In the earliest human societies, which were hunter-gatherer bands, self-interest and the common good were one and the same, although the concept of the common good would not be formally described until the fourth century CE.
The struggle for survival of both individual and group was their shared primary concern and was inherent in the band lifestyle, which required collective action for foraging and protection from predators.
Over time, bands joined together to form tribes in which hierarchies evolved as a form of social organization. With the advent of agriculture, tribes gave up their nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle and became farmers. Farming and sedentary settlement gave rise to the concept of private property, and self-interest began to replace communal motivation and activities.
Then, when tribes established cities, their hierarchies became the dominant social structure. Self-interest and the common good were no longer synonymous. As society’s transition continued from cities to states and nations, the common good became subordinate to self-interest. This situation, unfortunately, persists in our world today.
It was not a quick or simple transition. Many civilizations arose, shaping our history to varying degrees on foundations of many different economic systems. The most onerous among these was slavery, the epitome of political and economic inequality. Under slavery, there is no common good at all—only slaves and masters, rich and poor.
It is fascinating to realize that the cultures and economic systems supported by slavery have since perished—as if Plutarch’s pronouncement that “An imbalance between rich and poor is the most fatal ailment of all republics” had the power of prophecy. A partial list of the fallen: Sumer, Egypt, Greece, Rome; the colonial empires of Britain, France, Spain, Germany, and Portugal; and the antebellum American South.
Although political inequality is gradually disappearing as more countries become democracies (or at least, more democratic), economic inequality between haves and have-nots is actually increasing—ironically, with the active support of some of those same governments.
For example, in the US of the 1960s and 1970s, ongoing corporate tax exemptions/forgiveness and subsidies, along with a general abandonment of antitrust enforcement, encouraged the formation of huge conglomerates. In the 1980s, corporate and high-income tax rates were cut substantially, the “too big to fail” concept was introduced in the Continental of Illinois Bank bailout, and S&L deregulation cost taxpayers $1.2 trillion. Then, because banks were allowed to engage in investment activities in the 1990s, irresponsible risk-taking led to the worldwide financial collapse of 2008, with a $700 billion bailout of “too big to fail” institutions in the US alone.
It cannot be claimed that any of those governmental actions was taken to enhance the common good or to satisfy the fundamental human drive toward freedom and equality and building a better future. Rather, each action was taken to satisfy the self-interest of the wealthy.
For the future, as more and more people become aware of their political and economic power and begin to exercise it, we can look for a resurgence of concern for the common good in both political and economic systems. But it will not come easily.
Oliver & Barbara