The common good versus liberal rights

Following up on our discussion of the "three languages of politics," let's explore the difference between an approach to politics focused on the common good versus one focused on individual rights.

Imagine a new Hitler is rising to power in some imaginary polity where governance is still understood in the classical style, as the enterprise that is concerned with the common good. The leaders of that polity will be concerned chiefly with shutting this threat down, by whatever means prove necessary to do so. Now, preserving the common good requires the leaders to use the least disruptive means possible for overachieving that aim. Perhaps having him quietly meet in accident when evening will be for the best, or somehow insuring that his access to media outlets is blocked. Perhaps his party can simply be outlawed.

On the other hand, in a liberal polity fully committed to "individual rights," there will be great concern for the new Hitler's "right to free speech." This right is a trump card, and if honoring it requires the polity accept utter ruin in the wars this new Hitler will eventually start, well, so be it! Can't violate his first amendment rights, after all.

22 comments:

  1. Well, arguably, some of the secret bailouts for banks in 2007-08 fall under that category of common good, no?

    Despite taxpayer's money being used for a purpose they did not know about (possibly a violation of individual rights), doing it secretly meant avoiding a much bigger fallout than what happened, and preventing a bank run. And allowing American banks to recover faster than European ones 3-4 years later.

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    1. "…possibly a violation of individual rights…"

      The classical politics proponent would argue that because that action serves the common good, no such violation of rights takes place.

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    2. "Despite taxpayer's money being used for a purpose they did not know about…"

      That happens all the time with secret military projects, covert operations, and diplomatic cables, Prateek.

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  2. Given the atrociousness of the things that the concept of the common good has been used to justify, I'll side with liberalism every time.

    "Perhaps having him quietly meet in accident when evening will be for the best…"

    Covert assassination is really repugnant, Gene. It's subverts and undermines civil society.

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    1. Ironically, in this scenario, new Hitler would be cooking up plans quite similar to the Callahanists': silence the opposition, dissolve their parties, quietly assassinate them if necessary. New Hitler might have more of a taste for ostentatious killings, granted.

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    2. What a surprise! Evil people can make use of the same tools as good people! The Allies had soldiers shoot at people, but, ironically, Hitler had soldiers shoot at people also!

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    3. "Given the atrociousness of the things that the concept of the common good has been used to justify, I'll side with liberalism every time."

      Because liberalism has NEVER been used to justify atrocious things!

      "Covert assassination is really repugnant, Gene. It's subverts and undermines civil society."

      The rise of Hitler was way, way more repugnant! It destroyed civil society, and 6 million Jews as well.

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    4. And Greg and Samson, do you actually think that the United States has not regularly engaged in covert assassination for at least the last 70 years?! The difference in a liberal polity is that there is no acceptable reason for doing so, and thus, since it is always bad, it should be done whenever it is convenient!

      Actually accepting this as an extreme but rarely to be used tool of statecraft allows one to evaluate soberly which rare occasions call for its use.

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    5. "…Samson, do you actually think that the United States has not regularly engaged in covert assassination for at least the last 70 years?!"

      No, I do not think that. The point is, though, that we should not have been doing so. (You say "at least", so I wonder if it was common in the 1800s.)

      "The difference in a liberal polity is that there is no acceptable reason for doing so, and thus, since it is always bad, it should be done whenever it is convenient!"

      My opposition to assassination has nothing to do with my liberalism though. And if it always bad, then how could a liberal polity every justify it on the grounds of convenience?

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    6. "Because liberalism has NEVER been used to justify atrocious things!"

      Can you tell me what you have in mind?

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    7. "The rise of Hitler was way, way more repugnant! It destroyed civil society, and 6 million Jews as well."

      I understand that, Gene, but I believe in "do what is right though the world may perish". Accepting that does not mean I would not be looking to stop Hilter.

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    8. Given the atrociousness of the things that the concept of the common good has been used to justify, I'll side with liberalism every time.

      Yeah -- screw all that common good crap. No more environmentalism, cultivation of tolerance, etc., we just need more abstract legal rights & it will all work out. If we run into problems, it's just because the system isn't perfect yet. Moar abstract perfection!

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    9. "No more environmentalism, cultivation of tolerance, etc."

      I fail to see what those have to do with "the common good", Scott. Environmentalism can't be fit onto that spectrum and tolerance can be reduced to liberalism.

      "…we just need more abstract legal rights & it will all work out. If we run into problems, it's just because the system isn't perfect yet. Moar abstract perfection!"

      I would wager that there is no difference between "abstract" and "non-abstract" here.

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    10. 'I would wager that there is no difference between "abstract" and "non-abstract" here.'

      You would lose.

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    11. Okay, how is the common good not as "abstract" as liberal rights?

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    12. I fail to see what those have to do with "the common good"

      It would seem to me that seeing 'the environment' as a 'common good' and wanting to protect it is quite straightforward, probably the easiest way to think about & justify environmentalism. My guess is that many/most people think about it this way. Do you think most people would take the environment to be an abstraction, that somehow has 'rights' or something?

      Consider 'tolerance' in Victorian terms -- back then, you could sell cocaine or opium, no problem -- legally. In the abstract, you had every right to do it. But *actually* try to do so, or any other number of otherwise perfectly legal things, and see if you don't get tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail when the guys with the torches and pitchforks find out. If you were lucky enough to even make it out of town. That's abstract 'tolerance', without the concrete variety. Kind of like SJW's today -- they are only liberal 'in principle.' In actuality, they are tyrants who will try to destroy you if they disagree with your opinion. Or the crazies that run Iran. (Yes, there's a common thread here...)

      Methinks you would be well served to take a time-out, and read something like The New Science of Politics by Voegelin or Rationalism in Politics by Oakeshott, if you feel strongly about this kind of stuff. You might have a better chance with these ideas/be able to shoot them down better if you took the time to dig in a bit deeper.

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  3. "…and if honoring it requires the polity accept utter ruin in the wars this new Hitler will eventually start, well, so be it!"

    Fiat justitia ruat caelum.

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  4. And, Gene, can you give some examples of the atrocities that liberalism has wrought?

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    1. Hiroshima? Nagasaki? Phillipine War? Boar War? World War I trenches? The French terror? Tuskegee experiments? We could go on and on, Samson. All ideas are prone to abuse!

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    2. The Reign of Terror is a fair one (though I think that had to do with an "ends justify the means" approach). But those others? Hiroshima and Nagasaki can't be just blamed on generic warfare? The Tuskegee experiments on racism and seeing people as guinea pigs? (The Tuskegee people—as well as the people involved in sterilizations—should've been dragged out back and shot; they were particularly evil.)

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    3. And the Boar War? How is that one liberal?

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    4. So you are going to blame things actually done by liberal regimes on something other than liberalism, while blaming things done by regimes espousing the idea of the common good on that espousal.

      Sigh.

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