Sean King

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Knoxville, Tennessee, United States

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Common Good is an Emergent Property

First as candidate and now as president, Barack Obama has been preaching a brand of collectivism and elitism which, though well-intentioned, may come to present a threat to individual liberty.

In speech after speech, Obama has repeatedly emphasized that many of the country's current problems result from an excesses of individualism, and that to remedy the situation, personal self interest and ambition must be sacrificed to the "common good". The will of "the few" must be bent to that of "the many."

Some Obama quotes will help illustrate the point:

In America, we have this strong bias toward individual action. But individual actions, individual dreams, are not sufficient. We must unite in collective action, build collective institutions and organizations.
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Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition.
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Yes, our greatness as a nation has depended on individual initiative, on a belief in the free market. But it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, of mutual responsibility. The idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we're all in it together and everybody's got a shot at opportunity. Americans know this. We know that government can't solve all our problems - and we don't want it to. But we also know that there are some things we can't do on our own. We know that there are some things we do better together.

What we need, we are repeatedly told, is to replace the "small" individualistic ideas of the recent past with the coordinated "big" ideas of today's most brilliant thinkers:

When people are judged by merit, not connections, then the best and brightest can lead the country, people will work hard, and the entire economy will grow - everyone will benefit and more resources will be available for all, not just select groups.
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Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.


These ideas--pursuit of the common good at the direction of the "best and brightest"--are appealing in the extreme, but they are insidiously dangerous. This is because pursuing the "common good" directly is a prescription for totalitarianism. It is, in fact, the "totalitarian temptation" against which so many have warned us.

Those who think I state the case too strongly need only consider the history of the last century. As a means of denying our (or our ancestors') complicity in their criminal conduct, we prefer to conceive of the brutal dictators of the 20th Century as usurpers seizing power by force, brutally inserting their will in place of a resistant peoples'. But the inconvenient truth, as documented at length by Jonah Goldberg in Liberal Fascism, his wonderful history of the Left, is that most dictators initially enjoyed the support of the masses (e.g., Mussolini), some (e.g., the Nazis) were elected to power, and virtually all promoted a populist brand of politics with advancement of the "common good" or "general welfare" at the top of their agenda. As to this last point, consider the 1920 platform of the Nazi party and ponder especially the significance planks 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20, 21, 23, 24, and 25. Any of that populism sound familiar?

True, the platform is not as artfully worded as a modern politician would spin things. But, rid the Nazi platform of its racist, nationalistic and militaristic components and a simple fact remains: It's goal was to achieve the "common good" by expanding the role of government into most every aspect of its citizen's lives. In short, even without the racism, nationalism and militarism, National Socialism was still totalitarian, as was Italy's particular brand of statism known as fascism.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that modern statists seek to distinguish their ever-expanding "benevolent" federal government from the evil excesses of government under Hitler and Mussolini primarily by eschewing any semblance of nationalism, racism or militarism (e.g., by refusing to police borders, avoiding flag pins in their lapels, and generally criticizing military action, just to name three). But is racism, nationalism, and militarism all that made the 20th century's dictators abhorrent? Were those their only excesses? What about the fact that they simply advanced...totalitarianism, or the idea that more government and less individualism is the solution to most every societal problem? At their core, wasn't the true flaw with these systems that they placed the collective "common good" above individual liberty, and enforced this hierarchy via use of the coercive power of the state?

To squelch such questions, liberal statists have sought to distinguish the totalitarianism of the last century from their own brand of statism by reference to the ballot box. We, at least, were elected, they argue. But, as we have already seen, it is only a staggering ignorance of history that allows this rationalization to persist--for both National Socialisim and historical fascism were wildly popular idealogies, frequently winning at the ballot box and leading directly to Hitler's election and Mussolini's rise. But regardless, as our founding father's recognized when they warned of a "tyranny of the majority", democracy by itself is no check on totalitarianism. Quite the contrary! Democracy actually promotes totalitarianism since, if unchecked, the majority can vote themselves an ever higher station in life, and impose that station over the minority using the power of the state.

My comparison of today's statists to the last century's dictators is not meant to suggest or imply that Obama or his predeceassors have evil intentions. I don't believe that at all. Rather, I mean to suggest that the path to hell is paved with good intentions, and that what appears to be "good" today is often self-evidently evil only in hindsight. Again, those who think I overstate my case should consider the evidence of the last century.

For instance, before Hitler's horrible crimes gave racism and eugenics a bad name, few considered them to be evil or even politically incorrect. Sure, there were some who decried their immorality, but both ideas were commonly accepted throughout society and actively promoted among the intellectual class. As Robin Phillips has noted:

[I]t is a fact of history that the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the National Research Council, Planned Parenthood and the pre-1960's Democratic Party, all supported the right of the US government to engage in Eugenic selection, while thirty states adopted legislation aimed at compulsory sterilization of certain individuals or classes.

