All too many years ago, in my very first day in my very first college political science class, I got into trouble with the professor, after he had stated that the goal of political science was to determine policies which identified “the greatest good for the greatest number.” I objected to his stating that as the goal of all political scientists, claiming in return that it was the goal of liberal political scientists, not all political scientists. Needless to say, I got off to a rocky start, and my standing with that professor never recovered.
While that episode remains relatively fresh in my memory, in time I realized that while I was right to question, I hadn’t picked the right basis for my objection. The principal problem with his assertion was even simpler. What is “good” in the political universe, and how do we determine it?
Another consideration is how does one choose among the competing “goods” and prioritize what comes first? A third problem is that of perspective – good for whom?
These are far from esoteric or ivory-tower questions. They get to the basis of the polarization and conflict within our political system and to our continuing problems in foreign policy. And that’s even before one gets to the question of how one might implement such “goods.”
One person might suggest that the greatest good is a healthy and well-educated population, all of whom, with the exception of law-breakers, have the rights outlined in the Constitution. Someone else might suggest that the greatest good is a society where hard work, intelligence, and perseverance are rewarded, rather than in having a society where those who are unable or unwilling to work are still guaranteed health care and material sustenance. A third person might declare that a “society under God” is the greatest good, which contains the assumption of belief in and adherence to the strictures of a particular deity. Someone else might find the greatest good to lie in the least government possible, or no government at all.
All of which requires that someone choose exactly which vision of the greatest good is pursued. In deciding “the greatest good” in the U.S. political system, the simplistic answer is that those who vote determine that. Except they don’t. They vote for officials who will make those determinations, either through executive or legislative actions.
And we now have a political system where the majority of elected officials slavishly pursue the extremes of the “greatest good” advocated by the majority of their constituents, regardless of the language crafted by the Founding Fathers, and the infeasibility of forcing those extremes on those who do not share those beliefs. Which was why they made political change so difficult in order that the two most likely outcomes would be either compromise or gridlock, believing that reasonable individuals would work out compromises.
Unhappily, fewer and fewer Americans appear to meet the Founders’ definition of reasonable, and they punish politicians who attempt to work out compromises, which results in fewer and fewer politicians being reasonable, in turn making political gridlock on contentious points inexorably inevitable. That results in already unreasonable individuals becoming more so, and blaming the problems all on those who do not share their views.