Free Persons and the Common Good

One of the achievements of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ economic pastoral is its restoration to a place of honor of the classic Catholic concept of the common good. This step alone marks a reconnection of Catholic social thought to its Thomistic origins, at a moment in history in which certain themes of Thomistic thinking are more concretely verified in history than in times past. The fact that the contemporary imagination easily grasps the image of “the global village” (a metaphor first recreated by the Thomist-trained Marshall McLuhan) establishes, e.g., the imaginative context of natural law: a way of thinking about all human beings related to one another in a universal framework of mutual independence and mutual vulnerability. The twentieth-century impact of relativism, stressed by historian Paul Johnson in Modern Times, is diminishing. It is not the independence of cultures and moral systems that now most fascinates humans as their interdependence.

The danger in natural law thinking (and in the concept of the common good) has been thought to be twofold: (1) that it is static and nonhistorical; and (2) that it is incompatible with pluralism and liberty. These accusations have a prima facie validity, since the concepts of natural law and the common good were first articulated in the environment of the relatively static and undifferentiated authoritarian societies of the ancient and medieval Greco-Latin world. Yet even Aquinas and his colleagues were acutely aware of the differences between Pagan Athens and Rome and Christian Europe. They were aware, too, of national differences, as the pattern of nationes at the University of Paris suggests.

Furthermore, in the twentieth century, leading democratic theoreticians such as Jacques Maritain and Yves Simon (followed in the practical order by Sturzo, de Gasperi, Adenauer, Schumann, Malik, Erhard, and others) brought these medieval concepts into the conceptual networks of democracy, pluralism, and personalism. It would be unhistorical not to observe the transformations such thinkers wrought in the classic notions, which in any case were theoretically open to such development. In their hands, it became clear that human beings are historical animals, whose nature is dynamic, inquiring, and open to the new demands and possibilities of history — including error, conflict, and tragedy. These thinkers wrote, after all, in the maelstrom of the First and Second World Wars. Maritain’s work in helping to articulate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations illustrates both the power of the tradition of which he was the most able spokesman and the contemporary fertility and openness of his mind. Here, indeed, on the levels of the human spirit, lay the beginnings of the interdependence now widely celebrated, as it has become more concrete and visible through magnificent inventions in the transport and communications industries and through international trade, commerce, and finance.

Nonetheless, the concept of the common good remains uncommonly vague. For the past twenty years, even Catholic scholars have neglected it. References to it in various indices of periodicals during this period are virtually nil. How one can square the common good with personal liberty and cultural pluralism is most unclear.

In practice today, the common good is most often invoked in the context of economics. It is employed chiefly with reference to the condition of the poor, both within particular societies and in the relation between economically successful and unsuccessful nations. Concern with the creation and the distribution of wealth, and with some relative equality among the members of the human family, leads many to appeal to the common good as a device for inspiring individuals to attend to the condition of the less fortunate. How to produce economic development from the bottom up is itself a complex subject. It is something of a short-cut — increasingly recognized to be both a dangerous and a counterproductive one — to hold that the condition of the poor can better be raised, and thus the common good better served, by entrusting matters to the paternalistic administrations of state authorities.

In the medieval period, the church had not been adequately differentiated from the state; institutions of political democracy and human rights had not yet been established; markets were primitive and other institutions of free and dynamic economic development had not yet been put in place; and the routine of cultural and moral life had not yet been institutionally liberated from censorship and other authoritarian controls. In those days, care for the common good was invested in the authorities of church and state, ideally working in mutually respectful concert, but in practice often in deadly combat with one another. For such reasons, the concept of the common good carried heavy symbolic overtones of paternalism. The concept, moreover, was excessively simple. It was imagined that the common good could be easily known, almost by inspection, and efficiently secured by authoritative administration.

Many of the same symbolic overtones now attach to socialist schemes of the common good. It is helpful here to distinguish between classic authoritarian socialism and contemporary democratic socialism. The tendency of all socialist thought is to deprecate individualism (“bourgeois individualism”), private interests, private property, and “unbridled” markets. Classic authoritarian socialism supplies as an alternative the authority of government over all aspects of economic life. By contrast, contemporary democratic socialism is eager to defend both democracy in political life and democratic, decentralized methods in all spheres of economic life. Classic authoritarian socialism, concerned to check the error of individualism, tends to trust the wisdom of authorities of the central state. Contemporary democratic socialism resists such trust in centralized authorities. It wishes to check the error of individualism by mandatory schemes of democratic cooperation among all participants in economic activities.