And, as Jonah Goldberg has documented at length in his above-referenced book, most of the great progressive intellectuals of the day openly advocated eugenics and racism. There was no shame or embarrassment in it. H.G. Wells wrote: "It is in the sterilization of failures, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of ht human stock lies." George Bernard Shaw wrote: "The only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialization of the selective breeding of Man." As for criminals and genetically undesirables, Shaw wrote: "With many apologies and expressions of sympathy, and some generosity in complying with their last wishes, we should place them in the lethal chamber and get rid of them." And writing for the majority of the Supreme Court of the United States, Justice Holmes wrote:

[T]he principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.... It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.[T]hree generations of imbeciles are enough.

John Maynard Keynes (the founder of Keynesian economics), Aldous Huxley, Harold Laski, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and many, many others advocated eugenics openly. Those who are not familiar with just how enamored our late 19th and early 20th century forefathers were with the now-disgraced field of eugenics should Google the term. It was not until the full horror of Hitler's Third Reich became known that these horrid ideas became unpopular and politically incorrect.

While eugenics may provide us with the most disgusting example of the masses "finding religion" after the fact, there are many others, as any student of history can readily attest. Slavery was once widely accepted in America, but is now rightfully vilified. Jews were once openly vilified, but are now generally accepted. I could go on an on, but by now my point should be sustained: Democracy is no check on evil, and what was once thought of as "good" or acceptable is only seen as evil in hindsight.

For this reason, we should all be reluctant to empower government to pursue "the common good" too directly and too emphatically. For who can be trusted to discern the "common good" when even democracy can't?

America's founding father's answered this question emphatically: No one can. They understood that "common good" cannot be pursued directly without an unacceptaable risk of tyranny (or what we today would call totalitarianism). Rather, properly understood, the common good is an emergent property: It is simply "what happens" when individuals acting separately or in voluntary cooperation exercise their responsibility to make decisions in their own long-term best interest, free from government coercion or interference to the maximum extent reasonable. This understanding of the common good is sometimes called "classical liberalism", or more often today, "libertarianism." Classical liberals and libertarians define freedom negatively--as in "freedom from" government coercion in their lives.

But classical liberalism stands in sharp contrast to today's "progressive" liberalism. Ignoring concerns of totalitarianism and rejecting the limitations on government imposed by our founders in the Constitution as promoting selfishness and materialism, today's "liberals" define freedom positively. By their definition, one is "free" only when one has the "right" to certain things, things that the state will provide if life won't.

But, what are those things to which we are all entitled, according to modern liberal statists? Those things that advance the "common good", of course. But, who is to decide which things advance the common good and which don't? Aye, there's the rub! We've already seen that democracy can't be trusted. Providing a satisfactory answer to this questions has been a problem for statist liberals since the time of Rousseau. Thomas J. DiLorenzo frames the issue nicely:

Rousseau thought that society should be guided by the "general will," but what exactly that concept entailed has perplexed later commentators. It cannot be equated with what the majority of a certain society wishes: it is only when the people's decisions properly reflect the common good, untrammeled by faction, that the general will operates. But if the general will need not result from straightforward voting, how is to be determined? One answer, for which there is some textual support in Rousseau, is that a wise legislator will guide the people toward what they really want. Those who dissent will "be forced to be free."

And how do we determine who that "wise legislator", the one who will "force us to be free" by coercing compliance with the general will, will be? Debates over that question explain most of the wars, political and real, of the last century.

But rather than fight about it, Obama presumably envisions some way by which such legislators will arise by "merit":

When people are judged [read "elected"] by merit, not connections, then the best and brightest can lead the country, people will work hard, and the entire economy will grow - everyone will benefit and more resources will be available for all, not just select groups.

But, of course, Obama fails to explain how he will change things so that people will be find public office by virtue of "merit" rather than by virtue of "connections". And, even if he could, who is to decide who is "meritorious" who is not? Again, there's the rub.

It is sad that so few people today side with our founders--those who included a host of checks and balances in our Constitution in hopes that it would prevent us from falling prey to the totalitarian temptation of empowering government to satisfy our needs. Instead, too many today seek ways of subverting these check and balances so that they can vote themselves a larger percentage of the public largesse. They should beware, for as Thomas Jefferson noted, the government that is powerful enough to give you everything you want is powerful enough to take everything you have.

And if history is any guide at all, someday it will.

1 comment:

Ann said...

What a beautiful application of complexity science. I agree with your perspective, but I especially appreciate that you have articulated it so well and found a way to apply scientific principles. I will keep reading your blog because of this article.