Conservatism and the Common Good

Harvey C. Mansfield

Current Issue

Promoting the common good sounds too tame to cheer a charge against the enemy. Hearing it, one wants to nod in agreement and remain seated. It comes nonetheless from a new conservatism tired of losing to liberals and looking for a new and better organizing purpose that will bring the satisfaction of victory.

But before turning to deal with the liberals, it seeks victory over the sorts of conservatism that tolerate losing and settle for compromise — for common-good conservatism disdains the sort of common good it might find with fellow conservatives.

Some of their compatriots on the right are the kinds of old-fashioned conservatives who defend tradition, exemplified in the wit and elegance of a noble gentleman such as William F. Buckley, Jr. Yet Buckley was a nonpareil, too rare to imitate and surely in temper and in manners no roughneck. Much worse are the neoconservatives, who not only give in to the liberals, but actually advance their foolish universalism in a foreign policy devoted to democratizing the world rather than defending America. Doing the latter when there is so much to lose and just as much to gain means defending America not as an instance of a universal movement, but as a nation itself. Against the neoconservatives, common-good conservatives share Buckley's Catholicism but lack his elegance; they do not feel the distaste that he might have had, and that neoconservatives certainly express, for Donald Trump.

After registering no surprise that conservatives should begin their campaign for victory over a common opponent with an attack on potential allies, let us accept the common good as an object of conservatism. What does the best thought have to say of the common good, and why does liberalism hesitate to speak of it while preferring to praise diversity and pluralism? To answer the first question, it is helpful to explain the second one.

"Liberalism" needs to be understood in its generic, 17th-century sense as the doctrine of a society of individual rights, comprising both "liberals" in the narrower sense of today and their conservative opponents. Because both parties now speak and think in terms of rights, they live together, though opposed, under the regime of generic liberalism. Thus regarding the question of, say, abortion, they hold a debate between the right to life and the right to choose.

The common-good conservatives, by contrast, are disgusted with the debate on abortion and every other issue that they always, or typically, lose. That debate does not result in a sensible or tolerable alternation of power between the parties; it's always liberals win and conservatives lose. Or this is how it seems, for liberals take the initiative and conservatives are forced to fight on defense. The common-good conservatives think it's time to leave that aspect of the game, go on offense, and seek permanent victories. This is what liberals wish for when they demand that their victories must never be reversed: They mean that progress goes in one direction only — theirs.

By winning, common-good conservatives want to rule. They see or sense that the common good is associated with rule, while liberalism, in its 17th-century sense, depends on representation — a diversity or alternation of power that is something less than rule. They therefore attack not only the liberals of our time, but also the generic liberalism of the 17th century, together with its tradition of modifications and improvements since then. They challenge the very idea of a society of rights in which government represents rather than rules the people. They reject John Locke and Montesquieu, two founders of liberalism. Going back to pre-liberal thought, they find their cause in St. Thomas Aquinas, the great thinker of the 13th century, originally suspected and then adopted by the Catholic Church as one of their own (though now set aside by liberals within the Church).

When we consult Aquinas, however, we find that his thinking depends on the writings of the man he calls "the Philosopher": Aristotle. To see what is meant by the common good, then, we must join the common-good conservatives in consulting Aristotle, where sensible people always go when looking for the best thought.


Aristotle discusses the common good in Book 3, Chapters 6 and 7, of his Politics. There, as Delba Winthrop showed in Aristotle: Democracy and Political Science, he offers not one, but two definitions. He calls the "common good" the common "benefit," or sympheron, meaning a bringing together, and he uses two expressions that might be translated as "common benefit" and "benefit in common." There is a seemingly slight difference, but one of considerable consequence, when "common" goes from adjective to dative phrase.

The first, "common benefit," is what each and every individual has, and which we all have in common, such as a susceptibility to the common cold. Indeed, almost all common benefits have to do with the body. All of us humans are mortal, and all of us have bodies that subject us to common concerns. These troubles give us the basis for thinking in the same way about the common good, which adds up what is private in each to make what we all share together. This is the condition of democracy — all equal in matter — which, if taken as a statement for all human beings, even all beings and things, yields the doctrine of materialism: One's matter is mainly what matters.

Democracy and materialism go together, since every human being must be reduced to matter in order to make every one of us equal. A difficulty, however, arises from the fact that there is an obvious difference between human and non-human matter. Humans seem to be superior, especially in awareness, to stones and even apes. The doctrine of materialism would rather not emphasize or even recognize this superiority because it applies among humans as well — for instance, to those superior in intellect despite their relative bodily equality with other humans. The existence of intellectual or other inequality in mind and soul, then, is not a point that democratic materialists readily admit.

