Is Glenn Beck right about the "common good?"
Something Publius 2.0 read recently has him puzzled. It was a Glenn Beck put-down of “progressives” for speaking of putting the “common good” before the individual, which, Beck said, “is exactly the kind of talk that led to the death camps in Germany.” Put aside the scarifying talk of Nazis for a moment, what’s up with putting down consideration of the “common good”? Is it really a path to tyranny? Is it the enemy of individual liberty? Is it somehow un-American?
Today’s excerpt from the Federalist sheds some light on these questions. It’s from James Madison in Federalist Number 10 again, one of Publius 2.0’s favorite papers. Madison is discussing the benefits of selecting representatives from large electoral districts, where there is more talent to choose from. Such a process, he says, will serve to
“…refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.”
This is the “cream will rise to the top” principle. What Madison is saying is that the Constitution’s electoral framework will elevate the best politicians to national office. And that what separates the best from the rest is their ability to put special interests aside and do what’s right for the country as a whole.
Whatever you make of that theory, Madison clearly believes that consideration of “the public good” is a good thing, better accomplished by elected officials than by run-of-the mill citizens coming together to decide matters for themselves.
So here’s my question for today: If we can agree, in the first instance, that consideration of the “common good” is a good thing – or at least has a very good American pedigree – and, in the second instance, that it is something the framers of the Constitution worked hard to achieve, might not Glenn Beck still have a point: that consideration of the “common good” is an elitist enterprise?
If Madison (and Beck) are right that ordinary citizens tend to look out for Number 1, is elitism a bad thing (Beck) or the best way to advance common interests (Madison)?
Every Tuesday and Thursday, Publius 2.0 will offer a modern take on the Federalist Papers. See the rest of the series here