The Common Good

The Common Good By Robert B. Reich. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

At fourteen years of age, Robert Reich heard John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech…” What can you do for America?” Seven years later he took a job as summer intern of his brother Robert F. Kennedy, and he felt he was doing something for America. The difference today, Reich believes, was a shift from an era when people were aware of, talked about, and sought the common good. For the last fifty years, Reich says, the shift has resulted in a structural breakdown and decline of the common good. In 1977 Robert Ringer wrote “Looking Out for #1. In 1987 Gordon Gekko in the film “Wall Street” said a line that was typical of the times: “Greed, for the lack of a better word, is good.”

What is the common good? What happened to it? Can it be restored? The answer to these questions is at the heart of Reich’s book and the remedy for the problematic in our country, our culture and our crisis. R. says the book is not about Trump, though he mentions him a number of times. Our country is “we the people.” What has happened to us? The origin of the emphasis on the common good begins with the founding fathers of our country. The King of England was selfish. The founding fathers created a democracy based on the pursuit of the common good articulated in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America.

The first chapter describes a person, Martin Shkreli, who typifies the slogan “Whatever it takes” (anything goes) to achieve the desired end, the opposite of respecting and seeking the common good. Such an attitude exploits and harms the pursuit of the common good, ignoring the motto of our country (E pluribus unum — from the many, one.) We are a nation that is united from the many people of different races, religions, countries, etc. All seeking to share in a country of united states, and immigrants from every land who become citizens of one country.

What good do we have in common? “The Common Good consists of our shared values about what we owe one another as citizens who are bound together in the same society – the norms we voluntarily abide by, and the ideals we seek to achieve.” He continues, “It is a way of thinking quite opposite to that of Martin Shkreli, and several of today’s more notorious business political leaders. A concern for the common good – keeping the common good in mind – is a moral attitude. It recognizes that we’re all in it together. If there is no common, there is no society.”

Ayn Rand wrote novels and described another view that made its way since the 1970’s. She wrote: “The common good is an undefined and an undefinable concept, a moral blank check for those who attempt to embody it. When the common good of society is regarded as anything apart from and superior to the individual good of its members, it means that the good of some men takes precedence over the good of others, with others consigned to the status of sacrificial animals.”

Robert Nozick, Harvard philosopher, adopted a similar view. Donald Trump, Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo share the same philosophy. Paul Ryan required his staff to read Ayn Rand. Other contemporary leaders in politics and business share Rand’s views.

What is required for the restoration of the common good? Leadership as trusteeship (vs. stakeholders), honor (vs shame), resurrecting the truth and civic education for all, are necessary. This is the medicine that Reich prescribes. Some reviewers of Reich’s book believe he gives a good description of what ails our country, but fails to give a remedy. The third part of his book and four chapters thereof, are Reich’s medicine.

Reich knows the territory. As Secretary of Labor in Washington, and author of twenty books and lecturer in universities and social media, he knows how vital are the pursuit of happiness, peace and prosperity. Restoring the common good will restore leadership for our country and an example for the world.