I’ve got your ‘common good’ right here

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As a classical liberal, I believe in the value of free markets and individual liberty, but as a Freedom Conservative, I also feel that there is a role for the common good. What does the common good mean, and how can we achieve it in a society that is increasingly divided and polarized?

In my recent paper for the Heritage Foundation, I argue for a concept of the common good that does not attempt to impose a system of morality, but one that fits the American constitutional context. It represents the sum of the social conditions that are conducive to self-directed human flourishing. These conditions are not imposed by the state, but are the result of the institutions of liberty that America’s Founders established and defended.

These institutions include the rule of law, limited government, private property, free enterprise, free trade, civil society, and religious freedom. These are the pillars of a free and prosperous society that respects the dignity and rights of every person. They foster a culture of virtue, responsibility, and civic engagement that is essential for the common good.

Unfortunately, these institutions have been weakened or ignored in recent decades, leading to many social ills. Some conservatives have blamed these ills on free-market policies, and have called for a retreat from globalization, a revival of industrial policy, and a restriction of corporate power. They claim that these measures are necessary to serve the common good and to protect the interests of working-class Americans.

I disagree with this diagnosis and prescription. I contend that the root cause of our current troubles is not free-market overreach but massive government intervention and resulting distortions. Government policies have created barriers and disincentives for human flourishing, such as welfare dependency, credentialism, excessive regulation, and corporatism (which is distinct from corporate power). These policies have harmed the economic and political liberty of the average citizen, and have exacerbated social and cultural conflicts.

The cure is not to abandon free markets but to restore and strengthen them. Conservative economic and political activity should be directed toward replacing government-imposed burdens with a system that defends the institutions of liberty and the common good.

This would go a long way toward solving many of America’s social ills: for example, by unleashing dynamism, returning energy costs to something like their historic lows, encouraging business start-ups, and allowing people to move to higher-paying jobs around the country. In addition, school choice could lead to better qualifications, obviating the need to attend university with its insistence on ideological conformity.

The blessings and benefits of liberty are enormous. America has a solution to its current social ills. It lies in our nation’s heritage of economic liberty. As Abraham Lincoln said, we need “a new birth of freedom” to secure the common good for ourselves and our posterity.