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Friday, June 12, 2015

Revisiting “Affordable” in a Larger Context: Is There a “Common Good”?

Before the leaves, before the boats

Some thoughts are like perennial itches: you can scratch and scratch away at them for years, and they never go away. One such thought, for me, is that of the common good, a venerable idea in Western philosophy but seemingly in decline in our day.

For instance, the original idea of public schools in the United States of America was that it is for the public good that all citizens of a republic be educated. Self-government demands general education for all. (The words chiseled over the proscenium of my high school auditorium were from Diogenes: “The Education of Every State is the Education of Its Youth.”) In the current American climate, parents are much more likely to see education as something they want their children to have as a competitive edge over other kids in the country. In this new discussion, I don’t hear concern for the future lives of those educated, successful children and their children in a country of increasing inequality. If this sounds like an accusation, I suppose it is, in part, but another important part is that I simply don’t understand. I don’t understand wanting that kind of world. It isn’t what I want for my kids and grandkids.

As Leelanau County tackles  the difficult and thorny issue of affordable housing (see previous post), schools are part of the discussion, but what is at stake in our little villages is not keeping poor kids out of our public schools but keeping enough kids in school to keep the schools open! What is a community without a school?

It’s probably more than coincidence  that NPR last night had a feature on a proposed affordable housing project in Marin County, California, since northern Michigan communities are far from the only ones faced with the issue. (Interesting that the headline reads “debate against [sic] affordable housing.”  A debate presents opposing arguments, not the arguments of a single side, and in fact the Californians in the story fell onto both sides of the issue, not always on the basis of who was in the boat and who was in the water.) On my way to Northport this morning, headed for my little, 23-year-old, independent bookstore, a particular word in one Marin County man’s complaint about the proposed project kept bouncing around in my head, unable to settle in a comfortable resting place. The word was sacrifices.
“I made great sacrifices to be here,” he says. “I think it's selfish to expect that someone else should be able to acquire (it) for little or next to nothing.”  
That’s only a snippet, and it doesn’t tell me much, but I can’t help wondering what the man means. I can understand parents sacrificing for their children. I can understand soldiers sacrificing for their country. But if I give up something to gain something I want more, how is that a sacrifice? Isn’t it simply a question of priorities, of knowing what is most important to me? Isn't a sacrifice something given up?

What of another household in which the homeowners’ inherited wealth enabled them to buy into the neighborhood? They could not be said to have sacrificed, could they? Do we want to say their parents made the sacrifices? Well, maybe they did, and maybe they didn’t. Who knows? And how many generations back do we want to go -- until we reach unscrupulous ancestors?

To believe that everyone with wealth earned every single penny by the sheer sweat of his or her own brow, with no help from anyone and no advantages of upbringing, and that every poor person is poor merely because he or she does not work hard is nothing but self-serving myth. No one has more than 24 hours a day in which to live, and not all those hours can be devoted to work. Sleep has to figure in. Do people with 100 times as much money work 100 times as many hours a day? I’d say not.

Back to my original thought-itch, that of the idea of the common good? What is it? A Santa Clara University site defines it as “social systems, institutions and environments on which we all depend” working in such a way as to “benefit all people,” which would surely include public safety, schools, and conservation of natural resources, at a minimum. The Santa Clara site is worth visiting for discussion of problems associated with the very idea of the common good. In a pluralistic society, individuals hold different values have different priorities. Moreover, a “common good,” by definition, is one in which everyone benefits, while some will have contributed more than others.

Some people might make an entirely different objection, not to practical problems but with the theoretical object itself. Like Socrates, questioning his friends, shredding their definitions, and deconstructing social practices to demonstrate that everything we believe is unreal (perfect “forms” existing only in some other realm), a Platonist would show you that the common good on earth is nonexistent. Have you ever seen it? Can you point to an instance of perfect benefit to all?

Some work harder, some not as hard, and some pay more dearly than others. That’s all true. It’s also true, I’d say, that all of us in this country have the advantage of certain unearned benefits, beginning with being here at all. Working toward the common good, then, toward an ideal (what else is “liberty and justice for all” but an ideal?) can be seen as making payments for what we have already received. Credit was extended to us. We need to earn, after the fact, what we received without having prepaid.

It is not individuals we are rewarding (whether “deserving” or not) but society we are paying back by ensuring its continuity. We are building a better world. And it we can only make our payments one person, one action at a time.

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