The Public Good Research Paper

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From the inception of political theory to twenty-first century reflections on democracy and the welfare state, the ideal of public good has consistently been linked to the sociomoral resource of civic spirit. This is so insofar as the ideal of the public good claims civic spirit from a society’s citizens, while the presence of civic spirit is an indispensable premise for any orientation toward the public good.

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Through such a circular linkage, the ideal has gained strategic importance as an element of political rhetoric catalyzing a process of normative self-limitation, due to conditions at play in the democratic public sphere.

1. The Public Good In The History Of Political Ideas

From time immemorial, the idea of the public good has been a fixed quantity in debates concerning legal, economic, and political forms of social cooperation. For example, in ancient Egypt, Pharaoh’s duty to see to the welfare of his subjects was considered an element of Ma’at, the world-order connecting human beings to the gods; and in Islamic legal doctrine, the normative standard for the legal-religious community, maslaha, can be interpreted as similar to the idea of the public good. The concept’s occidental career began in ancient Greece. Plato distinguished the public good from private profit, linking the former to the idea of justice (Plato 1993, 420 b–c, 421 a–c). Aristotle followed Plato in this respect (Aristotle 1990, III./VII./1); but in contrast to Plato he did not equate the just state with an authoritarian pedagogic utopia. Rather, he understood the public good to involve a political limitation on the right to rule, demarcating a difference between the proper constitutional form, which acknowledges such a good, and the improper, serving the ruler’s interests (Aristotle 1990, III./IV./7). The political thinking of Roman republicanism focused on reconciling individual interests with the public good, the legal system here taking on special meaning. But even at this early period, lamenting at a loss of orientation around the public good—this seen as the source of a growing danger to the republic—is a predominant theme.

The redemptive orientation of the early Christian fathers transcended the antique approach to the public good, depoliticizing it in the process. But within scholasticism, the dogma of the subordination of earthly existence to the divine order again received a ruler-limiting and hence political accent. In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas defined a regime as unjust tyranny when the ruler does not strive for the public good but for his private benefit (1952, Pars IIa, IIae, q.42, a.2). Subjects can here thus evoke the public good, placed higher than the ruler’s interests, in opposition to the ruler; and the ruler can appeal to the public good to justify his actions. In this manner, a struggle emerged regarding semantic supremacy over the concept of public good—the concept being capable of both limiting and legitimizing political rule. If the ruler could claim to be enacting the public good, nothing stood in the way of his rule; to be sure, the latter was then limited through involvement of the estates—such involvement being inextricably bound up with the idea of public good in the medieval world of political ideas (Eberhard 1993).

Whereas into the early modern period, self-interest and the public good represented ‘asymmetrical counterconcepts’ in Reinhart Koselleck’s sense, i.e., ‘binary concepts with claims to universality … involving a mutual recognition of the parties involved’ (Koselleck 1985), the Reformation saw the onset of a relativization process. Set in motion by the 1555 Peace of Augsburg, the increased individualization in estate-bound society was accompanied by a normative transformation, its import captured in Leonhard Fronsberger’s initial (at the time singular) praise of self-interest. This already reflected an important paradigm shift that would unfold over three decades, replacing the old European ideal of political virtue, in the sense of the citizen’s voluntary orientation toward the public good (Munkler 1991). Instead, rational self-interest now emerged as a core political–theoretical concept. Its immediate context was a market society in the course of self-differentiation, with the state now simply expected to set the conditions for maximized economic well-being of the citizenry in a civil society. By turning the inherited conceptual opposition of public good and self-interest upside down, Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees (1929; its first, pamphlet form appearing in 1795 as The Grumbling Hive or Knaves turn’d Honest) played a key part in this transformative process. ‘Private vices, public benefits’ was Mandeville’s credo. The end effect of each individual pursuing his private good is the greatest possible advantage for the polity, so that one, particular maxim prevails: ‘The worst of all the Multitude Did something for the Common Good’ (Mandeville 1929). Admittedly, this construct is based on citizens being in a position to pursue their own interests rationally; and Mandeville remained skeptical regarding his own theory’s implicit premise. In fact, he demanded state intervention to check the loss of civic spirit—particularly feared on account of shortsightedness and ignorance when it came to the needs of following generations.

