who, in a recent piece for The American Prospect, suggests that "Democrats need to become the party of the common good." Then he goes on to write, as one of his critics put it, "breathlessly," that "We are all in this . . . together, and . . . we have to pull together, make some sacrifices, and, just sometimes, look beyond our own interest to solve our problems and create the future."
I have a better idea. Let Democrats, Republicans, and the rest recover the powerful idea that got the country going in the first place, one laid out pretty neatly in the Declaration of Independence. This idea is that the common good is pursued precisely when government does what justifies its existence—namely, secure our rights. That, indeed, is THE common good in the American political tradition.
There are millions of disparate "goods" that individuals pursue, but only one unites them, only one is their common good: the protection of their fundamental individual rights. This was part of the revolutionary idea that animated the Founders and put the country in opposition to so many others, including those in Europe from which so many of its initial population fled.
In most countries throughout human history the idea was promoted that there is a rich common good, a whole slew of objectives that everyone must pursue. In other words, the common good was really the collective goods of all the people, as if they really did share goods galore that they needed to promote. The one-size-fits-all mentality was encouraged by rulers, monarchs, tsars, and the rest who needed to hoodwink us into thinking that their goals are really our goals and we cannot really, individually, have goals of our own. That was the common good–the leaders' good peddled for the rest as their good, too.
The American Founders, guided by the classical liberal social-political philosophies of John Locke and company, saw through this. They realized that in a big country, the millions of inhabitants share but very few goods. (Of course, small associations—churches, clubs, corporations, professional groups and so forth—can have some common objectives all right. But no such common good or objective exists for the millions of us!) And the most important—probably, in fact, only—common good we share is the protection of our individual rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. It's the one good that's indeed good for us all, that we have in common.
If government, which is instituted to secure these rights, does its job right, it will stick to little more than making sure that everyone's liberty is safe. Why? Because then all the millions of different individuals, and some of the groups they voluntarily form amongst themselves, will quite successfully embark on the task of pursuing all those goods that suit them. Securing our rights does that for us!
But today's public pundit-intellectuals don't get it. They want to find some thick public good—a whole, humongous basket of allegedly common goods—that government will set out to achieve. And they are surprised that there isn't such a basket; in a largely free society people have their own basket of proposed goods they want to obtain for themselves. And this isn't because they are selfish and will not make sacrifices—notice how looking out for yourself is being demeaned in Tomasky's call to arms—but because even in what they consider appropriate objectives for which sacrifices should be made the citizenry differs significantly. They don't need having one idea of what's worthy of a sacrifice shoved down their throats. No, they want to choose those objectives, as well as the ways of making the sacrifices for them if need be.
Maybe the Democrats—and Republicans—ought to recover the Founders' vision. Then they wouldn't have to concoct an impossible one behind which they cannot manage to unite folks.
Libertarians in general knew government had every motivation to grow in size and intrusiveness and lacked any real deterrent against doing so. The Libertarian Party represented a growing understanding that force or the threat of force, in whatever form, was required to maintain control of a population increasingly aware of the illegitimacy of so much government in their lives. Most people simply wish to be left alone, but government cannot leave them alone. Men in uniforms with shiny badges and seal-embossed parchments demanding service to “The King” have always been accompanied by the threat of violence for non-compliance.
The Revolution between the ears won’t take place all at once, but it will take place overnight. One morning everything will be different. Government actions against the people in the form of laws like the USA PATRIOT Act, surveillance of the innocent, controls on communications and the supposed dominion over one's body are creating an explosive environment, and the central planners know it. These police state tactics are not for our protection from outside threats, but for the protection of government from the American people. Government limits on our ability to seek redress and physically defend against tyranny are increasing -- an outcome predicted for decades by libertarians.
There are reasons to avoid being in public office these days. I firmly believe there will be at least a metaphorical guillotining of public officials responsible for destroying the American Dream for tens of millions of Americans. And I do not wish to be affiliated with those standing in line for their turn to have the lever pulled on their fate. I have absolutely no political goal other than to be left alone. My whole family and large circle of friends have invested a great deal of time, effort and money to that end. But I don't see wielding the power of elective office as a path to that goal.
While content to focus my efforts at home in Arizona , I have become increasingly aware of those with a great desire to be a “respected member” of the very system we oppose. The claim that one needs positions of power in order to free individuals is very troubling. We should be the Hobbits who do not seek power over others, and are willing to make great investments to ensure being left alone. Changing the hands on the levers of power won’t eliminate the levers. The abandonment of the principled foundation of libertarianism now would be disastrous and leave us with nothing of value to distinguish us from our ideological competition.
