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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.”

Boston Common 1906 (LC-USZ62-102342)

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

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