Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D
www.igc.org/gadfly

HOME PAGE                             
                                                   

The Gadfly's Blog

Editorials 
    Philosophy and Religion
    Ethics, Moral Issues, the Law
    The Environment
    Economics
    Education
    Science

On Politics
    The Crisis
    Foreign Relations, War, Peace
    The Media
    The Elections
    Civil Liberties a& Dissent
    Republicans & the Right
    Democrats & the Left
    Lies, Propaganda & Corruption
    Culture War & Religious Right
    Coup d'Etat, 2000

Published Papers

Unpublished Papers

Reviews, Lectures, etc.    

Internet Publications

Lecture Topics

Conscience of a Progressive
    (A Book in Progress)

Rawls and the Duty to Posterity
    (Doctoral Dissertation)

 

The Ecology Project

For Environmental Educators

The Russian Environment

NO MO PO MO
    (Critiques of Post Modernism)

Notes from the Brink
    (Peace Studies)

 

The Gadfly's Bio Sketch

The Gadfly's Publications

The Online Gadfly: Editorial Policy

A Roster of Environmental Ethicists
 


The Gadfly's E-Mail: gadfly@igc.org


Classical Guitar:
"The Other Profession
"

 

 

 

Conscience of a Progressive

Ernest Partridge


Chapter Five:

Good for Each, Bad for All


This chapter and the next may be regarded as the theoretical core of this book. According to "the private society" concept, endorsed by libertarians and self-described "conservatives," the pursuit of each individual for personal gain (principally in "free markets") results in optimal social conditions for all. These desirable consequences, the regressive right would have us believe, occur spontaneously without purposeful human design, and are maintained with no need for government regulation, by what Adam Smith calls "an invisible hand." Thus the legitimate role of government is minimal. "Society" is an aggregate of isolated, "utility maximizing" individuals. There is no "public interest" over and above private interests. In contrast, the progressive view of "the well-ordered society" insists that in numerous significant and easily identifiable instances, the endeavor of each for advantage can be detrimental to the community – good for each, bad for all; and conversely, that constraints upon each individual can result in advantages to the community in general – bad for each, good for all." It is the function of social institutions, both inside and outside of government, to optimize the "the common good" through mutually agreed upon constraints on each individual.1
 

Regressivism and "The Invisible Hand." The concept of "the invisible hand," cherished by the regressives, has its origin in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Smith writes:

[The individual] generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it... [H]e intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.2

An unyielding faith in the infallible superiority of "the invisible hand," leads to "market absolutism – the doctrine that whatever government attempts, privatization and the free-market can do better.

Note, for example, the uncompromising approach of libertarian Robert J. Smith to environmental policy:

The problems of environmental degradation, pollution, overexploitation of natural resources, and depletion of wildlife all derive from their being treated as common property resources. Whenever we find an approach to the extension of private property rights in these areas, we find superior results." (Italics added).

And Milton Friedman on government: "There is nothing wrong with the United States that a dose of smaller and less intrusive government would not cure."3

"All," "whenever," "nothing." No compromise or qualification here!

The progressive does not deny that "the invisible hand" of the free market is beneficial in many significant and identifiable cases. Rather, he denies that it is the best policy in all cases. As we will find in this chapter, in clearly recognizable circumstances, there is a "back of the invisible hand," whereby individual, self-serving behavior works to the detriment of all.

In this, the progressive agrees with Adam Smith who, continuing the above quotation, writes:

Nor is it always the worse for the society that it [society] was no part of it [the result]. By pursuing his own interest [the individual] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. (My italics. EP)

Note the qualifications "not always" and "frequently." Clearly Adam Smith asserts that "the invisible hand" can not be assumed to always deliver socially beneficial consequences of individual enterprise. The regressive, it seems, is more "Smithian" than Smith.

But how can a regressive disregard the negative social consequences of self-serving individual behavior? The simple, if outlandish, answer by some radical regressives is to deny the very existence of society. For example, as we have noted repeatedly, Ayn Rand declares straight out that "there is no such entity as ‘society,’ since society is only a number of individual men."4  She elaborates:

"The common good" (or "the public interest") is an undefined and undefinable concept; there is no such entity as "the tribe" or "the public"; the tribe (or the public or society) is only a number of individual men. Nothing can be good for the tribe as such; 'good' and 'value' pertain only to a living organism -- to an individual living organism -- not to a disembodied aggregate of relationships. . . . When "the common good" of a society is regarded as something apart from and superior to the individual good of its members, it means that the good of some men takes precedence over the good of others, with those others consigned to the status of sacrificial animals.5

Lady Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister, famously concurs: "there is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women, and there are families."6

It would be easy to dismiss this denial of the reality of "the public" and "society" as careless overblown rhetoric. On the contrary, it is a fundamental precept of libertarianism, as these additional quotations indicate.

