How to Defend Limited Government and the Common Good

Much ink has recently been spilled (some of it mine) by conservatives debating the nature and relative merits of liberalism, especially as it relates to America. The debate has been infuriatingly inconclusive, in part because the parties have allowed a preoccupation with semantics (e.g. the meaning of liberalism) to prevent a treatment of the substantive issues (for example, the proper scope and limits of government power). Over 20 years ago, John Finnis wisely wrote the following:

It is . . . a mistake of method to frame one’s political theory in terms of its ‘liberal’ or ‘non-liberal’ . . . . Fruitful inquiry in political theory asks and debates whether specified principles, norms, institutions, laws and practices are ‘sound’, ‘true’, ‘good’, ‘reasonable’, ‘decent’, ‘just’, ‘fair’, ‘compatible with proper freedom’, and the like—not whether they are liberal or incompatible with ‘liberalism’.

If one wants to get past the seemingly unending semantic debates over the meaning of liberalism—which in my view are in principle unresolvable by argument (see above and here)—to the far more interesting and important substantive issues, Mathew D. Wright’s A Vindication of Politics is an excellent place to look. Although Wright considers in depth many of the subjects central to the liberalism-conservatism debate, the words “conservatism” and “liberalism” are conspicuously—and refreshingly—absent from the text.

Perhaps the book’s title promises more than it delivers, but given the fundamental nature of the questions he treats (Are human beings best understood as parts or wholes? What is the meaning of “common good”? What is the political association, and what if anything distinguishes it from other associations?) this can be forgiven—as can be, I hope, the incompleteness of this review. Moreover, the book provides so much worthy material along the way in critical arguments and footnotes that readers up for the challenge will not be disappointed.  

Beyond Ancients Versus Moderns

Today political life is under assault from both transpolitical and subpolitical forces. Elite cosmopolitans are scandalized by the division of humanity into particular, competitive and often hostile associations, while tribalists view the impersonality of political institutions as a threat to more fundamental particular associations and attachments such as the family. Against both groups, Wright wants to clarify the nature of the political association and defend it.

More specifically, Wright seeks to synthesize an ennobling, Aristotelian conception of politics with a modern conception of limited government. That is, he seeks to defend the political association as a distinctive, intrinsic, and yet limited common good. His case, largely built on close but critical interpretations of Aristotle and Aquinas, steers past pervasive and simple-minded caricatures of “ancients versus moderns,” and towards a principled defense of limited constitutional government rooted in a teleological anthropology rather than radical individualism.  

Wright’s strategy is to start with a basic human orientation towards real goods, and then to clarify the meaning (or meanings) of common goods. Like “social justice,” the term “common good,” with its combination of high-minded sentiment and vague meaning, is liable to abuse by proponents of government power. But as Aristotle says against those who deny pleasure is a good in order to prevent hedonism, “true statements seem to be the most useful ones, not only for knowing but also for life.”  

Although we are accustomed to speak of the common good, there are in fact as many kinds of common goods as there are kinds of human association. (Why else would human beings associate except for some good?) Consider the nature and differences between ordinary friendships, families, business partnerships, sports clubs, and orchestras. These clearly involve common goods, though in different ways. Kinds of common goods can be distinguished by a number of different criteria: Are they divisible or indivisible? Are they distributed or unified? Are they instrumental to other goods, or are they instantiated within the activity or group itself? To use a criterion Wright highlights, are they intensive or extensive?

Wright’s view, following Aristotle somewhat, Thomas Aquinas even more, but most deeply influenced by contemporary natural law theorists (especially Finnis), is that common goods are by definition good for, if not simply reducible to, the individuals who participate in them; and that there is an irreducibly diverse plurality of common goods which are distinctively, intrinsically and not merely instrumentally fulfilling and good.

This means that the political common good, formally speaking, must be both good for every member of the association (thus precluding a utilitarian conception of the common good), and also a composite of other intrinsic goods, rather than a simple unity which subsumes or instrumentalizes those goods. To support this argument, Wright offers a particularly insightful chapter on the family.

The Family as an Intrinsic Common Good

One challenge to conceiving of the political common good as an intrinsic good comes from the family. In chapter two Wright argues that the family is “a primary and irreplaceable locus of substantive human flourishing.” Wright’s treatment here focuses on the parent-child relationship rather than the spousal relationship, and thus he avoids questions of sexual difference and complementarity (though in an insightful footnote he shows why Aristotle and Aquinas’s misunderstanding of reproductive biology lead to a misconceived—pun intended— defense of patriarchy).

Wright’s treatment confronts two distinct kinds of challenges to the family, one from the direction of classical political philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle, and the other from modern liberals like Amy Gutman, Susan Okin, and Robin West.

The classical concern is that the particularity of intimate, biological ties undermines attachments to more universal types of goods and communities embodying those goods. The modern concern is that the unequal and dependent relationships of domesticity are liable to domination and abuse. Both groups, according to Wright, tend to view the family as at best an instrumental means to full human flourishing which must be closely monitored and managed.

To his credit, Wright forthrightly acknowledges both sets of concerns, but he shows why they rest upon an insufficient understanding of the singular goods that family life provides. That singularity is rooted in the way that “the intimacy, affection, and belonging of family relationships” serves not only “affective needs and desires” but also “the rational human good.”

