Adapted from Chapter
Five of “Conscience
of a Progressive” –
a book in progress.
See the book for references and citations.
Libertarians often tell us that personal voluntary restraint and charitable
contributions are morally preferable solutions to social problems than
government coercion and taxation. Ronald Reagan probably had this in mind
when he said in his first inaugural address that “government is not the
solution – government is the problem.”
To be sure, personal self-control and charity are virtues, while political
coercion and taxation are not.
The trouble is, in numerous and significant instances, volunteerism doesn’t
Example: The Catalytic Converter
Consider the catalytic converter as a
solution to the problem of air pollution. (The numbers are “made up” as
accuracy is not important. This is a hypothetical “model” based roughly on
generally known technology and demographics).
The catalytic converter is a device placed on a vehicle’s exhaust system
which eliminates (let us assume) 90% of exhaust pollution. Assume further
that purchase and installation of the unit costs $200. In the Los Angeles
airshed (near my residence) are ten million vehicles.
Would I be willing to pay $200 to clean up the air in my neighborhood? In
an LA minute! Will I clean up
the air by volunteering, all by myself, to install a catalytic converter? No
way! If I install the device, I will reduce the pollution by slightly
less than one ten-millionth. In effect, no reduction at all. And I will be
out $200. To put the matter bluntly: in cases such as this, volunteerism is
not only futile, it is irrational. The solution is obvious and compelling:
require that all vehicles have working catalytic converters. This has in
fact been done in California. It's the law. Result: the air pollution in LA
has been dramatically reduced, to the relief of the vast majority of
Angelinos, and at an individual cost acceptable to that majority.
If a proposition to repeal the catalytic converter requirement were put on
the ballot, it would be soundly defeated (assuming the public was correctly
informed). The solution is straightforward, rational and popular: “mutual
coercion mutually agreed upon,” as the late Garrett Hardin put it, imposed
and enforced by “big government.”
This solution is a cost to the individual (“bad for each”), but the “social
benefit” is well-worth it (“good for all”).
Example: The Support of Public Safety Agencies
Consider next the voluntary support of
public safety agencies. Presumably, most of you have received phone calls
from a member of the local police and fire departments, asking for donations
to assist them in their work. This is a recent phenomenon, for which we can
all thank the resurgent Right. I doubt that I ever received such a
solicitation before 1981, when Ronald Reagan told us all that “government
is the problem, not the solution.”
When I receive such a call, I agree to make a small donation. But then I
ask, “Isn’t this the sort of thing that we pay our taxes for?” Invariably
the individual on the other end agrees and we commiserate about the shameful
neglect of our public safety institutions.
The solicitation of private contributions in support of public institutions
amounts to an excise tax on charity and civic responsibility. The individual
citizen who declines to contribute is as safe from crime and as protected
from fire as those who contribute. (This is the well-known “free rider”
problem, for which I have yet to hear a plausible reply from the
libertarians). Voluntary financing of public safety agencies is unjust on
its face. Clearly, those who benefit from these services should be required
to support them, according to these individuals’ ability to pay. The method
devised to accomplish this purpose is well-known to us all. It’s call
Social Good and "The Commons"
Air quality, which is improved by
mandatory use of catalytic converters, is what is known as a “common good,”
or more briefly, a “commons.” Other “material” or “resource” commons
include, water, oceans, open range pastures, public parks, etc. But there
are also “non-material” commons that are equally, if not more important to
the quality of social life and the justice of a political order. These
include the rule of law, the quality and level of education in the
community, trust in the government and the prevailing sense among the
citizens of that government’s legitimacy, the degree of civility and the
“moral tone” extant in the society. When unscrupulous individuals act to
their own advantage, heedless of the consequences to others, they can
degrade “the moral commons” – the mutual respect and constraint that is
implicit in every well ordered society. For example, when outlaws are
unpunished, the rule of law suffers. Worse still, when corrupt politicians
and government officials put themselves above the law and betray the
citizens by accepting bribes from special interest and by violating the
Constitutional protections of those citizens, they erode the
trust that is essential to good government. And when there is reason to
believe that the ballot has been compromised and there are no offsetting
procedures to assure the accuracy of the ballot, the very legitimacy of the
government and of legislation is diminished.
In a just political order, based on the principles of our founding
documents, government and the rule of law are the common “property” of the
citizens at large, and of no class or faction in particular. This principle
is stated explicitly in the Declaration of our Independence: “to secure
these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just
powers from the consent of the governed.”
