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What Common Good?

John Halpin and Ruy Texiera have a proposal out for the much-sought-after coherent progressive vision. In a nutshell, their message to voters is that progressives believe that government should pursue the common good. I could quibble with various elements of it (e.g. the downplaying of progressive freedom issues, and the vulnerability to being reframed as nanny-state-ism), but I basically agree with the premise. However, I think there's one big hole, on both a conceptual and a strategic level:

How do we decide what constitutes the common good?

Halpin and Texiera seem to take the common good as a relatively straightforward and consensual concept. They work on the assumption that we know what the common good is, so the only choice is whether you think government ought to be in the business of pursuing it. But in fact there are widely diverging conceptions of the common good. Different people have different visions of what's good for society as a whole.

Perhaps more importantly, the public has a right to be skeptical of pronouncements that government will work for the common good. Halpin and Texiera cite various polls to show that the public supports the common good principle. But that does not at all mean that they will therefore support any self-proclaimed leader or expert who claims to serve the common good. They will want to know what good, and how we know that it's common.

I think this is a key failing in the quest for a progressive identity (or perhaps a sad case of etymology-as-destiny, given the technocratic orientation of the original Rooseveltian progressives). Democracy and the grassroots is not just a matter of electioneering. It's about making the public involved in the making and implementing of policy after the election. That's the only way to get the public to trust progressives who claim to be acting in the public interest.


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