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For the Good of Society


“The good of society" has generally had two very different meanings -- one individualist and the other collectivist. This essay suggests that when collectivists promote a society with limited consideration for individual rights in the society, the “good of society” is not advanced.

This essay previously appeared in The Libertarian Enterprise.


George L. O'Brien

 Author Notes


 Essay - 6/14/1998

Ever since people lost faith in the divine right of kings, it has generally been assumed that the role of government should be to promote the general welfare and be guided by concern about the overall good of society. However, in seeking to discover what "the good of society" or "public good" constitutes, there have been two diametrically opposed approaches.

One approach is individualistic while the other is collectivistic.

The individualist approach should be familiar to anyone who has read the American Declaration of Independence. "That to secure these rights [life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness], Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it." As Thomas Paine pointed out, "Man did not enter into society to become worse than he was before, but to have those rights better secured."

To Jefferson and Paine, the good of society was reflected in the good of the individuals that made up the society. They agreed with the English jurist Blackstone who stated "The public good is in nothing more essentially interested, than in the protection of every individual's private rights."

John Stuart Mill declared, "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral is not a sufficient warrant."

For the individualist, the good of society is reflected through freedom of the individual. Alexander Herzen declared, "The liberty of the individual is the greatest thing of all, it is on this and on this alone that the true will of the people can develop." Somerset Maugham declared, "There are two good things in life -- freedom of thought and freedom of action."

For the individualist there is no conflict between the good of the peaceful individual and the good of society. But as William Hazlitt noted, "The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves." The public good and the private good flow from the same source: individual freedom.

This is not to deny that some people fare better than others in a free society. However, as Adam Smith pointed out, "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 not part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it."

Indeed, far from being unconcerned about the good of society, the individualist approach to achieving the public good is likely to be superior. It emerges organically from the benevolent actions of the individuals in that society. As Alexis De Tocqueville in describing the highly individualistic society of early 19th century America pointed out, "When a private individual mediates an undertaking, however directly connected it may be with the welfare of the society, he never thinks of soliciting the co-operation of the government; but he publishes his plan, offers to execute it, courts the assistance of other individuals, and struggles manfully against all obstacles. Undoubtedly he is often less successful than the state might have been in his position; but in the end, the sum of these private undertakings far exceeds all that the government could have done."

This approach to promoting the good of society is very personal and decentralized. On a broader scale, the individualist approach relies on moral suasion rather than government to encourage better behavior. In this we see agreement with Confucious, who contended that moral suasion is incompatible with statist controls, "Guide them by edicts, keep them in line with punishments, and the common people will stay out of trouble but will have no sense of shame. Guide them by virtue, keep them in line with the rites, and they will, besides having a sense of shame, reform themselves."

The individualist promotes the social good through protecting the weak from harm by the criminals, encouraging general prosperity through the "invisible hand" of the free market, through the direct action of charity and voluntary benevolence, and through moral suasion. In an individualist society, the public good is indistinguishable from the pursuit of happiness by peaceful private individuals.

The collectivist rejects the individualist conception of the “public good”. For the collectivist, the good of society is often quite different from that of the individuals who make up that society. For that reason, the collectivist approach justifies the use of state power to prohibit some peaceful actions, compel other actions, and to take money from people for the benefit of others.

In nearly every case, the purpose of these actions are supposed to be for public good. Every plea for laws that benefit one group at the expense of others is always presented as if its objective were the public good. At the same time, when people oppose these supposedly public-spirited actions, the opponents are denounced as being opposed to the good of society.

So whether they are called liberal or conservative, radical or reactionary, leftist or rightist, labels are less important than the approach. Whether the program is for social justice or to create a Christian country, proponents of collectivist policies support the use of government power -- for the public good.

In the collectivist approach, differences over exactly what constitutes the "public good" are far more important than in individualist society. In an individualist society, people can form an extraordinary array of communities, subcultures, and associations which can co-exist so long as they do not use force and intimidation against their neighbors. In a collectivist society, every minority is a potential victim of people who claim to know for sure what is best for everyone.

The individualist approach is inherently circumspect when dealing with claims that someone possesses such certainty about exactly what the public good really is. By contrast the collectivist has so much a certainty as to be willing to use force.

"If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life." -- Henry David Thoreau

It is very hard to determine exactly what the "public good" is. Generally, it is simply efforts to achieve private gain through the instrument of government. Frederic Bastiat said, "Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else."

This is not helped by the belief that the collectivist's intentions are sincere. Some of the greatest horrors of history were perpetrated by people who were _quite_ sincere. As Oscar Wilde noted, "A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

What is not a delusion is that many people attracted to government power. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, "Next to enjoying ourselves, the greatest pleasure consists in preventing others from enjoying themselves, or more generally, in the acquisition of power." H.L. Mencken observed, "The urge to save humanity is almost always a false-face for the urge to rule it."

The danger is that even when genuinely motivated by the pursuit of the public good, the initial idealism is frequently lost. As Lord Acton put it, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad man."

According to William Hazlitt, "The love of fame is consistent with the steadiest attachment to principle and indeed strengthens and supports it; whereas the love of power, where this is the ruling passion, requires the sacrifice of principle at every turn, and is inconsistent even in the shadow of it." Daniel Defoe was even more blunt: "All men would be tyrants if they could."

John Randolph of Roanoke saw that the collection and spending of taxes is a key to every collectivist scheme, "That most delicious of all privileges -- spending other people's money." Benjamin Disraeli noted, "To tax the community for the advantage of a class is not protection: it is plunder."

Inevitably, government officials claim their actions are just and necessary. As William Pitt the Younger put it, "Necessity is the pleas for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants, it is the creed of slaves."

Somehow the interests of the targets of government power are never a part of "public good." According to class warfare-motivated radical collectivist William Morris, "It is enough political economy for me to know that the idle rich class is rich and the working class is poor, and that the rich are rich because they rob the poor," and that "The most grinding poverty is a trifling evil compared to the inequality of the classes." He really didn't like people with money any more than Pierre Proudhon, who believed that "Property is theft."

Their ideas led to experiments in radical collectivism in Soviet Russia, Maoist China, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Castro's Cuba, etc., with uniformly dismal results. To the end, the leaders insisted that all the suffering, the secret police, the concentration camps, and so on, represented steps taken for the good of society. As Susanne LaFollette noted about the Soviet Union in 1926, "The revolutionists did not succeed in establishing human freedom; they poured the new wine of belief in equal rights for all men into the old bottle of privilege for some; it soured."

Inevitably, steps taken in the name of the collectivist vision of the public good involve attempts to control the lives of others. It makes one reflect on the words of Frederick Douglass, "I didn't know I was a slave until I found out I couldn't do the things I want."

From the perspective of collectivists, the complaint of Frederick Douglass is irrelevant. They reject John Stuart Mill, who declared that "Liberty consists in doing what one desires." Perhaps Frederick Douglas was just being selfish in not wanting to be a slave.

John Stuart Mill saw the conflict between the individualist vision of the public good versus that of the collectivists: "A person should be free to do as he likes in his own concerns; but he ought not to be free to do as he likes in acting for another, under the pretext that the affairs of the other are his own affairs ... The spirit of improvement is not always the spirit of liberty, for it may aim at forcing improvements on an unwilling people."

To the individualist, the public good is not some disembodied abstraction, but real live human beings whose lives are harmed through the use of government power. To the individualist, the good of society can only be achieved through the struggle to achieve freedom. As James Russell Lowell put it:

True freedom is to share All the chains our brothers wear And, with heart and hand to be Earnest to make others free!

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