Manifestly, classic authoritarian socialism exerts more concentrated discipline than the mere paternalism of the undifferentiated medieval society. But even contemporary democratic socialism seriously underestimates the chilling effect of decisions by committee and by worker sovereignty. Democratic methods are time-consuming and inflict underestimated knowledge-costs. Besides, the dynamics of political decisionmaking bring into economic calculation many inefficient externalities.

These objections, of course, are pragmatic rather than principled. Based solely on them, one may allow many experiments to go forward. However, the record of socialist experiments of many kinds suggests that socialist ideals consistently founder on rude facts of human personality and aspiration. In this sense, many persons formerly inspired by socialist ideals have come to the conclusion that socialist ideals are, even in principle, based upon false premises. This objection is principled, but it, too, is not incompatible with patience regarding continued socialist experimentation. Call this the objection of skepticism.

Just the same, invocations of the common good in the economic sphere are commonly aimed at “correcting” liberal individualism. J. Philip Wogaman, in a paper called “The Common Good and Economic Life: A Protestant Perspective,” writes for example that the “common good at least means the repudiation of any purely individualistic conception of the common life.” Historically, this is not quite true. The common good was highly respected in history long before the individual was, and long before institutions emerged to protect the liberties of the individual. Indeed after the eighteenth century, societies that respect individual rights came to be thought more historically advanced than those that did not. In referring his definition of the common good to the individual, however, Dr. Wogaman suggests an important point. Jacques Maritain demonstrates in The Person and the Common Good that one cannot understand the classic concept of the common good without understanding the concept of the person.

As every tree in the world is an individual with its unique location in space and time, and with a shape all its own, so it is with every member of every species of plant and animal. To speak of the individual in this sense is to speak of what can be physically located, observed, seen, and touched. In this context, the common good would be either the sum of the goods of each individual member or “the greatest good of the greatest number.” A purely materialistic conception of the individual is compatible with a high valuation on each individual. But it is also compatible with the view that the whole is greater than any part and ought to take precedence over any part. It is this latter view that George Orwell satirized in Animal Farm. In this view, the human being in the social body is like the steer in the herd, the bee in the hive, the ant in the colony — an individual whose good is subordinated to the good of the species.

A person is more than an individual. As the concept of individual looks to what is material, so the concept of person looks to intellect and will: the capacities of insight and judgment, on the one hand, and of choice and decision, on the other. A person is an individual able to inquire and to choose, and, therefore, both free and responsible. For Aquinas, the person is in this sense made in the image of the Creator and endowed with inalienable responsibilities. The good of such a person, who participates in activities of insight and choice (God’s own form of life), is to be united with God, without intermediary, face-to-face, in full light and love. The ultimate common good of persons is to be united with God’s understanding and loving, the same activities of insight and choice coursing through and energizing all.

Analogously, on earth and in time, the common good of persons is to live in as close an approximation of unity in insight and love as sinful human beings might attain. Since this requires respect for the inalienable freedom and responsibility of each, and since human beings are imperfect at best and always flawed in character, it is by no means easy at any one historical moment either to ascertain the common good or to attain it. In order to solve both these problems, even approximately, persons need institutions suitable to the task.

But what sorts of institutions are likely to raise the probabilities of their success in identifying and achieving the common good in history? These must be invented and tested by the hazards of history. They are not given in advance. Human beings proceed toward the common good more in darkness than in light.

Two fundamental organizational errors are ruled out, however, by an accurate judgment about the requirements of the human person qua person. The specific vitalities of the person spring from capacities for insight and choice (inquiry and love). From these derive principles of liberty and responsibility, in which human dignity is rooted. The human person is dignus, worthy of respect, sacred even, because he or she lives from the activities proper to God. To violate these is to denigrate the Almighty. On the one hand, then, it is an error to define individualism without reference to God and without reference to those other persons who share in God’s life. A self-enclosed, self-centered individualism rests upon a misapprehension of the capacities of the human person, in whose light each person is judged by God, by other persons, and by conscience itself (whose light is God’s activity in the soul). The person is a sign of God in history or (to speak more accurately) participates in God’s own most proper activities, insight and choice. The person is theophanous: a shining-through of God’s life in history, created by God for union with God. This is the impulse in history, guided by Providence and discerned by the authors of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, when they spoke of human persons as “endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights,” and strove to invent institutions worthy of human dignity.

