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In Search of the Public Good

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A central notion in The Declaration of Independence is unmistakable: the role of government is to promote "the public good." If government promotes "the public good," then "the pursuit of happiness" is enhanced. These ideas, of course, are not unique to the Founding Fathers. They are central to the Enlightenment, the 18th century philosophical and political movement in which thinkers attempted to use Reason and science to create a utopian society, "a more perfect union." Accordingly, the founding of the United States had little to do with religious principles or notions of limited government. Instead, the inspiration for our republic came from the Enlightenment principle that "a more perfect union" would be based upon reasoned principles that would fashion utopian states in which people could freely pursue their goals. Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Jefferson argued that "a more perfect union" would result from individual sacrifice -- life, labor, and taxes -- to promote the general well being of the state. In other words, you act not only to pursue your own goals, but also to enhance the lives of other people.

In contemporary American society, such notions may appear to be quaint or even naive. In many respects contemporary social life in the United States appears to encompass the endless pursuit of personal interest, an interest that seems to be part of the philosophical foundation of The Tea Party and an ever-more radically conservative Republican Party. The endless drum role for lower taxes and limited government is a case in point. By limiting taxes and government, the public good gives way to personal desire. In a world governed by principles of personal desire, your hard earned money will no longer be wasted on government programs -- scientific research, public education, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, to name a few -- that have no immediate or direct impact on your life. Why should your tax dollars contribute to programs that help the sick, the poor, and the elderly? What have they done for you? Why should the government -- and your tax contributions -- help them? If they can't help themselves, their families should take care of them? If their families can't help, the sick, the poor, and the elderly will just have to tough it out and take care of themselves.

These days we all too often witness everyday behaviors that underscore this set of insensitive and narrow-minded attitudes. Every semester my students complain to me that that someone has ripped out the pages of book or a bound journal article that was put "on three-hour reserve" at the university library. If a book is on three-hour reserve, you are time-pressed to return it to the library before the limit has lapsed. If you tear out the pages, though, it becomes easy to read the assignment at your leisure. Such crass behavior, of course, not only gives you some competitive advantage, but also impedes the study of your fellow students. When you are waiting in line -- for an appointment, for tickets, or to pay a fine -- you may encounter a person, who, thinking that his or her time is more precious than yours, attempts to butt in front of you. For some reason they must obtain the ticket, pay the fine, or see the doctor, right away. Such bullying, which may create a scene or trigger an argument, makes the waiting process more time consuming for everyone. When a highway lane is closed, causing a traffic backup, most people cross to the open lane and wait patiently to move forward. There are drivers, however, who think that they shouldn't have to wait like everyone else. They speed along in the lane about to be closed and then squeeze into the free lane at the last minute, a behavior that clogs traffic even more, slowing everyone else's travel progress.

These examples are more than mundane cases of thoughtless and selfish insensitivity, perpetrated by a small minority of individuals who simple don't care about other people. They are prime examples of what happens when personal desire suppresses the public good. Such behavior not only generates infuriating behavior, but it impedes social progress. What is even more disturbing is that this kind of narrow-minded, radically individualistic behavior is being showcased in the current crisis about raising the debt ceiling of the United States. A minority of radically conservative Republican legislators in the US House of Representatives has demonstrated a profound lack of concern for the public good. If they don't get their way, which denies a sense of shared responsibility for the common welfare -- the public good -- of every American, they threaten to block legislation that would raise the debt ceiling, an act that would destroy our economy and shame us with the stigma of being a deadbeat nation. These legislators pay no mind to experts in international finance or economic projection who predict economic catastrophe. They, after all, know the "real truth," which enables them to know what's best for everyone. And if they don't' get their way, to hell with everyone else -- a classic case of how narrow-minded personal desire slows, stops or reverses social progress.

Proud of their ignorance these legislators swagger like bullies who butt into line. Is this the sort of person you want as your representative? If we continue to elect men and women who are willfully disdainful of the public good, our cherished social contract, signed and sealed by the Founding Fathers, will be broken. In a complex and unforgiving world, that means that the poor and not-so poor, the sick and the elderly will suffer needlessly as they are forced to face the ugly prospect of fending for themselves in an increasingly complex and unforgiving world.

As the debt ceiling clock ticks down, we will soon find out if we are a people possessed by selfish personal desire or a people who promote the public good. In what kind of society do you want your children to live?

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