The Essential Question - Common Good vs. Individual Liberty

In Partisanship vs. Tribalism, we explored the devolution in our politics that has torn our 2 political parties so far apart that they can’t reach any sensible compromises.  On almost any issue, Republicans and Democrats immediately gird for battle.  They take up extremely conservative or progressive positions.  Worse, they misrepresent the other’s position as being even more extreme than it really is.  And their non-mainstream media outlets act like giant amplifiers.  Is it any wonder that nothing gets done?

The vast majority of Americans are sick of this.  It’s not that hard to sit down with someone with a different opinion and reach a reasonable compromise.  In fact, it’s deceptively easy if we realize that most issues revolve around the same Essential Question.   Let’s see how this works.

Ripped from the headlines

  • Should we have a public option for medical insurance?
  • Should we allow civilians to own semi-automatic rifles?
  • Should the government establish policies that address climate change?
  • Should big banks be allowed to trade in derivatives?
  • How much income tax should Warren Buffet pay?

What do all these questions have in common?  At first glance, very little.  Each asks a question about a very distinct government policy.  All these questions are hard to answer.  Yet each revolves around the same essential question about our country.

Here’s a clue about that essential question:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Curiously enough, this preamble is the only part of our Constitution that says anything about the purpose of our government.  Virtually everything else in the Constitution is about form and structure:  separation of powers, elections, rights, and so forth.   

The preamble says that we united to form a government that would provide for a common good:  Justice, Tranquility, Welfare, and the Blessings of Liberty. 

But the preamble also contains an inherent conflict:  the blessings of liberty, i.e. individual freedoms, sometimes have to be sacrificed to provide for other parts of the common good.   Why?  Let’s look at those questions again and see how people with different points of view might answer them.

Conservatives might say
Progressives might say
The conflict
Public option for medical insurance
Insurance companies are in the business of providing this.  Everyone is free to get their insurance through their job or buy on the open market.
Public option would allow the less fortunate to get healthcare.  We spend too much of our GDP on health care.  A healthy society helps everyone be productive.
Right of companies to pursue business and freedom of choice vs. welfare of people
Semi-automatic rifles
The 2nd Amendment provides an absolute right to own guns.  We must protect ourselves from government tyranny.
Semi-automatic guns do not belong in civilian hands as they create an extreme public safety hazard.
Freedom to own guns vs. public safety and tranquility
Climate change
Government has no role in regulating climate change.  People should be free to run their businesses and their lives as they see fit.
Climate change is affecting our very existence on earth.  Government regulation is necessary to prevent environmental disaster.
Freedom of choice in living and business vs. general welfare
Banks trading derivatives
Banks should be free to make money any way they can.  Derivatives are legitimate investments that don’t hurt anyone else if they lose money.
Risky trading by big banks eventually causes financial crises and recessions that affect everyone in the economy.  They should be prevented from doing this.
Freedom to pursue business vs. general welfare
Warren Buffet’s taxes
Wealthy people have worked hard to earn their money and should be allowed to keep as much of it as they can.
Wealth inequality is eroding the fabric of our economy.  Middle class jobs paying a living wage have disappeared.  Economic gains should be more widely distributed. The wealthy should pay more to support a strong social safety net.
Freedom to accumulate wealth vs. general welfare (good paying jobs and social needs)

The Essential Question

These examples illustrate that at the heart of such issues lies a conflict between an individual freedom and the common good.  So the Essential Question, which we have to answer every time, is:  Where do we draw the line between individual liberties and the common good?

If only it were that easy.  The answer to the question will be slightly different depending on the issue and who stands to gain or lose from the answer.  Sometimes it’s business vs. citizens.  Sometimes it’s one group of citizens vs. another.  Still, if we can reframe the Essential Question for the particular circumstance, it’s a way to get to an answer. 

And if it were just a handful of people in a room, we could work things out.  Instead, we have 535 members of Congress representing 325 million Americans.  We have thousands of lobbyists spending billions of dollars to influence (purchase?) that Congress.  And we have dozens of political activist groups advocating on any given issue.

Now Our Imperfect Union doesn’t have a magic formula for getting to answers.  We are not trying to resolve all these conflicts.  But we are trying to understand how our government, on our behalf, is supposed to resolve them.  And we are advocates for fixing the broken parts of government that is preventing progress. 

How is government supposed to work? 

At the Federal level, the rest of the Constitution defines the government.  All the articles and amendments explain how the system is supposed to work.  In simple terms, we citizens vote for a Congress that establishes laws.  We elect a President and Vice President who are to carry out those laws.  And those branches appoint judges who keep everyone else honest.  They are all supposed to define the common good and decide where to draw the line on individual liberties.

But there’s another complication.  The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution says that the power of the Federal government is limited, and that all other powers and rights are reserved to the states that make up the union or the citizens themselves. So now we have a second inherent conflict in the Constitution:  when do the powers of the states override those of the Federal government?  When do the states have the liberty to act without considering the common good of the republic?  Finally, how do states resolve the conflict between individual liberties and the common good established by each state’s constitution?

Why isn’t it working?

We’re glad you subscribed to Our Imperfect Union to find out!  There are many reasons. 

It starts with differing political philosophies.  Conservatives and progressives start with a different understanding on the basic role of government.  When they advocate on an issue, they sometimes have a hard time moving towards the center.  The poor moderates, who think they have good answers, are caught in the middle.  When government works, compromise is forged from a healthy debate. 

But in Partisanship vs. Tribalism, we concluded that the tribalists on both sides are exploiting weaknesses in the rules, or outright ignoring them, to get their way.

Our Imperfect Union’s raison d’etre is to understand all the weaknesses in the rules that prevent government from working and fix them.  We are tired of electing different people and expecting better results.  Our agenda for change on our About this blog page is our roadmap. 

So what can I do now? 

Think about the Essential Question.  As you think about any policy issue, see if you can reframe it as the trade-off between individual liberty and the common good.  Use this perspective as you talk, post, and write.

And try to see both sides of the question.  Don’t think your point of view is always right.  Common good and individual liberties are both important. 

What do you think?  Is this the Essential Question?  Does the common good always have to prevail, or do individual liberties sometimes win?  Can you share examples for us to consider?  Your comments are welcome, as long as they are...essential.

Upcoming posts
  • Fifty years ago - When government worked
  • How is our government is supposed to work?
  • Democracy or Republic – which are we?
  • What's the matter with Congress?


  1. I enjoyed this post! I've been thinking a lot recently about family leave: a company's rights to offer benefits to their employees vs. the common good of supporting new parents, which leads to overall longevity and well-being.

    1. Thank you Michelle. That's a great example of a common good that we don't hear much about, yet strong families are the backbone of a good society.


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