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Obey the Grand Inquisitor!
Tyranny and the Politics of the Common Good
In 1765, John Adams published a powerful essay on ecclesiastical and political despotism. His thesis was simple: altar and throne, church and state, had merged in seventeenth-century Europe to form a new kind of tyranny that now threatened eighteenth-century America. Adams feared that a variation of the canon and feudal law was coming to America via the Stamp Act and recent attempts by British imperial officials to establish an Anglican episcopacy in the colonies.
Were Adams to visit America today, he would no doubt be appalled to learn that a professor of his alma mater is a proponent of a new form of the canon and feudal law. Adrian Vermeule, a professor at the Harvard Law School and the dyspeptic enfant terrible of Catholic integralism, published an essay last year in The Atlantic that argued for what he calls “common-good constitutionalism,” which should be grounded “on the principles that government helps direct persons, associations, and society generally toward the common good, and that strong rule in the interest of attaining the common good is entirely legitimate.”
What exactly does the Vizier Vermeule mean by the “common good”?
Vermeule answers with a few glittering generalities but with nothing that actually means anything. The “common good,” he says, must be informed by “substantive moral principles” that “should read into the majestic generalities and ambiguities of the written Constitution” via the “general welfare” clause. In other words, he has no definition.
The undefined moral principles that Vermeule would foist on the American people include: 1) “respect for the authority of rule and of rulers”; 2) “respect for the hierarchies needed for society to function”; 3) “solidarity within and among families, social groups, and workers’ unions, trade associations, and professions”; 4) “appropriate subsidiarity, or respect for the legitimate roles of public bodies and associations at all levels of government and society”; and, 5) “a candid willingness to ‘legislate morality.’” The obvious first question that one might ask of Vermeule and his attendants is: By what standard? For Vermeule, the Constitution’s “general welfare” clause is a fill-in-the-blank check subject to the whims of whoever holds power.
And how is this undefined, unknown, mystical common-good constitutionalism to be put into effect?
Vermeule asserts that rulers should not be “tethered to particular written instruments of civil law or the will of the legislators who created them.” Instead, common-good law should be viewed as “parental” or as “a wise teacher and an inculcator of good habits.” Vermeule thus divides Americans into “rulers” and “subjects,” so that rulers can rule and subjects can obey. His common-good rulers will “encourage subjects to form more authentic desires for the individual and common goods, better habits, and beliefs that better track and promote communal well-being.” Apparently Vermeule’s ruling class knows better than regular folks what their “authentic desires” should be, and he’s prepared to use coercive State power to bend the wills of Americans toward his undefined “higher” good. In other words, Vermeule rejects the rule of law for the rule of men.
Vermeule also favors regulating speech and property rights. He supports giving the government greater power to judge and control “the quality and moral worth of public speech,” and he favors regulating what he calls “Libertarian conceptions of property rights and economic rights.” Vermeule’s ruling elite will therefore assume the necessary power to “protect the vulnerable from the ravages of pandemics, natural disasters, and climate change, and from the underlying structures of corporate power that contribute to these events.” As an apparent disciple of the child-philosopher-queen Greta Thunberg, Vermeule believes that the structures of corporate power contribute to pandemics, natural disasters, and climate change.
Ultimately, Vermeule is a proponent of what might be called a common-good Deep State (he calls it a theory of ragion di stato—“reason of state”) that would increase exponentially government power over the “selfish claims of individuals to private ‘rights.’” In normal times, serious thinkers would treat Vermeule and his rump faction of Catholic TradCons as amusingly nutty, but these are not normal times. We live in an era of social ferment and violence, when disturbing ideas from both the radical Left and the reactionary Right are bubbling to the surface. Both camps want to use coercive State power to force their particular view of the “common good” on everyone else.
The time has come for our common-good reactionaries to explain themselves. Before we turn over the reins of government to Vermeule so that he can help us to “form more authentic desires” and “better habits,” we deserve answers to a few simple questions:
What is the “common good”?
Where does it come from?
How is it known?
