The pandemic killed the common good
It is too early to calculate the price of the pandemic. To date, over 600,000 Americans have died and over 34 million have fallen ill. Economists estimate trillions of dollars, millions of jobs and thousands of businesses lost. And these are just the direct consequences. Loneliness, anxiety, and social disruption have downstream effects, including increased drug overdoses.
In these bitter circumstances, it may seem futile to think about what the pandemic means for political theory. Despite this risk, I want to consider an intellectual victim of COVID-19: the idea of ”the common good”, a shared framework for determining what members of a political community owe each other. The experiences of the last 18 months show how the concept does not help in resolving our differences.
This can be a counterintuitive assessment. The common good has rarely seemed more relevant. While it’s possible to talk about things like school closures or mask requirements only in terms of personal gain or preference, that’s not satisfying. Whether or not we use the term, the “common good” is how we conceive of extended obligations that transcend whimsical or selfish interests.
The common good is also experiencing a kind of intellectual renewal. In recent years, most Catholic thinkers have invoked the concept as an alternative to quantitative and materialistic measures of well-being. In these discussions, the common good tends to justify a more active economic role for government. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) Took this position in a 2019 speech in favor of “common good capitalism” that promotes decent work as well as GDP growth.
The idea of the common good, however, is not new or religiously doctrinal. It’s rooted in American political tradition. We call our government a “republic”, adapting the Latin term respublica or “public matter”. Calls for shared goals permeate our founding documents – for example, the commitment to “general welfare” in the preamble to the Constitution – balancing more familiar invocations of individual freedom. Our institutions protect freedom, but are also meant to guide us towards the same goals.
Under these circumstances, the cause of the common good seems quite powerful. But there is a problem: we do not agree on what that implies. At a very general level, we all want to pursue goals like health, prosperity and knowledge dissemination. But it becomes difficult when we are faced with trade-offs between genuinely desirable goals.
At the start of the pandemic, then President Trump pleaded for an end to the lockdowns by tweeting that “WE CANNOT LET THE HEALING BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.” The statement encouraged tensions with advisers, including the head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, who felt stronger measures were warranted to stop the spread of the virus. Both men, and the factions they led, believed they were pursuing the common good, which includes economic and social well-being as well as physical health. But different assessments of costs and benefits have indicated very different policies.
Another example is the debates about school closures. Teacher unions argued that the risks to the health of school staff, students and families outweighed the value of in-person instruction. Many parents disagreed, pointing to the low infection rate and mild symptoms in children and voicing fears of isolation and loss of learning. Both positions could arguably be understood as efforts to achieve the common good. Once again, however, the practical conclusions were in tension.
I don’t want to be naive about these disputes. Invocations to the common good are often the pretext for personal or collective demands that they are supposed to transcend. While not intentionally misleading, the way we perceive the common good is inevitably colored by private incentives. When General Motors executive and shareholder Charles E. Wilson was appointed Secretary of Defense in 1953, he expressed skepticism about any possible tension between his constitutional obligation and his financial interests because “for years I have thought what was good for our country was for General Motors, and vice versa. “
If naivety is a risk in the assessment, speak up common good, however, cynicism is another. Political philosopher John Rawls described the inevitability of disagreement over the common good as the “burden of judgment”. The barrier to consensus is not just that we have different interests. Social phenomena are complex, data is murky, and perceptions of any situation are influenced by each person’s unique dispositions and experiences. As a result, even people who reason in good faith and use the same information will tend to draw different conclusions.
The burden of judgment is glaring in the current vaccine debate. Last week, National examMichael Brendan Dougherty has caused minor controversy by claiming that media censorship and social shame are unlikely to persuade Americans who refuse vaccination. Responding to Dougherty’s criticisms, The New York Times’ Ross Douthat noted that a personal history of bad experiences with the medical system might encourage reasonable people to avoid a new treatment that still lacks formal FDA approval. This helps explain why resistance is correlated with race, education and geography as well as political partisanship.
The conclusion that disagreement is inevitable could be interpreted as an argument that, because it is difficult to agree, we should not attempt collective action. This is not my intention either. More than a year later, I am convinced that the common good involves open businesses, schools, religious congregations, and that keeping them open requires vaccination as close as possible to the universal. I have logistical and principled concerns regarding the drastic demands recently imposed on France. But vaccination mandates for people who will live and work nearby, such as college dorms, the military and cruise ships, look good.
But I also agree that many Americans disagree on these points. In a federal republic with powers divided between branches and between national and state governments, this disagreement makes it unlikely that those who share my views can enforce them. Even if we could do this in law, widespread disapproval could make the app counterproductive. Our experiences with alcohol and drug prohibition suggest that even when coercion serves its direct purpose, it can destabilize law and order in different and often unforeseen ways.
For these reasons, common good rhetoric does not seem very helpful in navigating our current challenges. Even when sincerely deployed, he is too broad, too moralistic, and too questionable to persuade anyone to change his behavior. A recent study found that observing friends or family members who had not experienced side effects was the most important factor in convincing vaccine skeptics to change their mind. Appeals to social obligation or general well-being will not cut it, however tempting the feeling of moral and intellectual superiority they flatter.
A better use of the concept of the common good is to remember that it is necessary to reflect on the complex and often contradictory relationships between individual behaviors, public policies and social institutions rather than focusing on a single political value or a quantifiable result. Insisting on personal freedom to avoid vaccination encourages new epidemics, for example, while the pursuit of reduced cases requires unpopular and unenforceable restrictions. Even with the best of intentions, neither one promotes a widely shared goal: to return to a normal life. Instead, it shows more promise to identify targeted responses to specific problems. In this case, just paying people to get the vaccine, as Douthat suggested, might help.
But this is just another way of saying that the kind of compromises, compromises, and unforeseen circumstances we have faced recently are inevitable in economics, education, and other areas beyond public health. . The common good is not enough.