Here Aristotle's second phrase for the common good, "benefit in common," intervenes. This common good is a community good, one that is not solely individual in private, but is or arises from its appeal to people generally, or at least to some people. Its benefits have to do mostly with the soul, or with the accomplishments of the mind and activities that require the mind.

An example might be a musician — let's say Louis Armstrong. He is widely considered the best trumpeter in the history of jazz, and he gives a benefit to the community where he plays and is known. This benefit is distributed unequally because Armstrong has most of it; others may follow him, other trumpeters may be influenced by him, but they do not benefit at his level. Layers of appreciation for his talent extend downward and outward: to those who listen and can play; to those who listen but cannot play; to those who don't listen because they don't care for jazz. But they are all pleased that Armstrong was with us and consider him a great American — New Orleans named its airport after him.

The benefit in common arises not from the many, but from the few who are better in some way and who contribute more than the many. The many enjoy watching, listening, studying, or prospering from what they do not initiate or produce; in other words, they participate in the common benefit that they cannot cause to exist. We watch the best athletes and admire them if we are sensible, envy them if we are not. The layers of participation in what is common radiate from their example. A community extending beyond a single country — the community of humanity — benefits from the great athletes, musicians, novelists, and philosophers endowed with universal gifts. Even in a democracy that aims for equality above all, we create celebrities who are unequal to ourselves, although they are made in the image of what we like.

This consideration of inequality leads logically, but also politically and socially, to aristocracy — the rule of the few strictly or, in our case today, greatly modified and democratized. In America, we have "elites" claiming to be democratic rather than aristocratic who nonetheless take part diversely and unequally in elections, institutions, and offices, both formal and informal.

As noted above, the benefit in common lives in excellence not only or mainly in the body, but in the talents of mind and soul — and especially the intellect. Aristotle is much, much smarter than we are, but we can participate as readers and thinkers in a whole of intellect headed by men such as he and characterized by layers of attainment and understanding. In this whole our lives "matter" not by virtue of our equality, but through unequal participation.

To the extent that we are merely equal in body, nobody matters or counts for anything special. But democracy divides us into different nations — different democracies — each of which is likely to think itself superior to others. Patriotism or nationalism — cheering for the home team — is aristocratic democracy, the usual sort of inequality that democracies care for.

To sum up, there are two ways of looking at the common good, and therefore there are two parties. One way is democratic, in which we look at each other as equals because we all need and are made of the same things. The other is aristocratic or oligarchic, in which we think of ourselves as unequals because some can do more for the whole than others and are closer to the essence of what human beings can be. Each party can be made universal when considered philosophically.

The philosophy of equality would be materialism, for it is grounded in what is bodily, and finds community or commonness with all others on that basis. If one carries out the logic of materialism, all things could be considered bodily as having matter, the whole universe as material. This is how today's physicists look at the universe, revealing a kinship or alliance between democracy and modern science.

On the other side of inequality, based on the best and layers of the best, lies spiritualism or idealism. This doctrine stands for any association in which the essence of it is its best example. All nature can be understood in its matter, disjointed and randomly associated, and also in its essence, its completion and perfection in a hierarchy of things connected.

One might expect that Aristotle would take the side of the best — of the benefit in common. Certainly he insists that the best be considered and appreciated. But he does not simply choose it as better than the common benefit. To Aristotle, both definitions are necessary and true to some extent. Each definition requires the other.

The two are not as starkly opposed as they might seem. The preservation of the self, for instance, is often contested by others, and when that happens, it requires self-defense. But what is the "self" that one is defending, sometimes at risk to life? What would you die for? An answer defining "the self" is called for. This definition would be disputed by others. Whose definition is best? Self-preservation leads one to state the superiority of one's definition, which would be a superior contribution to the benefit in common. In this way, democracy develops elites claiming to contribute more to democracy than do ordinary folk.

Yet the benefit in common, requiring excellences of soul, requires discipline to restrain its excesses and mistakes. To be superior, one's soul must recognize the strength of bodily passions — envy, fear, jealousy, and the like — common to all men. They can expand to partisan passions that compete to rule and dominate the soul within an individual or group, and they cannot be ignored when establishing the common good for that individual or group. Democracy needs to accept the advantages of oligarchy, and oligarchy needs to acknowledge the force of democracy. These concessions of one to the other are made not to recognize mutual dependence of one on the other; to the contrary, they are made to prop up each regime, to remedy its weaknesses, and to make it successful on its own. An oligarchical democracy and a democratic oligarchy have shown they can appropriate the enemy and use it against itself. Thus, it is necessary for each regime to use the other, but very difficult, perhaps impossible, to give equal recognition to both definitions of the common good.

