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Searching for the Common Good

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael R. Ford
February 18, 2022

Last week I held the first meeting of my Master of Public Administration (MPA) capstone course, and per usual, students were highly engaged. One of the perks of teaching so many people already serving in government is having a de facto focus group excited to chat about the big governance issues facing state and local government. After three hours of discussion, it was clear to me that the meaning, and pursuit, of the common good is on many people’s minds.

The common good is a bit of a loaded idea. Like so many concepts in Public Administration (PA), one’s perception of the common good is dependent on context and personal preference. That is why the idea of the common good is, in my opinion, aspirational in a society as ideologically diverse as ours. While we may not all agree on the appropriate size and scope of our government, I like to think we can call agree on the need to live within, and respect, the democratic structure by which we determine the size and scope of government.  

But, I am growing increasingly concerned that far too many are dismissing the value of pursuing a common good. Just a few months ago, Twitter was abuzz with the idea of a national divorce. The concept was coined by a few of our country’s least serious elected officials, so my first instinct was to brush it off as political theatre. However, public opinion polling shows that a shocking number of Americans are open to the idea of formally separating blue and red states. What to make of this? My visceral reaction is to be disgusted. As a resident of a very purple state, I wonder what exactly proponents of the national divorce idea intend to happen to places like Wisconsin? Are we so entrenched in our ideological camps that we cannot fathom ever voting for a different party?

I want to understand why sectarian strife occurs, and more importantly, how it can be avoided. The student of history in me is spending more time than I care to admit reading about conflicts in Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia and Lebanon. These reading sessions fail to cheer me up. So I turn to political philosophy. Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract that “the social order is a sacred right which serves as a basis for all other rights.” A complicated premise, but one that sets up Rousseau’s focus on covenants, is this idea that we all give something to the collective in order to preserve our personal liberty. To put it another way, we compromise, giving up some freedom and treasure to enjoy the fruits of a governed society.

The reality is that many do not believe they benefit from the social contract in its current form. I could offer a strong rebuttal to those who doubt the benefit of living in the modern-day United States, but perception often matters more than the truth. For example, in a recent local school board debate, candidates were discussing Critical Race Theory (CRT). One candidate said they would ban CRT if elected. When another candidate pointed out that the school district does not use CRT, the other candidate simply said they do not believe the school district. The exchange was illuminating. The issue is trust.

Agreeing on the specifics of the common good is far less important than trusting that our elected officials, and our administrative state, are pursuing the common good. Going back to my capstone students. My students work and lead in communities that are red, blue and everything in between. They work for the goals of effectiveness, efficiency and equity on behalf of all residents. To paraphrase a neighbor, there is not a liberal or conservative approach to plowing our street—it gets done well, or it does not.

I take comfort in my students’ embrace of effectiveness, efficiency and equity. In a time where political discourse is dominated by partisan talking points and outright trolling, it is up to the administrative state to build trust by demonstrating competence. We must reject the premise that we cannot all live together, because that premise is anathema to the very core of public administration. So while I will concede­—I did not fulfill the promise of my title…I did not find the common good—I feel confident our field is the best place to look.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference, and as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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