English: President Barack Obama delivers the 2010 State of the Union address a joint session of the 111th United States Congress on January 27, 2010 (audio file). Deutsch: US-Präsident Barack Obama während seiner Rede zur Lage der Nation vor dem 111. Kongress am 27. Januar 2010 (Audioaufnahme); im Hintergrund Vizepräsident Joe Biden (in seiner Rolle als Senatspräsident) und Nancy Pelosi, die Sprecherin des Repräsentantenhauses. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
An editorial by Dallas Morning News columnist Bill McKenzie (published January 31, 2012) references an opinion published January 25, 2012 by New York Times writer Jackie Calmes. McKenzie relies on Calmes’ summation of a “theme that has run through President Obama’s career: “President Obama’s Government and citizens are responsible together for the common good, even as they celebrate individualism and free markets,” as he referred to Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address to Congress. [Full Transcript]
McKenzie then asks, “How do we build a common good today? He then deferred to the opinions of several leaders who qualify for inclusion in the discussion.
The guidelines define leaders as those “whose religion involves belief in a divine power or those who may not believe in a transcendent power but leave room for the possibility of one.”
Why make that stipulation? Who is being excluded from leadership?
The whole idea of excluding people from leadership roles is antithetical to the notion of “common good”. What this says to me is that the furtherance of the common good will only be realized within the constraints of a faith-based solution. I am not going to participate in that narrow-minded forum. I will pen my ideas here instead, as a leader who offers no qualifying statement of belief or non-belief.
What is the common good? Understanding the Rhetoric.
A good that is common to all? In the 2012 State of the Union message the President was very specific:
We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. What’s at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. We have to reclaim them.
The president, for example, wants clean energy, better schools and housing opportunities for more Americans. Good goals but they cost money. And we are $14 trillion in debt. Someone has to pay for all these new ideas… Often, it is the rich who are asked to pay, which leads some to wonder why they [the rich] are singled out to pay for the common good.”
Why are the Rich Asked to Pay?
Let’ me address this quickly. The $14 trillion number only tells us one part of the story. It isn’t really relevant to the discussion though. We would still need a solution that promotes the common good even if we had no debt at all. McKenzie adds the $14 trillion number for effect. Why do the rich have to pay? That is the question he wants to raise, and it sounds better if it is delivered under the shadow of a big number.
Obama already provided an answer in his address – clues at least:
Let’s remember how we got here. Long before the recession, jobs and manufacturing began leaving our shores. Technology made businesses more efficient, but also made some jobs obsolete. Folks at the top saw their incomes rise like never before, but most hardworking Americans struggled with costs that were growing, paychecks that weren’t, and personal debt that kept piling up.
In 2008, the house of cards collapsed. We learned that mortgages had been sold to people who couldn’t afford or understand them. Banks had made huge bets and bonuses with other people’s money. Regulators had looked the other way, or didn’t have the authority to stop the bad behavior.
It was wrong. It was irresponsible. And it plunged our economy into a crisis that put millions out of work, saddled us with more debt, and left innocent, hard-working Americans holding the bag. In the six months before I took office, we lost nearly four million jobs. And we lost another four million before our policies were in full effect.
In short, the rich haven’t been doing a very good job, and they haven’t been paying their fair share in taxes. However, as the economy has soured, the rich managed to continue to make more money. Second, you pay less taxes from investment gains than you do from wages.
As it pertains to McKenzie’s discussion about the common good, should we defer to the opinions of leaders who do not understand that the rich need to pay their fair share of taxes? Probably not, but let’s look at what they have to say.
Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis of Flower Mound goes first. He blames Ayn Rand’s “virtue of selfishness” argument as being “firmly concretized” in our tax code, our interpretation of the Bill of Rights.” Actually, Ayn Rand recognized that human beings do not operate based on altruistic intentions. People are self-interested. Granted, some people do wonderful, selfless deeds for others. But when people are selfless, it is because they are furthering a self-interest to be selfless. The good rabbi prefers the the ethos of the irrational C.S. Lewis, who “quipped” that we are all “pensioners under God’s rule.” The rabbi believes we are all obligated to ourselves and each other and that we must attend to that obligation if we are going to create a workable future for America. He does not mention who obligates us.