However welcome a mixed regime would be, it is almost inevitable, as Aristotle has it, that humans will alternate between democracy of the many and oligarchy of the few. Alexis de Tocqueville, Aristotle's modern surrogate, thought a mixed regime impossible. The many varieties of these two regimes rule according to something common; both general types rule so as to establish and convey a certain way of life.

In our case, democracy rules for a democratic way of life; it does not tolerate inequality unless it is disguised or democratized. Aristotle's analysis of rule (archein in Greek) shows that democracy serves as the beginning of a regime in which the common good is its continuing principle, whether according to a common benefit in equality or a benefit in common of shared inequality, or both somehow harmonized.


This has been a brief analysis of rule. And liberalism begins from hostility to a certain form of rule: namely, the rule of the Church. Hostility to that form led liberalism to oppose all rule. Its objection is not only that the Church is corrupt and might be reformed by Protestantism; it is that the doctrine of Christianity established in the Church is in effect both too weak to succeed in its rule and tyrannical in the attempt.

Liberalism in its generic sense (which encompasses both the liberalism and conservatism of today) began from its search for an abiding solution to the 16th- and 17th-century religious wars over which sort of Christian faith should rule. The only such solution was to prevent rule by any faith, and in doing so, to deny the necessity of rule that Aristotle had laid down. That beginning — itself a kind of rule — determined the basic structure that liberalism today continues to maintain.

Liberalism wanted and wants, above all, to avoid the rule of a common good that it regards, with much truth, as an imposition. In lieu of imposed duties whose source is a regime of rule, liberalism takes its foundation from individual and inalienable rights designed to prevent rule by any group, particularly any church.

How does liberalism's determined rejection of rule relate to Aristotle's two common goods? Clearly the imposition of religion comes from the second definition — that of the benefit in common — which implies a soul whose cultivation (especially for the sake of salvation) requires imposing education and opinion favorable to that asserted benefit in common. Liberalism's response is to replace the soul, and its perfection beyond or above the body, with the self, which is mainly concerned with preservation and security of the body. Liberalism does not abandon the common good, but it chooses Aristotle's first definition of the benefit common to all bodies. Though Christianity did declare the equality of all souls — an important democratic influence — in practice, priests were treated by the Church (and not only the Catholic Church) as "holier than thou," and thus qualified to rule.

The individual rights of liberalism come to men "by their Creator," to be sure, but through the state of nature, and they yield a fundamental right to consent that protects all other rights from infringement by rulers. Consent is liberalism's endowment to the self, a shallow version of the soul taken from the body. It is a gift of freedom from rule, yet it must necessarily be exercised to institute a government, lest unlimited freedom produce a "War of every man against every man," in the memorable phrase of a liberal founder. The purpose of such a government is a limited one: "to secure these rights." While government secures rights, individuals exercise them; government does not impose a way of life on its citizens, but rather enables them to choose how to live. The public sphere of government thus serves the private sphere of civil society. Common protection is required or expected from government, but no "benefit in common" is defined — the phrase "pursuit of Happiness" leaves the end of life unspecified.

Liberalism offers an escape from the oppression of having a way of life imposed by rule and replaces it with a government that allows and protects society's choices regarding how to live — a government that represents rather than rules. Representative government is not without a common good; it has one, but it is limited to what furthers the first common good — that arising from human bodies. Locke gave the gist of it in his Letter Concerning Toleration, saying that the "magistrate" (government) cares for bodies but not for souls. This is the fundamental principle of liberalism.

This brief statement of the elements of liberalism is made without regard to nuances, disagreements, or controversy. To some extent, it covers over the basic choice made when liberalism began, which has continued through its many versions and is still powerful now. The fundamental structure reveals an empty center, called "civil society," lacking an official definition of happiness such as that which would be imposed by rule.

This notion is reflected in the distinction assumed in the American Constitution between ordinary law and constitutional law. Constitutional law secures rights for all; ordinary law expresses the choices of civil society within the purview of the Constitution. The Constitution "constitutes" the government that does not rule, and is composed of "powers" that are procedural or formal without regard to content. Liberalism stands or falls with the maintenance of its formality as a whole and the various formalities, such as elections and free speech, that articulate that whole. Without them, it becomes a kind of rule toward a certain end imposing a certain definition of the common good.


