often tell us that personal voluntary restraint and charitable
contributions are morally preferable solutions to social problems than
government coercion and taxation. Ronald Reagan probably had this in mind
when he said in his first inaugural address that "government is not the
solution -- government is the problem."
To be sure, personal self-control and
charity are virtues, while political coercion and taxation are not.
The trouble is, in numerous and significant instances, volunteerism doesn't
Example: The Catalytic Converter
Consider the catalytic converter as a
solution to the problem of air pollution. (The numbers are "made up" as
accuracy is not important. This is a hypothetical "model" based roughly on
generally known technology and demographics).
The catalytic converter is a device placed on a vehicle's exhaust system
which eliminates (let us assume) 90% of exhaust pollution. Assume further
that purchase and installation of the unit costs $200. In the Los Angeles
airshed (near my residence) are ten million vehicles.
Would I be willing to pay $200 to clean up the air in my neighborhood? In
an LA minute! Will I clean up the air by volunteering, all by myself, to
install a catalytic converter? No way! If I install the device, I will
reduce the pollution by slightly less than one ten-millionth. In effect,
no reduction at all. And I will be out $200. To put the matter bluntly: in
cases such as this, volunteerism is not only futile, it is irrational. The
solution is obvious and compelling: require that all vehicles have working
catalytic converters. This has in fact been done in California. It's the
law. Result: the air pollution in LA has been dramatically reduced, to the
relief of the vast majority of Angelinos, and at an individual cost
acceptable to that majority.
If a proposition to repeal the catalytic converter requirement were put on
the ballot, it would be soundly defeated (assuming the public was
correctly informed). The solution is straightforward, rational and
popular: "mutual coercion mutually agreed upon," as the late Garrett
Hardin put it, imposed and enforced by "big government."
This solution is a cost to the individual ("bad for each"), but the
"social benefit" is well-worth it ("good for all").
Example: The Support of Public Safety
Consider next the voluntary support of
public safety agencies. Presumably, most of you have received phone calls
from a member of the local police and fire departments, asking for
donations to assist them in their work. This is a recent phenomenon, for
which we can all thank the resurgent Right. I doubt that I ever received
such a solicitation before 1981, when Ronald Reagan told us all that
"government is the problem, not the solution."
When I receive such a call, I agree to make a small donation. But then I
ask, "Isn't this the sort of thing that we pay our taxes for?" Invariably
the individual on the other end agrees and we commiserate about the
shameful neglect of our public safety institutions.
The solicitation of private contributions in support of public
institutions amounts to an excise tax on charity and civic responsibility.
The individual citizen who declines to contribute is as safe from crime
and as protected from fire as those who contribute. (This is the
well-known "free rider" problem, for which I have yet to hear a plausible
reply from the libertarians). Voluntary financing of public safety
agencies is unjust on its face. Clearly, those who benefit from these
services should be required to support them, according to these
individuals' ability to pay. The method devised to accomplish this purpose
is well-known to us all. It's call "taxation."
Social Good and "The Commons"
Air quality, which is improved by mandatory
use of catalytic converters, is what is known as a "common good," or more
briefly, a "commons." Other "material" or "resource" commons include,
water, oceans, "open range" pastures, public parks, etc. But there are
also "non-material" commons that are equally, if not more important to the
quality of social life and the justice of a political order. These include
the rule of law, the quality and level of education in the community,
trust in the government and the prevailing sense among the citizens of
that government's legitimacy, the degree of civility and the "moral tone"
extant in the society. When unscrupulous individuals act to their own
advantage, heedless of the consequences to others, they can degrade "the
moral commons" -- the mutual respect and constraint that is implicit in
every well ordered society. For example, when outlaws are unpunished, the
rule of law suffers. Worse still, when corrupt politicians and government
officials put themselves above the law and betray the citizens by
accepting bribes from special interest and by violating the Constitutional
protections of those citizens, they erode
the trust that is essential to good government. And when there
is reason to believe that the ballot has been compromised and there are no
offsetting procedures to assure the accuracy of the ballot, the very
legitimacy of the government and of legislation is diminished.
In a just political order, based on the principles of our founding
documents, government and the rule of law are the common "property" of the
citizens at large, and of no class or faction in particular. This
principle is stated explicitly in the Declaration of our Independence: "to
secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their
just powers from the consent of the governed."
The libertarian Right insists that so-called "public goods" and "public
interest" are nothing more than simple summations of private goods and
interests. Indeed, as Ayn Rand put it, "there is no such entity as
'society', since society is only a number of individual men... The common
good" (or "the public interest") is an undefined and undefinable
concept..." ("The Virtue of Selfishness").
Good for Each, Bad for All
In fact, and contrary to libertarian dogma,
in numerous identifiable cases (which I discuss in
Conscience of a Progressive), the individual pursuit of
optimum personal freedom and benefit can be detrimental to society at
large -- "good for each, bad for all." Conversely, constraints upon
individuals may result in benefits for the society -- "bad for each, good
for all." For example, consider the case of antibiotics which medical
practice has clearly demonstrated lose their potency the more they are
prescribed. The widespread use of antibiotics, while clearly to the
advantage of each patient, results in loss of potency which is to the
disadvantage of all patients. Thus, it is "in the public interest" to
discourage the use of antibiotics by non-critical patients. And as we saw
in our opening example, because it is to the advantage of all citizens
(i.e., in "the public interest") to breathe clean air, each citizen is
justly required to have a catalytic converter on his vehicle. Clean air
is thus a "public good" which can be enhanced through the imposition of
"personal bads" -- the cost of mandatory catalytic converters. Clearly
"the public interest" and "public goods" are in these cases, as well as
many others, distinguishable from the summation of private interests and
The coordinate principles, "good for each, bad for all" and "bad for each,
good for all," resound throughout the history of political thought -- from
Aristotle, through Thomas Hobbes, Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas
Jefferson, on to the present day. Indeed, the practical applications of
these principles are implicit in successful communities, from the present
extending far back into pre-history. They are the key to the survival of
communities of social insects such as bees and termites, and of social
animals such as wolf packs, wherein evolution, not rational deliberation,
provides their validation.
