In Pursuit of the Common Good

A TENSION BETWEEN libertarian individualism and pursuit of the common good characterizes all Western liberal democracies. This tension is nowhere more acute today than in the United States, where the forces of libertarian individualism are far more powerful than in Europe, or than they have been in our country at any time since the late 19th century. But Christian tradition affirms that human beings are social, cannot flourish in isolation, and should seek the well-being of the whole rather than merely their own well-being—and that government exists especially to pursue the common good of the whole community.

By “libertarian individualism,” I mean the belief that societies and their governments are a necessary evil: Individuals are what matter, and all that these lone rangers seek from their neighbors is to be left alone to pursue the “good life” as they define it. Individuals reluctantly choose to give up a little of their freedom—as little as possible—to governments, whose very limited purpose, according to this view, is to provide the security services that are absolutely necessary to prevent threats against persons and property.

Laissez-faire capitalism in its pure form extends the same kind of thinking to corporations. What might be called “corporationist individualism” views a business as a kind of individual actor that should be left alone to pursue its goals.

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