And while most libertarians would welcome a return to the size of government allowed by the US Constitution as championed in the Federalist Papers, many recognize that this document created the opportunity for the powerful central government we oppose today. The liberty-minded people of the American Revolution were profoundly ambivalent about the US Constitution, and detailed their concerns in the Anti-Federalist Papers. What good are checks and balances when all three branches of government are aligned against the rights of the individual? The Bill of Rights was the libertarian compromise. These ten “Thou Shalt Nots” of government was the deal made to avoid conflict. But the document has proven to be binding only on the people, in our forced support of our present government, while every single one of the Bill of Rights is constantly violated without hesitation by government. I am certain that I am not the only one wondering when this “social contract” will finally be declared null and void. –Ernest Hancock
Every generation has one or two philosophers that transcend time. From Aristotle (The Father of Logic) to Thomas Aquinas. From the Founding Fathers (Creators of the first free nation) to Ludwig Von Mises (The Father of “True” Economics). From Ayn Rand (The Mother of Liberty) to her heir, Leonard Peikoff, and on to the Libertarian Party.
In the 21st Century, I believe there is the beginnings of another. Lo Bastido’s two keystone contributions are essential as not only a guide, but for all of time.
The term "socialism" is not merely an economic term; it has other aspects, which all relate back to its very name.
Any government measure designed to manipulate society into what is deemed to be the ideal is socialism. Leftists -- no matter how moderate -- are socialists, since they support the manipulating of the economy to decrease economic inequality, and thus, presumably, social distinctions between rich and poor. Naturally, they also support some -- but not all -- permissions in regards to non-economic activities, such as marriage. Note that I said permissions, instead of rights. There are no civil rights for individuals under socialism, because socialism takes it for granted that "society" -- whether in the form of all individuals, a majority of individuals, or even some individuals as a group -- is superior to the individual qua individual. Those who call themselves "liberals" do not believe in rights; their perceived entitlements to welfare are certainly not rights; groups of individuals cannot have their own rights as a group; the overall principle is that the individual must kneel before the whims of society (although actually the ruling elite in charge of the government).
We must take into account the wide scope of socialist activities. Economic measures designed to manipulate society are a form of socialism, as we have seen. But there are many justifications for socialism, and Marxism is only one of them. (The term "Marxism" may reasonably be applied to the general concept of wealth redistribution from the wealthy to the poor, with the underlying assumptions that under capitalism there is no middle class; that the rich are always getting richer while the poor are always getting poorer; and that the rich can only get rich at the expense of the poor.)
Another justification for socialism is the vague concept of "virtue." Under this kind of socialism, society is manipulated toward the goal of creating a society based on certain religious ideals. The individual is largely left alone in his economic activities, but his non-economic activities are regulated if not banned, even though those activities are conducted between consenting adults with a clear and honest agreement regarding their association.
This form of socialism is as destructive of individual liberty as the more recognized Marxist form of socialism. Bizarrely, the proponents of virtue socialism refuse to recognize their socialism, despite their constant invocation of terms like society, the greater good, and the majority, in the context of manipulating them using government fiat -- classic rhetoric of all socialists.
Any system which aims to respect individual liberty must accept that society (or the greater good, or the majority) is built up from the basic unit of the individual. There must also be the recognition that no group of individuals -- be it a group of only two individials, or of all other individuals -- has any special rights of its own; and it certainly has no superior rights over the individual. Put briefly: society has no rights; government has no responsibility to safeguard society. The term "social contract" clouds the truth that government is basically a contract between the individual and his government; society itself has no political-cum-legal substance, with no rights, privileges, or responsibilities of its own.
Society must be allowed to take whatever course it will, regardless of the outcome. Representative government is founded on the principle that the constituency deserves whatever it votes for, and should be allowed to freely choose its fate. Society must be treated -- respected -- in the same way: whatever society as a whole wants, society as a whole should get.