Is the “common good” universal and timeless?
Who determines what the “common good” is?
What role should government play in promoting and enforcing it?
What are the punishments for those who violate the laws enforcing the “common good”?
Because the philosophic burden of proof is always on those who assert the positive, Vermeule must tell us what he means by the “common good” and how it cashes out politically and legally. Otherwise, he’s just blathering gaseous platitudes with no basis in objective reality.
As we wait in vain for answers to our questions, here are six problems with common-good politics.
First, all versions of the common-good school of thought assume, without proof, that there is one, absolute, universal, eternal, knowable “higher” or “common good” that should guide public policy despite the fact that there are innumerable and competing definitions of the “common good.” One obvious challenge to this claim is that all individuals live in both time and space, which means that, as an observable historical and sociological fact, particular peoples at particular places at particular times have wildly varying conceptions of the “common good.” We know, for instance, that the “common good” in Iran is understood very differently from the common good in China. We know that the “common good” as understood by those who settled Jamestown in 1607 was different from those who settled Plymouth in 1620, and both are different from how the “common good” is understood in 21st-century San Francisco. We know that Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Rastafarians all have their own theoretical view of what the “public interest” is and the kinds of policies that will promote it. The same is true for communists, socialists, fascists, Nazis, liberals, and conservatives. Likewise, the LGBTQ+ coalition, the KKK, Antifa, BLM, and various ethnonationalists all have their own particular take on the “common good.”
Do these counterfactuals mean that the “common good” is neither universal nor timeless? Does it mean that the “common good” changes from place to place and from time to time? Is there a “common good” that transcends place and time? Other than their arbitrary assertions, Vermeule and his neo-reactionary friends have done nothing to demonstrate the truth and superiority of their view of the “common good” over any another. Why should we accept the Catholic over the Protestant view of the “common good”? Why should we accept the socialist over the fascist view of the “common good”? If there is one “common good,” which one is it? Surely it would be for the “common good” for hoi polloi to know the answers to these questions.
Second, the very real practical problem with “common-good” politics becomes manifest when rival factions compete with one another for political power in order to impose their view of the “common good” on society as a whole. This is particularly true in a democratic republic governed by the principle of majority rule. The problem of course, as James Madison explained in the tenth essay of The Federalist, is that various factions will always pursue competing notions of the “common good” and they will always seek political power in order to force their vision of the “common good” on society as a whole. But the notion of a “common good” always means the “good” of some men takes precedence over the good of others (Je suis le bien commun!), which in turn means that the good of some is to be sacrificed to the good of others. Those who wield coercive State power, which, in the case of the United States, means the majority and its representatives, always define the “common” or “highest” good, and this of course is how the rights of minorities and individuals are violated.
Case in point: the political fight over controlling what is taught in America’s government schools is always a fight over competing visions of the “common good.” When Christian conservatives in Kansas capture control of the education system and force the children of secular liberals to learn creationism, they do it in the name of the “common good.” And when secular liberals in Massachusetts capture control of the education establishment and force the children of Christian conservatives to read Heather Has Two Mommies, they do it in the name of the “common good.” The politics of the “common-good” always becomes a dog-eat-dog competition for power.
Third, until recently, Left- and Right-wing proponents of the “common good” were reverse mirror images of each other. Liberals typically wanted social freedom and command-style economics, whereas conservatives typically wanted economic freedom and command-style morality. The Left believed that government must determine which material goods should be common to all people, how such goods were to be produced, by whom, and how they shall be redistributed. The Right believed that government must determine which spiritual goods should be common to all people, and how and by whom such goods will be produced and enforced. Today, however, the nihilist Left and the reactionary Right meet in the middle: both camps want power over the material and spiritual realms. The Left calls for total control over what can be thought, said, seen, heard, and done, and the Right calls for partial control over what can be thought, said, seen, heard, and done. The differences today between “common-good” socialists and “common-good” conservatives are of degree only.
