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Why We Need a Stronger Focus On the Common Good


Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2001

Americans are fond of liberty, particularly the liberty of the individual. We have numerous words to describe it: liberty, freedom, autonomy, privacy, and rights, among others. Until very recently, however, we have not placed as much emphasis on the common good or the public welfare. If the horrific events of September 11 are any indication, this may — and arguably must — change.

Community and the Constitution

Our relative lack of focus on the common good is actually quite surprising, given that the preamble to our national Constitution is mostly communitarian, rather than individualistic, in orientation.

In the words of the preamble, the Constitution was created "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity . . . ." The phrase "domestic Tranquility" refers to a collective, domestic peacefulness — a notion that in recent days has taken on a sad but deep resonance. References to the Union, the "common defense," and the "general Welfare" are clearly oriented to the community, not the individual, as well.

Even the last of the Preamble's objectives is not wholly individualistic or rights-focused. The very phrasing, "Blessings of Liberty," suggests that liberty is not an end in itself, but instead is the necessary means for achieving a greater or higher good. And perhaps the most self-focused term in the Preamble — "ourselves" — does not stand alone; it is followed by "our Posterity," those future generations yet to come.

A Renewed Appreciation for the Common Good

The recent terrorist attacks were, fundamentally, an assault not on individuals or on the liberty of individuals, but on the security and welfare of the people as a whole. If there can somehow be a positive result of these horrific attacks, perhaps it can be a newfound appreciation for the communitarian words and ideas contained in our Constitution's preamble.

From the ashes of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon may emerge a renewed and genuine understanding of the common good, and of the necessary subordination of the self on its behalf. No longer would the common good be viewed as some abstract or archaic proposition, but as a real and necessary dimension of a truly free society.

Earlier generations implicitly grasped the reality of the importance of the common good to freedom, because to them, whether by war or other deprivation, it was concrete and perceptible. Sacrifice and duty were norms, not extremes. The current generation may now, by regrettable tragedy, likewise be able to grasp this reality and its implications for their lives.

Transcending Individualism

If we can appreciate anew the common good, we will also appreciate the need to transcend the excessive individualism and rights-demanding that have so defined the political and legal landscape over the last several decades.

Let us not think that individualism does not have social consequences. In

recent years, we have not tolerated more intensive security and law enforcement efforts, at airports and elsewhere, precisely because they either disturbed our sense of individual privacy or interfered with our individual pursuits — including that of speedy, low-cost travel.

This will have to change. We will have to understand that, for the common good, we as individuals will not be able to do everything that we want to do, whenever and wherever we like, under conditions that only we can dictate. Instead, we will have to think of the good of the community, and indeed of the nation, as a whole.

Changing Our Litigious Culture

A related implication will be the need to allow the government to do its job, and even to make some mistakes, without the hyperscrutiny and lawsuits that have become so much a part of our legalistic culture.

In the coming months, it is true, various government agencies will likely have to explain how the events of September 11 could possibly have occurred. Such investigation is entirely appropriate, and no one is questioning its necessity. However, one answer that we will not want to hear — but that we must — is that our own legal environment, and thus to some extent our own attitudes, may have impeded more effective efforts to prevent such events.

Suppose that, months or even years before the terrorist acts took place, the government had begun to pursue a more aggressive effort to prevent terrorism, by more frequently detaining suspicious persons at airports and more systematically searching passengers and their luggage. It is easy to imagine the results.

Among other things, the government would have been swiftly hit with a barrage of lawsuits alleging multiple constitutional violations. Passengers would have been incessantly filing complaints. And the media would have been asking viewers to tune in at 10 o'clock for a special report on how their privacy and autonomy were at risk.

No American wants to live in a police state. But, by the same token, there are natural limits to individual liberty that we and our courts must be willing to observe, and there is a real and perceptible common good on which we must ultimately base our choices and expectations as citizens.

Many have suggested that September 11 will be a defining moment for the current generation. Let us hope that it is also a redefining moment — that we will acquire a renewed sense of genuine community and of the common good, and, as we enter a new century, that we will leave our untempered individualism in the last.

Scott C. Idleman is an Associate Professor at the Marquette University Law School, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His e-mail address is

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