On the one hand, then, a self-enclosed individualism falsifies the capacities of the human person. On the other hand, so does any vision of the common good as a mere sum of individual goods (or the greatest good of the greatest number). Even if it were true (in some dreadful utilitarian calculus) that a hundred persons would experience more pleasure from torturing one person than that person would experience pain, such an action would be an abomination. The person is never subordinate to the common good in an instrumental way. Persons are not means but ends, because of the God in Whom they live and Who lives in them. The common good of a society of persons consists in treating each of them as an end, never as a means. To arrange the institutions of human society in such a way that this happens without fail is by no means easy. The human race has so far only approximated the achievement of such institutions. The road not yet traveled is long. Over most of the planet’s present surface, including most of the world’s peoples, persons are still conceived of as means to the ends of the state. Their personal liberty is not respected. Every form of collectivism, in which each member is treated as a means to the good of the state, violates the dignity of the human person.

Systems and Institutions Designed for the Common Good

Since nothing else in history evinces the capacities of the human person for insight and choice, a social order worthy of human persons is not likely to resemble any other order in nature. A merely mechanical or procedural order, for example, is likely to miss the most crucial component of all, human character — that is, the complex of moral and intellectual skills through which each person slowly fashions his or her unique capacity for insight and choice. Even if one lists all the observable descriptions of individuals on file cards, and even if two (or more) individuals by some chance were represented by identical sets of such file cards (however long), still, these descriptions, as Gabriel Marcel pointed out, would fail to predict the differences between such individuals that would emerge as soon as one began working with them in close colleagueship.

In this sense, each person is an originating source of insight and choice, irreplaceable, inexhaustible, beyond even an infinite set of descriptions. (Even at the end of a long life together, husband and wife remain elusive and prove inexhaustible one to the other.) A person’s character, as one comes to know it, does provide grounds for predicting behavior (“in” character or “out” of it); but a lively sense of inquiry and choice ceaselessly allows persons to grow in character and to be converted in finally unpredictable ways. No one responsible for choosing personnel for specific tasks will doubt how great differences among persons can be, how unpredictable success is, and how misleading curricula vitae and references can be. Human persons are alive with possibility, both for good and ill.

How, then, can we imagine a system designed according to the capacities of human persons? The most sustained treatments of this problem, approached in this way, have been advanced by F. A. Hayek in Law, Legislation and Liberty and in The Constitution of Liberty. Hayek’s work has been sorely neglected by Catholic social thinkers. To comment further on it here would overburden this essay, for significant space would have to be assigned merely to exposition. But I would be delinquent if I did not at least mention. that the consonance (and disagreements) between Hayek’s work and such works of Jacques Maritain as Man and the State and The Person and the Common Good cry out for systematic attention.

The first point to stress is that the problem of the common good has three sides. (1) How can free persons come to know it? (2) How can it with highest probability (nothing in history being other than contingent and probable) be achieved? (3) Through which complex of institutions may it be pursued with maximal respect for human persons?

Since recent discussions of the common good arise most often in the context of economics, it is proper here to concentrate upon the economic system best suited to achieving the common good of free persons. In a fuller treatment, much more would need to be said about political systems and institutions, and about systems and institutions in the moral and cultural order (churches, universities, associations of writers and others, the media, families, civic groups, and the like). Let us discuss each of the three questions above in order.

(1) The Veil of Ignorance. It is not so easy to know the common good of free persons. There are three reasons for this. First, even in trying to determine one’s own economic good — in the full context of one’s own political, moral, and cultural goals — one often feels confusion and uncertainity. Should one buy this house? Take this position? Accept this contract? All such decisions are made in ignorance of the future. Not all the relevant contingencies can be known, and many that can be known are not certain to fall into place. Choice falls in the realm of uncertainty and practical wisdom, not in the realm of logic and certainty. It follows that it is no easier to know the economic good even of one’s best friends and nearest neighbors.

