Friday, September 19, 2008

Freedom and the Common Good

David Brooks recently wrote a column accusing conservatives, with all our talk about freedom, of being opposed to the social nature of man and the common good. Perhaps he had in mind the recent book by Grover Norquist, an anti-tax crusader, entitled Leave Us Alone. The title suggests that what conservatives really want is radical individualism. (Though from what I've read, the book is actually a good deal more sophisticated than that.)

The charge is a serious one. Certainly from a Catholic perspective the common good is primary. We are social beings, created, not for individualism, but for community. I dare say it is a good thing that columns like Brooks' have sting, even politically: Americans know that ultra-individualism is not a good thing.

Jonah Goldberg at National Review responded that conservatism can sound like individualism because it is a "partial philosophy of life." That is, political conservatism is not meant to say everything there is to say. We want government to leave us alone, but that doesn't mean we want to retreat from society. In fact, as has been demonstrated by several recent studies, conservatives give much more money, volunteer more time, and even give more blood than liberals. We participate in more social groups, and believe in organized religion. We are not radical individualists. We just want the government to leave us alone.

I think this response doesn't quite get it right. Perhaps another time I'll try to explain the problem with creating too great a divide between the State and civil society, as if the State were a wholly abstract reality. For now, allow me simply to assert: you cannot simultaneously value civil society and say that the government should not promote it. The primary purpose of government is to promote the common good and civil society.

Nonetheless, freedom from the incursions of government -- telling government to leave us alone -- is an essential part of government's promotion of the common good.

In the fullest sense, only spiritual goods can be truly common. An apple can never be a common good, because to the extent that I partake of it, you cannot. But that is not true of spiritual things. Augustine's favorite example is teaching: sharing the apple means I get less, but sharing my knowledge means I possess it all the more. This is true above all of religion: I am most fully a Christian only in sharing my faith, both through evangelization and through the common worship of the Church.

And yet precisely in the realm of faith, the Church promote freedom. The reason is that these truly common goods can only be possessed from man's interior. No amount of external coercion can cause you to participate in the Catholic faith. We promote the faith as much as we can, but we cannot hope to share it with others unless we give them the space to embrace it freely. On the highest level, the common good depends on freedom; it cannot be shared without freedom.

This is true also, of course, of natural spiritual goods, such as learning. Compulsory education is a contradiction. As I argued in my last post, reviewing the new work by Charles Murray, real education can only happen when people freely embrace it, when they have the space to choose to learn and to truly learn, not just jump through hoops.

This is true of all of culture. Of course culture -- true culture, which is high, and must be learned, and which binds people together, as opposed to the multiculturalism that divides society -- should be promoted, by all means possible. But only by those means possible. Forcing people to participate is, again, simply a contradiction. We can provide carrots; for example, we can say that in order to vote, you need to understand the common language and the rudiments of American political philosophy and history. But we cannot use sticks, withholding basic goods from those who choose not to learn these things. Freedom is an essential part of promoting the common good which is culture; it is not everything (and that is why conservatives oppose multiculturalism), but it is a necessary component (and that is why conservatives oppose mandatory public schooling).

But the common good also exists on a slightly more complex level. Along with the common good being something "out there" in which we engage -- like religion or knowledge or culture -- there is also a common good which is society itself. We participate in this common good not by all sharing the same thing, but by each playing different roles within a greater whole. The common good of a family, for instance, can only happen when one person is the dad, and only the dad, another person is the mom, other people are children. (And the common good of the family becomes stronger, because richer and more complex, when it is extended, when there are five children, so that you have not just an "oldest" and a "youngest," but a greater complexity of relations, and when you have grandparents and other extended family members around.) Such a common good happens not by everyone being the same, but by people playing different roles in the same whole.

An old professor of mine describes a parade in traditional Poland, where different kinds of workers wore different costumes. The parade visually displayed the richness of society, which is built upon many people doing different things. He also described St. Peter's Square, where there is the Pope in white, the Cardinals in red, the bishops in magenta, the priests in black, the countless orders of religious, the flags of different nations, and countless lay people. These moments of pomp display the richness of society, which, like a family, is what it is precisely through people playing different roles. Aristotle makes the distinction between an arrangement and a heap: a heap is just a bunch of indistinguishable pieces; in an arrangement, each piece matters, because each piece plays a different role. Jane Jacobs describes a "ballet" of the city streets, with different people headed in different directions at different times of day -- not randomly, but in proper order, each playing his own role in building the city.

This common good of social life requires freedom, at least of a sort. To some extent, a certain kind of freedom can undermine it, if people no longer see their place, if people no longer have a sense of identity within the greater whole. But the good of freedom is precisely that people can find their place. Return to the potential electrician we discussed in the last post. To be an electrician is his proper place, his part of the arrangement, his place in building up the beautiful array of the social order. He may well fit that role because of his family background, but he may be an anomaly, with a set of talents we never could have predicted. This is precisely why freedom is necessary for building the social array. There is no way any authority can determine his place, except by letting things shake out and settle where they belong.

