Common Good – Present yet Elusive

The following is adapted from the book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, to be published in May 2014.

Ever think about how things could be worse? Without going into extensive details – yes, things could be much, much worse . . .

Consider Russia’s twenty-five year run with capitalism. Author Chrystia Freeland tells us (in her book Plutocrats) that contemporary Russia has more economic disparity than it did during the time of the czars.* Crony capitalism, created by the fire sale of state-owned entities in the early 1990s and dominated by Russia’s oligarch class, is described by the word prykhvatizatsiya – translated as “grabification.” Moscow has more billionaires than millionaires, with its ratio of billionaires to GDP (gross domestic product) the most unbalanced in the world – by far. Russia lacks not only a millionaire class, but also a sufficiently sized middle class. Capitalism’s uneven debut in Russia, characterized by excessive wealth garnered not by industry but by political connection, can largely be blamed on its lack of social capital.

Social capital, the potential or actual resources related to social networks and structures leading to cooperation and mutual benefits between actors, is essential for the existence of a well-ordered capitalism. Common good is always a communal or shared actuality – whether defined sociologically, politically, religiously, or ethically. Common good owes its very existence to social capital. The United States has a long history of egalitarianism (although mitigated by slavery, racism, sexism, and other deficiencies), which has fueled and enabled its healthy social capital. Russia’s history is decidedly different. Russia is not principally made up of bad actors; as a society it has few egalitarian traditions and a fragile concept of the common good.

Civil society, as we know it, would not exist if people always engaged in opportunistic behavior. The egalitarian values of American society are some of the strongest in the history of the world, yet the current competition with the market values-infused religion of self-interest increasingly hastens the depletion of America’s precious social capital. Common good has been and is a present reality in American society, but we run the risk of making it an elusive reality.

Economists have told us for a long time that there is no free lunch; getting something for nothing is a pipe dream. Common good does not magically result from individuals simply seeking our their own best interests. The maintenance and creation of common good requires purposeful attention and effort. Are we still willing to make modest sacrifices for common good or have we arrived (as has Russia) to a place where individuals and small groups selfishly protect their own benefits?

*Chrystia Freeland, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and The Fall of Everyone Else, Penguin (2013).