Wright’s argument, too complex to summarize here, highlights the “mutual belonging” of parent-child relations, the “essentially educative” nature of parental love, the inherently relational quality of human identity, and especially “the fundamentally liberal stance” (the “for-its-own-sake quality) of parental love. As Wright puts it, “It is the liberality of familial love that informs a liberal stance towards virtue.”

Nevertheless, although the family is an intrinsic good, it is not a complete good. This is evident not only in “its material insufficiency and dependence but also from the positive and outward orientation of its educative drive and the generous nature of the love that animates it.” The insufficiency of the common good of the family, like other non-political intrinsic goods such as friendship and philosophy, points to the larger common good of the political association.

The Political Common Good

The political association cannot match the intimacy and intensity of the family and other forms of association. But what it lacks in intensiveness, Wright argues, it offers in inclusivity, and even completeness. As Finnis points out in Natural Law and Natural Rights, although the family instantiates an intrinsic common good, it “cannot even property provide for the unimpaired transmission of its own genetic basis. And its weakness as an economic unit, capable of supporting the health and culture of its members, . . . needs no elaboration.” Thus Finnis concludes:

So there emerges the desirability of a ‘complete community’, an all-around association in which would be co-ordinated the initiatives and activities of individuals, of families, and of the vast network of intermediate associations. The point of this all-round association would be to secure the whole ensemble of material and other conditions, including forms of collaboration, that tend to favor, facilitate, and foster the realization by each individual of his or her personal development.

Here the central question of Wright’s book arises: Assuming that the political association is necessary for and limited by other intrinsically fulfilling goods, is the political common good itself an intrinsically fulfilling good, or is it, as Finnis holds, merely an instrumental means to the other intrinsically fulfilling goods? Wright’s answer, as I have already noted, is that the political common good, although it is neither the only nor the highest common good, is a distinct, intrinsic good.  

Wright respectfully but convincingly juxtaposes his argument against Mark Murphy, who conceives the distinctiveness of the political common good as reducible to an aggregate of individual goods, and John Finnis, who conceives of the political common good as merely an instrumental good of justice and peace, which are the proper objects of government and law.  

Against Murphy, Wright argues that there are in fact “intrinsic, irreducible social goods” that are realized in particular associations, and that in such cases “understanding what the individual good is becomes partially informed by the requirements and flourishing of that association as such.” The common good of the family, for example, “seems to require practical deliberations from the perspective of the family—not a unit that transcends the good of its individual members but as one that contributes substantively to them.”

Wright devotes an entire chapter responding to Finnis’ instrumentalism thesis. He questions the coherence of Finnis’s distinction between the common good of the political association, which includes the complete good of its members but is not itself an aim of collective action, and the “specifically political common good,” which is limited to the instrumental ends of justice and peace. According to Wright, Finnis unreasonably “collapses the substance of the political association into an account of government and law, ” and thus fails to account for or explain “the whole complex of political activity, association, identity, and so on, in which citizens engage and that presumably falls with the jurisdiction (not to say control) of government insofar as it is publicly shared.”

It is precisely in this “complex of political activity,” especially civic friendship (Chapter 4) and political culture (Chapter 5), which go beyond the mere coordination of action for justice and peace, that Wright hopes to discover the intrinsic goodness of the political association.

Civic Friendship and Political Culture

The justice and peace of the political association cannot be fully secured by law alone. It also requires “a shared commitment [of the members of the political association] to a just and lawful way of ordering life.” This shared commitment, Wright argues, makes possible a distinct and intrinsically fulfilling form of civic friendship, rooted in mutual affection and goodwill, which supervenes on the legal order and the duties of citizenship. But can friendship subsist on such thin material?

In his final chapter on political culture Wright provides the sap for the abstract vessels of his first four chapters. This is a remarkable chapter, and not only because of its rare but necessary synthesis of the analytic and historical approaches to political philosophy. Here the ghost of Plato walks into the pages, with his unsettling claim that politics ultimately rests on a “noble lie,“ a particular mythos which is the basis for the identity, attachment and sacrifice of citizens. It is a claim shared, with sympathy, by public choice theorists James Buchanan and Geoffrey Brennan, and with hostility by more cynical people like Robert Owens and Murray Rothbard, who conclude that citizenship is for suckers and statists. Why are they wrong?

Although Wright does not directly engage these objections, he provides the basic material for a response, principally through an interpretation of Edmund Burke. Here Wright channels Alasdair MacIntyre—while correcting MacIntyre’s unjust criticisms of Burke—to challenge Enlightenment rationalism’s separation of reason from tradition, and to show why reason requires the particularities of both tradition and imagination for its successful operation. His account thus serves to correct both cosmopolitans, who view political life as a threat to reason, and tribalists who view political life as a threat to their particular attachments.

One wishes Wright had said more about the relationship between Christianity and politics, about which he says very little, as well as about public choice theory, about which he says virtually nothing. Moreover, his silence on the question of political authority is loud, especially given Finnis and Murphy’s controversial critique of consent theory. Politics cannot be fully vindicated without addressing these subjects. But even if the book falls short of its title, A Vindication of Politics puts its readers firmly on the path toward understanding, and this alone is a remarkable accomplishment.