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The Myth of the Common Good

If you don't think the government should force you to floss, you must be selfish!

by James Leroy Wilson
July 27, 2010

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The Myth of the Common Good

I recently heard of the "paleolithic diet" which is based on the theory that the human body has not evolved to fully accept the products of agriculture. Because the human animal is not "naturally" born to consume grains and animal milk, these are sources of disease and it is best that we keep these foods to a minimum. Meat, supplemented by other foods like nuts and berries, will keep us healthy. The human may be an omnivore when he has to be, but is primarily a carnivore.

This sounds plausible.

Other diets condemn meats altogether and endorse not only vegetarianism, but veganism and raw foods. This also seems to make sense.

Low-carb diets sound plausible, too, as do the "common sense" nutritional recommendations from mainstream sources such as the government. The mainstream view calls for a balanced diet from a variety of food groups, along with regular exercise. Then again, I recall a story from almost a decade ago saying that, according to the government's standards, 80% of the players of the NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers were obese, so government sources may not always be trusted.

So what is the "correct" diet?

And who's to decide what you should or shouldn't eat?

I raise this question because Michael Tomasky raises it.

Tomasky defends - in theory - a proposal that was intended to be a reductio ad absurdum point about government control of our lives: does the federal government have the power under the Commerce Clause to force individuals to eat three vegetable servings a day? Tomasky doesn't explicitly endorse such a law, but does say that Americans would be better off if they did and that this is one of those "liberty vs. the common good" arguments.

According to Tomasky, it's actually a nice idea but those dumb selfish conservative Republicans, in the pocket of the fast food industry, would smear the proposal as "fascism." In his "liberal" worldview, the government does have the right to control your basic decisions. This is why the feds force people to purchase health insurance. They could go even so far as to force you to eat your peas. Should surveillance cameras be installed in bathrooms to make sure everyone flosses at night? If you disagree, you're against the common good!

Tomasky, like Elena Kagan, dodged the Constitutional question.

But even leaving the ethical and Constitutional dimensions of the question aside, government intervention in your personal diet choices is as stupid as government control of drugs. The question in the Drug War isn't whether people would be better off if they didn't use drugs. The real question is whether government can practically prevent them from using drugs without creating more problems. Likewise, the question regarding nutrition isn't whether people would be better off eating more vegetables, but rather whether it is wise for the government to force them to eat vegetables. Like the Drug War, the only way to enforce the government's nutritional laws is through totalitarian means. Is the "common good" a police state?

Such policies also harm the innocent. What if the paleolithic diet is best for most people? Maybe three vegetables a day is too much. We've seen this in the War on Drugs as well. In certain situations, heroin, Ecstasy, marijuana, and LSD can work miracles as pain relief and/or to treat psychological problems. Their prohibition forces the drugs onto the black market where those who need them most will either never get them or be at risk of getting dangerous, tainted doses.

The problem with Tomasky's position is at the root: there is no "common good." There is no value that can be objectively discerned and universally applicable to everyone.

Another way to say it is that there are no universal objective human "needs." David D. Friedman writes in The Machinery of Freedom (because this edition is available free online, I feel free to quote it at length):

"The consequence for my life expectancy of being deprived of food, water, or air may be a matter of biological fact. The value to me of living is not. Staying alive is, for most of us, highly desirable, but it is not infinitely desirable. If it were, we would be willing to sacrifice all other values to it. Every time you smoke a cigarette, every time I drive a little too fast, we are knowingly offering life—a little bit of life, a very small chance of dying now or a large chance of not living quite as long—for a rather minor pleasure.

The person who says, as almost everyone does say, that human life is of infinite value, not to be measured in mere material terms, is talking palpable, if popular, nonsense. If he believed that of his own life, he would never cross the street, save to visit his doctor or to earn money for things necessary to physical survival. He would eat the cheapest, most nutritious food he could find and live in one small room, saving his income for frequent visits to the best possible doctors. He would take no risks, consume no luxuries, and live a long life. If you call it living. If a man really believed that other people's lives were infinitely valuable, he would live like an ascetic, earn as much money as possible, and spend everything not absolutely necessary for survival on CARE packets, research into presently incurable diseases, and similar charities.

In fact, people who talk about the infinite value of human life do not live in either of these ways. They consume far more than they need to support life. They may well have cigarettes in their drawer and a sports car in the garage. They recognize in their actions, if not in their words, that physical survival is only one value, albeit a very important one, among many."

Not even the preservation of life and health is a "common good." And if even the preservation of life isn't, then what is?

The fact is, nobody knows what is best for other people. Some people may be healthiest if they went vegan; some others if the went paleolithic. Some may get well using unpatented, illegal substances; others may get well using FDA-approved drugs.

It is also true that many people don't know what is good for themselves, but that is the purpose of a free society: to let them find out for themselves.

Drug warriors, health care monopolists, and "eat your peas" liberals know, deep down, that there is no "common good" that can be achieved by creating more laws and programs and siccing the police after those who don't conform. Those who claim the "common good" as an excuse to infringe on individual liberty actually believe that society would be better off if everyone was a serf.

In the long run the particular issues - drugs, nutrition, healthcare, the environment, etc. - are irrelevant. The agenda is not about the "common good," it is about more government power and placing oneself in a position of power and influence by toeing the politically-correct, totalitarian line.

Comments (2)

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Cmdr Zm from http://wallpaperandlife.blogspot.com/ writes:
July 28, 2010
There is no universal good practice to force on people for certainly there is is no compulsory good. 'Sides that, everyone is different. 'One man's meat is another man's poison'.

Common good is the notion that there is a state of (i)society(/i) where each person has the maximized chance of freedom from compulsion. Common good is precisely anathema to state ordered compulsion.

Grown-Up from Eastern US writes:
July 29, 2010
I really disliked it when my parents made me eat my peas. If the government tries to enforce this, I will become a conscientious objector.

Good, wild article.

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