Monday 19 July 2021

The ‘Common Good’ and Equality of Opportunity

Adam Smith, the 19th-century Scottish philosopher, warned against both
monopoly interests and government intervention in private economic arrangements.

Posted by Keith Tidman

Every nation grapples with balancing things that benefit the community as a whole — the common good — and those that benefit individuals — the private good. Untangling which things fall under each of the two rubrics is just one of the challenges. Decisions hinge on a nation’s history, political philosophy, approach to governance, and the general will of its citizenry.


At the core is recognition that community, civic relationships, and interdependencies matter in building a just society, as what is ‘just’ is a shared enterprise based on liberal Enlightenment principles around rights and ethics. Acting on this recognition drives whether a nation’s social system allows for every individual to benefit impartially from its bounty.


Although capitalism has proven to be the most-dynamic engine of nations’ wealth in terms of gross domestic product, it also commonly fosters gaping inequality between the multibillionaires and the many tens of millions of people left destitute. There are those left without homes, without food, without medical care — and without hope. As philosopher and political economist Adam Smith observed: 

‘Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many’.

Today, this gap between the two extreme poles in wealth inequality is widening and becoming uglier in both material and moral terms. Among the worst injustices, however, is inequality not only of income or of wealth — the two traditional standards of inequality — but (underlying them both) inequality of opportunity. Opportunity as in access to education or training, meaningful work, a home in which to raise a family, leisure activity, the chance to excel unhampered by caste or discrimination. Such benefits ultimately stem from opportunity, without which there is little by way of quality of life.


I would argue that the presence or absence of opportunity in life is the root of whether society is fair and just and moral. The notion of the common good, as a civically moral imperative, reaches back to the ancient world, adjusting in accordance with the passage and rhythm of history and the gyrations of social composition. Aristotle stated in the Politics that ‘governments, which have a regard to the common interest, are constituted in accordance with strict principles of justice’.


The cornerstone of the common good is shared conditions, facilities, and establishments that redound to every citizen’s benefit. A foundation where freedom, autonomy, agency, and self-governance are realised through collective participation. Not as atomised citizens, with narrow self-interests. And not where society myopically hails populist individual rights and liberties. But rather through communal action in the spirit of liberalised markets and liberalised constitutional government institutions.


Common examples include law courts and an impartial system of justice, accessible public healthcare, civic-minded policing and order, affordable and sufficient food, thriving economic system, national defense to safeguard peace, well-maintained infrastructure, responsive system of governance, accessible public education, libraries and museums, protection of the environment, and public transportation.


The cornerstone of the private good is individual rights, with which the common good must be seeded and counterweighted. These rights, or civic liberties, commonly include those of free speech, conscience, public assembly, and religion. As well as rights to life, personal property, petition of the government, privacy, fair trial (due process), movement, and safety. That is, natural, inalienable human rights that governments ought not attempt to take away but rather ought always to protect.


One challenge is how to manage the potential pluralism of a society, where there are dissimilar interest groups (constituencies) whose objectives might conflict. In modern societies, these dissimilar groups are many, divided along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, country of origin, religion, and socioeconomic rank. Establishing a common good from such a mix is something society may find difficult.


A second challenge is how to settle the predictable differences of opinion over the relative worth of those values that align with the common good and the private good. When it comes to ‘best’ government and social policy, there must be caution not to allow the shrillest voices, whether among the majority or minority of society, to crowd out others’ opinions. The risk is in opportunity undeservedly accruing to one group in society.


Just as the common good requires that everyone has access to it, it requires that all of us must help to sustain it. The common good commands effort, including a sharing of burdens and occasional sacrifice. When people benefit from, but choose not to help sustain it (perhaps like a manufacturer’s operators ignoring their civic obligation and polluting air and water, even as they expect access themselves to clean resources), they freeload.


Merit will always matter, of course, but as only one variable in the calculus of opportunity. And so, to mitigate inequality of opportunity, the common good may call for a ‘distributive’ element. Distributive justice emphasises the allocation of shared outcomes and benefits. To uplift the least-advantaged members of society, based on access, participation, proportionality, need, and impartiality.


Government policy and social conscience are both pivotal in ensuring that merit doesn’t recklessly eclipse or cancel equality of opportunity. Solutions for access to improved education, work, healthcare, legal justice, and myriad other necessities to establish a floor to quality of life are as much political as social. It is through such measures that we see how sincere society’s concerns really are — for the common good.


John Triplett said...

Keith, you certainly know how to express the greatest quandry of our present day world. It is impossible to debate the accuracy and seriousness of your elequently expressed treatise on mankind's need to accept the premise that we all live in a village that should adhere to the golden rule by wanting and expecting that we share all of life's bounty and difficulty equally.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

It depends what you mean, Keith, by equal opportunity. I shall deviate from pure philosophy, and speak from experience.

A young woman came to see me as minister. She later became my wife, although I could not imagine it then. I decided to endorse degree studies for her, because I saw a lively mind. I did so on the potential that I saw. I didn't realise how large the disadvantage was.

There was a pivotal moment when she showed me instructions for the first assignment of her first semester. The seminary instructed to type an essay, with suitable headings. What were headings? she asked. And what was the meaning of this word 'type'? And then, there was English.

Equal opportunity wasn't enough. There was no way that she could compete, in various ways. The institution made a critical intervention: they waived English as a factor in grading. But various things needed to happen besides, and they were big ones.

She did her work in part with a computer powered off an inverter and a car battery--on a plateau too remote to connect to the Internet. A farm hand came by and said, 'What's that, that thing that you're tapping?'

Today, she is the seminary's 'poster girl', popping up all over the Internet. The point is, equal opportunity was not enough.

Keith said...

Yours is an interesting and, truth be told, ennobling story, Thomas. I do think that the circumstances of personal experience that you describe go precisely to how I briefly (incompletely) defined ‘equal opportunity’ in the essay: ‘Opportunity as in access to education or training, meaningful work, a home in which to raise a family, leisure activity, the chance to excel unhampered by caste or discrimination’. That is, something that commonly calls for interventions of various types, along the lines you describe. And something that’s more fundamental, more powerful, and more consequential than the standard but far narrower metrics of equal wealth and income. Thanks for sharing your personal account.

docmartincohen said...

I'm not sure about this bit:

"Just as the common good requires that everyone has access to it, it requires that all of us must help to sustain it."

Keith said...

I'm not sure about this bit: "Just as the common good requires that everyone has access to it, it requires that all of us must help to sustain it."

The one example in the essay was at the level of ‘a manufacturer’s operators ignoring their civic obligations and polluting air and water even as they expect access themselves to clean resources’. I suggested that the operators, by giving the back of the hand to notions around the common good of families and the environment within the community, were freeloading off other industries’ responsible, good-faith efforts.

Another example might take a national perspective, with global consequences. The Paris Climate Accord aimed to reduce global greenhouse emissions in order to limit the global temperature increase this century to 2 degrees Celsius, or better 1.5 degrees Celsius. Reaching those targets was for the common good of all nations, on a global scale.

Yet, as a measure to reach those goals, the accord required nations to come up with (voluntary!) ‘nationally determined contributions’. The voluntary nature of the ‘contributions’ meant that some nations could, for selfish reasons like economic development, make no good-faith effort to reach them. To depend on others. That is, to turn a blind eye toward the common good and freeload off other nations’ efforts.

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