Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Myth of the Common Good

I keep hearing about the Common Good™ as though it is an obvious and useful way to measure public policy. It’s found neatly in the middle of the utilitarian creed: “The most good for the most people.” I have a problem with this idea of the common good. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with the utilitarian ideal as a personal goal; I think anyone who lives their lives that way has their heart in the right place. I have a problem with the idea as a method of driving policy. My main problem with the Common Good is that it cannot be measured.

Of course it can be measured, you may say to yourself, it’s possible to measure whether something is good or not. Of course good can be measured in isolation. A policy to feed homeless people can be measured to determine if any homeless people are dying of starvation. What can’t be measured, however, is the opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is essentially what is lost when resources are allocated. Since money, time, and effort don’t spring forth from nowhere, they must all be taken from another use. Using money to feed homeless people means that the money isn’t doing something else.

Consider a drug trial. Testing drugs is not simply about how well a drug does in curing a patient, but also how little harm a drug causes. A drug that cures headaches 90% of the time isn’t a success if it causes heart attacks 95% of the time. If a trial for a drug didn’t take into consideration the negative side effects of the drug then it’s not possible to determine if the drug actually worked. The same is true with policy intended to help the common good. If you can’t measure the opportunity costs then you can’t be sure if the policy is working. You’d have to take it on faith.

This isn’t to say that all opportunity costs can’t be measured. Of course some of them can. The opportunity costs you can measure are those which you take yourself. When you decide to use some of your own resources, you are the only one who can decide if the opportunity costs are worth it. Only you can decide if it’s worth the time to watch a movie, eat dinner, volunteer at a homeless shelter, etc. When you decide to take those resources from someone else, though, you can’t possibly know what they would have done with them.

The socialist minded person would probably think that taking money from rich people is okay because they weren’t going to use it to help the common good, but that betrays a naiveté about both human nature and economics. Perhaps the rich person would have left the money in the bank and done nothing with it. But money in the bank isn’t static, that’s the money which is used to finance home loans and business expansion. Perhaps the money would have been used to support some charity had it not been taken. Or it may have been used to buy gold faucets and larger stereos. But someone had to make those faucets and stereos. Those businesses employ people and there are more businesses which support those. About the only truly worthless use of money is to put it in a mattress and sleep on it, and I’m betting that’s a pretty rare occurrence.

It seem easy for some people to convince themselves that they know better how to use other people’s money; that *their* particular use of the money alone serves the common good. They may be right, perhaps their plan does increase the common good. But there is no way to prove it. They are, in essence, asking the rest of us to take it on faith that their plan is better because the are unable to show that the alternate use of the money is worse. There are some things that I’m not willing to take on faith, and this is one of them. I’m not willing to cross the line of taking money by force because one group of people “believes” (not knows) that by so doing the common good is served. The common good is best served by letting us each find our own way to serve it.

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