Political common goods are of a fixed size

Robert George and Michael Hannon revisit the perennial modern question of political society and the common good. For George, government is a instrumental good that is entirely ordered to individual ends; for Hannon political life (and therefore some government) is a common good which transcends the particular good of any individual and, in so doing, provides a more lofty good than any that is peculiar to him.

One factor that continually gets overlooked in these debates is that the size and degree of complexity of the thing you call “government” has an essential role to play in the question, since governments – at least those that are political common goods – are of a fixed size. For Aristotle and St. Thomas, a political society was something made of a few thousand citizens, but with the advent of the modern nation state and the extension of suffrage, a political society started to be measured in units that were larger than a polis by several orders of magnitude, at which point Aristotle says they can no longer be considered political societies. They’re just too big. One can’t scale up the polis forever and keep it as a common good, since when it becomes too big it can no longer facilitate the political life of the citizens. This happens for three reasons:

1.) The action of any citizen is so disproportionate to the whole that it is not experienced as meaningful political action. An Athenian citizen in a 500 person assembly could have a positive sense of contributing to a verdict or a law; and he could know that he could persuade enough persons to have a real effect on the outcome of the vote. No one who knows his vote counts as one out of a hundred million – or even one out of a hundred thousand, which is the size of a smallish American county – can experience the same thing.

2.) The government itself becomes so labyrinthine and complex that no individual citizen knows how to live a political life within it. As a consequence, government falls to specialists as opposed to citizens since to figure out how government works in the concrete case is a full time job. In fact, it is doubtful to me that even the small groups at the top of representative governments know enough about the workings of the Leviathan to live a genuinely political life within it. What senator understands the budget? Does anyone?

3.) The number of well-intentioned regulations reaches a point where a reasonable man is no longer a standard for what should be done, at which point he is replaced by consultants and court scribes. In response to many of the significant organizational problems of social life, we no longer think “what would a reasonable person do?” but “We ought to check with our lawyers to see whether this is okay”. But as soon as  political life ceases to cultivate the standard of the reasonable man, it ceases to be an expression of genuine human flourishing.

Though there is no bright yellow line marking where it happens, at some point the size of the government hits a tipping point where it no longer is the action of us but an of an It; and we can no longer look to it as an institution within which we exercise political life but only as a Leviathan that we must appease with tax-offerings and paperwork and exploit for whatever resources it might offer us. If, after it has reached such a tipping point, we still insist on calling it a “government” then Robert George is right that it seems to play only an instrumental role in human happiness. But if we insist with Hannon (and, famously, Dekoninck) that government is a real common good, then it seems to me we ought to agree with Aristotle that it is impossible for it to have as many citizens as the things we now call governments. We will not so much look to what we call governments to give us a political life, but more to a Church parish, a platoon, a company, etc..


  1. May 31, 2013 at 10:26 am

    Thank you, James. For the record, I endorse all of the above. I gestured towards this, or tried to, when I commented that “[George] can divorce rulers from the people only by acquiescing in the nationalization and professionalization of politics that characterizes the modern era.” You’re right that the peculiarities of the modern nation-state deserve more attention in this discussion though, and your unpacking seems to me spot-on. I am more than happy to concede that, while the polis as such is intrinsically good, the realization of that good may be frustrated when the political community grows too expansively. (Of course, the same could be said of the family or of a group of friends as well.)

  2. Woody Jones said,

    May 31, 2013 at 10:52 am

    As I sit here at my desk at the law firm, I can only skim the articles for now, but you both look to me to be very persuasive, and anyone who cites Charles DeKoninck is prima facie an intelligent person. Which brings me down to the workingman level: Michael, the challenge in law school for someone as smart as you will be to preserve your ability to think the kind of grander abstract thoughts, while at the same time paying attention to the details of legal reasoning and the data of statutes and court decisions. As one who is close, shall we say, to a federal judge, I hear complaints on a regular basis that the big name law schools offer their students the all-too tempting opportunity to take a large number of courses of a kind of sociological-philosophical nature which sound (and probably are) very interesting, but leave the law student with little or no chance to obtain the more immediately useful background in the basics such as federal procedure (not that I, as a transactional lawyer, remember anything of that subject). Is the philosophical term “techne”? We here at the firm (and I think the judiciary too) would just call it having a useful skill set.

    • May 31, 2013 at 11:25 am

      Very very much appreciated. Were I staying in the law world, I think I’d be finding my niche in legal academia anyway. But for now, God seems to have some other things in store for me. If I end up returning to law down the line, I will certainly keep your advice in mind. Sincerely, thank you.