The empty center does not last, however. Nature abhors a vacuum, and human nature fills it. The human desire to rule cannot be denied through the formality of liberalism; it can only be contained.

Liberalism gives substance to its empty center, and thus gives effect to the desire to rule, in two ways: through the consequences of choice within that center, and through the transformation of that center into what is called the "private sphere."

As to the first way, having a right gives one a choice as to how to exercise it, whether as an individual or via the government. When one makes a choice, that choice limits further choices — choice is limited by what is chosen. People recognize this when they choose to "keep their options open," trying to choose without being limited by the choice. Yet this, too, is a choice with consequences, since one has passed up the opportunity to choose an option that may not reappear. A choice contributes to or establishes a status quo that has to be taken into account by later choices, when one has to ask whether to keep or change the previous choice.

Political scientists call this "path dependence," while lawyers speak of stare decisis — a legal doctrine that represents an instance of this general truth. One cannot return to a zero base where choices can be made without reference to previous choices. Once liberalism has been established, the empty center disappears, as it is filled with the free exercise of choices made and paths taken. Freedom is thus obliged to deal with its history — in the case of America, for example, its history of slavery.

Choices define and therefore affect or even foreclose further choice. What starts as a formality in a liberal constitution becomes, through the progressive exercise of choice, a substantive limitation on choice. In constitutional law, for instance, we have seen that "due process," the protection of rights by just formalities, can be transformed into "substantive due process," a contradiction in terms. As time passes, substance accumulates and choice narrows.

At the end of progress under a liberal constitution lies a condition in which no further advance is possible and no one can make a better choice. Freedom will be easy, and human life will be untroubled by controversy. We will have chosen choice until it disappears.

The second way of dealing with the problem of an empty center is to transform it into the "private sphere." Here, within the family and the economy, choices are made with a view to law but are not determined by law. Here, too, political choices meant to issue in laws are made by our political parties; partisanship thus rears its head. Whereas choice under the first way ends in the overcoming of partisanship, the second way nourishes parties by maintaining the realm of civil society.

Partisanship in regard to the common good is flatly opposed by progressives and deprecated or ignored by the new common-good conservatism — but not by liberalism. Locke, the supreme philosopher and father of liberalism, had partisanship well in mind. He is renowned for two arguments: one for toleration, which means free speech, and the other for private property. The first argument appeals to intellectuals, today's "liberals," and the second to businessmen, today's "conservatives." Locke attempted to unite these two partisan tendencies of liberalism by showing that they depend on one another: Toleration aids the economy by generating religious indifference that turns zealots into ambitious seekers of gain, while increasing prosperity rewards the "Industrious and Rational" and endows the universities where scientists and scholars could flourish and win fame.

Later, with the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his many diverse followers, intellectuals and businessmen became divided and turned against one another. Rousseau reduced liberalism to reliance on the lives and opinions of the bourgeoisie, and forced it to defend a crass version of itself as always chasing money and fame  — a characterization it would rather have reproved.

In the history of liberalism after Locke, two weaknesses emerged that became obvious with the rise of the left and the right during the 19th century: The liberal principle of self-preservation providing the motive and content for rights is both too selfish and too ignoble. On the left, its selfishness is attacked for lacking what is common, or "community," most comprehensively by the movement of communism led by Karl Marx. On the right, its selfishness is rejected as lacking in human nobility and ambition, most comprehensively by fascist and Nazi movements drawing encouragement from Friedrich Nietzsche.

These two weaknesses constitute two parties that seem likely to continue, if not actively, at least in principle and potentiality. Both stand outside of liberalism as enemies and within it as partisan tendencies. The liberalism found sensible, even inevitable, at the end of history will always remain open to doubt and challenge by virtue of its deliberate neglect of sacrifice and devotion — the qualities that make humans dissatisfied with the modesty and comfort of self-preservation.


Liberalism starts from a denial of the common good that leaves it with an empty center, but the common good, with its partisanship, returns in the parties, both left and right, that occupy that center. These parties contend over what the common good is, and they restore some part of Aristotle's notion of rule. Even under liberalism, with its individualized "state of Nature" and its constitutional dislike of ruling, "man is by nature a political animal," as Aristotle said.

Today, people like to say they don't want to impose their views on others. But in fact, they do this when they vote. The abortion controversy illustrates the point. Both sides claim rights, which means (as seen above) that they share an adherence to the generic liberalism of rights that is hostile to rule. Yet each wants a society ruled by its own principle while excluding the other. Liberals want a society where a woman can control her own body; conservatives want one in which an unborn human child cannot be killed for the sake of the mother's convenience.