And yet, amazingly, those who presume to call themselves "conservatives,"
reject these principles, in favor of another: "good for each, good for
all." This principle of the political right, exemplified by "trickle-down
economics" and the assurance that "the rising [economic] tide raises all
boats," is immediately appealing. Who would not desire that collective
"goods" should result from the achievement of personal well-being? And in
fact, the progressive will readily admit that many human endeavors that
achieve individual benefits, also benefit society at large. "Good for
each, good for all" is true in particular and identifiable cases, such as
artistic creation, technological invention, and yes, business
Is there a simple and unfailing means to distinguish "the invisible hand"
(good for each, good for all), from "the back of the invisible hand" (e.g.
the tragedy of the commons, "good for each, bad for all")? When I posed
that question to my late friend, Garrett Hardin, he replied "that is a
Nobel Prize winning question." Until that Nobel Prize winning genius comes
along, we must continue to do what the empirical and pragmatic
progressives have routinely done: experiment. If individual
behavior appears to have socially destructive results, try out an
ameliorative policy or law, and if it "works" for society -- if we find a
device that benefits society at an acceptable cost to individual citizens
-- then fine, we'll keep it. If not, try something else. And if it becomes
clear that the best policy is for government and the law to leave
well-enough alone (good for each, good for all) -- for example,
maintaining the separation between church and state, or refusing to
prohibit sex acts between consenting adults -- then let non-interference
be the government policy. Right-wing propaganda to the contrary
notwithstanding, progressives are not eager to expand government
interference and control over the private lives of its citizens. It is not
the progressives that are demanding Constitutional amendments against gay
marriage, abortion, and flag burning.
The error of the libertarian Right resides in its embrace of the principle
"good for each, good for all" as dogma, to be applied a priori to
society and the economy, virtually without exception. By rejecting,
implicitly, the principle of "good for each, bad for all" and vice versa,
the Right recognizes no personal price that must be paid for the
maintenance of a just social order, and pays no heed to the social costs
of one's personal "pursuit of happiness."
For theirs is a radically reductive view of society. According to the
"free-market absolutist" faction of the falsely-labeled "conservatives"
(better, "regressives"), an optimal society emerges "naturally" and
spontaneously out of an aggregate of individuals in exclusive pursuit of
their personal self-interest. To the regressive, "the common good" and
"public benefit" are myths. Indeed, so too is society itself, as Ayn Rand
insists. Accordingly, we are asked to believe, so-called "society" is
merely an aggregate of private individuals, like a pile of sand grains,
occupying contiguous space. Ideally, say the regressives, all associations
are strictly voluntary. And because "there is no such thing as society,"
there are no systemic social harms. It follows that those who are poor are
not "victims" of society or the economy, they choose to be poor due to
their personal moral failings.
The Necessity of Government
For the libertarian right, the only
legitimate functions of government are the protection of the three
fundamental rights of life, liberty and property. Hence, the only
legitimate disbursement of tax revenues is for the military (protection
from foreign enemies), the "night watchman" police (protection from
domestic enemies), and the courts (adjudication of property disputes).
Because there are no "public goods," compulsory tax payment for public
education, research and development of science and technology, medical
care, museums, libraries, promotion of the arts, public and national
parks, etc., is the moral equivalent of theft. According to this account
of human nature and society, with the exception of the just noted
protections of life, liberty and property, there is nothing that
government can accomplish that private initiative and the free market
cannot achieve with better results.
No regulation, no governmental functions beyond basic protection of life,
liberty and property, no taxes except to support these minimal functions.
Any governmental activity beyond this should, in Grover Norquist's words,
be "drowned in the bathtub."
In contrast, the progressive views society as more than the sum of its
parts; it is what philosophers call an "emergent entity," with properties
and principles of the whole distinct from those of its components just as,
analogously, chemical compounds (e.g. water and salt) have properties
distinct from their component elements. In this sense
society and its economy are "systems" like a computer, an
engine, an ecosystem, a living language, consisting interacting and
interdependent parts which accomplish together what none can accomplish
alone. If the social system malfunctions, there are innocent victims --
the poor, the oppressed, the addicted, the uneducated -- and the system is
thus in need of adjustment or repair or even overhaul and redesign. These
corrections are best diagnosed and treated when the system is examined and
analyzed, as a system, and not as an amalgam of distinct individuals. And
diagnosis, adjustment, regulation, repair, overhaul, redesign of
the community-entity are legitimate functions of a government established
to act in the interests of all.
Dr. Ernest Partridge
is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of
California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website,
Online Gadfly and co-edits the progressive website
The Crisis Papers, where this essay first appeared. He has
a book in progress,
Conscience of a Progressive. This essay is adapted from
Chapter 5. See the book for references and citations.
Other Articles by Ernest
and the Left, in a Nutshell: Introduction to Conscience of a
* In 2006,
Voting Fraud is the Keystone Issue
Howard Dean: Why Bother?
Illusion of Normality
Economics Fails as a Sole Foundation of Public Policy