I was struck by an observation recently posted to a listserv on which I participate.
Someone had observed that draconian restrictions imposed by the Chinese seemed to have “flattened the curve” and slowed transmission in that country. He wondered whether Americans would comply with similar directives, and someone else responded that the U.S. is a very individualistic society, built on the idea of individual rights, so, this would be a big test: Would people in America sacrifice some individual liberty for the good of the community? Asian societies, he noted “are more based on the group, the collective. Which is why these kinds of measures are more accepted there.”
Every couple of years I teach an undergraduate course titled “Individual Rights and the Common Good,” exploring just this tradeoff. It is essentially a course in political philosophy, focused on the proper balance between the individual’s right to autonomy and the communitarian’s concern for the well-being of the broader society–and the very thorny issue of who gets to decide?
Who gets to decide what the “common good” looks like? What sorts of decisions should individuals get to make, free of government interference or coercion? What sorts of situations should give government the right to overrule individual preferences?
This year, I have been particularly gratified with my students’ enthusiasm for these questions; they have really engaged with the sometimes difficult readings, and in impressively thoughtful ways.
The purpose of the class isn’t to produce consensus; it is to raise appreciation for the complexities involved and the dangers of what I think of as American “bipolarism.” In the U.S., we have a regrettable tendency to see all debates as two–and only two–sided: this or that approach is either all wrong or all right. (Or as George W. Bush would put it, the world is divided between the “good guys” and the “evildoers.”)
If only life–especially political life– were that simple!
The Greeks had a concept of the “golden mean”-a middle ground between the extremes of excess and deficiency. Achieving that middle ground, however, would require abandoning America’s love affair with “all or nothing” politics, where every concession to reality or complexity is labeled selling-out, where ideologues on the Left and Right alike prefer no bread at all to settling for half a loaf, and where the perfect (as they and only they define perfection) is the constant enemy of the good.
We can see this playing out in the battle over “socialism.” Not only is it apparent that the combatants are operating under wildly different definitions of the term, but neither the free-market folks nor the collectivists seem to understand that the the answer is both. Every economy that is currently working (or was working before the pandemic) is a mixed economy, in which some aspects are “socialized” and others are left to the market. The issue isn’t “socialism or capitalism”? The issue is the much harder question “which goods and services must be provided collectively and which should be provided by the private sector?–and why?”
(I’ll also note that while the unedifying capitalism/socialism argument is center stage, less attention is being paid to the fact that what the U.S. increasingly has isn’t free-market capitalism–it’s corporatism. And that’s a big problem.)
Aristotle raised the fundamental question with which political philosophy and political systems must contend: What sort of society best promotes human flourishing?
Answering that question, of course, requires that we agree on what human flourishing looks like, and what governmental or social mechanisms are most likely encourage it…These aren’t easy questions, and as we stare into a potential abyss, I’m getting pretty impatient with the pontificating ideologues who are stubbornly unwilling to understand–or engage with– the real and complicated world we inhabit.