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Tyrannizing the Common Good

The contemporary liberal and libertarian tend in their reactions to Covid-19 and public health mandates towards two sides of the same error.

President Biden has lost patience. After months of telling Americans that vaccine mandates aren’t necessary, Biden announced on Thursday a federal vaccination mandate affecting 100 million Americans. Not only did he not bother to provide citizens with a coherent rationale, but the rationale he did provide seemed to suggest that the mandate was necessary because vaccinated people need to be protected from unvaccinated people—a rationale that implies that the vaccine being mandated doesn’t work! Biden’s patience has worn too thin.

Rather than make a clear case for the necessity of a mandate with his legitimate executive power, constrained by law, Biden has chosen to utilize ideologically aligned corporate power and OSHA safety regulations as political “work-arounds” to achieve by executive dictat that which had proved too difficult: to demonstrate that the mandate is reasonable, legal, and necessary. As with his remarks this summer on his novel use of the CDC to place a moratorium on evictions—“maybe it’s illegal, but it’s worth it”—the key to Mr. Biden’s political strategy seems to be rooted neither in reason nor justice, but in the sheer will to power in the name of “the common good,” immediately revealing how the very notion of the common good can be abused.

Some red-state attorneys general have announced that they intend to use their own powers to resist federal overreach. Are they then against the common good? Partisans will answer that question differently. At just the moment that the federal government has chosen to sue Texas over abortion restrictions, a massive set of lawsuits, from individuals to companies and states, are about to be filed against the federal government. Does that sound like the mandate is serving the flourishing of all? Biden’s inaugural promise of “unity” seems even less credible now than when he uttered it in January. But the awful political effects—to say nothing of the enormous distrust which has arisen around health policy—reveals a much greater threat than Covid-19.

Hidden in plain sight is a problem with our very notion of the common good, and relatedly, our way of adjudicating what counts as reasonable and necessary for the end of the common good. We have liberals who now want to use a stick rather than a carrot to achieve a desired outcome. They propose dramatic, punitive measures in such a ways as to cause people to see the common good as nothing but a cudgel, a political weapon wielded by those who have power. As a result, we see a certain skepticism arise, especially in the libertarian-inclination to refuse not only every mandate, but the idea of a common good altogether. But both the liberal and libertarian are united in a common error which is sending us into a death-spiral.

The contemporary liberal who loves mandating in the name of the common good, and the libertarian who hates their every mandate, tend towards two sides of the same error. Each leads us to either a private or public tyranny, not because they favor or oppose mandates, but because they are wedded to a false notion of the common good, conceived as an aggregate of radically individuated private or personal goods which is then imagined as united only by the coercive power of an overwhelming executive power, or by their fear and resistance to its mandate.

Silas House, a novelist from Kentucky and author of a recent essay in the Atlantic, gives a nice example of one side of this error. House believes, like Biden and most liberals, that opposition to mandatory vaccinations reflects the vice of selfishness. As with our impatient president, House paints a very bleak picture of his conservative enemies as irrational hotheads who are “not just unwilling to make sacrifices for others during a pandemic; they’re angry about being asked to.” They are, in fact, enemies of the common good and must be treated as such.

Like Biden and most liberals, House does not appeal to a standard of reasonableness which would stand up in court. But House is useful for understanding the false notion of the common good. He tells us a story about how we are bound together by sacrifice, a story which on the surface has a kind of religious resonance with Christianity. For two thousand years, Christians have understood the Church as a society united and perfected by the sacrifice of Christ. But House isn’t talking about the Church, nor is he talking about Christ’s sacrifice. He is talking about America in a way similar to those early modern liberals who imagined the state as a body of bodies, literally constituted by the sacrifice of some individual goods for the sake of a collective good.

This taps directly into the origins of an error. The “aggregate” view of the common good might be better understood as the “socially constructed” common good, since it basically works from a metaphysically nominalist premise that says that the good which is common to us is just what we say it is. The “common good” is simply what the powerful decide that it is. It is not something which is real, and prior to us, but something we construct, and reconstruct as a collection of individuals forming a society. This early modern liberal error turns the common good into something infinitely pliable, detached from any objective account of a hierarchy of goods that runs all the way up to the summum bonum of God’s own goodness. This is why there is often skepticism about appeals to the common good. We rightly worry that the concept is being abused, but the truth is that the abuse is writ into the false notion.

Yet we must not jettison the common good because it is abused—abusus non tollit usum—the abuse of something is no argument against its proper use. Liberal appeals to the common good replaced a much more ancient understanding, which sees the common good as something that exists prior to us as individuals, and from which we gain personal happiness by participating in it. Against the nominalist who must resort to an appeal to authority or power alone to secure the good, the old view sees the common good as something which is intelligible, and which elevates those who participate in it. Most people in well-formed families experience at least a taste of this, when they advance in virtue and happiness precisely because of the manifold benefits that flow from having a mother and a father who love each other and their offspring, and so they participate in the indivisible good which is common to the family. More simply put, when we share the good common to the family, that is not our possession, even though it raises us up.

