Good for Each, Bad for All
Ernest Partridge, Co-Editor
"The Crisis Papers."
In the cultures of India and China, male children are much preferred to female
children. First of all, a girl born to a family incurs the eventual financial
burden of a dowry. But even more significantly, perhaps, sons are cherished
because they will carry on the family name.
For all time, the outcome of a pregnancy, a boy or a girl, has been a lottery
-- until now. With the advance of medical science, it is now possible to know
whether a fetus is male or female. Accordingly, it is reported that to avoid
the birth of a girl, many pregnancies are being "terminated."
In addition, of course, there is the more ruthless option of female
infanticide. If these practices of sex selection were to become widespread, it is obvious that there would be many
more males than females in the coming generations.
Thus an intriguing paradox emerges. The attempt by each couple to produce an
heir that will "carry on the family name," results in fewer potential wives in
the population, and thus a decreased opportunity for the sons to fulfill their
The upshot: enhancing the ability of each couple to achieve the benefit of a male
child, diminishes the opportunity of all couples to have grandchildren, and
thus "carry on the family name." In sum: what is good for each family is bad
for all families.
An obvious solution would be to outlaw female feticide and
infanticide, so that the sex ratio on the population would return to an
approximately normal 50-50. Bad for each, good for all.
The paradox of "good for each, bad for all," and its
reciprocal "bad for each, good for all," far from being accidental
consequences of this bizarre case are arguably the very foundation of social life and the fundamental
justification of government. Furthermore, the failure of the radical right --
libertarians, free-market absolutists, self-described "conservatives" -- to
acknowledge this paradox, renders their doctrines politically untenable and
That will be the contention of this essay.
But first, consider some additional examples:
The voting paradox. Much easier to stay at home and
let others take the trouble of studying the issues and going to the polls
(good for each). But such apathy erodes the foundation of democracy and
leads to autocracy (bad for all -- except the autocrats, of course).
Conversely, it is the civic duty of each citizen to take the trouble to
study and vote (bad for each), if a democratic government is to flourish
(good for all).
The Wal-Mart Menace. Face it, Wal-Mart offers the
lowest prices in town, so it is to the advantage of each individual to shop
at Wal-Mart. But the terrible wages and working conditions at Wal-Mart drive
down the wages and working conditions at competing stores, and, furthermore, the
central business districts of small towns throughout the country are being
devastated. That which is good for each shopper is bad for the community and
for workers in general. If, like me, you choose not to shop at
Wal-Mart, you will lose in cost and convenience -- bad for each. But if the boycott is
widespread, "the Wal-Mart plague" will be contained, wages will rise, and
"Mom and Pop" in the downtown stores will thrive again -- good
for all. One solution, of course, is for the workers to organize and to act
collectively , (union dues are bad for each worker and good for all, as they
help to improve wages and working conditions.). Wal-Mart
knows this full well, which is why it ruthlessly suppresses union activity.
Antibiotics. The over-use of antibiotics "selects"
resistant "super-bugs," decreasing the effectiveness of antibiotics for all.
But just one more anti-biotic prescription for a trivial, "self-limiting"
bronchial infection won't make a significant difference "in general," while
it will clearly benefit the individual patient. But multiply that individual
doctor's prescription by the millions, and we have a serious problem. "Good
for each patient, bad for the general population."
Kidnapping and Hostage-Taking. A strict policy
of "no ransom" makes hostage-taking less likely (good for all) at the
expense of the well being of individual hostages (bad for each).
Conversely, each time the ransom is paid to release the hostage (good for
each), future kidnappings are encouraged (bad for all).
These examples can be added to endlessly, and are in fact
formalized in "game theory" and elaborated through such moral paradoxes as "the prisoners'
The principle of "good for each, bad for all" was forcefully brought to public
attention in 1968 by Garrett Hardin,
in his essay
Tragedy of the Commons" -- which was for a while, the most widely
reprinted scientific essay of the time.
Hardin, a biologist, cites as an example, a pasture owned "in common" by
residents of a village. The pasture is at "carrying capacity" -- the number of
sheep is such that the villagers can, with that number, use the pasture
indefinitely without reducing the productivity of the land. However, any
additional sheep will degrade the pasture and thus its capacity to support
It thus becomes immediately apparent, that any individual who adds a sheep to
his personal flock will gain in personal wealth, while, at the same time, by
degrading the common resource and the value of the other sheep, he slightly
decreases the wealth of every other villager. Each villager is similarly
situated. Absent common agreement and enforcement thereof, it is "rational"
for each individual to increase his personal flock, even though, in Hardin's
words, "ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his
own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons."
In other words: "good for each, bad for all."
The solution? Hardin prescribes "Mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon." In
other words, the rule of law enforced by government. Each individual agrees to
a curtailment of liberty in behalf of the common good -- bad for each, good
These principles, "good for each, bad for all" and "bad for each, good for
all," resound throughout the history of political thought -- from Aristotle,
through Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Jefferson, on to the present day. Indeed,
the practical applications of these principles are implicit in successful
communities, from the present extending far back into pre-history. They are
the key to the survival of communities of social insects such as bees and
termites, and of social animals such as wolf packs, wherein evolution, not
argument, provides their validation.
And yet, amazingly, those who presume to call themselves "conservatives,"
reject these principles, in favor of another: "good for each, good for all."
This principle of the political right, exemplified by "trickle-down economics"
and the assurance that "the rising [economic] tide raises all boats," is
immediately appealing. Who would not desire that collective "goods"
should result from the achievement of personal well-being? And in fact,
the progressives will readily admit that many human endeavors which achieve
individual benefits, also benefit society at large.