Fourth, does anyone seriously believe that Harvard professors, the Vatican’s College of Cardinals, or Deep State bureaucrats actually know what is best for ordinary Americans better than ordinary Americans? Does anyone seriously think that an elite corps of progressive or conservative social engineers can “know our authentic desires” or know how to better live our lives? As Thomas Jefferson wrote: “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter.” Does anyone seriously think that government virtucrats of Left or Right can better determine the moral lives of millions of people than those people themselves? Vizier Vermeule screams for the State to use its coercive force to impose the “common good” on ordinary people who mostly just want to be left alone.
Fifth, virtually every tyrant throughout history has used the “common good” to justify acts of violence and oppression. Jacobinism, socialism, fascism, communism, and Nazism all claimed to serve the common good. The Jacobin Gracchus Babeuf said of his animating political purpose, “We reach for something more sublime and more just: the common good or the community of goods! No more individual property in land: the land belongs to no one. We demand, we want, the common enjoyment of the fruits of the land: the fruits belong to all.” Or, as the 1920 NAZI party platform succinctly put it: “The Common Good Before the Individual Good.” One could write a very long book cataloguing the crimes committed by those who speak in the name of the “common good.”
Sixth, common-good harpies of the Left and Right misunderstand what virtue and moral action are. They fail to understand that to be moral requires uncoerced, free choice. Coerced virtue is not virtue; it’s obedience. And that’s precisely what Vermeule promotes. The “moral” foundation of his “common-good” politics will be found in statist virtues (e.g., selflessness, duty, self-sacrifice, and submission) that are anathema to America’s classical-liberal tradition. The politics of the “common good” requires citizens to selflessly sacrifice their “pursuit of happiness” in order to obey the diktat of the ruling class. True morality is not, however, about obedience, submission, and subordination. That is the morality of serfs, not of free men and women.
True moral virtue begins with a free, rational judgment of what is right and wrong and then acting on that judgment. It is about choosing to do the right thing and then doing it. “Common-good” morality is for the weak and lazy; it is for those who want to be told by Harvard social planners how, when, and where to be good and just. The moral hazard created by “common-good” legislation is that it disincentivizes people from being productive and good. It robs them of moral, political, and economic self-reliance and forces them to submit and obey. Common-good politics also incentivizes and elevates power lusters such as Vermeule, who want everyone to live by their standards and rules.
In the end, the promises of the “common good” theory of politics is a fraud. This is because the idea of a “common” or “highest good” is an undefinable concept, particularly when governments attempt to define it, which is exactly what we’re talking about.
There is no such thing as a “common good” (at least as the concept is typically used by its Left- and Right-wing proponents), unless one is speaking of an ant colony or a bee hive. But man is neither ant nor bee. To the extent that the idea of a “common good” has any valid philosophic meaning, it can only be the sum of the interests or goods of all men and women in a particular society, and the primary “goods” common to all men are freedom, justice, safety, and the rule of law that protects them. Freedom, justice, safety, and the rule of law are the moral-political preconditions necessary for individuals to pursue all the material and spiritual goods required for living and living well. Moral virtue is no doubt an important and necessary “good” for all men and women, but it cannot and should not be created by government and then forced on the citizens of a free society. To repeat: freedom not force is the sine qua non for moral virtue. Finally, it’s important to note that moral virtue is also a necessary precondition for a free society. Freedom and moral virtue work together in a symbiotic relationship.
What Vermeule and his Tea Wallah followers are promoting is a morality of nags and scolds. In its least worst form, “common-good” politics means right-wing “Karenism.” In its worst form, it means Islamic moral police beating women with sticks for not being veiled or burying them up to their waists and then stoning them to death. No morally decent person could support such a philosophy.
My vision of the “common good” is one where the State leaves law-abiding men and women alone to quietly build families, to work and create, to gain knowledge, to travel, to coach little league soccer, to tend their property, to go to the local pub for a pint, to celebrate Independence Day with friends and family, to watch Clemson beat ‘Bama, and to pursue their vision of the good life. Surely this is what the philosophy of Americanism is all about.