In respect to this general problem, Adam Smith was essentially more optimistic. Bringing Mandeville’s idea to a head, he saw a mechanism at work that produces a common benefit in direct proportion to efforts at its opposite. The citizen, he argued, ‘generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, … he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention’ (Smith 1981). With this argument, Adam Smith in a way achieved liberalism’s semantic coup vis-a-vis the public good. Through the definition of the public good as a wondrous result of well-understood self-interest—a predictable product of the individual’s egoistic maximization of advantage—the asymmetric conceptual opposition between self-interest and public good, already relativized by Mandeville, was enduringly destroyed (Bohlender 1998). Reflecting the advent of modern contractual theory, this way of thinking can lead to the sort of relativizing of the idea of public good that we find in Kant: a complete focus on formal legal principles, and the treatment of the sociomoral qualities and intentions of both rulers and the ruled as a secondary matter. Kant, however, was not the final word in the long conceptual history of the public good, for speaking up against him, Hegel had already insisted that ‘the so-called ‘‘general good,’’ the welfare of the state, i.e., the right of mind actual and concrete, is quite a different sphere, a sphere in which abstract right is a subordinate moment like particular welfare and the happiness of the individual’ (Hegel 1942, Sect. 126 Remark).

In the twentieth century, the notion of public good was subject to steady abuse: first by the Nazis, who used the empty phrase ‘the common interest precedes self-interest’ as propaganda for its collectivist ‘you are nothing; your Volk is everything’ ideology, then by the Bolshevists. As a consequence, a refusal substantively to define the public good and how it is to be realized, once and for all, has emerged as an identifying trait of proponents of freedom and democracy. Rather, through use of democratic procedures, society needs constantly to arrive at a consensus regarding the concept—a consensus subject to revision. This does not preclude the pluralistic process of opinion formation being oriented toward normative concepts of public good with universal, i.e., ubiquitous and extra- temporal claims to validity: the natural-law claims, for instance, staked by Catholic advocates of social transformation. In the context of, among other things, a global ecological crisis, such universal claims have been further developed into a concept of a worldwide public good.

2. Public Good And Civic Spirit

This overview of the conceptual history of ‘public good’ points to two basic features. First, it represents a functional formal concept with effects that vary considerably according to the context of usage and semantic competence. It can, for instance, serve for both the legitimation and limitation of rule. The renunciation by democratic societies of an a priori, essentialist understanding of the public good can thus be seen as a consequence of the insight into its semantic indeterminacy having become manifest in the course of time.

Second, precisely when thematized from a democratic perspective, the concept of public good needs to be viewed in connection with another central theme of political theory, namely, civic virtue or civic spirit, which Mandeville had already addressed in his skeptical fable. Against the contractualistic tendency to place an economic model of order in the foreground, Montesquieu, for example, had stressed that, more than is the case with any other form of state, democracies must see to it that their citizens identify with the public good. For a republic, he indicates, needs ‘a continuous preference of the public interest over one’s own’ (Montesquieu 1989, IV, 5)—and this without the state force that Mandeville speaks of. The emphasis on this voluntariness underscores the importance of a minimum of civic spirit (or civic virtue) as an indispensable premise for any orientation toward the public good. The ideal of public good sets the norms for the behavior of a commonwealth’s free citizens; it needs, however, the preliminary presence of some degree of civic virtue as a willingness to act according to normative ideals in the first place. As such a preliminary, motivational specification for any orientation toward the public good, civic spirit emerges as a prepolitical basis for the political, only capable of being inadequately guaranteed by democratic politics, which may not control (or even guide) the citizenry’s motivations (Bockenforde 1991, Goodin 1992).

In this sense, civic spirit is a nonrenewable sociomoral resource (as the metaphor of social capital suggests, by alluding to the economic understanding of ‘capital’) and hence it ought to be neither undertaxed nor overtaxed. Undertaxing occurs when, for instance, the solidarity every society needs increasingly becomes a form of institutional machinery (Gunnar Myrdal), creating an impression among individual citizens that the state is itself removing all required acts of solidarity from their own purview. Overtaxing is apparent when the political–social unit subject to the norms set by the public good exceeds a certain size, the imagination of belonging and reciprocal interdependence required for public good thus no longer being capable of production. This is all the more likely when such extension is a successive process making use of moral appeals and excessive public-good rhetoric with visible semantic development. Old European republicanism already saw the erosion of a society’s sociomoral resources being threatened here; and communitarianism confirms this in referring to the need for supportive habits, the experience of personal identification, and one’s own acts of solidarity (Bellah et al. 1985, 1991, Walzer 1983). But even Adam Smith’s trust in the invisible hand was tied to the premise of a limited, overseeable marketplace: one guaranteeing that consumers could themselves sanction an egoistic benefit-maximization spurred forward at their own cost.

A game-theoretical analysis using postulates of rational choice backs up this assumption of a link between, on the one hand, a group subject to publicgood norms having a comprehensible size, and, on the other hand, civic virtue (or civic spirit) as the readiness to follow these norms. Take, for example, a group of people who visit an expensive restaurant, having agreed together to share the costs equally regardless of the different prices of individual orders: the factors determining the choice between self-interest and cooperation are the group’s size, communicative capacity, and duration. In this manner, we can perceive the expectation of cooperation as a decisive element in the calculation of individual benefit—thus rendering civic spirit an explicable quantity of political–social action (Glance and Huberman 1994).

