The problem of political unity is a perennial question of political philosophy because it is always timely. How do the many become and remain one body politic? In other words, how can a plurality of individuals, all with their own immediate concerns, aptitudes, and interests, cohere as a single people or nation? This question is especially acute in our own times. Increased diversification, cultural pluralism, and high-stakes, winner-takes-all party politics have served to rend the body politic in most advanced countries, including America. Indeed many of the ethnic and religious bonds that have historically served to unite have become occasions of division and controversy. Some diversity and intelligent debate is healthy for the body politic, but extreme disunity subverts solidarity, fosters civic enmity, thwarts domestic tranquility, distracts from higher pursuits, renders otherwise decent opponents unintelligible, and worst of all undermines our ability to deliberate together in a prudent and reasonable way about the future of our country. The reasons and remedy for these evils may be learned by reviewing the basic theses of political wisdom and applying them to the historical particularities of American polity.

Lessons from Classical Political Philosophy

In order to solve the problem of political unity it is useful to consider four foundational theses of classical political philosophy: (1) man is naturally political; (2) political community is effective because of its unity; (3) the primacy of the common good is the cause of political unity; (4) the primacy of the common good is rational and just.

Briefly, it is evident from experience that man is naturally inclined to form political communities, for wherever possible he does so. This is so because he depends upon political community in order to flourish. Individuals and limited particular communities, like families, contribute to human flourishing in innumerable ways. However, neither individuals nor particular communities are sufficient to secure the resources and services required for human flourishing, and this is especially true with respect to security, stability, peace, and justice. Accordingly, it is necessary to develop a comprehensive form of community and cooperation that is sufficient for human flourishing: namely, political community. Comprehensive political community is effective because it unites many individuals and particular communities into one integrated whole under law. This kind of integration coordinates and concentrates resources, creates opportunities for the division of labor, fosters stable and prosperous markets for exchange, etc. These advantages give the political community the wherewithal to establish and preserve security, stability, peace, and justice. Understood in this way, political community is a powerful and even necessary means for human advancement.

Political community effectively advances human flourishing because of its unity, but since political community is neither an organism nor an abstract idea, it lacks both substantial and conceptual unity. At the same time, political community is not a mere accidental aggregate. The unity of the political community is the unity of a potential whole; that is, it is the unity of power and action motivated by a common objective. Consider the unity of an army. There is a perceptible difference between the unified military action of an army under command and the disparate activities of routed troops. The former is unified by the common purpose of battlefield victory, whereas the separated parts of a routed army pursue individual survival until they are rallied. In the meantime, the routed army tends towards its own defeat. Obviously an intact army can perform militarily effective actions, but this is impossible for routed individuals, and the essential difference is unity based on a shared purpose. This example illustrates the general principle that unity of action and power depends upon the primacy of the common good of the whole over the individual good of the part. The common good unites, whereas the individual good diversifies and divides, so the common good must be prioritized over the individual good. To this end, political authority unites and protects particular communities and individuals through a consistent set of just and wise laws. The magistrates create one from many by establishing and enforcing laws for the common good.

Finally, it is important to recognize that the primacy of the common good is not only necessary for political unity; it is also just and reasonable. According to Thomas Aquinas, the individual good is subordinate because every individual is compared to the political community as an imperfect part to a complete whole. It follows that the common good of the political whole is preferable, for (a) the imperfect is subordinate to the perfect and (b) the common good of the whole is a greater good than the individual good of the part. This abstract reasoning is confirmed by experience, for although political communities always suffer from various deficiencies, the peace, prosperity, order, and justice of well-ordered political life is among the greatest blessings of mankind. Accordingly, individuals and particular communities owe service to the common good.

In Search of the Common Good

If the basic elements of traditional political wisdom are correct, then the solution to the problem of political unity is obvious. Political unity is based on a shared vision of the goal and purpose of society; there must be some common account of the common good. Matters that fall outside of the common good serve to diversify, but as long as they are subordinate and non-subversive they are tolerable and in many cases even necessary and good, but must be left out of the legal system. So the question for any society, including our own, is this: “What is our common good? What is the common understanding of just temporal welfare that unites us with one another?” However much we may recoil from this assertion today, the fact remains that the problem of unity is solved only by answering the question of the common good.

In our own context, the question of the common good is extremely difficult because it is not apparent that we, the people of the United States of America, share a common good. In some ways this is hardly surprising since America’s founding and early political rhetoric was inspired by various strains of classical liberalism. As is well known, classical liberalism limits law to the protection of life, liberty, and property, which are definitely individual goods. Nevertheless, it is naïve to believe that the historical reality of early America was an abstract liberal idea. Rather, if America was officially liberal in its political order, it was inspired by a strong religious ethos. Even if government regulated very little, shared cultural assumptions and strong particular communities embodied a shared vision of the good: a self-governing, virtuous Christian people. Moreover, the American version of liberalism conceptualized the rights to life, liberty, and property as a matter of God’s endowment, natural law, and a God-grounded understanding of justice. These modifications of liberalism place the original American project firmly within the Christian natural law tradition. The Old Republic had a common good—namely, piety or religion. These virtues, well known to classical and Christian thinkers, are dispositions to honor and obey God. In the case of the Old Republic, this meant honoring the God-given rights of liberty, property, and life. The protection of these rights, narrowly construed, was seen as the essential core of justice. Needless to say, America’s Christian, cultural ethos and adherence to the natural-law tradition have been gradually undermined since the beginning of the twentieth century. The ongoing effects of the sexual revolution have definitively subverted the Christian ethos of America, but the rot started much earlier with the advent of theological liberalism among mainline Protestant churches in the beginning of the twentieth century. Of course, it does not necessarily follow that we have no socially held common good, for one ethos or theology often replaces another. If, indeed, President Barack Obama was correct in asserting that the United States is not a Christian nation, we must ask ourselves the next logical question: What sort of nation is it?