At their extremes, the two parties depart from liberalism — the progressives by foreclosing choice, the conservatives by taking the common good as their monopoly. But in their ordinary operation, they practice ruling even if they would deny rule as a principle. The difference between "ordinary" and "extreme" depends on a willingness to accept defeat in an election, signifying a fundamental allegiance to generic liberalism rather than to Aristotle.

Aristotle requires that rulers be ruled in turn, but the notion of rule cannot be suppressed. A virtue of liberalism is that it permits open display of partisanship at the expense of an open display of disharmony. This partisanship sometimes inhibits action and often exacerbates divisions; liberalism had to learn that open controversy in publicly organized parties could be tolerated, and even made a virtue. For the philosophical argument that party can be respectable, liberalism has Edmund Burke to thank, and for its practice, 19th-century statesmen in free countries. Thus liberalism improved its principle of hostility to rule by giving leeway to the partisan desire to rule.

Today, all generic liberals have to be partisans of the plural-party system, even though their chosen party may lose. They cannot vote for the system, because the system is based on choosing one's favorite party. Harvard never wants Yale to win, yet the rivalry would be lost if Yale never won. Love for one's favorite in a rivalry depends on the vitality of the rival in the rivalry — which can be appreciated grudgingly but cannot be cheered for. In a healthy party system, neither party wins permanently, and neither deserves to do so. To see why, we can return to the two common goods Aristotle sets down for us.

In the United States, with its two-party system, each party stands for one of Aristotle's definitions. Democrats, broadly speaking, stand for inclusiveness. They want to include everybody in a whole of equal individuals that resembles Aristotle's first definition of the common benefit. Their focus on inclusiveness turns their attention mainly to those who are excluded from the whole, either by design or neglect. These are the vulnerable. Democrats care for them with the appropriate virtue of compassion (sometimes called "empathy"), which they praise and claim for themselves.

Republicans, for their part, tend to want a whole of variegated individuals in which some are deemed more valuable because they contribute more than others — Aristotle's second definition of the benefit in common. They prefer looking up in admiration to looking down in compassion.

The virtue Republicans admire has to be accommodated to the opinions of a democratic republic in a democratic age. They themselves feel vulnerable not because they are excluded, but because they are open to attack as rich and privileged, or at least as defenders of the virtues of wealth and privilege. They think of themselves as makers rather than takers (to use the private formula of Mitt Romney in 2012), but they present themselves as ordinary folk who earn their living rather than living off the taxpayers.

In a prosperous democracy, it may be possible for such a party to win a majority. Donald Trump did not quite garner a majority of American votes, but he was able to appeal to many voters by arousing their dislike or hatred — the harsher, contemptuous aspect of virtue that often distorts or eclipses it.

As long as society remains free under liberalism, neither party secures a permanent victory. And neither deserves to win permanently. The two ways of understanding human nature — as a whole of equal individuals and as a whole of better and worse — are both correct, and are each opposed to the other. Yet they must be combined somehow in every society. Liberalism is not the only way to accomplish this feat, but it is the best way available. It requires that each party make way for the other when it loses an election, and that each resist the attempt to annihilate the other when it wins.


This points, finally, toward two observations regarding the hyper-partisanship of the present.

The first is directed to radical progressives. Liberalism thrives when it respects and nourishes the distinctions and formal differences of community life, as opposed to attempting to flatten and overcome them by politicizing every activity. "Politicization" is hyper-partisan; partisanship needs to be kept within bounds so that the temptation to rule is restrained. Businesses and universities should not adopt or display partisan slogans and attitudes, much less require them of their customers or students. Honesty as a customer and learning as a student require one to resist being defined politically or urged to "wake up" and become partisan. An American should be able to find a neighborhood or a spouse without insisting on partisan correctness.

The second is directed to the common-good conservatives: They should not exaggerate their plight. It seems now that both parties, and especially conservatives, forget where they are winning and think mainly of where they are losing. As Yuval Levin has said, conservatives care more for culture, where they think they are losing, while liberals care more for the economic issues, where they think they are losing. Both parties forget their indebtedness to our tried and true liberalism, which gives them partial victories dimmed by partial defeats.

Both strive to put an end to the zest of politics and to the prudent halfway blessing of liberalism that keeps us free. And both do so out of a commitment to the common good that forgets half its subject, and so understates the challenge that our politics confronts.

Harvey C. Mansfield is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Government at Harvard University.


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