When Americans talk about seeking the “common good,” what’s the “common” they are talking about? The eminent American historian, William H. Chafe, writing in the journal, Daedulus (pdf), argues that two “overriding paradigms have long competed in defining who we are. The first imagines America as a community that places the good of the whole first; the second envisions the country as a gathering of individuals who prize individual freedom and value more than anything else each person’s ability to determine his own fate.” For Chafe, the common is the “whole” of “America as a community.”
Chafe then tells a familiar “declension” story: that settlers – notably the Puritans seeking to found a “citty upon a hill” – had come to America to build community, but selfish individualism undermined community. (Puritan ministers started telling this story to chastise their congregants not long after landfall.) Ever since, Chafe writes, it’s been a struggle between “the common good and the right to unbridled individual freedom.” That struggle has played out, he argues, between those advancing national, government programs for all citizens (like regulating work conditions and establishing Medicare) and those resisting the programs in defense of individualism.
I think there is an error here. Many, perhaps most Americans, who have resisted the national programs that Chafe likes (and that I like, too) are not defending libertarian individualism – although they sometimes invoke that language. They resist because the common good for them is not that of the national community; it is common good of the small, local, voluntary community. And the national state is a threat to that common good
First, let’s be clear about the Puritans. Aside from forming a somewhat weird subculture notable for its harsh, closed, theocracy (see this earlier post), they sought a limited common good – the good of the Puritan “community of saints,” those who were members of the local church. Plenty of non-Puritans lived in and around Puritan villages, but they remained outside the fold of Puritan concern, attention, and care.
The Puritan community was but an extreme version of American community. Unlike the Old World communities into which people were born for lifetime membership, America’s communities have been voluntarily chosen associations. Because they are voluntary in that people are free to join and free to leave, such communities are not in conflict with American individualism; they are in sync with it. Our churches, neighborhoods, clubs, workplaces, and even families presume that people make free choices to be in or be out. Since we have – in principle, at least – freely chosen our communities, we commit ourselves to work for the common good as long as we choose to stay. (For more, see here, here, and here, as well as Made in America.)
There is, to be sure, an American ideal of the lone, independent, self-reliant individual. Both right and left have their versions — say, the itinerant cowboy and the bohemian artist respectively. Both sides invoke this imagery at times, some on the right when chafing at state regulation, for example, some on the left when chafing at social inhibitions, for example.
But Americans are not, nor have ever been, serious libertarians either in how they live or what they value. (See earlier post. Indeed, as many have noted, free-market laissez-fairism actually challenges conservative family and community values — see, e.g., here and here). Instead, American individualism combines with American commitment to community to create American voluntarism. Americans see voluntary associations as vehicles for jointly achieving all sorts of personal goals, from maintaining safety to attaining salvation. Thus, the common of the common good is the voluntarily-chosen, personal community.
The Common and the State
This view has different implications for the long-running political conflict Chafe describes. Yes, some part of our recurrent struggles over, say, taxation or environmental protection, is a fight between business people who believe in a laissez-faire economy (or think they do) and those who see the state as the means to achieve widely-shared security. But many Americans, many socially conservative Americans in particular, resist much of the national state precisely because it threatens the common good they care about, that of the voluntary communities of neighborhoods, small towns, churches, clubs, and families. They get their backs up not because they are seriously defending Ayn Rand-style individualism, but because they are defending community as they understand it.
Starting sometime in the 19th century, American progressives slowly expanded the circle of the “common” good, the scale of the group for which we feel shared fate and responsibility. Not just neighbors or fellow congregants are worthy of our concern, but so are people farther away – slaves in the South, street children in big cities, the unchurched in distant lands, and so on. This development helped expand concerns about the national welfare. If the common is defined as the whole nation, then national action make sense. And sometimes that action happens – in times of war, the Great Depression, and so on. But it’s an uphill struggle to think of the whole nation as the community when Americans’ communities are basically understood as personal, local, and voluntary.
Chafe’s story about fights over national programs, which he labels “The American Narrative,” is more commonly a fight over different definitions of American community than a battle between community and individualism.