Seldomly can one take part in a political and/or philosophical dialogue without having the term “common good” arise. Even two completely opposed ideologies will often find themselves promoting their preferred means to achieve what is ultimately the same goal. Because of this, the goal posts for measuring what constitutes the common good often find themselves changing relative to the ideology seeking to use it.
The concept of the common good has a varied and robust history, first being developed by the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle’s definition of the common good can be summed up as something that benefits the collective but manifests itself on the individual level. Plato considered the common good to be the sharing of a groups success and failure, prioritizing cohesion and unity.
Over time, these classical definitions would be swapped for more utilitarian ones. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill would consider the common good to be the maximization of collective utilities and positive outcomes for the largest amount of people possible. This definition has managed to impact contemporary discourse much more than the classical definitions have.
Building upon the utilitarian framework, classical economists developed what came to be known as welfare economics and the general welfare. By using the concepts of utility, economists attempted to create an objective and empirical measurement of the common good. This resulted in the aggregation of various individual’s personal utility functions in order to calculate the market clearing equilibria.
This was not without its problems, however. One of the main flaws regarding the methodology of the welfare economists was the aggregation of personal utilities. This notion fails to take into account the subjective valuations that are almost unique to each individual regarding the plethora of goods and services in an economy. Because of this, assigning absolute quantitative values is misguided and will yield results contrary to what people, and the common good, actually hold.
The welfare economists, using their flawed methodology, believed that the true common good could be achieved through state intervention. This failed to understand the zero-sum nature of central planning since it can only leave some winners and some losers. In the market, consumers enter and exit contracts and agreements according to their subjective valuations of the marginal benefits vs. the marginal costs. Because of this, only voluntary agreements, which are mutually beneficial by nature, will arise, and the true maximization of utility, and subsequently the common (and universal) good is achieved.
This example is but one of many reasons why the proper methodology is of critical importance when trying to conduct a scientific analysis. Unlike what mainstream academia promotes, the only way that we can truly achieve the common good is by ceasing intervention in voluntary human action and allowing individuals to demonstrate their true preferences, according to their relative budgets, productive capabilities, and ambitions.