Secondly, each of us is necessarily ignorant about the economic good of those in trades, professions, industries, technologies, and circumstances of which we have no experience.

Third, the economic good of the entire nation — on a high level of abstraction from particular persons or groups — may be easy enough to sketch in a “wish list”: low inflation; low unemployment; steady growth; credit available at low cost; a stable currency; gains in productivity; a proportionate improvement of the national environment as compared with environmental damage; the steady advance of the poor out of poverty; care for those unable to care for themselves; and the like (almost ad infinitum). Yet the sustained investigation of the trade-offs among these many competing goods has won the historical sobriquet of “the dismal science.” One can easily imagine the reasons why this is so. The phrase “the common good” sounds simple and clear. But upon inspection this good turns out to consist of many goods. And these are not only not in natural harmony with one another but often in direct conflict. Moreover, it is not easy to rank these goods in a preferential order. One person’s set of preferences is not likely to be the set freely chosen by all others.

It is tempting to cut this Gordian knot by abolishing freedom and imposing a single view of order, according to someone’s plan for the common good, in accordance with that person’s scheme of social justice. Short of that, each person is free to try to persuade his fellow citizens that some scheme of preference, some vision of the common good in ordered rankings, is superior to others. Even so, however, the veil of ignorance is not ripped away. However beautiful any scheme may appear in theory, it may result in practice in declines in so many of the goods anticipated that the entire scheme falls into disrepute. The appeal of Catholic schemes of the common good would be far higher, for example, if the actual practices of Catholic nations has led to more admirable results. The prestige of socialist schemes has suffered from the deficiencies apparent in actual socialist experiments. And so forth.

The fundamental point, however, is that once one introduces the good of personal liberty among the social goods to be included in the common good, it becomes clear that “the common good” is a concept of a special heuristic kind. Free persons typically have pluralistic visions of the common good. The scheme of one differs from the scheme of another, neighbor’s from neighbor’s. Free persons conceive of the good in often mutually incompatible ways. Human ignorance is such that it is virtually impossible to settle such disagreements even on the theoretical plane. And even if they could be settled on the plane of theory, it is not certain that any one settled vision would be treated kindly by historical reality.

Therefore, if we were to accept the ideal of the common good as a general ideal, and even if we were to agree upon a particular vision of the common good, we would still be operating in considerable darkness and uncertainity. Whatever the common good is, it is not easy to know.

(2) Achieving the Common Good. Those who use the notion of the common good frequently exhort their fellows to “attend to” it, to “intend” it, and to “aim” at it. This conception no doubt goes back to Aristotle, who thought of all things in nature and history as “in motion,” tending to an equilibrium that is their natural fulfillment or place of rest. Indeed, he defined “the good,” in the most generic and unspecified sense, as that to which each natural thing aims. He conceived of a human person, for example, as an animal in motion toward self-realization, at whose (always incomplete) achievement such a person would be able to act well in such uniquely human capacities as inquiry, insight, choice, and decision. In their childhood, Aristotle observed, humans are moved to action by pleasure and pain, feeling, emotion, memory, and passion. The impact of these influences never fades, but gradually the fully developing person comes to order them under the gentle (even “democratic”) sway of persuasive insight and self-directed choice. Through self-knowledge, one comes to self-mastery and fluid, easy, satisfying possession of all one’s powers. Since most humans do not achieve this, one must be patient with them. In the polis, Aristotle wrote, one must be satisfied with “a tincture” of virtue.

Yet in Aristotle’s Athens, as in the Paris, Rome, and Orvieto in which St. Thomas Aquinas reconceived Aristotle’s notions to meet an entirely new context, city-states were only small towns and the many functions and institutions of modern societies had not yet been differentiated. In those ancient and medieval contexts, one person, in effect, could paternalistically “see to” the common good. Often this meant little more than defending the citizenry from hostile attack, improving productive assets such as the supply of water, passing reasonable laws, and caring for the poor. “Golden ages” of prosperity and peace came properly to be celebrated. Yet all this was not incompatible with a fairly rigid set of fixed inequalities, in which resignation to their own lot and station was thought to be a high civic good for the lowly and underprivileged. Compared to the surrounding rudeness of primitive life in the countryside, such small city-states shone out with civilized beauty. Nonetheless, rivalries among the privileged nobles within them were brutal, conspiratorial, and murderous, as one learns from Machiavelli and, considerably later, from Shakespeare. In addition, the vox populi was relatively mute, and state and church controlled virtually all channels of commerce, industry, and economic advancement. It was against such anciens regimes, Max Weber points out, that the “free cities” and “city republics” of the early modern era began their revolt.