The libertarian Right insists that so-called “public goods” and “public
interest” are nothing more than simple summations of private goods and
interests. Indeed, as Ayn Rand put it, “there is no such entity as
‘society,’ since society is only a number of individual men... The common
good” (or “the public interest”) is an undefined and undefinable concept..."
(“The Virtue of Selfishness”).
Good for Each, Bad for All
In fact, and contrary to libertarian
dogma, in numerous identifiable cases (which I discuss in“Conscience
of a Progressive”), the individual pursuit of optimum personal freedom
and benefit can be detrimental to society at large – “good for each, bad for
all.” Conversely, constraints upon individuals may result in benefits for
the society – “bad for each, good for all.” For example, consider the case
of antibiotics which medical practice has clearly demonstrated lose their
potency the more they are prescribed. The widespread use of antibiotics,
while clearly to the advantage of each patient, results in loss of potency
which is to the disadvantage of all patients. Thus it is “in the public
interest” to discourage the use of antibiotics by non-critical patients. And
as we saw in our opening example, because it is to the advantage of all
citizens (i.e., in "the public interest") to breathe clean air, each citizen
is justly required to have a catalytic converter on his vehicle. Clean air
is thus a “public good” which can be enhanced through the imposition of
“personal bads” -- the cost of mandatory catalytic converters. Clearly “the
public interest” and “public goods” are in these cases, as well as many
others, distinguishable from the summation of private interests and goods.
The coordinate principles, "good for each, bad for all" and "bad for each,
good for all," resound throughout the history of political thought -- from
Aristotle, through Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and
Thomas 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 rational deliberation,
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 progressive will readily admit that many human endeavors that
achieve individual benefits, also benefit society at large. “Good for each,
good for all” is true in particular and identifiable cases, such as artistic
creation, technological invention, and yes, business entrepreneurship.
Is there a simple and unfailing means to distinguish "the invisible hand"
(good for each, good for all), from "the back of the invisible hand" (e.g.
the tragedy of the commons, "good for each, bad for all")? When I posed that
question to my late friend, Garrett Hardin, he replied "that is a Nobel
Prize winning question." Until that Nobel Prize winning genius comes along,
we must continue to do what the empirical and pragmatic progressives have
routinely done: experiment.
If individual behavior appears to have socially destructive results, try out
a meliorative policy or law, and if it "works" for society -- if we find a
device that benefits society at an acceptable cost to individual citizens --
then fine, we'll keep it. If not, try something else. And if it becomes
clear that the best policy is for government and the law to leave
well-enough alone (good for each, good for all) -- for example, maintaining
the separation between church and state, or refusing to prohibit sex acts
between consenting adults -- then let non-interference be the government
policy. Right-wing propaganda to the contrary notwithstanding, progressives
are not eager to expand government interference and control over the private
lives of its citizens. It is not the progressives that are demanding
Constitutional amendments against gay marriage, abortion, and flag burning.
The error of the libertarian Right resides in its embrace of the principle
"good for each, good for all" as dogma, to be 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
recognizes no 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 happiness."
For theirs is a radically reductive view of society. According to the
"free-market absolutist" faction of the falsely-labeled "conservatives"
(better, "regressives"), an optimal society emerges "naturally" and
spontaneously 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, as Ayn Rand
insists. Accordingly, we are asked to believe, so-called "society" is merely
an aggregate of private individuals, like a pile of sand grains, occupying
contiguous space. Ideally, say the regressives, 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
"victims" of society or the economy, they choose to be poor due to their
personal moral failings.
The Necessity of Government
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 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, libraries,
promotion of the arts, public and national parks, etc., is the moral
equivalent of theft. 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.
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."
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 of the whole distinct from those of its components just as,
analogously, chemical compounds (e.g. water and salt) have properties
distinct from their component elements. In this sense society
and its economy are "systems" like
a computer, an engine, an ecosystem, a living language, consisting
interacting and interdependent parts which accomplish together what none can
accomplish alone. If the social system malfunctions, there are innocent
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. These corrections are best diagnosed and treated when the system
is examined and analyzed, as a system, and not as an amalgam of distinct
individuals. And diagnosis,
adjustment, regulation, repair, overhaul, redesign of
the community-entity are legitimate functions of a government established to
act in the interests of all.
Copyright 2006, by Ernest Partridge