The Common Good and Social Justice

One of the primary objectives of society and of good government is to pursue the common good.  Most people wouldn’t disagree with this objective.  The point of contention is what exactly the ‘common good’ is.  Many libertarians, and others that advocate free markets, believe the common good, if it exists at all, is merely “the greatest material happiness of the greatest number.”  This view is no doubt influenced by Jeremy Bentham’s and John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism.  But there is more to life than simple material happiness.  The utilitarian position has been rightfully condemned by many on the Right as a precursor to some of the most totalitarian and hedonistic societies imaginable.

My position is that the common good cannot be summarized so easily into a simple formula.  It must include respect for the freedom and liberty of man, natural rights, justice, equity, charity, faith, prudence, and reason.  To not have these principles leaves the door wide open for socialists to greatly exacerbate the utilitarian perspective of the common good.  Because of the Left’s virtual monopoly on the concept of the common good in recent philosophical history, some on the Right have argued that the common good doesn’t exist at all.  But to suggest that is to ultimately argue for a bastardized version of liberty, a society in which nihilism, hedonism, and libertinism reign.  Thus, man must recognize the importance of the common good, even though the very concept is built upon the limitations of liberty.

For the very reason that the common good rests upon value judgements and immaterial virtues in addition to material well-being, it not only cannot be easily summarized or defined, but it is also somewhat arbitrary and unique to various peoples, regions, and cultures.  The common good should provide for as much liberty as possible within society, with only as much restraint as necessary.  What is this restraint necessary for?  To protect the order within society.  Order and restraint are two words not likely favored by some libertarians, but they are two fundamental precepts for a prosperous and stable society.  These precepts in no way require a centralized Nation-State, however.  Order and restraint are perfectly acceptable notions within the rights and principles of private property.

Social justice is another term that has largely been co-opted by the Left to excuse every measure of welfarism, socialism, and State aggrandizement.  And in response, again many libertarians have decided that social justice is incompatible with their principles.  If libertarians continue to, almost in Randian fashion, criticize the very concepts of the common good and social justice, we will continue to lose the hearts and minds of most people to the Left.  The Catholic Church has done much in this regard to redeem social justice from the hands of the socialists.  However, in their attempts, they have also gotten a lot of it wrong, especially as regards to how they view laissez-faire capitalism.  One Catholic who changed his mind on this issue was Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn.  In his early days, he was a staunch critic of Manchesterian capitalism, but eventually came to the understanding (thanks primarily to Ludwig von Mises and others of the Austrian School of Economics) that free markets were the greatest force for social justice and liberty in the world.  Thomas Woods has also written extensively and persuasively in his attempts to reconcile free market capitalism with Catholic social teachings.  Freedom and capitalism elevate all people, in diverse ways, while Statist attempts to do so typically result in unintended consequences that, more often than not, hurt the very people the measures were designed to help.

Social justice is, I believe, the principle that all persons are unique and valuable, and that all of us should be secure in our rights and dignity.  I disagree with the notion that a socially just society requires egalitarianism, but rather advocate that it requires the principles of equity and fairness.  None of this, again, requires a State to support.  Indeed, States are the largest source of injustice in the world today.  What produces a socially just society isn’t the end of a bayonet, but rather what is in the hearts and minds of the people.  To this charge of producing virtuosity and justice within society is the responsibility of families, churches, and other interpersonal associations.  Voluntarism is the key to justice, not force.  A proper understanding of social justice would lead to less war, massive prison reform (with the bulk of legislation being abolished), better material well-being for the lower classes, and a greater commitment among individuals for community.

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January 2012
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