There are reasons to think that the Christian ethos has been replaced by a postmodern egalitarian ethos—postmodern because of its antipathy to essences and objective values, and egalitarian because of its commitment to equality. In an interesting way, we are witnessing the translation of utilitarianism into a postmodern paradigm. Whereas the old utilitarianism maximized satisfaction qualitatively and quantitatively, the new insists that all desires and satisfactions are equal and therefore it enjoins the maximal equal satisfaction of pleasures—from coddling the indolent to endorsing any form of sexual gratification. Perhaps, then, the aggressive expansion of equality and the gradual elimination of differentiation serve as our new common good. Everything is equal. At the level of public rhetoric and popular attitudes, the egalitarian ethos has become the dominant social and ethical paradigm. Egalitarianism, however, cannot serve as a real common good, for it is simply an aggregate of individual goods—personal satisfactions — increasingly enforced by law. What we really have is a collection of individual goods favored by the majority—sexual pleasure, consumption, wealth, prestige, and power—increasingly entrenched and protected by legal coercion and imposed upon dissenting parties.

For a Return to Limited Government

It must be conceded that America is experiencing a crisis of legitimacy because of its abandonment of any coherent notion of the common good. We must recognize that the United States government is no longer the protector of the common good. Rather it is a coercive mechanism engineered to advance the individual good of factions in power at the expense of minority factions, and it cannot be otherwise until we rediscover a shared vision of the common good. This is not an idealistic condemnation, but a sober-minded judgment. No political community is perfect, but America (and other countries of advanced modernity) through its deep pluralism, its prioritization of the individual good, and egalitarianism has subverted the very possibility of reaching a shared account of the common good. It is not a matter of this or that corruption, but of a wholesale rejection of the very cause of political unity. And it is no defense to point out America’s democratic institutions, for a democracy that pursues the individual good of the majority is just as tyrannous as a monarchy that pursues the individual good of one.

However, it should be apparent that one way of resolving the American problem of the common good is to rediscover the original American combination of a thin, classically liberal political order, with a thick, shared social ethos. In other words, we need to rediscover and rearticulate some version of the original common good of America. I do not think in the short term that we will see a revival of Christian ethos, and America is too spiritually divided and too secular to reclaim piety as its common good. Nevertheless, perhaps both religious conservatives and progressive secularists can agree on a very thin, classically-liberal notion of justice and the common good.

Life, liberty, and property are individual goods, but justice is a common good. Justice is defined by Thomas Aquinas as the habit of conforming to that which is due to another. As such, justice is always about interactions and relationships. It follows that justice to one degree or another involves a network of social relations. This is important because it reflects the fact that justice always operates within a communal context. Justice is something that we do together; it requires the cooperation of diverse powers; it is something accomplished as the common end of a complex and comprehensive social whole.

Different accounts of justice embody the different ways in which communities define “the due.” Can Americans reach a consensus definition of what is due to another? Classical liberalism correctly defined the minimal goods that we owe to one another: life, liberty, and property. In order to pursue any version of the good life or build the limited goods proper to particular communities, three basic conditions must obtain: first, life; second, freedom from unjustly restrictive laws; third, the requisite property. The common good under such a regime is the mutual commitment to respect the liberty, life, and property of others. Citizens in this regime are at liberty to pursue whatever interests that do not directly deprive another of life or property; they are at liberty to act as they please as long as they do not coerce another. Government should do no more than secure the liberty of citizens to build limited versions of the common good within particular communities where we can find shared visions of the common good—small homogenous local communities, churches, groups of families motivated by particular interests, private educational institutions, etc. Government should do nothing more than protect life, liberty, and property and punish those who violate these rights. To be sure, I do not think that this is a perfect solution, and it certainly falls short of full political unity and the common good. In some sense, it even means a fairly radical revision of classical political objectives. But it is the part of wisdom not only to know the highest causes but also to comprehend and judge according to the real circumstances of time and place. Although we may wish for more, it is foolish and unwise to search for a unity and a common good that simply no longer exist. Indeed, sometimes the best practice of political philosophy is to help a people awake from their political and social delusions.

However, more positively, the return to more modest political aspirations may yield very positive results. On this model, expansive government and strong political unity is to be replaced by personal responsibility and non-coercive particular communities. Replacing deep political unity with personal prudence and small-scale social unity and transferring most of elements common good to the lower level at least holds out the hope of rediscovering small, authentic, coexisting communities that need not compete for power over one another. To this end, we need to pull back radically from the expansion of government that has been at work in American politics since the Progressive era in order to decrease factionalism and to make more room for personal responsibility and particular communities. And there is a clear practical path for bringing this about. At the personal and psychological level we must renounce our deep desire to use government coercion to bring about desired results. Without a very robust account of the common good this becomes mere tyranny. At the legislative and political level every reasonable effort should be made to decrease the size of government, decrease government legislation, decrease the size of the military, decrease foreign military interventions, decrease judicial oversight, decrease taxation, decrease corporate handouts, decrease social spending, and decentralize authority. In our circumstances, the only alternative to the very limited government of the Old Republic is a never-ending competition by diverse factions to control government for the sake of advancing private interests, which will do nothing but rend the body politic and entrench the tyranny of the temporarily powerful.

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