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How America lost interest in the common good
The loss of an ideal is the private sector's gain
 
The new laws are not actually helping the homeless.
The new laws are not actually helping the homeless. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Whatever happened to southern hospitality?

Despite its warm climate, the South is becoming more and more unwelcoming to those without a roof over their heads. Consider recent legislation passed by Ft. Lauderdale, Florida:

…so far this year, it has passed two such laws, one making it illegal to urinate in public and another serving notice that any belongings left unattended on public property can be confiscated. More are pending, including one that would make it hard for charities to serve meals to the homeless in public spaces. [The Independent]

Other southern cities, such as Birmingham, Alabama, have also pressed for legislation that would make it illegal to publicly distribute food to the homeless. Laws like these are usually posed as gestures at "helping" the homeless, but they are the sort of "tough love" that is heavy on the toughness and palpably light on the love.

While the law's supporters might really believe police action against homeless people is a sure way to improve their circumstances, the intent of anti-homeless legislation is almost always to clear out unwanted people for the sake of consumers.

Now, begging could very well be a real problem for tourism or retailers. But instead of businesses encouraging local governments to devote more resources to providing alternatives for people without consistent shelter, they place a particular set of claims on whose interests should control public space.

The end result isn't just a devastating blow to homeless people — it is also a dangerous incursion of the private, for-profit sector into what should be thought of as the common good. Worse yet, local governments are proving complicit in this process of domination-by-the-strong.

Multiple definitions of 'the common good' exist, as the idea of a corporate human good has existed since the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. More recent iterations arise from political philosophers like John Rawls and from Catholic social teaching; continuity between secular and religious conceptions of the common good is, however, fairly consistent. In short, the common good is a set of circumstances which provides for the flourishing — intellectual, emotional, physical, and social — of all people, regardless of their social standing.

Politics that proceed from a concern for the common good will therefore contain some recognition of 'commons' of some kind — that is, policies, whether spaces or programs, that can be enjoyed by all. It is this brand of political activity that Pope Francis indicates, for example, when he writes in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium that states are "charged with vigilance for the common good." It's also no accident that Francis identifies the political power of moneyed interests as the chief danger to the common good, going so far as to call their domination a "new tyranny."

The destruction of common spaces is only a very blatant iteration of the larger trend away from the common good and toward privatization. In Belhaven, North Carolina, the closing of a non-profit hospital and major community employer also signal the private good being emphasized over the common good. And, while a number of states have significantly reduced their uninsured rates through the Affordable Care Act, red state politicians are still stubbornly refusing to offer the same benefits to their citizens by resisting medicaid expansion.

In the past — for example, following massive national upheavals like the Great Depression and World Wars — policies antagonistic to the common good were a difficult sell. While Americans these days seem resigned to accepting political approaches that lack such an ethical grounding, the common good remains an ideal worth remembering.

 
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes about Christianity, ethics, and policy for Salon, The Atlantic, and The Week. She is a graduate of Brandeis University and received her MPhil in Christian theology from the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar. She is currently working towards her PhD at Brown University. In her spare time, Elizabeth enjoys working in the garden.

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