Aquinas & Politics: Getting Out of and Into the Common Good

Aquinas & Politics: Getting Out of and Into the Common Good

By Marcia Pally

published by Counterpoint Navigating Knowledge, March 13, 2019


I’m writing this blog just on returning from a conference hosted by the Thomist Center in New York. The center aims at scholarly research on the work of Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest of medieval Catholic thinkers, and its application to our circumstances today—a possibility you may think somewhat small. If Aquinas is not your usual choice for weekend off-time, perhaps you’re thinking that this is one heck of way to spend it. But let me tell you, I learned a few things about what’s going on in our conflicted world today.

Before I go on, let me pull out some other research I’ve been reading. In the 2018 U.S. congressional elections, congressional districts that shifted from more conservative Republican to more progressive Democrat had income and educational levels higher than the state medians. Districts that shifted Democrat to Republican had lower levels. In short, people who are losing ground moved to the right. In an analysis specifically of congressional districts that had a good chance of “flipping” from one party to another, eight of the ten with “highest economic health” were identified as Republican before the election. In the election, eight of these ten flipped from Republican to Democrat. In short, people who are not losing ground moved progressive.

Today, the twenty most prosperous U.S. congressional districts have chosen Democrats as their representatives; sixteen of the twenty least prosperous have chosen Republicans. And this difference is found not only in the U.S. Those Britons who are losing ground–whose welfare is being eroded by automation, social welfare cuts, and the movement of goods and persons in a globalized economy–drove the Brexit vote. Looking at Greece, its economic crisis, and the austerity measures taken to address it, research by Nicholas Sambanis, Anna Schultz, and Elena Nikolova found a strong correlation between job loss and “in-group bias” and thus, a move to the right.

This relationship between economic pinch and political drift to the right is not new. Analyzing the political history of twenty advanced democracies from the 1870s to the present, encompassing more than 800 elections and 100 financial crises, Funke et al. found that “financial crises put a strain on democracies… far-right parties see strong political gains.”

This does not mean right wing parties are fomenting economic duress for political gain. It means they are proposing solutions to economic duress that make sense to the people suffering from it. Thus, their vote for the right. Solutions that readily “make sense” are often familiar ones, with deep roots in the local culture. In the U.K., that may be suspicion of the continent—and thus the EU–in defense of British uniqueness. Or it may be racist tendencies to blame the people of color come to Britain from its former colonies for the woes of automation and globalization.

In the U.S., it’s wariness of government–of its regulations and social welfare programs—born of immigrant and frontier self-reliance. As noted in an earlier column, many immigrants to America were fleeing oppressive states, and their flight reinforced the advantages of limiting state power. The rough frontier conditions boosted the advisability of individual and local self-reliance and a wariness of “outsider,” “interfering” central government–which did not look reliable anyway as there was relatively little of it on the frontier to rely on. This, at times coupled with racist and xenophobic suspicions against other “outsiders,” is the appeal of the present Republican platform. It emphasizes “small government” approaches to societal problems, including deregulation of business and finance and reduction of government social services.

Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen center—which has been well reviewed for non-ideological economic proposals—put it this way: Republicans believe that a strong economy is “only reliably ensured when government is minimized, taxes are nearly inconsequential, and free markets and property rights are given the greatest scope possible.”

Brink Lindsey, Niskanen’s vice president for policy, was even clearer: the Republicans start “in ideological self-delusion — that government is simply incapable of performing well, so starving it of funds is always a good idea and trying to make it work better is a waste of time… these attitudes can very easily merge into cynical, lazy indifference to public administration and onward to outright venality and corruption. And, of course, this ideological stance turns out to be incredibly convenient for rich donors looking for any excuse to keep their taxes down.”

This brings us back to the Thomists. What’s missing in the noble notion of self-reliance and preference for small government is the idea that we all—individuals, civil society groups, and governmental offices—are obliged to the common good that enables us all to thrive. At the Thomist conference, Steven Long gave a top-flight paper about just this idea. Long drew on Aquinas’s idea that each of us, the “parts” of human life, is ordered toward the whole of human life, our life together and with the transcendent.

This ordering does not subsume the individual as a totalitarian regime would because civil society is obligated to promote the flourishing of its members. Rather, this notion of the commons proposes that common goods are not a collection of benefits separate from personal benefits—something we do in our free time after seeing to ourselves. Common goods redound to individuals and enable all of society to thrive precisely because individuals are inextricably embedded in the commons. Achieving the common good is an end, an aim, for each of us. As the Thomists might put it, “Common goods,” Long noted, “are not alien to the person but rather the higher perfection of the person.”

Mid-twentieth century, the Belgian-Canadian philosopher Charles De Koninck also argued that “the human being is a ‘part’ of society in the sense that his or her fulfillment requires participating in or partaking of goods that transcend the purely private sphere of individuality.” The Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre takes a similar view: “it is in achieving those common goods that they perfect themselves as human beings and so achieve their own individual goods” (both cited in Jeffrey Nicholas’s helpful essay).

Something like this is being lost in our present politico-ideological fights. Gene Sperling, who worked on economic policy for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, has a compelling and clear essay on how to promote broad-based economic “dignity,” a common good approach to work, education, health care, job training and more. When we—in government, in communities, and in the private sector–stop trying to get out of our societal embeddedness through “for me only” approaches (or for my firm, portfolio, or political party), when we try instead to get into it, all those arenas together will have better chance at thriving.