Liberal Virtue and the Common Good

Here's Darrin McMahon in the WSJ, in a piece subtitled, “'The pursuit of happiness' is about more than private pleasures”:

For in Christian, classical or Lockean terms, virtue at its highest meant serving one's fellow citizens, working for the public welfare, furthering the public good. It followed that virtue was the indispensable means to reconcile the conflicts of individual interest.

The last sentence is correct. But the reconciliation of conflict in Lockean-American terms doesn’t entail service of fellow citizens, working for the public good, etc. Virtue in Locke, Hume, Smith, etc., etc., is for the most part about the restraint of self interest to enable social cooperation. But it is self interest, operating within the bounds of virtue, that brings the blessings of society. This is the central liberal insight.

Order need not be teleological, based in the shared pursuit of a common goal. Nor need it be authoritarian, imposed from above by force. Order requires the coordination of individual's acting for diverse ends, and virtue is of first importance because it enables coordination at the lowest cost, ensuring the greatest mutual benefit. Conscience does not eat into the surplus of cooperation. Cops do.

To think that civil peace or social order requires concerted efforts aimed at its maintenance is to totally misunderstand the idea of liberal order and the idea of liberal virtue. Virtue makes us happy because it enables the largest cooperative surplus and therefore allows us each to do better in self-interested terms. McMahon seems to think virtue makes us happy because our souls glow or something when we pitch in for the public welfare. But that’s not the liberal or the ur-American view.

The common good does require that some of us devote our energies to the maintanence of public institutions, of civil society and government. But the decision to work within public institutions is a personal decision about the kind of life one wants to lead, and is not especially meritorious or virtuous. There is no praise we owe to the bureaucrat that we do not owe to the cosmetologist. The wisdom of market liberalism is that it recognizes that the virtues of market exchange do serve one's fellow citizens, the public welfare, and the common good, even when it is not aimed at these things.

Happy Independence Day!