      • Woody Jones said,

        May 31, 2013 at 4:41 pm

        God speed, then, on your new journey. The market for young lawyers is not so good these days, anyway, and if you do get a position, then the demands on one’s time can be daunting. I seem to recall a study that showed that every sector of American life had more free time on their hands now than 20 years ago except for one: the lawyers.

  3. May 31, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    Here’s my take on the issue, if you like. http://ethikapolitika.org/2013/05/22/what-if-aristotle-was-right/

    The answer is somewhere between MacIntyre, Cavanaugh, and Leo XIII!

  4. Tony M said,

    June 13, 2013 at 10:48 am

    I agree with James fully, and I tend to agree with Thaddeus on trying to identify a “somewhere between MacIntyre, Cavanaugh, and Leo. And I think that there is an answer, standing in subsidiarity.

    Assume for a moment that we have the power to institute something along the lines that James indicates: a polity small enough that the action of one citizen matters, is capable of being noticed, where everyone can know the leaders at least by “friend of a friend of a friend” kind of distance. I would suggest that this implies, as he says, a community of a few thousand. Let’s say that every large city is devolved into distinct polities of 10,000 people (to pick a round number). It just so happens that in my county we will need 10 such polities, whereas in NY city we will need 800 of them. In each one, the polity is ordered to common goods that are susceptible to a community that size.

    Obviously, you cannot have 800 such entities all making their own way without a higher ordering standard – enter the next level up. As was first envisioned (imperfectly, but really) in the US Constitution, the the lower entities, the cities, must release into the larger so much of their sovereignty as is intrinsically necessary for the larger to function, but remain sovereign in other things.

    So we acquire county governments, get 50 or 60 counties together and you get a state, get the 50 states together and you get a nation-state. At each level of remove, theoretically, the higher level holds only so much power as is consistent with the required good that pertains to its own level. So, there are then 2 or 3 questions. One is: Is the county, state, or national government a true “polity” in the sense of having its own distinct common good of which it is the agent and principal?

    According to some traditional Catholic political theory (see Fr. Ryan, I think) there has to be, in any social setting, a “highest” level governing entity that is the ultimate in its order. That will be the “perfect” government – not in terms of success, but in terms of self-sufficiency of its resources in comparison to its ends. Both the highest state and the Church are their own “perfect” societies, not needing a higher-order entity to regulate its proper functioning. De facto, the national government is clearly our highest level. The question is, is there any common good that is proper to it that does not fit in at the lower levels?

    The trick to subsidiarity, I think, is that a common good may be dealt with in some fashion, degree, or measure at a lower level AND at a higher level under a different organizing standard or principle. For example, it is certainly true that a father’s role is to keep his children safe from harm – but not all harm and not wholly, not on his own. He needs the police to keep them safe from some dangers. Likewise, the ordinary police of a town are needed for the common good of peace – up to a point, but not with a full scale riot in progress, that needs the state militia. And so on, up the line. Peace is a common good, and peace from foreign invaders is a national role, and a person who joins the army for that purpose is committing himself to a common good of the nation-state in the specific sense proper to it as the highest-level entity pursuing peace for the people. So, yes, the nation-state is a kind of polity over and above lower-order polities. Just not the local kind.

    In order to make all this work, the big change that is needed is to recognize subsidiarity all the way down to town and village levels, and learn how to keep the next higher levels’ hands off matters that don’t need their input. For example, if a town is 95% Catholic (or Buddhist), they should be able to organize a Catholic (or Buddhist) school that is paid for by town taxes without state objection.

  5. Pseudonymous Bill said,

    April 18, 2014 at 11:39 pm

    Just found this by chance, and have two thoughts:

    Not only states, but any organization can “tip” and – I won’t say take on a life or a logic, since it is the connection to the standard of a reasonable man that is lost; but cascade? – on its own.

    I work in insurance. My work involves ensuring my company properly reserves for its policies and annuities. I don’t face our customers often, but last week was asked by someone who did how a certain benefit is valued for tax purposes. He is the rare curious type who actually takes a great deal of pride in getting into the technical side of the business. A ‘reasonable man’. He was also an old buddy, so when he wrote back agog at the calculations I told him went on behind the scenes (which I described in detail half to get him going; I’d have never answered a stranger so literally), I was comfortable making a cynical crack to the effect that no one understands his plumbing, either, but we all trust it’s back there somewhere.

    This was someone who took more interest in (and was more capable of) understanding what was going on than 90% of the salesforce and 95% of the clientele for the policy, who more or less treat it like a wooden idol they have to feed and who expect it to bless their crops in return.