Vaccination mandates provide an important test case for understanding the incompatibility of ancient and modern notions of the common good. For example, parental objections to mandatory Covid vaccinations for children are not really examined by authorities but simply refused, as unreasonable, selfish, irrational, or worse. A parent who is a steward of their familial common good may look at sound scientific facts and determine that experimental vaccinations pose more risks to their children than are necessary. Similarly, a person who has had Covid may raise proven facts about natural immunity rates, and be refused a hearing because the point is not to discern what the nature of the good is, but to command it. When the liberal sees 90,000 unmasked fans at a college football game, all they can see is selfish or stupid people who refused to make sacrifices. By the absence of the sacrificial sign which binds together the common thing—the mask—all the liberal can see is 90,000 privations of the common good.

Yet the mystical statism implicit here, which demands faith in the sheer naming power of the constructed collective, also gives rise to the libertarian skeptic who refuses it. On the surface, the liberal and libertarian divide looks like our entire conflict over mandates. But if we look deeper, the libertarian shares the liberal view of an aggregate common good; the libertarian differs from the liberal only in refusing the state the power to bind consciences and compel action to construct it. Our libertarians are ensnared in the same error they oppose in liberals. The liberal believes that those who hold power can dictate which sacrifices are necessary for the common good, and so can bind consciences whether their laws are rationally demonstrated as just laws or not, while the libertarian believes individual freedom is absolute, and any state coercion which demands unwanted individual sacrifices constitutes an abuse of power.

This leaves our country in a terrible and impossible death-spiral. The liberal and libertarian responses to public health policy reveal a kind of zero-sum game about whether power resides absolutely in the individual parts or in those with overwhelming power to bind. Avoiding all rational inquiry around our ability to know what is true and good, avoiding any serious examination of the fundamental nature of the common good or human flourishing, both the liberal and the libertarian are engaged in a fideistic battle for who has sufficient power to either reject or mandate vaccination. As the Stanford Medical School professor of health policy, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, has stated, we now have a very counter-productive political Covid policy which actively undermines public trust in the very health policy we need.

The only way out is through—to a more ancient view of the common good, which turns on a more classical understanding of justice and the character of law itself. In his Treatise on Law, Thomas Aquinas states a basic precept that cuts to the heart of the matter: “Laws framed by man are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience, from the eternal law whence they are derived.” Aquinas would certainly reject the libertarian refusal of mandates in principle, and would agree with the liberal that the public authority can mandate vaccinations. Aquinas teaches that the state can compel and bind conscience in law, but that there are limits, or if you prefer, conditions which limit this. He gives three specific conditions: Laws are just when, first, the reasons for the law are ordered to the end of everyone’s flourishing; when, second, they do not exceed the legitimate power of the legislator; and when, third, such laws do not lay unreasonable burdens on subjects. Citing Augustine’s dictum, “an unjust law is no law at all,” Aquinas insists that the legislator’s power is legitimated precisely through an appeal to the reason and end of the law. Are the burdens imposed reasonable for all? Do they really serve the ends to which they are ordered?

In the context of public health policy, the case of the polio vaccine instructive. If you received the vaccine, not only was your personal good safeguarded, but you helped eradicate polio for all of humanity. Do mandatory Covid vaccines meet that same standard of reasonableness?

This is a question we should try to ask and answer dispassionately. We know that our Covid-19 vaccines are effective at reducing the chance of infection, and may reduce the severity of symptoms. But we also know something else about our Covid vaccines: Unlike the mandatory polio vaccine, Covid vaccines will not eradicate Covid. Does this mean they fail the reasonableness test? Not necessarily, but it is the sort of question that is clearly oriented to the end of the flourishing of the commons while avoiding the typical, emotional abuse of the common good we saw in Silas House’s Atlantic essay or in Biden’s unnecessary and counter-productive mandate.

An example of those thinking in light of a reasonableness test is a recent statement by the Vatican’s chief doctrinal office encouraging everyone at risk to get vaccinated, but which recognized that forced medical procedures must meet a high bar of necessity to count as a reasonable burden. The Vatican did not reject vaccination mandates in the way a libertarian might, because they recognized that it might actually be necessary and reasonable to mandate vaccines, as it was with polio. This counsel is rooted in a proper, true understanding of the common good. States can indeed bind consciences—the liberal is right about this, and the libertarian is wrong—but only by agreed means of discerning what actually is true and just, and not simply by capricious and unnecessary compulsion. Neither legislators nor laws can bind consciences on the basis of power alone.

This is why many are now advocating for civil disobedience, not because they are lawless, selfish, or are enemies of the common good, but because they think the law isn’t rational, and isn’t necessary. If laws are not demonstrably just, if they cause undue burdens without end, if they exceed the due power of legislators, if they do not accord with reason or even basic facts, then they cannot bind the conscience because no authority can justly compel obedience irrationally.

Our debates over mask and vaccine mandates have exposed many fissures in our common life, not only in this country but around the liberal imperium. What our biopolitical debates about Covid-19 reveal is that we are weary, and have labored too long under a false, deracinated, constructivist understanding of the good, one which isn’t all that reasonable, and doesn’t lead to the flourishing of the commons. Covid is not the greatest threat to our political existence, but rather our common life is tyrannized by a false notion of what binds us together.

C.C. Pecknold is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America.

For more about the “Taking the Mask Off” series, click here.