Oct 14

Issue: Civility RSS

Is Glenn Beck right about the "common good?"

Posted 3 years, 6 months ago.


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.

Might not Glenn Beck still have a point?

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



  1. Thanks for referring The Federalist Papers. You might, however, have gone a bit further — to No. 57, also attributed to Madison, that states the following, in the third paragraph:

    The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first, to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and iin the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous, whilst they continue to hold their public trust.

    Perhaps Mr. Beck is unaware of Federalist No. 57, which I read as a populist manifesto — aware that progressies might take a different view. No. 57 opens by dismissing claims that “the house of representatives…will be taken from that class of citizens which will have least sympathy with the mass of the people; and be most likely to aim at an ambitious sacrifice of the continued existence of such a class? Is it unlikely that Madison offers a description of the aristocratic class, as it existed in 1788 (and as it exists today — misguidedly called “socialists” or even “communists” be conservative commentators).

    What Mr. Beck did, in his heated response to Mr. Greer’s attack is provide fodder for distraction — would that Mr. Beck have responded by reference to No. 57, among other Federalist Papers.

    Indeed, would the Tea Party Movement discover No. 57 which, as I read it, tells us what our Founding Legacy is all about — a legacy, it seems to me, that our neo-aristocrats would rather leave on history’s ash heap, preferring that the people defer to to them and not stand tall on the shoulders of some very wise 18th century Americans

    Perhaps Mr. Beck’s dander got up when Simon Greer opened his column by accusing Mr. Beck of being “a con man.” Mr. Beck should have learned by now the fondness of his adversaries for ad hominem attack.