    The kicker? I’m just as lost when it comes to the company’s decision-making apparatus and internal politics, so I go to him and in my turn come away perplexed. An enterprise does not even have to be terribly large for this to happen .Each side of the business comes to see the others as doing what they do just because.

    Once something is decoupled from the standard of the reasonable man, it just becomes unreasonable. Its doings take on the air of fate or catastrophe to those who cannot read the entrails. And if they lose faith in the augurs?

    Which brings me to my second thought: Maybe there’s a key in here for why the best and brightest tend to make a misery of our already-hashed politics (broadly construed to include – or has it been subsumed by? – management).

    These are reasonable people. At least clever people. What’s their reaction to unreasonable organization? Depends on their individual dispositions: If they tend to moral outrage, they may favor simplifying for justice in revolutionary terror (or progressive tax). If to dismay, they may favor simplifying for nostalgia and reaction (or family values). If to opportunism they will seek to carve out a little fief. Radical, reactionary, moderate – if that’s not too simple.

  6. Tony said,

    April 19, 2014 at 8:36 am

    By a strange coincidence, my actual job consists (partly) in explaining that exact tax treatment of annuity benefits to annuitants. I may be able to help you in the future.

    The more complex society is (that is to say: the more developed use and wealth we have made from basic raw nature by piling refinement upon refinement), the more distinct jobs and career paths there are available in order to advance the wealth of the community. That implies, to some extent, that no small community can possibly be self-sufficient without giving up many (perhaps most) of the goods associated with all those different specialties. And assuming we want to retain those goods (or most of them) – so that the people whose love and whose mental framework is perfect for computer programming don’t have to dig ditches, and the people who are born engine designers don’t have to plant potatoes – we have to have some kind of a larger society that is the complete or “perfect” society even while we have smaller polities to protect subsidiarity and the personal sphere.

    These are reasonable people. At least clever people. What’s their reaction to unreasonable organization? Depends on their individual dispositions:

    This is a good observation. Another reaction is to curl up and refuse to participate. Witness: street people (some of them, not all by any means.). I don’t know that there is any possible solution while men are still inclined to sin, but surely there are better and worse ways of dealing with this.

    Once something is decoupled from the standard of the reasonable man, it just becomes unreasonable.

    I am not confident that this is quite valid. Surely even in simple societies there were specialized jobs that from the outside looked like the practitioners doing what they do “just because.” Tanners, apothecaries, or a blacksmith making damascus steel. It’s reasonable for a reasonable man to recognize that he doesn’t know the pre-requisites for making a sound judgment in a specialty outside his field.

    • Psuedonymous Bill said,

      April 19, 2014 at 6:39 pm

      Thank you for the response and the offer, and strange coincidence indeed. I doubt our host had the foresight to buy coverage against damages incurred to his site from insurance jokes in his combox, so I’ll forbear telling the one about the NY state insurance board auditor, excited as I am (‘Who died and made him successor owner?’ Hyuk.).

      To your point, it’s a fair one. It is not a valid inference to move from some process, government or field of expertise being opaque to its being unreasonable, capricious or tyrranical.

      Looking back, I’m not thrilled with how I expressed the idea. I slipped in using ‘reasonable man’ as the aristotelian standard of practical rationality and arguably instead used him functionally as a ‘plain person’, a device of justificatory clarity, instead in a few places.

      When I say then that a social organization decoupled from the standard of the first perforce becomes unreasonable, I don’t think that is an invalid inference. Aristotle’s reasonable man could potentially possess any expertise, even if he does not actually, because he possesses both the practical and intellectual virtues to their highest degree. He is their standard, after all.

      Social organizations and practices beyond the ability of a plain person to construct or master are commonplace in all societies. One beyond the capacities of Aristotle’s reasonable man, the standard of intellectual and practical virtue, doesn’t seem possible to build or maintain – not if men are the ones to do it.

      I am not holding him as an ideal, either. It is a standard people have and do achieve, which is much the point. I hold my friend in enough regard that he at least comes close. Such people could be blacksmiths or apothecaries – they can administer the business of Athens, be a judge of Isreal or a physicist. Can they administer a modern multidivisional company or be a judge on the supreme court, and still direct these to the common good, or are there lacunae in their human understanding necessarily too large?

      • Psuedonymous Bill said,

        April 19, 2014 at 7:02 pm

        I’d like to do more than restate my own point, but one of the goods of a complex society of which I avail myself has a failing powersource. Maybe it’s worth taking private, anyway.

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