The other day I read an essay by Noam Chomsky that contained some obvious Humanist principles we should all support. The title caught my eye ‘What Is the Common Good?’. I was interested in Chomsky’s idea that a reasonable definition of the common good was a democratic social order based on workers’ control, respecting the dignity of the producer as a genuine person, and not a tool in the hands of others. In this way humans would be fulfilling our just aspirations. It isn’t currently what we have in the United States.
The essay was adapted from part of a three day John Dewey Lecture Chomsky gave at Columbia University in December which was under the main title “What Kind of Creatures Are We?”. John Dewey was an American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer and secular Humanist. Dewey was one of the original signers of the Humanist Manifesto (1933).
Chomsky’s lecture on the common good talks about several principles we Humanists support such as liberty, democracy, and social justice. He also complains about “neo-democracy” which is “a system in which liberty is enjoyed by the few, and security in its fullest sense is available only to the elite, but within a system of more general formal rights.” He believes that a kind of anarchism labeled “libertarian socialism” would allow all of us to fulfill our just aspirations.
Chomsky then notes how Dewey complained about the kind of rampant corporatism we see even today. It is also noted how our Founding fathers worked to protect property more than people’s liberty:
No one took the American philosopher John Dewey to be an anarchist. But consider his ideas. He recognized that “Power today resides in control of the means of production, exchange, publicity, transportation and communication. Whoever owns them rules the life of the country,” even if democratic forms remain. Until those institutions are in the hands of the public, politics will remain “the shadow cast on society by big business,” much as is seen today.
The Founding Fathers of the United States were well aware of the hazards of democracy. In the Constitutional Convention debates, the main framer, James Madison, warned of these hazards.
Naturally taking England as his model, Madison observed that “In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place,” undermining the right to property.
The basic problem that Madison foresaw in “framing a system which we wish to last for ages” was to ensure that the actual rulers will be the wealthy minority so as “to secure the rights of property agst. the danger from an equality & universality of suffrage, vesting compleat power over property in hands without a share in it.”
Scholarship generally agrees with the Brown University scholar Gordon S. Wood’s assessment that “The Constitution was intrinsically an aristocratic document designed to check the democratic tendencies of the period.”
I prefer Aristotle’s solution to protect property by reducing inequality through welfare state measures over James Madison’s solution of reducing democracy to support the plutocracy.
Human history tends to prove Aristotle correct.