Senior Pastor George Mason is next. He added a list of issues, each worthy of discussion. I inferred that he meant to say, “In order to promote the common good, we must correct certain social and economic problems.”
There are problems with his assertions. First, he says we suffer a loss (similar to the loss of tax revenue from the wealthy 1-2%) when 47% of Americans pay no federal income tax. “We should ask those who make above the poverty level to contribute something.” This means that people who are just over the poverty line should pay more taxes. I have a moral objection to that line of thinking, but the economic argument will serve: An incremental increase in revenue for the 47% would not amount to a significant increase in revenue. The pastor needs to remember that personal income has not kept up with growth. In the words of our president, “Folks at the top saw their incomes rise like never before, but most hardworking Americans struggled with costs that were growing, paychecks that weren’t, and personal debt that kept piling up.”
Mason makes the same mistake as McKenzie when he threw out that ominous $14 trillion number. Forty-seven percent of nothing gets you nothing. Just because it is 47% of something does not mean it is a significant number.
Let me say this another way, in a way that maybe Pastor Mason can understand. “We don’t have any money George!”
William Lawrence of Perkins School of Theology is next to speak. His words are dangerous when he writes, “It is therefore the case that the common good is a higher priority than an individual’s good.” As support, he offers that individuals must risk life in order to provide for the “common defense” of the nation. I have to add a stipulation here. The common good is not a thing which is equal to an individual, inasmuch as the former does not exist and the latter does. Lawrence is restating the old debate question, “In times of conflict, which is of more import, community standards or individual liberty?” You cannot reconcile the two. Leaders who, by definition, are charged as stewards of the interests and well-being of others are always going to side with sacrificing liberty in order to maintain the good for the greater number of others. The Bill of Rights was created with the express purpose of reserving certain rights for individuals. We reserved those rights so that good-intentioned leaders like Mr. Lawrence could not easily compel us to submit to their methods to protect the common good.
So I say this differently than Lawrence, “The common good is the priority of American individuals when that common good fulfills each person’s self-interest.” In Lawrence’s statement, someone else decides what priority to place on the common good. In my statement, the assignment of priority rests with each individual. That makes the problem of providing for the common good more difficult to resolve, but that is one of the caveats of reserving liberties. Leaders aren’t primarily concerned with preserving liberties. Individuals are responsible for preserving their liberties, and must take care not to defer to those who would quickly surrender them. The remainder of Lawrence’s comments read better if they are reviewed in light of my comment above.
Theologian-in-Residence Jim Denison is next in line. He favors the altruistic view (see comment above) and cites Woodrow Wilson “To work for the common good is the greatest creed,” and Jesus’ “Love one another,” and asks us to imagine “a society in which we imitated Jesus’ altruistic commitment.
It is important to point out that our society does not function as an altruistic civilization. We can “imagine” as Denison asks, but we will not find a practical solution within his religious Idealism. American was founded on the principle of institutionalized self-interest, whereby it was acknowledged that “men are not angels”, and a system of checks and balances were necessary. I have never seen it written that our nation was founded on the ethic of public service, as Denison states. We empowered government to act on our common needs (based on our self-interests), and we accept common obligations (based on our self-interest), and bind together to promote the public good (if our self-interest is served), but we did not create and empower a government to dictate how each individual should fulfill those obligations, other than as our self-interest might direct us. And we most certainly did not form a government based on an altruistic motivation, except for those who confused altruism with their own self interest to be altruistic!