Slowly, an important idea entered human consciousness. One did not need to think of the “common good” as a vision “aimed at” or “intended” or imposed by a singular ruler or set of rulers. One had to think of it also as something achieved through the participation of all citizens. On the way toward this achievement, sustained thought proceeded through three realizations. First, the state had been the agent of excessive taxation, torture, censorship, and repression. Second, government to be just must be based upon the consent of the governed. Third, citizens retain inalienable rights, endowed in them by their Creator, upon which the state could not by any means trespass. Made in the image of God, persons capable of insight and choice are worthy (dignus) of a sacred respect. In this way, the idea of the limited state, based upon the inviolability of personal rights, slowly emerged in human thought. Thus, as Maritain puts it, the long centuries of Jewish and Christian teaching about the dignity of the human person, working like yeast in the dumb dough of history, sought fruition in institutions worthy of that dignity.

This development posed a radical challenge to notions of the common good. First, the freedom and dignity of human persons (made in the image of God) became a primary criterion for any social order truly ordered to the common good. Second, the advent of personal liberty destroyed the simplicity of the concept of the common good. Now each human being was held responsible for forming his own conception both of his own good and of the common good. Traditionalists feared that such radical pluralism would end in anarchy. This was not necessarily so. It would have been so if the concept of the common good depended upon a unity of moral aims, intentions, and purposes. Instead, the concept of the common good was radically transformed. It no longer meant an aim, intention, or purpose. The common good came to represent, on the one hand, a social achievement and, on the other, a benchmark.

It is one thing to aim at, to intend or to make one’s purpose the common good. It is another thing actually to achieve a social order in which free persons have opportunities to pursue their own visions of the good, both personal and communal, both private and public. The liberals of the late eighteenth century set in motion the sorts of institutions that would with high probability realize such an achievement. Because of the veil of ignorance mentioned above, they came to the insight that free persons could not be expected to agree in advance about common intentions, aims, or purposes. A society respectful of the freedom and dignity of persons would have to forebear any direct and conscious effort to produce the common good. Under conditions of pluralism, that citadel could no longer be taken by frontal assault. On the other hand, it could with high probability be taken by an indirect, less paternalistic route. The order proper to subservient humans is one thing. The order proper to free men is another. The former can be an order ordered by an orderer. Formed in the mind of one, it can be made to “inform” the actions of all. The latter must be allowed to emerge from the free rationality of many. Arising from the intelligent decisions of many, from decisions taken in matters closest to their own hands, such an order can achieve a far higher quotient of practical intelligence than was embodied in any prior order.

How can this be so? We have already seen that it is difficult for any one person to be certain even of his own personal economic good. It is in principle impossible for any one person to comprehend all the concrete economic transactions that render the common good alive and vital in every nook and cranny of the economy. It is even impossible for any one person to comprehend all the goods that must be intended by the phrase “the common good” in a modern economy, even on a high level of abstraction. Economists do their best to do so. Yet even they will be the first to insist that they can tell you, from their science, probable gains and losses from particular courses of action, but that they cannot tell you which, of the many goods society might want to pursue, it ought to pursue, or how to rank them.

Yet all these testimonies to unavoidable human ignorance do not entail that a human economic order must be devoid of practical intelligence. On the contrary, under certain institutional arrangements and according to a set of rational rules derived from much experience, societies of humans that use such institutions wisely and obey their rules (amending them as experience teaches) can suffuse their own economic order with levels of practical intelligence never before attained. While we must doubt that any human economic order can be fully intelligible, designed as it must be for daily use by imperfect, highly fallible, and sinful persons, nonetheless, existing societies do differ markedly in the quotient of practical intelligence that infuses their daily economic life. For practical intelligence is infused into economic transactions in every corner of society by persons employing their own practical intelligence to the maximum degree possible. Social systems differ in their openness to the practical intelligence of individuals.