Freedom means giving people the opportunity to find their place in society. This is not a withdrawal, but a way to participate more fully. By contrast, imagine a command economy, such as occurred in China's Cultural Revolution. Professors and artists were sent to work in the fields. They could not be replaced, so that part of the array was lost. But they did not fit in the place to which they were sent, either. They could not participate in the common good, and they could not contribute to building it up, because they were not in their natural place. The Church recognizes this principle in demanding freedom for the individual to choose his proper vocation. Social order only happens when people are able to embrace what suits them. This is not relativism -- indeed, conservatives oppose "places" in society that do not naturally fit any person, such as prostitution, or thievery, or the underground economy. It is just the recognition that the social order requires diversity.

Finally, on the lowest level, there is the common good which is the economy. Economists trained in the Catholic tradition rightly point out that the economy cannot be a true common good, because it is fundamentally ordered to material goods. Material goods are private: to share is to diminish my part. To give you money is to lose money for myself.

But conservative economics brings to light an ambiguity in this. Wealth can be "created." What that means is that when resources are allocated more intelligently, everyone can have more. For example, a big pile of wheat in a farmer's field is hardly "his," insofar as he cannot use it. But if it is distributed, he can still have enough, while providing for many others. And to push deeper, farming itself creates a good that did not exist: the intelligence of the farmer creates a good where there was only earth. Truth to be told, resources are virtually infinite. There are very few things that we actually "use up." (Energy is a counter-example, but our solar and nuclear resources are virtually infinite, especially once we get into space.) Resources are virtually infinite; we are bound primarily by our inability to recycle, to distribute, and to use what we have. (Using what we have, I should note, sometimes means substitutions: there is a limited number of salmon we can catch, but a virtually unlimited number of tasty things to eat.)

This virtual infinity of goods puts the private nature of the economy in an ambiguous position. It's true that the material goods I possess are goods you cannot possess: we can't both have the same slice of the pie. But we can grow the pie, so that everyone can have a slice. Economics is precisely the science of growing the economy. And so, in an ambiguous sense, the economy is also like a common good: economic growth enriches both of us.

(Explaining this is much simpler on the level of "social connection" -- the level David Brooks was talking about. Caring about economic growth is simply a matter of social connection, of understanding that no man is an economic island. The liberal assumption that the pie is a limited size, that we must rob Peter to feed Paul, is a much coarser and more competitive understanding of social connection. When middle-class conservatives vote for "tax cuts for the rich," we are actually expressing our much greater belief in social connection, on the need of a rising tide to lift all boats, instead of just stealing from other people, whether or not "they can afford it." On the level of social connection, this argument is relatively easy. On the level of the common good, it is tricky: we must say that the economy is a common utilitarian good, in that it provides for all of us, rather than a common good in itself, in that we don't desire economic growth as an end in itself.)

To achieve the useful common good of economic growth again requires freedom. Conservative economics is not a matter of "leave me alone," of getting all I can and damn the rest. Conservative economics is a matter of mustering all tools at hand in order to grow this common good. Liberal command economics -- providing for the poor by stealing from the rich, and requiring all economic actors to be regulated by a few central planners -- is destructive of the economic common good precisely because it shuts out so many minds. I will not give a complete essay on the price mechanism here, but the free market, and freely floating prices, serve the economy precisely because they convey so much information about supply and demand to every individual in society. Prices allow my wife to participate in the decision-making process about where our limited supply of flour should be sent. Price controls mean shutting my wife, and millions of other intelligences, out of that decision. Economic growth means making the economy more intelligent; central planning is bad precisely because it shuts out intelligences, making the economy less intelligent.

This isn't a matter of greed or individualism. It's a matter of asking everyone to participate in promoting the common good. I know we are not used to thinking this way, but we could think of the free market as a kind of required civil service. In a centrally planned, command economy, individuals are allowed to lazily partake of economic goods without imputing their own intelligence. A market economy requires every individual in society to think for himself, to decide for himself whether trip is really worth the cost of gas, whether that restaurant is worth what it costs to maintain it, whether these figs are important enough to my diet to warrant the resources it takes to make them available. Market economics is not about individualistic freedom. It is about civil service, requiring every individual to contribute his own intelligence to the great social cause of planning an economy that provides for all.

Whether on the level of economic planning, or personal vocation, or participation in the goods of culture and religion, freedom is not opposed to the common good, but a necessary tool to promote it. Thus freedom is not to be seen as the opposite of government, and government is not to be seen as an enemy to the good. Rather, government must actively promote freedom precisely because it is the task of government to promote the common good.