In political debates among Catholics, you’ll frequently hear the term “Common Good” invoked. The U.S. bishops are particularly keen to appeal to the Common Good when defending their positions on issues such as universal health care, environmental protections, or minimum wage increases.
Appeals to the Common Good are typically in support of government expansion. Usually this involves the restriction of the rights of individuals for the greater good of society. As the great Vulcan philosopher Spock succinctly put it in Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
But there are significant dangers with this conception of the Common Good. It can lead to vast expansions in the power of a ruling class while curbing the freedom of individuals and families. Is this what the Common Good truly is?
What is the Common Good?
The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes says the Common Good is the “sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” How might a society restrict the ability of people to reach their fulfillment?
If a government were to force a uniform education on all children that was secular or even anti-Catholic, then that would hinder their fulfillment. Likewise, if a person struggles to live even at a subsistence level due to the dismal economic conditions of his country, he is likely unable to focus on anything other than physical existence.
In history, one of the best examples of a country that hindered the Common Good, as defined by the Church, would be the Communist Soviet Union. It severely restricted freedom, imposed atheism on the people, and allowed the economy to flounder.
The “Common Good” is Commonly Bad
Although arguments for the Common Good today are invoked to support government intervention, when we look back at the actual policies implemented for the “Common Good,” we find they are excellent at expanding government influence and restricting freedom, while terrible at achieving the goals they were implemented to fulfill.
No better recent example of this can be found than the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”). The ACA, we were told, would benefit all people—it would advance the Common Good. But it simply gave more power to government and harmed individuals.
Under the ACA, government officials literally gained power over life and death, and bureaucrats in Washington could influence medical decisions best made between doctor and patient. Further, the ACA also attempted to severely restrict religious freedom, as in the notable case of the Little Sisters of the Poor. All the while health costs have skyrocketed.
Who Actually Benefits from the “Common Good”
The irony of most calls for the Common Good is that the policies being promoted usually are only for the good of a few—the ruling class. The “Common Good” is invoked to expand the power of rulers at the expense of the ruled, but it gives the process a veneer of morality.
J.R.R. Tolkien illustrates this danger in his classic The Lord of the Rings. After the wizard Saruman’s defeat, he begs Gandalf to join with him so together they can overthrow Sauron and rule Middle Earth. Note how he tempts the virtuous Gandalf:
“Much we could still accomplish together, to heal the disorders of the world. Let us understand one another, and dismiss from thought these lesser folks! Let them wait on our decisions! For the common good I am willing to redress the past, and to receive you. Will you not consult with me? Will you not come up?” (emphasis added).
What Saruman really wanted was power; he was using the Common Good to advance himself, not the people.
Catholic bishops too often fall for the call of Saruman, supporting more power to the ruling class for “our” benefit. Unlike Gandalf, who resisted Saruman’s siren song, the bishops ally themselves with the government, all for our “Common Good.”
However, the result is greater power to those who are supposed to serve us, but instead rule us. Individuals and families lose their rights, and the government gains power.
Too often, the “Common Good” could more accurately be called the “Ruling Class Good,” for that’s who benefits. The Common Good is used to defend the rights of a generic “society,” but instead the focus should be on the rights and freedoms of individuals and families, for that is who makes up a society.
Instead of focusing on a generic “Common Good,” the government should work to create conditions where individuals and families can flourish, by stepping out of the way. This means freedom and a defense of the rights of those individuals and families against elite powers.
As the Catechism states, “In the name of the common good, public authorities are bound to respect the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person” (CCC 1907). It is only by respecting individual and family rights against government expansion that the Common Good can truly be achieved.