Here a brief digression may be clarifying. In a classic passage, Adam Smith pointed out in 1776, in the most revolutionary book ever written (whose full effect upon China, The USSR, and the Third World awaits the twenty-first century), that he had never known persons who said that they intended the common good ever to do very much to advance it. He made plain that he was speaking from observation. Such observation made him doubt the prevailing ideology, in which to seek one’s own interest was held to be immoral. To the contrary, he observed — again, as a matter subject to empirical testing — that when persons diligently pursued their own interests, about which they were relatively quite knowledgeable, the sum of such actions cumulatively recorded on a national scale demonstrably raised the common good of the nation.

In this passage, in my opinion, Smith injured a powerful insight by speaking of “interests” rather than of practical intelligence. To block the path of a merely exegetical argument here, I will not assert that Smith intended to say “practical intelligence,” or even that the logic of his argument in that context requires that he should have said it. In another context, one might well make that textual argument. To take a short cut here, however, I will merely assert that the word “interests” is incorrect and should be rejected. One should not make the claim that when each person seeks his own interests, then, as if by an invisible hand, his successfully achieving those interests adds to the common good of all.

On the contrary, the more accurate analysis is that when each citizen acts with the maximal practical intelligence that he can bring to bear upon the economic activities in which he is engaged, he adds to the degree of social intelligence available in his environment. When all other economic activists conduct their affairs with equivalent practical intelligence, then the entire social texture is rendered more luminous by the cumulative effect of all such acts.

There is a further factor at work. Of all forms of human life, economic activities are perhaps the most universal examples of human interdependence. Almost no one today can live in total self-sufficiency and self-enclosure, like Robinson Crusoe, totally independent of exchange with others. The farmer does not build his own combine or drill for and refine his own gasoline, does not weave his clothes or build his own television set, and does not even grow the tea, coffee, spices, oranges, or other foodstuffs upon which his family relies in his own home. For this reason, virtually every economic good or service passes through physical places of exchange, governed by rules that allow for maximum convenience and minimal expenditures of time; in short, through markets.

I said earlier that the concept of the common good has been translated from the realm of aim, intention, and purpose to the realm of practical achievement. The common good must be achieved; but the best way to achieve it has been discovered to lie not in intending it directly, but rather in establishing institutions and rules that encourage citizens to maximize the practical intelligence with which they infuse their daily tasks. Thus, by an indirect route, citizens of practical intelligence help to build up the social intelligibility of the whole. In this intelligibility lies the common good: an achievement of practical intelligence throughout the whole.

But I said that the concept of the common good also names a benchmark against which the common good as practical achievement is measured. Permit me to elaborate.

It may well be that in the economic sphere the rule-abiding institutions of the market maximize social intelligibility and that their practical fruits in prosperity, progress, and an orderly, cooperative spirit are indisputable. Nonetheless, many other social pathologies and problems may rise into view: the problems of those with little or no income, the disabled, the unemployed, and others who can scarcely enter into markets. The concept of the common good, in this sense, obliges us to lift our heads to confront the social whole again, in order to discern where some citizens may be being excluded, where needs are unmet, where fresh and unforeseen problems are arising.

The modern market system arises from impulses of the Jewish and Christian inheritance of the West, which instructed our forefathers that the dignity of every human being is beyond price. That insight led to the liberation of economic activities from the repression common to traditionalist states and to the vindication of the creative economic energies of free citizens. Analogously, a market system functioning within a Jewish, Christian, and humanist culture will always be subjected — quite properly — to claims of a transcendent sort, obliging citizens to attend to the full dimensions of human life both within and outside the economic sphere. The common good as benchmark reminds us that no contemporary achievement of the common good has yet met the full measure of legitimate expectation. The human race is a pilgrim race. At no point can we ever say, “We have attained sufficient liberty for all,” “We have attained sufficient justice for all,” etc. The ideals to which we are bound always demand that we do still better.