Now, socialists believe the worst in humanity: they must, otherwise their policies cannot be justified. They take for granted that, if not for their interventionism, society will collapse into unspeakable horror. This belief is based on a bedrock of rank misanthropy. The prediction just mentioned requires the average individual to be a reckless, cruel idiot with no real ability to control himself: a slave to his own impulses and desires. Socialists justify the enslavement of the individual on the grounds that the individual is already a slave to his own passions. This is true no matter how vigorous a socialist's policies are in enslaving the individual: even if a policy only slightly enslaves the individual, it is assumed that the individual is only slightly a reckless, cruel idiot with a reduced ability to control himself. They call this misanthropy pragmatism, as if pragmatism were an ideal which lifts humanity to its greatest heights. (It only lifts those in charge to the greatests heights, which is the entire point of socialist politics.)
There is no real cure for misanthropy. And socialists refuse to acknowledge the value of liberty -- or if they do, they insist that it is inferior as an ideal to misanthropic pragmatism. For them it is better, in other words, to treat their fellow individuals as irresponsible slaves than to allow them to destroy themselves.
Note irresponsible: liberty and responsibility are inseparable halves. Both Marxist socialists and virtue socialists pay at least some superficial homage to responsibility -- more so with the latter -- but in the end neither truly believes in it. Even if an individual will destroy himself if given the freedom to do so, he must be respected in that choice. And if he hurts someone else's property or person, then he must be respected enough to be prosecuted for it. Socialist fiat is essentially preemptive: it seeks to prevent what are deemed criminous actions before they occur. Some activities often lead to other, harmful activities; it certainly feels good to prevent the latter by banning the former. But what such emotion-driven policy neglects is that freedom-based justice cannot survive under such prosecutorial policy. By preventing action B by banning action A, one has essentially declared all actors of A -- all of them! -- to be guilty ahead of the fact. Thus two sacred principles of Western jurisprudence are violated: prosecution on an individual basis, with the opportunity to confront one's accuser; and the presumption of innocence until one has been proven guilty. Briefly: socialism replaces proof of guilt with presumption of guilt.
Assume that, say, 80% of crack users will commit robberies while high, or to support their habit, or both; government still has no right to use statistics to prosecute all crack users. (It should use actual evidence, something which socialists tend to dismiss as irrelevant.) One of the defining qualities -- and evils -- of socialism is that it punishes the innocent (those who would not commit other crimes) along with the guilty (those who were going to commit other crimes). Modern jurisprudence should not run on statistics; a prosecutor should not charge someone with the possibility that he might mug someone in the future. (Those of you whom I am describing in this post, please take a moment to re-read the previous sentence objectively; and ask yourself honestly if such a system as described horrifies you.)
Thus, the man who snorts coke in his apartment, and has no inclination to hurt anyone else or their property, is as wicked as the man who stabs someone on the street to pay for his next heroin fix. No socialist can claim that absolutely all users of such hard drugs commit secondary crimes; and even a 99% possibility of a future crime is no justification for prosecution. It is scarcely appreciated by socialists that people should be prosecuted as individuals for the crimes they have already committed, using evidence collected against them, and with the chance to confront their accusers. No, that whole irrelevant -- to them -- rigamarole should be avoided by simply preventing people from doing things which often lead to those other crimes.
These socialist policies on criminal justice are an indication of how hostile socialism is to responsibility. If an individual manages to get his hands on cocaine, and goes on a shooting spree using a prohibited firearm, socialists studiously avoid putting the responsibility on the individual: the Marxist socialist blames the firearm, while the virtue socialist blames the cocaine. From that kind of perspective, it's not the individual who failed in his responsibilities (for he has none, since he deserves none), it's the government who failed in its responsibilities! No socialist commentator would say "Well, it's his own fault; he chose to do the coke, and so he's responsible for whatever he does even if he's hopped up." Instead a socialist would say "Government failed this man, and failed the people he shot; government must work harder to live up to its responsibilities."
In other words, government is assumed to be more responsible than the individual -- even though the enormous mass of human history has proven the reverse. Misanthropists-as-socialists do not trust people; and since according to human nature they must trust in something to make things right, they place their trust in government. Beware those who would take away responsibility from the individual, for they are putting responsibility into the one human institution which least deserves it: government, which has the power to arrest or even kill those who dare violate the tyranny guarding the current social ideal. –Lo Bastido
- Property damage and theft
- Copyright and patent infringement
- Breach of contract
All these activities violate one fundamental precept: that we all have the rights to our own bodies and property, and nothing else. (None of us, of course, have any rights toward other people's bodies and property.) The principle is that adults of sound mind may consent to activities with other adults with no interference from government except as an arbiter in case of dispute. –Lo Bastido, on the only areas of government intervention