The Greatest Good

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.

4 thoughts on “The Greatest Good”

  1. R. Hamilton. says:

    All of which would be simplified if the tendency to pick winners (repay supporters with favorable laws, regulations, and programs) were greatly reduced. Some level of regulation is needed; perhaps some minimum of safety nets are also needed. But every action has side-effects, and they’re usually best minimized by taking the least action necessary, and then only when the advantage to be gained is broadly beneficial and cannot readily be obtained by simply waiting for things to change on their own.

    There have been arguments about getting the money out of politics; but I think far more achievable would be to punish any lack of transparency. There will be what might become corruption regardless; let’s at least know about it before we vote.

  2. Robert The Addled says:

    Money and Cronyism aren’t all bad, or done with corrupt intentions. The Transparency issue becomes partly – who watches the watchmen?

    Given the microcosm of my workplace – If I pick a friend for a team/project because I know they are GOOD at what the team needs, it is still cronyism in the eyes of those unaware of qualifications or otherwise competing for the slot. Especially when there is a lack of a SPECIFIC qualification, but a 2ndary characteristic that overcomes that for a greater synergy. Such as lacking a specific degree, but having varied vast related experience.

    The arguments of greater and lesser good are complicated by the questions of short and long term. Example – Short term good – rebuilding assistance after a flood. Long Term good – rezoning and guiding the rebuilding to ensure less vulnerability to future floods.

    One of the related problems with our system is the short term goals of reelection override the long term survival of the community.

  3. Joe says:

    For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

    Whether or not the liars in office realize it, there is a consequence to lying to the public: you lose their trust. The first sign of Saddam’s weapons will be a nuclear mushroom over the states! No, Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. We don’t torture! Well actually we practice la tortura del agua (waterboarding) but we’ll redefine it as not-torture. Free trade deals will improve employment! No they didn’t… The banking system is stable, Lehman Brothers is a small non-systemic bank! No it wasn’t. Etc. I could go on, and on, and on.

    The consequence is that there is no longer any trust on which to build common ground. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me.

    If you want people to behave reasonably, make sure those who launched illegal wars, tortured others, and lined their pockets and those of their friends are held accountable. At the very least they should no longer have positions of power. Ideally they should be in prison where they belong. Then, with a good deal of luck, perhaps there will a basis on which trust can be restored, and our political systems restored to sanity.

    But trust will not be restored by simply hoping for it or by berating people for having lost it.

  4. invah says:

    >All of which requires that someone choose exactly which vision of the greatest good is pursued.

    Reminds me of that line in “Scion of Cyador”: “…that there are as many visions of the Mirror Lancers as there are senior officers.”

    I suspect that part of our current political instability and insurgency is the result of the knowledge that the mechanics of our socio-political entity are not in integrity with the stated vision.

    >What is “good” in the political universe, and how do we determine it?

    A, perhaps, better analysis might be “what is functional in the political universe?”

    A socio-political system has to be self-sustaining:

    * it can’t sacrifice or eat its own to maintain it, but it CAN convince its own to sacrifice and be eaten;
    * it can sacrifice or eat others outside the system as long as the system never becomes dependent on doing so, for then it is no longer self-sustaining;
    * it can’t been seen or known to violate its social contract

    The ‘problem’ is that the United States has very clear philosophical underpinnings outlined in both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution with appended Bill of Rights, and re-interpretation through events such as the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement.

    To wit, the United States is a government by the people, of the people, for the people; deriving its power from the consent of the governed.

    However, the United States could be fairly categorized as having oligarchical tendencies. (corporate oligarchy?) In order to ‘fit’ that into the current stated vision means re-interpreting it in context of “individual rights”, and that those rights should be lauded and preserved even if practically at the expense of the rights of other citizens.

    This logic depends on service to the idea that anyone can attain that status.

    My personal feelings is that what is “functional” is a system that serves itself wholly, or a system that is seen to do so. If the system only serves part, it will eventually cede governing the whole system.

    And a system that doesn’t govern entirely is a system that is a failure.

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