Therefore, it is not wrong to appeal to the common good as benchmark in order to find the current achievement of the common good still inadequate. The concept of the common good is thus like a pincers. One of its grips focuses our attention upon the concrete achieving, the other upon tasks yet to be met. There is a moral dynamism within us, in our own culture and in our souls, the living legacy of Judaism, Christianity, and the humanism they have nourished. Our hearts are restless until the destiny that draws us is fulfilled. That destiny always measures us and levies fresh demands upon us. We come, thus, to the third question concerning the common good.

(3) The Institutions that Serve the Common Good. Once we cease thinking of the common good as a substantive account of what the world ought to look like when all our work is done, and try to think of it as a form of concrete achieving and a benchmark, our minds are led naturally to the institutions through which we can realize this achieving in a concrete, practical, regular, reliable, and routine way. Fresh impulses in human life come usually with passion and emotion; abiding impulses find shape in institutions. “Politics begins in mysticism,” Charles Peguy used to say, “and mysticism always ends in politics.”

Those who first called themselves liberals — and were called liberals — had in mind three liberations (which helps to explain why the appropriate liberal flag is always tricolore). They intended, first, to liberate humans from tyranny and torture; second, to liberate humans from poverty; and, third, to liberate humans from censorship and other oppressions of conscience, intellect, and art. For each of these three liberations, they invented appropriate institutions: in the political order, limited and conditional government, institutions of human rights, representative democracy based upon checks and balances, and free political parties; in the economic order, the relatively free market, patent laws and copyrights, labor unions, corporations of many sorts, ease of credit and business formation, the stock association, and the business company; in the moral and cultural order, religious liberty and the separation of church and state, the free press, rights and practices of free expression, and the independence of universities, the media , and other private associations, from the state.

Each of these institutions was designed to protect the pluralism appropriate to free persons. Each was also designed defensively, not so much to define the common good substantively for all, as to secure for all, against the encroachments of others, the right and the opportunity to pursue the good as each saw fit; and to construct checks and balances against the mighty. The first liberals were well taught, and undoubtedly confirmed through experience, the practical bite of Jewish and Christian teachings about the sinfulness, folly, and unreliability of humankind. They feared utopianism and fanaticism from any quarter. In a sense, they trusted reason, but not the reason of any particular man or party. They wished to assure a hearing for all, and to block a dictat from any.

The great liberals were in two important senses not ideologues. First, they trusted experience, observation, and experiment. Second, they were by temperament and choice conservatives, although decidedly not traditionalists. That is, they had great respect for the tacit knowing that accompanies experience, habit, tradition, and practical judgment. They were skeptical of “men of ideas” and “the idea class.” They did not believe that their grandparents were less wise than they, but they did not fear to carry forward the work their grandfathers bequeathed to them. To their right, they opposed traditionalists, Tories, and the ancien regime. To their left, they opposed the socialists, the Diggers, and the Luddities. While they were acutely aware that theirs was a new party, representing a profound revolution in the affairs of humankind, they gladly identified their roots in ancient ways of thought from Aristotle through Aquinas (“the first Whig”). Indeed, most were for a time identified with the Whig tradition; Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Lord Acton, and others belonged to this company. To recite some of their names — Montaigne, Montesquieu, and Bastiat in France; Adam Smith, Cobden, and John Stuartn Mill in Britain; Madison, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, and Lincoln in the United States — is both to fulfill a duty and to enjoy a privilege. In recent times, their tradition has been extended by F. A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises; by Raymond Aron and Jean-Francois Revel; by Paul Johnson, Irving Kristol, Robert Nisbet; and by many others.

Because the liberal party is not utopian; because it does not offer a simple picture of paradise on earth; because it is preoccupied with checks and balances to shortsightedness, folly, and vice; because it patiently awaits the outcome of experiments and monitors unintended consequences — for all these reasons, the liberal party forms a view of the world more suited to the middle-aged mind than to the youthful mind. The artistic and the literary intellectuals have sought and found more dramatic materials elsewhere. In ideological combat all this proved for many decades a disadvantage. Today, however, in the closing years of our century, the harvest of forty years of frantic ideological experimentation is coming in. It is a harvest of many bleached bones, lying upon dry fields, that echo with the cawing of crows. It is no wonder the liberal party is enjoying an international rebirth. It is always an autumn party, looking to the spring.