Our Founders (specifically James Madison) hoped that Americans would recognize that by promoting the common good (first) each would best ensure the realization of self-interest (second). But this wisdom was left to the discovery of each individual, and was not mandated by an authoritarian government or religious leader. It is only by this method that the needs of a community are met by persons who are motivated to provide those needs.
Denison continues to support altruistic public service by quoting Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, Hinduism and Buddhism. But then he reveals his own confusion when he writes, “Unfortunately, it is tempting for religious leaders to focus more on building our organizations than on serving our communities.”
No, my dear friend, that is precisely what you should be doing! When you build your organization, you are serving the community. You need to trust that others are building their organizations. The view of a leader is upside down. Stronger individuals are the foundation of a strong community. Religious communities attend to the growth of individuals, who in turn go out into the world to serve. If you want to promote the common good, promote the individual first. If you want to protect the common good, protect the individual first. If you want to improve the economy of our nation, improve the economy of each individual first.
Unitarian Senior Pastor Daniel Kantor echoes my sentiments when he writes, “I can only speak about the institution I know best, First Unitarian Church of Dallas”. Exactly! Leaders of organizations need to grow better organizations. When called upon to offer opinions, they should confine theirs to what they know.
Darrell Bock mentions “shared goals” as part of the common good. Rightly so. Shared goals are shared interests. Ric Dexter (Buddhist) sees common good as a function of individuality when he sums with a quote from Daisaku Ikeda, “A great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and, further, can even enable a change in the destiny of all human kind.
I will add a quote by President Andrew Jackson, “One man with courage is a majority.” Show me a member of the clergy who will preach that from the pulpit and I will show you a person who is secure in his or her understandings.
Do you now see the common theme in determining how to promote the common good? The battle is between the power inherent in the individual and the power conferred to organizations by individuals. As a nation, we must promote the common good while retaining respect and dignity for each individual member of the nation. By this we can promote a good that is common for all.
Can we do that?
Why would anyone think that we are not already doing that?
The answer is that we have problems. But we always have problems, and always will. So why do we assume that we are not providing for the common good?
Mike Ghouse of Foundation of Pluralism misses the mark when he writes, “Each one of us is individually responsible to achieve that [shaping of the common good] with the state as a mere catalyst.” Close. Each individual is responsible to provide for his or her self-interest. It is imperative to retain the sense of our individualism in language. I am not on this earth to tell you what your responsibilities are. If there were 500 of me running around, my obligation to direct your responsibilities would not increase. But when 500 people form a religious organization, somehow they start telling you what your responsibilities are. I will tell you two things. You are responsible to yourself. It is in your self interest to be responsible to others; that is your free choice however. Personally, I agree with Mike. But I would not presume to speak for you on the matter of how you perceive your responsibilities.
Mike also writes, “The biggest victim of the bad economy is our attitude.” I must amend that. We became a victim of a bad economy because of our attitudes. Mike does however ask a very essential question, “What am I doing as an individual to maintain the harmony and cohesiveness of one nation under God with Liberty and Justice for all?”
The answer to that question is evident in all of the answers given to McKenzie’s prompt: “How to promote the common good?” Some relied on the authority of the organization to tell us what to do and what our responsibilities are. Others recognized that the strength of the whole is dependent on the strength of each part. Many answers: none of which are alone correct. We can choose which answer we like, but it is the accumulation of the strength of all of the offered opinions that will be most inclusive of the needed solution.
The opinions are at odds sometimes. How do we reconcile the conflict between opposing opinions?
The problem for the clergy is that they must resolve the conflict and also maintain the sovereignty of their chosen faith. This is demonstrated throughout the several responses, but none more than the opinion of professor of theology Cynthia Rigby who acknowledges that the “church” is a self-interested actor in the support and improvement of the public school system. Just as every writer wants to measure the common good in terms of his or her own views, Rigby wants public school education to be “consistent with what we say we believe, that is : that EVERY child is made in the image of God, and that God desires EVERY person enjoy – to the fullest – God’s gift of life.” On the surface, this sounds good – but note that the religious views of the author are retained. The idea of being “made in the image of God” is nonsense. I mean to say, if you think about what that really implies, it is a very ridiculous notion. Second, the idea that life is a gift bestowed upon us by a supernatural being, whose very nature is incomprehensible to us, requires a tremendous imagination. Rigby is a self-interested actor who seeks to shape the common good to conform with her beliefs. There is nothing wrong with that – in fact, that is my recommendation. But it is just one view among many, and like the fabled blind men who described the proverbial elephant, it is only partially true.