The error of the Right resides in its embrace of the principle
"good for each, good for all" as dogma, applied a priori to society and
the economy, virtually without exception. By rejecting, implicitly, the
principle of "good for each, bad for all" and vice versa, the Right
refuses to recognize any personal price that must be paid for the maintenance of a just social
order, and pays no heed to the social costs of one's personal "pursuit of
For theirs is a radically reductive view of society. According to the "free-market
absolutist" faction of the falsely-labeled "conservatives" (henceforth,
"regressives"), an optimal society emerges "naturally" and automatically out
of an aggregate of individuals in exclusive pursuit of their personal
self-interest. To the regressive, "the common good" and "public benefit" are
myths. Indeed, so too is society itself -- in the words of Ronald Reagan's
favorite Brit, Margaret Thatcher, "there is no such thing as society -- there
are individual men and women and there are families." So-called "society" is merely an aggregate of
private individuals, like a pile of sand grains, occupying contiguous space.
Ideally, all associations are strictly voluntary. And because "there is no
such thing as society," there are no systemic social harms. It follows that
those who are poor are not helpless "victims" of society or the economy, they
are poor because of their personal moral failings. Accordingly, they
"deserve" their self-inflicted misery.
For the libertarian right, the only legitimate functions of government are the
protection of the three fundamental rights of life, liberty and property.
Hence, the only legitimate disbursement of tax revenues is for the military
(protection from foreign enemies), the "night watchman" police (protection
from domestic enemies and of property), and the courts (adjudication of property disputes).
Because there are no "public goods," compulsory tax payment for public education, research and
development of science and technology, medical care, museums, promotion of the
arts, public and national parks, etc., is the moral equivalent of theft.
(See the first three sections of my
"With Liberty for Some").
According to this account of human nature and society, with the exception of
the just noted protections of life, liberty and property, there is nothing
that government can accomplish that private initiative and the free market
cannot achieve with better results. As Ronald Reagan famously said in his
first inaugural address: "government is not the solution, government is the
problem." Milton Friedman concurs: "There is nothing wrong with the United
States that a dose of smaller and less intrusive government would not cure."
Note the uncompromising absolutism of these remarks.
No regulation, no governmental functions beyond basic protection of life,
liberty and property, no taxes except to support these minimal functions. Any
governmental activity beyond this should, in Grover Norquist's words, be
"drowned in the bathtub."
Let the free market reign without constraint, allow all "capitalist acts
between consenting adults" (Robert Nozick). As each individual, in Adam Smith's
words, "intends only his own gain," then each individual will be "led by an
invisible hand to promote ... the public interest."
Good for each, good for all.
In contrast, the progressive views society as more than the sum of its parts; it is what
philosophers call an "emergent entity," with properties and principles
distinct from those of its components. In this sense society and its economy
is like a computer, an engine, an ecosystem, a living language. If the system
malfunctions, there are victims -- the poor, the oppressed, the addicted, the
uneducated -- and the system is thus in need of adjustment or repair or even
overhaul and redesign. And these are legitimate functions of government.
Progressives are not a dogmatists; they are empirical and pragmatic. Thus they
do not completely reject free markets. That is
the fatal error of communism. Instead, Progressivism affirms that markets should neither count for nothing
nor count for everything. No question, free enterprise has produced an
abundance of beneficial goods and services, and has won many individuals
well-deserved fortunes. It should be protected and cherished. But it should
also be regulated.
For a marketplace involves more than voluntary transactions between buyers and
sellers. There are, in addition, "stakeholders" -- non-participating
individuals who are involuntarily affected by private transactions; for
example, people who live downwind and downstream of industries that spew out
pollutants. Pollution is but one of many types of "externality" resulting from
private transactions that have serious public consequences. And in a
democratic society, the institution specifically instituted to act in the
public interest and by public consent is the government. (Those who do
not believe this should re-read the Declaration of Independence and the
Preamble to the Constitution of the United States).
Every complex game requires a referee, beholden to no "side" but rather
functioning to regulate the activity and enforce the rules, to the advantage
all players in general, and none in particular. In the "game" of commerce, the
"referee" is the government. For history has shown, time and again, that an
unregulated "free market" leads to monopoly. In other words, it contains
within itself the seeds of its own destruction. The remedy, of course, is
anti-trust legislation, which is to say, government. (See my
"The New Alchemy").
"Good for each, bad for all." "Bad for each, good for all." The "referee
function" of democratic government -- these are not original ideas. Quite the
contrary, they resound throughout the history of political thought, and in the civilized and industrialized world
today, they are
commonplace and virtually axiomatic, like gravity and the multiplication
But not here in the United States. The free-market absolutism plus libertarian anarchism,
proclaimed here by the right wing and accepted with scant criticism by the
corporate media, is regarded abroad as somewhat insane. Unfortunately for us
all, most Americans are immersed in this insanity.
Why, then, is regressivism dominant in our society, despite its obvious
Quite simply, because regressivism is what Nietzsche called a "master
morality" -- an ethos devised and promulgated by, and operating to the
advantage of, the wealthy and powerful. Regressivism, with its precepts of
"trickle down," "the sin of poverty," taxation as "theft," the unqualified
superiority of privatism over government, is essentially an elaborate
justification of greed and an institutionalization of privilege.
It is, in effect, a contemporary re-incarnation of the eighteenth century
dogma of "the divine right of kings," and the nineteenth century dogma of
We had to fight a revolution to rid ourselves of
the dogma of the "Diving right." Must we fight
another to free ourselves of the "master morality" of regressivism?
If so, then let it be a bloodless, "velvet" revolution.
And let begin now.
These ideas have been developed and expressed at great
length in several of my published papers, available at my personal website,
The Online Gadfly. (EP)
Copyright 2004 by Ernest Partridge