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37


THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 37, June 12, 1998

For the Good of Society (Part I)

By George L. O'Brien
mailto:obiewan@doitnow.com

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

         Ever since people have lost faith in the "divine right of kings", it has generally been assumed that the role of government should be "to promote the general welfare" and be guided by concern about the overall "good of society." However, in seeking to discover what "the good of society" or "public good" constitutes, there have been two diametrically opposed approaches.
         One approach is "individualistic" while the other is "collectivistic".
         The individualist approach should be familiar to anyone who has read the American Declaration of Independence. "That to secure these rights (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it." As Thomas Paine pointed out, "Man did not enter into society to become worse than he was before, but to have those rights better secured."
         To Jefferson and Paine, the good of society was reflected in the good of the individuals that made up the society. They agreed with the English jurist Blackstone who stated "The public good is in nothing more essentially interested, than in the protection of every individual's private rights."
         John Stuart Mill declared, "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral is not a sufficient warrent."
         For the individualist, the good of society is reflected through freedom of the individual. Alexander Herzen declared, "The liberty of the individual is the greatest thing of all, it is on this and on this alone that the true will of the people can develop." Somerset Maugham declared, "There are two good things in life -- freedom of thought and freedom of action."
         For the individualist there is no conflict between the "good" of the peaceful individual and the good of "society." But as William Hazlitt noted, "The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves." The public good and the private good flow from the same source: individual freedom.
         This is not to deny that some people fare better than others in a free society. However, as Adam Smith pointed out, "by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was not part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it."
         Indeed, far from being unconcerned about the good of society, the individualist approach to achieving the "public good" is likely to be superior. It emerges organically from the benevolent actions of the individuals in that society. As Alexis De Tocqueville in describing the highly individualistic society of early 19th century America pointed out, "When a private individual mediates an undertaking, however directly connected it may be with the welfare of the society, he never thinks of soliciting the co-operation of the government; but he publishes his plan, offers to execute it, courts the assistance of other individuals, and struggles manfully against all obstacles. Undoubtedly he is often less successful than the state might have been in his position; but in the end, the sum of these private undertakings far exceeds all that the government could have done."
         This approach to promoting the good of society is very personal and decentralized. On a broader scale, the individualist approach relies on moral suasion rather than government to encourage better behavior. In this we see agreement with Confucious, who contended that moral suasion is incompatable with statist controls, "Guide them by edicts, keep them in line with punishments, and the common people will stay out of trouble but will have no sense of shame. Guide them by virtue, keep them in line with the rites, and they will, besides having a sense of shame, reform themselves."
         The individualist promotes the social good through protecting the weak from harm by the criminals, encouraging general prosperity through the "invisible hand" of the free market, through the direct action of charity and voluntary benevolence, and through moral suasion. In an individualist society, the "public good" is indistinguishable from the pursuit of happiness by peaceful private individuals.
         The collectivist rejects the individualist conception of the "public good". For the collectivist, the "good of society" is often quite different from that of the individuals who make up that society. For that reason, the collectivist approach justifies the use of state power to prohibit some peaceful actions, compel other actions, and to take money from people for the benefit of others.
         In nearly every case, the purpose of these actions are supposed to be for public good. Every plea for laws that benefit one group at the expense of others is always presented as if its objective were the public good. At the same time, when people oppose these supposedly public-spirited actions, the opponents are denouced as being opposed to the good of society.
         So whether they are called liberal or conservative, radical or reactionary, leftist or rightist, labels are less important than the approach. Whether the program is for social justice or to create a Christian country, proponents of collectivist policies support the use of government power -- for the public good.

TO BE CONTINUED


George L. O'Brien, longtime political strategist and veteran of the Libertarian movement is a spokesman for the anti-civil forfeiture organization, F.E.A.R. He lives and works in Phoenix, Arizona.


There is no away? Then where are Bill and Hillary going to go?
-- L. Neil Smith


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