Consider first, this passage from Frank Chodorov’s The Rise and Fall of Society:

Society is a collective concept and nothing else; it is a convenience for designating a number of people... The concept of Society as a metaphysical concept falls flat when we observe that Society disappears when the component parts disperse... When the individuals disappear so does the whole. The whole has no separate existence.7

Next, David Boaz of The Cato Institute:

For libertarians, the basic unit of social analysis is the individual. It’s hard to imagine how it could be anything else. Individuals are, in all cases, the source and foundation of creativity, activity, and society. Only individuals can think, love, pursue projects, act. Groups don’t have plans or intentions. Only individuals are capable of choice...

[At] the conceptual level, we must understand that society is composed of individuals. It has no independent existence. If ten people form a society, there are still ten people not eleven.8

To be sure, Boaz steps back from a full commitment to "atomistic individualism." After all, he says, "we do live together and work in groups." Even so, to re-iterate, he boldly proclaims that "society ... has no independent existence."

Now consider the implications of this denial of the "independent existence" of "the public" and "society."

If there is no "public," then there are no "public goods" and there is no "public interest." If there is no "society," then there is no "social harm," "social injustice" "social (and public) responsibility." It then follows that government has no role in mitigating "social injustice" or promoting "the public interest," since these terms are fundamentally meaningless. Poverty and racial discrimination, for example, are individual problems requiring individual solutions.

This radical individualism, combined with an absolutist interpretation of Smith’s "invisible hand," may well be the keystone of regressive ideology. If so, by removing this keystone, the entire edifice of regressive dogma and policy might collapse.

Thus we arrive at the question: Is self-serving behavior the foundation of all (so-called) "social" good? Or might self-serving behavior (even if "rational") be, in readily identifiable circumstances, self-defeating?

In this chapter I will demonstrate with simple common sense and familiar examples taken from ordinary life experience, that advantages gained by the individual can be detrimental to society at large: "good for each, bad for all." In the chapter which follows, we will discover why this is so.

But to repeat: this is in no way a denial of another obvious truth: at times, enlightened self-interest is beneficial for both the individual and society. "Good for each, good for all."   Conversely, constraints upon individual freedom and welfare can yield social benefits.  "Bad for each, good for all."  The progressive, as we have noted, takes a more complex, nuanced and pragmatic view of human nature, morality, society and social problems. (See Chapter 3, Item #10).

Consider now how self-serving behavior ("good for each") can cause collective harm ("bad for all"), and conversely how imposed constraints upon individuals ("bad for each") can result in collective benefits ("good for all"). If these examples can survive critical scrutiny, then we will have demonstrate that "the collective" (i.e., "society" and "the public") has an independent existence with unique properties that are distinct from those of a mere aggregation of individuals. Society is what philosophers call "an emergent entity." Like chemical compounds such as water and table salt, the combination of elements produce a substance with properties distinct from those of the component elements. In more familiar terms, society is "more than the sum of its parts."
 

The Paradox of Sex Selection.

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 in China and India 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.9

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 filial duty of "carrying on the family name."

The upshot: 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 particular 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 morally indefensible.

That will be the contention of this chapter.

Consider next 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 refuse 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."
     

  • The Hostage Paradox. The announced policy of governments and police departments is firm: no negotiations with terrorists and kidnappers. And that’s just fine for potential hostages and kidnap victims, i.e. most of us, for it thus becomes less likely that we will be kidnapped or held as hostages. But when there is a kidnapping, that same policy can amount to a death sentence for the victim. That which good for the public at large, is bad for the actual individual hostage.
     

  • Traffic Laws. We all agree that traffic laws can a nuisance. But if you believe that traffic lights constrain your freedom of movement, try to drive across Manhattan during a power outage! In the blackouts of 1965 and 1977 in the eastern United States and Canada, traffic began to move only after the police, and a few citizen volunteers, stood at the intersections and directed traffic.10  The decision of each to accept constraints worked to the advantage of 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' dilemma," which we will examine in the next chapter.
 

The Tragedy of the Commons. The principle of "good for each, bad for all" was forcefully brought to public attention in 1968 by Garrett Hardin, in his essay "The Tragedy of the Commons"11 -- 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 the 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 livestock.

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."12

In other words: "good for each, bad for all."

The solution? Hardin prescribes "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon," which means the rule of law enforced by government. Each individual agrees to a curtailment of liberty ("bad for each") in behalf of the common good ("good for all").