But not only democracy-theoretical factors connect the two basic features of the political idea of the public good—the fact that it represents a functional formal concept, and its immanent ties to civic spirit. The ongoing debate over the future of the Western welfare-state model underscores an interesting variation on the historically familiar semantics of public good and civic spirit. It is evident, for instance, in an argument regarding distribution: policies misperceived as a guarantee of welfare by the state produce a situation in which egoistic benefit-maximization can no longer further the public good, but—caught up in an illiberal system of administrative care—simply results in an exploitation of social output. According to this argument, a welfare state oriented towards a false ideal of public good effects something like an amputation of the invisible hand conjured up by Adam Smith; it does so by gradually diminishing the productive readiness of its members—hence eroding its own sociomoral basis, the free and responsible engagement of its citizens. Without the sociomoral resource of civic spirit, the development of active and productive self-interest—the self-interest that promotes the public good—is paternalistically thwarted. What remains is passive and unproductive self-interest: the sort damaging the public good.

3. The Public Good As A Political Concept

The meaning of the public good as a political concept—one through which interest-conflicts are consistently played out as interpretive struggles— emerges not least of all in this rhetorical mode of a differing public-good semantics. With the satisfaction of one’s own demands being represented as a general advantage, precisely this theme has the merit of masking a variety of self-interests. As has been shown in an empirical study of the orientation of different German industrial organizations toward the public good, participating in such interpretive struggles has now basically become compulsory. For those failing to offer a ‘declaration of public good’ risk finding their positions cast under the suspicion of group-egoism and irrationality. Lack of responsibility and self-inflicted damage then emerge as the discrediting political-semantic labels (Vobruba 1992, Luhmann 1990, 2000). Once the connection between public good and civic spirit is established, political rhetoric can even have its effect as self-fulfilling prophecy. This is the case when an impression of general decline in civic spirit is awakened among the citizenry, in turn prompting a politically-induced disappointment, defined by Albert O. Hirschman as the basis for withdrawal into the self-interested, private sphere: a disappointment cyclically alternating with periods of engagement for the public good (Hirschman 1982).

We can thus discern one particular continuity between the medieval and contemporary approach to the public good: the effort at a monopoly over its definition as constituting a central element of political conflict. Now as before, the theme can be invoked both as a basis for political demands and proposals for reform and, as it were, a ‘governmental concept’ meant to defend individual claims of a various interest groups. The latter function involves the government’s task being depicted as to protect the public good from damaging special interests—even if such a protective function in a pluralistic democracy itself requires validation. In this respect, the breadth of the concept’s variations—taking the form, as well, of common good, common weal, and public interest, each with its own fine shade of meaning—offers a rich range of possibilities for political communication.

Nevertheless, accompanying these different rhetorical functions, the idea of the public good consistently retains what—broadly speaking—constitutes a normative dimension: this as a result of the self-limitation necessarily imposed on anyone claiming to orient his political behavior toward the public good. Such a limitation furnishes a check on any purely strategic exploitation of the rhetoric of public good. Those invoking the concept in public debate reveal great expectations regarding the total effect on the welfare state of the policies they are enacting or defending. (This remains the case even when the invocation serves to rebuff claims and demands tendered by various social groupings.) At the same time, they are publicly aligning themselves with a standard against which they and their policies are to be measured due to conditions at play in the democratic public sphere. In this sense, invoking the public good involves a self-limitation by society’s political agents.

To this extent, its status as a functional formal concept contradicts neither the public good’s normative dimension, resulting from the obligation of honesty in democratic politics, nor its political relevance. This leads once more to both the extreme attitudes toward the public good mentioned above. On the one hand, the radically individualistic view sees free-market mechanisms without bureaucratic restriction or attempts at political steering as the best way to promote the public good. Beside the fact that such a radical view must ignore the linkage between the public good and the sociomoral resource of civic spirit we have been discussing, the use of public-good rhetoric not only by politicians, but also by representatives of society’s other functional systems, indicates that the ideal of the public good is an inevitable category for any public action, particularly within the political system. At the same time, the conditions of pluralistic democracy exclude any substantialistic and durably valid definition of the public good a priori, as characterizing totalitarian ideologies. In a pluralistic democracy, the public good is necessarily an ‘open’ formula, comprising a valid norm only if it can be freely accepted by all of the individuals who are affected by it. The application of this Habermasian idea to the ideal of the public good points to the limits of its validity, as well as its importance as a core concept of political thought and practice.


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