In yesterday's posting we raised the possibility that the common good over which the State exercises guardianship might — at least for the sake of argument — not be the aggregate of individual goods, but something less . . . and, in a very real sense, much more. Not surprisingly, this turns out to be the case. We don't know if Aristotle was the first person to talk about the common good, but that's not important enough to look up right now. What is important is that Aristotle knew what the common good is: that at which all things aim.
That sounds perhaps a little flip, but stop and think for a moment. Does anybody (or anything) aim at or strive for something that he knows is bad for the sake of its badness? Hardly. Even striving for something we know to be bad is done for some gain or good that we believe will accrue to us, or to avoid a greater evil. The warped and totally depraved man who does great evil for the sake of what we believe to be evil believes it to be good. A glance into Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf reveals that he regarded himself as a benefactor of humanity.
Aristotle went on to say what this good is at which all things aim: virtue. While the word "virtue" has its roots in a Latin word, virtus, meaning "manliness," let's not let that bother us. Virtue today signifies human-ness, and is defined as "the habit of doing good." That being the case, the job of each human being on earth — the "secret of life" if you will — is to spend his or her life acquiring and developing habits of doing good, in the process becoming more fully human.
So what is the good common to the entire human race, the "common good"? Simply the capacity that each human being has to acquire and develop virtue, thereby becoming more fully human. That is, by acquiring the habit of doing good, we bring ourselves into closer conformity with our own nature.
That's important, because we acquire the habit of doing good by exercising rights. Not all rights, of course. There are a great many rights that exist only to make life easier or more livable. Since, as Aristotle said, "man is by nature a political animal" (which seems to be a unique combination of individual and social — think of it as a social being with individual identity and rights) we gather into groups to live, but without neglecting the fact that we remain individuals at the same time we are members of a group. The art of politics is to balance the needs of the individual with the demands of the group.
Those rights that help us become virtuous by their exercise are called "natural rights." This is because they help us to become more fully human, that is, conform to our own nature. Among the most important of these natural rights are life, liberty (freedom of association/contract) and private property. The common good can thus be understood as the vast network of institutions — especially natural rights — within which humanity, as political animals, acquire and develop virtue (build habits of doing good), thereby becoming more fully human.
We mentioned "Catch-22" in yesterday's posting, and now we bring it up again. It seems that there is a catch to all this. That is, if we do not do the work ourselves of building habits of doing good by exercising our rights, then we do not truly become virtuous. If we are handed or guaranteed everything we need or could reasonably want, we are no more virtuous than a student who copies all the right answers from the back of the book is learned.
We are given rights so that by their exercise we can meet our own needs and those of our dependents, and in the process develop our potential as human beings. If the State or our parents continue to take care of us when we should have learned how to "do" for ourselves, we remain children — or slaves.
Everyone, of course, needs a hand once in a while. To turn people into permanent dependents (another word for slave) as a usual thing, however, is profoundly wrong because it defeats the whole purpose of life — which is to become more fully human by acquiring and developing virtue. As should be obvious, there is no virtue developed when everything is guaranteed.
There is also the problem that distributing material goods on the basis of need, except in an emergency, comes under charity, not justice, and thus not under the purview of the State. As Leo XIII explained,
"No one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, 'for no one ought to live other than becomingly.' But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one's standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. 'Of that which remaineth, give alms.'' It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity — a duty not enforced by human law." (Rerum Novarum, § 22)
Thus, a State that attempts to supply every material need or (worse) coercively enforce what it has, on its own authority and without reference to objective moral values decided is "good," has already admitted that, as a State, it is a failure. Trying to provide for every material need or even a bare subsistence is only justified by a permanent state of emergency — or perhaps we should say, a State of Emergency that supports those in power for the sake of continuing their power.
Having failed in their job of maintaining the common, mediate good in operating condition, those in power attempt to retain power by attempting to provide for what they have decided in Procrustean fashion is immediately good for everybody. In this, too, they necessarily fail, if only because the more you attempt to provide for every individual want and need, the greater those needs and wants get, and the less incentive there is for people to go out and get it for themselves — and the faster the government goes bankrupt trying to provide for everyone without producing anything.
This is where "Obama's Choice" demonstrates its wrongness. If (as we have seen) the common good is the capacity every human being has to acquire and develop virtue, and the State has the job of caring for the common good (which must not be construed as the aggregation of individual material goods), then the State must never — except in cases of extreme need — undertake to provide for the material wants and needs of its citizens. Even more — the State cannot invent a virtue or change the definition of virtue to suit anyone, whether the individual or group in power, an oppressing majority, an oppressed minority, or a cute girl in a short skirt.
The teaching and definition of virtue must in general be left respectively to the teachers of morality, that is, to parents (domestic society) and ministers of religion (religious society). If you stop to think about it, this makes a lot of sense in systems terms. Parents have no authority over their adult children, and can be held accountable for teaching them vice instead of virtue when young, while membership in a religion is a matter of individual choice and cannot be coerced. Neither organized religion nor parents, for all they can define and teach virtue, have any power to enforce rules that punish vice outside a very narrow and limited range. Balancing this is the fact that the State, that can compel obedience to virtuous norms and punish vice within a very broad range, lacks the legitimate power to teach and define what those norms are.
In accounting we call this "internal control" or "separation of function." It provides automatic checks and balances, and protects against mistakes. In politics it's called "democracy," and prevents the concentration of power in any single society, whether civil, domestic, or religious. In daily life we call it "common sense."