It is all too easy to overlook the profound "tragedy" in the "trap" faced by the villagers in Hardin’s example – "tragedy," in the sense of "the solemnity of the remorseless working of things." (Here Hardin quotes the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead).13  For so long as there is no protection of the commons through government regulation and law, the certain fate of the common pasture is destruction. Accordingly, under these circumstances the only "rational" course for each herdsman is to increase his herd and take what he can while he can. If he altruistically volunteers restraint all by himself, he is a fool for his restraint will in no way preserve the commons. Thus restraint (aimed at preservation) is punished and greed (contributing to destruction) is rewarded.

If the "tragedy" applied only to a village of herdsmen surrounded by a "common" pasture, it would be of little interest. The power of the tragedy of the commons is its enormous scope of application: not only to pastures, but also to the seas, the atmosphere, rivers and lakes – any and all resources available to all and owned by none.

Accordingly, an industry that volunteers to scrub its smokestacks or purify its water outflow, assumes costs that will put it at a disadvantage with competitors. The irresponsible industries win out in a "race to the bottom," and the common atmosphere and watershed degrade, along with the health of unconsenting citizens in the vicinity.

So too with the whaling industry, prior to the adoption of international agreements to impose limits. ("Mutual coercion mutually agreed upon"). The whales were then clearly being hunted to extinction. Yet the only result of individual restraint was to leave the whales for others to catch: "they’re done for anyway – let’s get what we can now before they’re gone." A similar tragedy has caused a radical reduction in the fishery "catch" in the North Atlantic. Now, at long last, international limits have been imposed.

The libertarian-right solution? Privatize the commons. In many cases, this is a wise and effective remedy. For example, when "open range" is fenced-off and divided into private tracts, each rancher-land-owner has an economic incentive to preserve the productivity of his land. However, some domains simply cannot be privatized – notably the atmosphere and the oceans. I will have much to say about "the privatization solution" in Chapter 8 ("Privatization and Public Goods").

This leads to our final example:
 

Catalytic Converters and the Failure of Volunteerism. Libertarians often tell us that voluntary restraint is a morally preferable solution to commons problems than government coercion. Sure enough! The trouble is, it doesn’t work.

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 do, I will reduce the pollution by slightly less than one ten-millionth. In effect, no help whatever. And I will be out $200. To put the matter bluntly: volunteerism is not only futile, it is irrational.  The solution is obvious and compelling: require that all vehicles have working catalytic converters. 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." Imposed and enforced by "big government."

It costs ("bad for each"), but the "social benefit" is well-worth it ("good for all").

I have referred above to "material" or "resource" commons – air, water, oceans, pastures ("open range"), 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 and 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 puts themselves above the law and betray the citizens by accepting bribes from special interests, 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."

I will have much more to say about "the commons" – both material and non-material – as this book progresses.
 

Public Goods and The Public Interest. If my argument has succeeded so far, I have proven the existence of "public goods" and "public interest" that are distinct from the mere summation of private interests. Consider again the case of antibiotics which, medical practice has clearly demonstrated, lose their potency the more they are prescribed. The widespread use of antibiotics is clearly to the advantage of each patient, though the resulting loss of potency is to the disadvantage of all patients. Thus it is "in the public interest" to discourage the use of antibiotics by non-critical patients. It is to the advantage of each vehicle owner not to purchase and install a catalytic converter, thought this results in an increase in air pollution. Clean air is thus a "public good" achieved through the imposition of "personal bads." Clearly "the public interest" and "public goods" are in these cases, as well as the others cited above," distinguishable from the summation of private interests and goods.

For a political scientist or a sociologist to deny the existence of public interests and goods should be analogous to a geographer denying a round earth, an astronomer denying Copernicus and heliocentrism, a chemist denying Boyles Law, a physicist denying thermodynamics, and a biologist denying evolution. Each of these principles are the foundations of these various sciences. And yet, the ideology of the far right implicitly (and occasionally explicitly) denies the existence of public interests and goods as it proclaims that voluntary associations, privatization and the free market always yield superior results to government "coercion" of private citizens.
 

The Upshot: 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, 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 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 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: 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 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 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" (thus, "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 and Margaret Thatcher insist.14 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.

For the libertarian right, the only legitimate functions of government are the protection of the three fundamental rights of life, liberty and property.15  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, promotion of the arts, public and national parks, etc., is the moral equivalent of theft. {cite – draw from the first three sections of "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."

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 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 is like a computer, an engine, an ecosystem, the clarity of a living language. If the 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 individual parts. 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.

As we noted above, 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 – another dogma. 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 in behalf of "the public interest."

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 Chapter 10)

"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, throughout the civilized and industrialized world, they are commonplace and virtually axiomatic, like gravity and the multiplication tables.

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 shortcomings?