The common good is bigger than our individual ideas, and no self-interested institution is going to promote a view that does not also promote the interests of that institution. As Rigby writes, “Protestant churches advanced public school education because they saw it as a means by which ALL people would be equipped to read the Bible for themselves.” The church will help as long as the church gets something out of the deal. Rigby is honest about the motivations of the church. I will credit her for that! She concludes that by turning our backs on “public schools, creating exclusive, alternative schools at the expense of promoting education for all”, may have worked against the self-interest of the common good, something that many of us said long ago, prophetically, when churches banned together to promote their own fanciful ideas at the expense of public schools.
She concludes by asking “What better way to flavor and brighten than to devote our energies to improving education for all children, and not just ‘our own'”? The answer is all too obvious and elementary. Few religious organizations will promote a public school system which does not promote, and might openly oppose, the beliefs of that religious organization.
That suggests that religious communities are a big reason why the common good is not being promoted. I love irony. Religion is one of the biggest problems we face in this nation, and McKenzie is deferring exclusively to leaders within the religious community to offer opinions on how to fix the problem religion caused. That is rich!
Matthew Wilson, assistant professor of political science at SMU, takes up the same argument. “In a society that stresses, both individual right and group identities, it can be difficult even to identify or achieve, the common good.”
This implies that the common good is something that cannot be achieved. Let me go one step further. Not only can the common good be achieved, in practical terms, it IS being achieved. The common good is the collective output of a self-interested people. Now, it is arguable that we are not doing a good job promoting the common good – but the real cause would be that we are each not doing a very good job as individuals. And there are forces at play (the greed of actors in the economy) that keep individuals from being all that we can each become. Has there ever been a time when these conditions did not exist?
My view is that things are as they should be, and we are doing all we can to promote the common good. Instead of debating about what more we can do, we should be celebrating all that is being done! McKenzie and I differ in that view. For me, the glass is half full.
Now let me answer McKenzie’s question, How do we build a greater sense of the common good today, given the many issues we face.
1. All ideas that foster solutions must promote the fundamental merits of individualism.
2. We must acknowledge that we are self-interested and how a self-interested society can act in altruistic ways.
3. We must recognize that our opinions about the whole are limited by experiences gained within the part. That is to say, if we each choose to live an isolated life, within our own tiny provincial pool of influence, we should kindly refrain some entering into discussions that go beyond the scope of our experience and expertise. Even simpler, don’t fix my house: fix your own.
4. Honor the principle of separation of church and state. Humanitarian institutions should refrain from political activities.
5. Try to see the bigger picture. We are already doing a pretty good job promoting the common good. We face challenges, and we will always face challenges.
6. Define and accept your responsibilities to self and others. If you are going to hold a mirror up to the world to reveal its problems, don’t forget to take a glance in that mirror so you can see the problems you can most easily correct.
7. The principle function of a religious organization is to manage people. Do not confuse spiritually with religiosity.
8. If you want to keep knowing, you have to keep growing. Forming solutions that promote a greater sense of the common good might not be the best topic for you to explore right now. Ask not what you can do for your country: ask how you can become a better person.
9. Trust your president. You elected leaders. Support them as they do their work.
10. For every hour you spend tearing down what others have built, invest a hundred hours building something that only you can build. For it is only have you have invested in building something of lasting value can you then be trusted to be judicious in how you attend to what others have built.
To build a better common good, we must each first build the good in ourselves.