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Whatever Happened to the Ideal of the Common Good?

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The Biden administration’s announcement that it would go door-to-door pushing vaccines is alarming, to say the least. Vaccine data reveal that more than 90% of those vulnerable to severe outcomes from Covid are already vaccinated. Why not cheer this and move on? Why the unrelenting push for more and younger? How is this consistent with the idea of the common good? It’s mystifying. 

The low rates of vaccinations among many might not reflect ignorance. They don’t need to be muscled. They could be uninterested because they can read demographic data about Covid risk. Or maybe they are already immune due to previous infection (natural immunity remains a taboo topic, and scandalously so). Maybe they just don’t want the jab, which is their right (one once supposed). 

So one wonders what’s going on with the wild push for universal vaccination. Then one reads this from the in-house organ of the Democratic Party, the Washington Post: “States that voted for Donald Trump in 2020 have almost uniformly seen lower densities of vaccinations than states that voted for Biden.”

If you are an intensely political person, and a partisan Democrat, you might read this and say: Ah-ha! Now we’ve got them! Let’s seize the moment to intimidate the opposition! Yes, you would have to be deeply cynical to deploy the powers of the state to press the opposition into accepting a medicine that its members have chosen not to get. But morality and politics these days today have very little if any overlap. 

Let us admit that it is possible – just possible – that the Biden administration is using its public-health powers to target and intimidate members of the other party. They ring a doorbell of the unvaxxed (how do they even know?) and can suppose it is likely a Trump supporter. Talk about track and trace! If this is true, this is not really about the general good but about partisan politics; vaccine compliance is only the veneer. 

You can say that my speculation here is crazy. But look around. Politics has devolved into tribal warfare. And politics itself has spread its toxin. It has invaded media completely at this point. In the old days, journalism masked its bias. Now it is out in the open. The turning point occurred during the Trump years, when the demands by the woke proved impossible for the old guard to resist. Then in quick sequence, it became out in the open in academia, and now it is spreading to even scientific journals, in which any peer-reviewed article that questions orthodoxy gets hounded and risks deletion. 

The “fact checkers” on social media – inhabited and dominated too by the woke –  are gaining more power even than the academic referees with credentials and experience. It’s all starting to feel grim. Is there nothing in society that is protected against the wiles of politics? Less and less. 

You could say that this tribalism is not really the fault of Biden. Trump started it. Or maybe his push to politicize the country was in response to Obama. Or Obama’s was in response to Bush. And Bush was in response to Clinton. You can keep going back. But the point is that it is getting worse. We are getting farther away from the postwar ideal of nonpartisan caretakers of the Republic, who saw politics as necessary but something to be contained within its proper space, a political marketplace in which partisans peacefully struggle but ultimately agree that core institutions matter far more than winners and losers. 

We have traveled very far from that ideal, but where are we headed? One of the most startling books I’ve ever read is by the legal theorist Carl Schmitt. It’s called The Concept of the Political. It was written in the early 1930s and translated to English. It’s still influential and considered one of the most challenging attacks on liberalism ever penned. It’s true: every intellectual probably needs to read it and come to terms with his theory of life. 

Let me attempt a quick and simplified presentation of the core idea. The political sphere is inevitable, he says, else we have anarchy. That means establishing a power center. There will always be a struggle to control it. The only real means of getting there is to clearly divide friends from enemies. On what basis do we decide? Doesn’t matter. Just divide people based on some criteria that mobilizes the population and provides some sort of meaning that mere liberty does not provide. 

In the Schmittian worldview, the friend/enemy distinction must not be pure theater. To really energize people, it must be made real. You have to reward loyalty and punish those not on your team. Ultimately the threat of punishment must be backed not just by firings, deplatforming, and disadvantaging but something much more terrifying: oppression and even blood. 

This is what is meant by the notion that politics is a blood sport. This is Schmittian politics in a nutshell. 

It’s a terrifying and deeply cynical worldview. You can call it realistic if you want to, but the personal biography of Carl Schmitt reveals a deeper truth. This respected German jurist was an enthusiastic supporter of the rise of the Nazi Party. He was eventually tried at Nuremberg but the case was dismissed on grounds that he was more an intellectual than a collaborator in war crimes. 

Whether and to what extent that is true will remain in dispute but there is no question of the power of his ideas. For nearly a century, they have tempted people engaged in political activism to push their ideas to the maximum extent. And it’s true that doing so does engage people. You only have to flip on the TV on any evening and watch the commentators. They maintain their ratings by railing against enemies. Neutrality is a lost art, too boring for clicks and views. 

The alternative, what is it? The old classical idea of the common good. The origin is ancient, mostly attributed to Aristotle. He was referring to a body of law that benefits everyone and not just constructed to serve the elite. 

Bump forward to the Middle Ages and we find Thomas Aquinas asserting the same ideal. By the time of the discovery of liberalism during the Enlightenment, we find a new and fascinating twist to the notion of the common good. 

Adam Smith discerned that there really is no inherent conflict between the individual and the common good. What promotes one promotes the other, and we know this by the brilliant discovery of economic forces. Through the wisdom of economics, we see that individuals can thrive even while contributing to the good of all, creating ever more cascades of peace and prosperity. 

To someone like Schmitt, this sounds dreadfully boring. Apparently today, many partisans agree. If so, we need to be aware of the world into which we are headed. It is a zero-sum world in which everyone strives to gain power at the expense of everyone else. That’s a brutal conception of life, one that reverses the progress of the Enlightenment and ends in smashing institutions that lead to human flourishing. What is the point of short-term political gain if the end result is to make the world coarser, poorer, and generally more brutal? 

There are of course dangers associated with the celebration of the idea of the common good. The notion can be too opaque and tempt anyone with power ambitions that they desire the good of all when in fact they are merely promoting their own ends or those of their tribe. But the truth is that any slogan can be corrupted and abused. Like the word liberalism itself, the ideal of the common good is too easy to manipulate. 

Nonetheless, the ideal still remains, and it is worth pushing again in times of hyper-politicization when most news out of Washington can be explained in purely partisan terms. Somehow many generations went by when most intellectuals and even statesmen agreed that the flourishing of all should be the goal, even if they disagreed on precisely how to get there. 

It’s especially true when it comes to matters of public health. It should never be about essential vs. nonessential, vaccinated vs unvaccinated, laptop class vs working class, and so on. The lockdowns of 2020 ended up dividing people in ghastly ways, pitting one group against the other and stigmatizing people based on whether and to what extent they agreed with the policy. The actions of the Biden administration are only pushing this whole paradigm to the next level. 

Trouble is that we very easily slipped from disease panic to lockdowns to full-on tribal warfare, now affecting everything from politics to journalism to science itself. Nothing is free from the poison of politics today. That it was all predictable makes it no less tragic. 

None of this can end well. The ideal of the common good, inseparable from the ideal of freedom, has a noble heritage. It is worth recapturing before we find ourselves in endless cycles of tribal warfare, now even in the name of public health. It perhaps sounds like a cliche but it remains true that America now more than ever needs an enlightened electorate and leadership that believes again in ideals and refuses to use the power of the state solely to punish enemies and reward friends. 

Author

  • Jeffrey A. Tucker, Founder and President of the Brownstone Institute, is an economist and author. He has written 10 books, including Liberty or Lockdown, and thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press. He writes a daily column on economics at The Epoch Times, and speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.


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