Robert B. Reich’s “The Common Good”

193 pp. published by Alfred A. Knopf editor

A review by Michael J. Sandel in The New York Times 2 April 2018

In recent decades, American public discourse has become hollow and shrill. Instead of morally robust debates about the common good, we have shouting matches on talk radio and cable television, and partisan food fights in Congress. People argue past one another, without really listening or seeking to persuade.

This condition has diminished the public’s regard for political parties and politicians, and also given rise to a danger: A politics empty of moral argument creates a vacuum of meaning that is often filled by the vengeful certitudes of strident nationalism. This danger now hovers over American politics. More than a year into the presidency of Donald Trump, however, liberals and progressives have yet to articulate a politics of the common good adequate to the country’s predicament.

Robert B. Reich’s new book, “The Common Good,” is a welcome response to this challenge. One of the most prominent voices among progressives, Reich has written insightfully about the changing nature of work brought about by globalization and the growing inequality it has generated. He served as secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, but in 2016 endorsed Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton.

Reich’s book diagnoses the decline of the common good in American life and suggests ways of restoring it. He begins by observing that even the term has fallen into disuse: “The common good is no longer a fashionable idea. The phrase is rarely uttered today, not even by commencement speakers and politicians.”

Reich defines the common good as consisting in “our shared values about what we owe one another as citizens who are bound together in the same society.” What binds us as Americans, he argues, is not birth or ethnicity but a commitment to fundamental ideals and principles: respect for the rule of law and democratic institutions, toleration of our differences and belief in equal political rights and equal opportunity.

These ideals and principles, Reich says, are not political, at least not in the partisan sense; to affirm them is not to take sides in debates between Democrats and Republicans. “We passionately disagree about all manner of things. But we must share these commitments to each other because they are — or have been — what makes us a people.”

Reich attributes the erosion of the common good in recent decades to the breakdown of moral restraint in the pursuit of power and money. In Washington, the “whatever-it-takes-to-win politics” that began in the Nixon years has led to the hyperpartisanship of today. In the corporate world, the single-minded pursuit of shareholder value has displaced the older notion that companies are responsible for the well-being of workers, customers and the communities they serve.

The unbridled pursuit of power and profit has brought an enormous flow of corporate money into politics. The result is a rigged system that perpetuates inequality, enables economic elites to manipulate the rules of the game to their own advantage, undermines trust in institutions and promotes attitudes of unrestrained self-seeking in social life generally.

There are several ways to revive the common good, Reich suggests. One is to recover the notion of leadership as trusteeship. Corporate executives should recognize responsibilities beyond maximizing profits, and public officials should resist the scorched-earth, anything-goes approach to politics. The essence of Trump’s failure as a leader, according to Reich, is “not that he has chosen one set of policies over another, or has divided rather than united Americans, or even that he has behaved in childish and vindictive ways unbecoming a president. It is that he has sacrificed the processes and institutions of American democracy to achieve his goals.”

Reich also calls for a greater emphasis on civic education, including two years of mandatory public service, and efforts to resurrect truth from the miasma of political deceit and fake news. Perhaps the most distinctive measure Reich proposes is the redeployment of honor and shame. Rather than honor people for their wealth or celebrity, we should honor those who display genuine virtue, like whistle-blowers, firefighters, social workers and soldiers — people who perform hard or risky tasks that serve the common good. And we should shame those who, however wealthy, achieve their status through exploitative business practices or morally dubious financial dealings.

Interestingly, in developing this theme, Reich favorably cites so-called “virtue conservatives” of the 1980s and 1990s. For example, he quotes William J. Bennett, the education secretary in the Reagan administration, who warned that “nonjudgmentalism … has permeated our culture, encouraging a paralysis of the moral faculty.” He also cites the conservative political scientist James Q. Wilson, who argued that neglecting broken windows in poor communities conveys a message of moral license, leading to an unraveling of social restraints and increased crime. Reich contends that people who get rich by exploiting norms of social trust — by evading taxes, say, or devising barely legal schemes of financial trickery — generate a similar unraveling.

Against the grain of much liberal thinking, Reich acknowledges that promoting civic virtue requires being judgmental about what moral attitudes and qualities of character our public life should affirm and promote. This recognition of the role of moral judgment in politics is an important corrective to the liberal wariness of bringing morality into the public square.

Reich’s proposals would make a good starting point for a new progressive political project. What is puzzling, however, is his insistence that a politics of the common good can or should be nonpartisan. Time and again, he draws a sharp distinction between the common good he wants to revive and the competing conceptions of the common good at stake in everyday political debate — about tax policy, health care, the environment and so on. He insists his book is not about what messages Democrats or Republicans should convey or what policies they should pursue, but rather about restoring our shared commitment to democratic norms and principles. “It’s our agreement to these principles that connects us, not agreement about where these principles lead.”

Reich seems to believe that the common good describes ground rules for a decent society, not the policies and purposes that citizens should pursue within these ground rules. But is it really possible to separate the two? Is the debate over how vigorously to regulate Wall Street about the ground rules of democracy or a policy on which Democrats and Republicans may reasonably disagree? Or consider immigration. Reich argues that the common good is “not about securing borders, erecting walls and keeping others out …. To the contrary, the common good is about inclusion — joining together to achieve common goals.” But inclusion of whom — existing citizens of the country, Dreamers, other immigrants who hope to be admitted? Partisans on all sides of this raging debate invoke competing conceptions of the common good to support their position.

As these examples suggest, the nonpartisan, above-the-fray conception of the common good that Reich proposes may be too high-minded to reinvigorate American public discourse in the way he wants. In the face of President Trump’s serial violations of democratic norms, it is tempting to appeal to Americans, whatever their party or political persuasion, to reaffirm certain principles that all can share. But such principles, if truly detached from debate about where they lead, are so abstract that they can only serve as hortatory fare for commencement addresses and the Fourth of July. The best hope for reviving the common good is to invigorate moral argument in the messy, contentious domain of democratic politics.

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