Just the same, there are three themes still incomplete in the liberal intellectual inheritance, one in each of the three liberal orders. In the political order, the popular desire for security, as contrasted with the desire for liberty, has proved stronger than anticipated. Throughout the democracies, electorates have been wooed by the promise of governmental subventions, subsidies, and securities. Vigilance, the price of liberty, has not been exercised. The story of the Grand Inquisitor suggests that, ideally, human beings want liberty but, when they have it, grow irked at its responsibilities and insecurities. There are only recently belated signs that the public is beginning to awaken to the costs and dangers of Leviathan.

Yet it is natural enough that families, provident for their future, desire under modern conditions the sort of security that rural living once afforded. It is not mean of them to do so. But the provision of universal security does choke liberty, innovation, and advance. As parents who overprotect their children reap unintended consequences, so some forms of compassion reduce citizens to a dependence upon the state not altogether different from serfdom. The liberal party cannot only speak of liberty. It must distinguish rigorously among the legitimate and the illegitimate desires for security. The liberal state is certain to be to some extent a welfare state. The limits to that extent await defining.

In the economic sphere, the liberal party has thought too little about the dilemmas of the underdeveloped countries. Caught between cold-blooded traditionalist economies and hot socialist ideologies, many educated persons in the Third World hardly know of liberal ideas and institutions, except as these are reflected in Marxist and socialist literature. They do not recognize that the liberal order begins from the bottom up, from universal property ownership, from open entry into markets, from ease in incorporating small businesses, from the extension of credit to the poor, and from the awakening of economic creativity and activism in every sector of the population. Institutional realities that could be taken for granted in early North America and in Europe are novel to those still living in societies whose institutional traditions antedate the modern era.

The liberal party must think through the small steps, the tacit knowing, and the accumulated wisdom by now taken for granted in their own historical achievements. The virtues, habits, attitudes, and aptitudes appropriate to a traditional society are not identical to those needed to make liberal political and economic institutions function as they ought. “Remembering the answers” to questions long ago socially resolved requires sustained, empathetic work. It is easy to forget how much blood and bitter learning went into our own habit-building and institution-building. Still the liberal hypothesis is that liberal institutions express a system of natural liberty, open to all cultures everywhere. The hypothesis is universal in its range. But, as for that other Kingdom, so in this world also, the gate is narrow and the road is strait. Not down every cultural path can free and creative economic development acquire momentum.

In the moral and cultural order, the liberal party in its youth rebelled against a repressive ancien regime. Now in its maturity the liberal party faces a far more deadly foe of liberty: relativism, decadence, hedonism, nihilism. In its early phase, the liberal party tended to concentrate upon the illegitimate restraints imposed by authorities from without. In its maturity, it must now concentrate its fire upon an illegitimate absence of all restraints from within. The Statue of Liberty, presented to the United States by France a century ago, is a symbol of true liberty: a woman, not a warrior: bearing in one hand the torch of enlightenment against darkness, and carrying in her other hand a tablet of the law. This Lady, unmistakably purposive, disciplined and serious in countenance, is a proper symbol of liberty, as the neon-lit pornography shops in mid-town Manhattan are not. Were moral decadence to become the symbol of liberal societies, liberty were lost. It is not necessary to be Puritan — there is ample room for sensuality and pleasure in the liberal view — to grasp that liberty is primarily an attribute of spirit, of intellect, of light, of reasoned law. Liberty is primarily an idea.

That, in the end, explains why liberty must always be rediscovered by every generation afresh, particularly as each in its maturation works its way through the passions and enthusiasms of youth. How a social order can be designed simultaneously to serve the common good and to respect the conscience and intellect of every free person is not an insight given by unaided nature. The institutions that make that achievement possible, and the ideas upon which such institutions rest, must be thought through again by every generation in a fresh environment. For it is by thinking that such ideas perish or survive.

Politics does, in fact, begin in mysticism. And mysticism must, in fact, end in politics. Human beings live in institutions as fish live in the sea. Only through certain institutions can free persons exercise their liberties. To understand and to invigorate these institutions is the best — the only — way to realize a common good worthy of free persons, and to push ever higher the benchmarks of what a free people may together accomplish.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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