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Don’t Be Beguiled By Talk of “the Common Good”

Here’s a letter to National Review Institute President Lindsay Craig:

Ms. Craig:

I’m pleased to read your report that Capital Record’s David Bahnsen defended the free market against Oren Cass’s mistaken notions (Email, June 13). Not the least-mistaken of Mr. Cass’s notions is the one you single out – namely, his assertion that “policy makers have to have some conception of the common good.”

No they don’t. As I’m sure you and Mr. Bahnsen agree, one of the merits of the liberal market order is that it allows each of us to pursue our individual ends absent any need to agree on, or to aim for, anything called the “common good.” The only appropriate legally enforced boundaries on individuals’ pursuits of their ends is that they do so in ways that are consistent with everyone else’s equal ability to pursue their ends – which means that no one gets to defraud or coerce anyone.

This merit of the liberal market order is great. Because of the diversity of individuals’ particular interests, ends, and understandings of ‘the good,’ to impose any specific “common good” goal of the sort that Mr. Cass favors necessarily requires coercing the majority of people to abandon their own ends in order to assist in the pursuit of the particular ends enforced by those who currently hold political power.

Imposing a “common good” sounds splendid only to negligent or foolishly romantic minds. Serious, sober thinkers agree with the late political philosopher Anthony de Jasay who explained that “any political decision that, by invoking the common good, overrides the will and wishes of some to satisfy others, is the execution of a value judgment about individual wills and wishes.”* And there is no reason whatsoever to suppose that the particular value judgments of those persons who excel at grabbing political power are superior to the value judgments of the individuals who Mr. Cass wishes to compel to behave as he believes they should behave.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

* Anthony de Jasay, Against Politics (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 70.