For the Good of Society (Part I)
By George L. O'Brien
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
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
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
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
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.