14. You and the Common Good

So what is the role of government? If the dignity of every person really is paramount, then the proper role of government is to create the social and economic conditions that maximise each person’s opportunity to pursue their personal fulfillment. That kind of environment is called the common good.

The common good is not a matter of subordinating individuals to some kind of collective value, or of subordinating minority interests to majority interests. Nor is it a matter of flattening out people’s opportunities to some kind of highest common factor.

The common good is about persons and each person’s access to the kind of living conditions (e.g., housing, health, employment, education, and access to resources) that enables them to make meaningful decisions for their own lives and contribute to the lives of others. That kind of environment requires some measure of regulation. Otherwise, the “freedom” of some and “free-market” conditions become the oppression of others.

But government intervention must also respect the dignity of persons by exercising only a subsidiary role in their lives. It is not for higher authorities to do what groups and individual people can properly do for themselves. It belongs to our human dignity to take responsibility, as much as possible, for the direction of our own lives. Moreover, it is individual people and voluntary groups who bring passion and commitment to the causes they espouse. It is for government to actively encourage and enable local initiatives.

The common good and solidarity are inclusive of all, in ever-wider circles:

… there will be peace only to the extent that humanity as a whole rediscovers its fundamental calling to be one family, a family in which the dignity and rights of every person, whatever their status, race, or religion, are accepted as prior and superior to any kind of difference or distinction.
This recognition can give the world as it is today - marked by the process of globalisation - a soul, a meaning, and a direction. Globalisation, for all its risks, also offers exceptional and promising opportunities, precisely with a view to enabling humanity to become a single family, built on the values of justice, equity, and solidarity.
For this to happen, a complete change of perspective will be needed: it is no longer the well-being of any one political, racial, or cultural community that must prevail, but rather the good of humanity as a whole. The pursuit of the common good of a single political community cannot be in conflict with the common good of humanity, expressed in the recognition of and respect for human rights sanctioned by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. It is necessary, then, to abandon ideas and practices, often determined by powerful economic interests, which subordinate every other value to the absolute claims of the nation and the state. In this new perspective, the political, cultural and institutional divisions and distinctions by which humanity is ordered and organised are legitimate in so far as they are compatible with membership in the one human family.

(Pope John Paul II, message on the World Day of Peace, 1 January 2000)

Personal fulfillment and the common good are not competing concepts that need to be balanced against each other; they are part of each other. It isn’t the common good if it doesn’t aim to include what you need to be able to exercise personal choice and responsibility. And it isn’t your personal fulfillment if it doesn’t include your commitment to the common good.

But what chance is there of solidarity in a world bent on individualistic self-interest? We shall return to this question in a later chapter.

For Practice

  • Can you identify examples of government involvement that discourage or inhibit personal or local initiative?
  • Can you identify examples of government non-involvement when the common good requires intervention?

For Prayer

(for those who govern)

O God, give your judgement to the king;
that he may govern your people with justice,
your oppressed with right judgement,
that the mountains may yield their bounty
for the people,
and the hills abundance,
that he may defend the oppressed
among the people,
save the poor and crush the oppressor.

May he be like rain coming down upon the fields,
like showers watering the earth.

For he shall save the poor when they cry
and the needy who are helpless.
He will have pity on the weak
and save the lives of the poor.

Psalm 72:1-4, 6, 12-13