Private Good or Common Good?

Margaret Thatcher, who was Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1979 until 1990 defended her very conservative social policies by saying "There is no such thing as society; there are only individuals." The saying did not originate with her. She was actually quoting a mid-20th century American writer named Ayn Rand, who was - and still is - the darling of many conservatives, like Paul Ryan, former U.S. Vice-Presidential candidate for the Republican Party, and Alan Greenspan, long-time Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve. A great many people today think of themselves as simply "individuals". It is an attitude that helps explain such mottos as "I did it my way".

The reality, however, is that there is no such thing as an "individual"; this is an invented notion. Humans are born social. To be human is, of necessity, to be relational. It is to be part of various communities and groups that, in many ways, make us who we are: our family, our ethnic community, our society. Those communities are written all over us; they help to define us. Since those communities contribute to making us who we are, it follows that the better those communities are, the better they help us to be as persons. The good of those communities is referred to as "the common good". We speak of the common good of a family, the common good of a society, the common good of a country, even the common good of a sports team. As persons formed by these communities we have a responsibility to work for the common good of those communities of which we are part. In working for their good, we are working ultimately for our own personal good. The baseball great, Jackie Robinson, when asked what he thought of being called on to play a different position on the team than the one he had been accustomed to playing, said: "What is good for the Brooklyn Dodgers is good for Jackie Robinson."

It follows that to concentrate totally on purely private goods, like my career, my honour, my glory is a sin against the common good. St. Thomas Aquinas suggests that the sin of Satan was one against the common good. What Satan wanted was, not to share in the great common good of the heavenly society, but to possess some sort of good that only he would have. Individualism, which loses sight of the common good, can have terrible consequences.

When we keep in mind this notion of the common good we can appreciate better the fact that a country like Canada is not just a collection of 34 million individuals. It is a social family. It has a common good. We are pursuing common ends by common means. We are tied together by hundreds of interdependencies. It is for this reason that Catholic social teaching favours universal social programs rather than targeted social programs. The point is that there are certain things we should all be able to count on simply because we are "part of the family".

We are justly proud of our Canada Health Plan which guarantees that we will receive the health care we need, no matter who we are or how much money we do or do not have. We should similarly be happy for our Old Age Pension Plan which recognizes our senior citizens just because they are seniors, not because of how much money they have or do not have, or how "important" they are. Programs of this kind reinforce our sense of solidarity.

Today a great many people rely on food banks; in Canada there are now thousands of these ventures. Many people contribute to them and serve as volunteers in them, and we recognize this as a generous and caring response to the poor in our communities. Yet surely it is a scandal that in a rich country like Canada people should need to rely on food banks. If our universal social programs were all that they should be, there would be no need for food banks. There should be a form of guaranteed annual income, something that every Canadian could count on simply because he or she is part of the family. This was the primary recommendation of the Senate Poverty Report in 1970. Respected economists agreed that such a program was possible and affordable. We can see that it would be much more respectful of human dignity than our present welfare programs. It would also reflect a proper understanding of the common good.

Réflexions par le père Mike Ryan