Calling Out Common Goods – by John Senior

“It’s the economy, stupid.” Bill Clinton’s pithy observation says so much about contemporary American political inclinations, and not only in hard economic times. In my previous Ecclesio post from January of this year, I noted how central economic logics are to American political life. Watching the election cycle begin to unfold in the last ten months, I am even more convicted of this truth.

Of course, there’s nothing per se wrong with a lively debate around the themes of local, national, and global economic security. Our citizens are hurting. Many of us are unemployed. Many more are without basic provisions. A public conversation on the state and future of our economic life together is therefore crucially important.

On the U.S. scene, that conversation has been joined powerfully in the Tea Party Patriot and Occupy movements. Both movements derive their political energies from economic problems. For Tea Partiers, political freedom just is freedom from government constraints upon economic activity. For the Occupy movements, the effort to protest the excess of corporate power has occasioned experiments in local, democratic, consensus-based government. The Occupy movements have tied problems with the U.S. economy to global patterns of economic exploitation and political hegemony in ways that empower the political agency of ordinary citizens. That is an important achievement, in my view.

But when the locus of our political energies and motivations is economic life, I worry about our collective capacities to make sense of the common good for our fellow citizens at home and our neighbors abroad. By “the common good,” I mean those social conditions that cooperate to promote human flourishing. The common good implies a set of goods – food, shelter, clothing, education, health care, meaningful work, etc. – that all human beings need to flourish. The common good has an inherently social character because it involves social goods – goods that we enjoy by virtue of our various arrangements that make up social life. The goods of citizenship, education, health care, etc., only exist by virtue of the various arrangements that structure social life. Taken together, they create the conditions for human flourishing.

My view is that these goods are inherently valuable, apart from their reference to economic life. The goods of basic social provision, education, health care, etc., are critically important even though we find ourselves in a deep economic recession, even though we currently experience pressure upon our self-interest and economic well-being. As such, these goods deserve both our attention and the work of our moral imagination.

But we haven’t practiced a sufficiently complex moral discourse around problems related to the common good. I suspect that’s because U.S. Americans allow market systems to set the terms and determine the scope of political debate. In his recent book A Public Faith, theologian Miroslav Volf laments the way in which faith “idles” under the moral weight of the market system:

Perhaps even more often in our modern world, faith idles as a result of the power of systems. The lure of temptation is amplified by the power of the systems that surround us and in which we play a part. So it is in most spheres of life, but maybe most of all in the nearly ubiquitous market, whether that be the market of ideas, goods and services, political influence, or mass communication.

The market system is very effective in allocating resources to produce goods and services. It does not, however, engender complex moral debate. The market may have an invisible hand, but it also has an inarticulate public voice. And when the market doesn’t do what we want it to do, we’re often left unpracticed in our ability to make sense of common goods, and thus to attend to them appropriately.

Our political life together is in essence about the common good, about the conditions that make for human flourishing. But we won’t say enough about the common good if we only talk about it in economic terms. Our public debate shouldn’t be limited to topics like job creation, debt limits, corporate greed, government regulation of the free market, flat taxes, and all the rest – though these are all important discussions that we need to be having. In this year before the election, faith communities can play an important role in calling out (to play on the meaning of “ecclesio”) common goods in public conversation. Faith communities, in other words, can call attention to common goods that market processes neglect.

For example, the website Feeding America reports that in my own city, Winston-Salem, NC, nearly 20% of families and 25% of children are food insecure.  Last week, I met with a leader of the Samaritan House, a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. As she showed me her pantries, she noted that at this point in the year, the stock rooms are typically filled to the ceiling with food supplies. This year, however, the stock rooms are half empty. The leaders of the Samaritan House worry that they won’t have enough food supply to do the important work of feeding the hungry this winter.

The Church has the responsibility to call attention to the challenges to human flourishing that problems like food insecurity pose in communities like Winston-Salem. It also has the moral resources required to encourage a complex consideration of the common good that includes but also transcends market logics and languages. My sincere hope for the coming election cycle is that we can learn how to engage the common good in political life.

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