The Common Good
by Lawrence Wallack
One summer day more than 40 years ago, when I was about 12, I almost drowned. I was at Jones Beach in New York, and it was the first time I had even been in the ocean. I was in the water enjoying the crashing waves but soon realized that I was being pulled out by a strong undertow. I struggled against it but found myself being dragged farther out. It was a terrible feeling. I began to see the shore recede, and I was on the verge of panic. Somehow, I overcame the current and made it back to shore. Exhausted and scared as I was, it dawned on me that I was lucky.
On this Fourth of July the memory of that undertow and the troubling force it exerts comes back to me. It worries me that as a nation we are collectively being pulled out to sea by an undertow of narrowly focused values and consequent policies that are constraining the great pool of human potential that is at the heart of our society. We have lost our sense of a common good–that combination of things that make the great promise of America tangible and accessible to people.
Think of the common good as a ladder of opportunity that we as a society build, working together. It’s not a government ladder, it’s not a business ladder but a ladder built by a public/private partnership with a sense of history, obligation, responsibility and hope. It is a ladder that allows individuals to take the initiative and make use of their talents and energy.
There are some real danger signs that our nation’s ladder of opportunity is in need of repair. We are in a time when public investment is seriously declining and when the distribution of wealth is getting more concentrated, more skewed–when people are drowning 25 feet offshore and social service providers have funding for only 20 feet of rope.
This is where we have to fight against the undertow. First, we need to resist the idea that people simply have to work harder to build their own ladders, that it is solely their fault, their responsibility, their problem if they cannot build it. I am often struck by the blame-the-victim mentality that permeates our society, in which people are berated for their own misfortune. But the reality is that we are all in this together, that we need to balance personal responsibility with social accountability.
The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould observed, “Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.”
Second, interconnectedness is important. We are connected across space and time; our collective actions as a society not only affect the world we live in now but the world we will be passing on to the next generation. Policy decisions that we are making today about education, social services and the environment will provide us with feedback years down the line about how well we have done. We need to be sure that we are leaving the next generation a benefit, not a liability.
Third, government must play a central role to remedy the injustice of grossly unequal starting positions in life. The issue is not bigger or smaller government but a better government that is responsive to people. A physician colleague of mine used to claim that she could predict the life chances of newborns in the hospital nursery just by knowing what ZIP code they were born into. This is not a biological issue, this is not an issue of personal choice, this is an issue of social justice. We also need the help of government to control the excesses of the free market and protect the public when the greed of selfish individualism endangers public health and safety, hard-earned retirements and the quality of our environment.
Fourth, we have a strong obligation to the collective good, to the idea that our success and well-being is linked in a very concrete way to the success and well-being of society. In his second inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation in the midst of the Great Depression. He said: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
We all cherish the notion of rugged individualism, this deeply held American value, the stuff of 10,000 movies and countless stories, but we need to remember there is more. As Roosevelt’s words of seven decades past explain, “In our personal ambitions we are individualists. But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up, or else we all go down, as one people.”
So on this Fourth of July we should celebrate as a country what we have achieved, and rededicate ourselves to maintaining a ladder of opportunity as part of the common good that allows people to do well for themselves and do good for others.
As the ladder strengthens or weakens, so goes our national soul.