The answer is, by now, familiar: regressivism is 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. As John Kenneth Galbraith once observed, "the modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."16

As we close this chapter, let us not lose sight of the compelling truth learned from our particular examples: the paradox of sex selection, the voting paradox, the Wal-Mart menace, antibiotics, the hostage dilemma, the tragedy of the commons, catalytic converters. These cases, and countless more, demonstrate that advantages sought by individuals ("each") can work to the disadvantage of society at large ("all"). By distinguishing the aggregate interests of each from the collective interests of all, we have proven the existence of public goods, public interests, and of the entity called "society."

We have demonstrated the precept, "good for each, bad for all," by a citation of these examples. However, a deeper examination of the precept might lead us to an encounter with the foundations of social morality – and of political progressivism.

Or so many moral philosophers will argue – myself among them. That task follows immediately in the next chapter.
 

A Summary, and a Look Ahead:

Consider what have we accomplished so far:

"The invisible hand" is the core concept and central dogma of regressivism; namely, the conviction that the best outcome for the society as a whole invariably results from the summation of each person or family seeking that individual’s best interest.17 "Good for each, good for all." This "good for all" is accomplish through the open exchange of goods and services in the so-called "free market." By this account, there is no need for regulation and restraint "for the common good," since there is no common good – only individual goods. Hence government is superfluous at best and malignant at worse – it is thus in the best interest for everyone to "drown government in the bathtub."

Accordingly, to the libertarian right, the only legitimate functions of government (as we must persistently repeat) are the protection of the fundamental individual rights of life, liberty and property (by the institutions of the police, the military and the courts).

By denying the existence of common goods (synonymous with "public goods and "public interest"), the regressives expose themselves, not as "conservatives," but as radicals. Insisting that there is no wealth that is legitimately held in common – no "common wealth" – they are denying a justification for a commonwealth. But the use of the word "commonwealth" is both old and widespread. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word all the way back to 1330,18 and today, the states of Pennsylvania and Virginia [others?] are officially designated as "commonwealths."

If my argument so far has been successful, I have established that in numerous significant and readily identifiable cases, self-serving individual behavior can work to the detriment of a community -- "good for each, bad for all;" conversely, disadvantages and constraints imposed upon individuals ("mutual coercion mutually agreed upon"19) can serve the common good (the "common wealth") – "bad for each, good for all." And if this does not suffice, there is still more evidence directly ahead.

We have examined evidence that this is so. In the next chapter, we will further why this is so. In subsequent chapters, we will further explore the limitations of "the free market" as a mechanism of social control and melioration, and of community well-being. We will find that while the free market can, in many and perhaps most, applications, be an invaluable servant, it can, if unconstrained and worst still in control of a privileged few, be a cruel master.

To prevent which, "governments are instituted among men."
 


NOTES AND REFERENCES

1.     “Mutual Coercion mutually agreed upon,” Garrett Hardin, “Tragedy of the Commons,” p. 1247

2.     Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, (Book IV, Ch. 2).

3.     October, 1983. No further citation. Still looking.

4.     Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 109. (“Man’s Rights”).

5.     Ayn Rand, "What is Capitalism?" (1965). [Find page]

6.     Margaret Thatcher: The Downing Street Years, Harper Collins, London. P. 626.

7.     Quoted by David Boaz, Libertarianism, A Primer, New York: Free Press, 1997, 96.

8.     Boaz: op cit, p. 95.

9.     As a segment of the April 16, 2006 CBS program “60 Minutes” showed, this is today a serious problem in China. {See files}.

10.     I happened to be in Manhattan during both historic blackouts – as a resident in 1965, and as a visitor in 1977.

11.     Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science, 13 December 1968, pp. 1243-1248.

12.     Ibid., p. 1244.
 
13.     Hardin, 1244. The source from Whitehead is Science and the Modern World, (Mentor, 1948), p. 17.

14.     Recall the quotations at the beginning of this chapter. Ayn Rand: “there is no such entity as ‘society,’ since society is only a number of individual men.” Margaret Thatcher: “there is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women, and there are families.”

15.     Bayes, William W. 1970). “What is Property?,” The Freeman, July 1970, p. 348

16.     I’ve encountered this quotation numerous times, but never with a citation of its origin in Galbraith’s works.

17.     This claim by the regressives is far more radical than that of Adam Smith, the originator of the term, “invisible hand.” [Citation?]

18.     Common weal - two words used in two senses: 1. general well-being/ prosperity of the community and 2. an entity; the whole body of the people. Used in 1330 re. payment by the king to preserve the community. Used in 1469 in Gregory's Chronicles in the sense of public good. Appeared as one word Commonwealth to refer to a political entity, but word still preserved both senses 1 and 2. (Oxford English Dictionary).

19.     Garrett Hardin, Tragedy of the Commons.

 

Copyright 2005 by Ernest Partridge

 


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .