The Common Good: Theoretical Content, Practical Utility

Despite skepticism about the common good, the idea has both theoretical content and practical utility. It rests on important features of human life, such as inherently social goods, social linkages, and joint occupation of various commons. It reflects the outcome for bargaining for mutual advantage, subject to a fairness test. And it is particularized through a community’s adherence to certain goods as objects of joint endeavor. In the context of the United States, these goods are set forth in the Preamble to the Constitution—in general language, subject to political contestation, for a people who have agreed to live together in a united political community. While the Preamble states the ends of the union, the body of the Constitution establishes the institutional means for achieving them. So these institutions are part of the common good as well. These are the enduring commonalities—the elements of a shared good—that ceaseless democratic conflict often obscures but that reemerge in times of crisis and civic ritual.

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Editor’s Note: The above is from the Spring 2013 issue of


 (a journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences) co-edited by William A. Galston (Brookings) and Norman J. Ornstein (American Enterprise Institute), which contains essays on the topic of “American Democracy and the Common Good” by Galston, Brookings’ Thomas Mann, and a number of other noted scholars.  The essays range from theoretical and historical inquiries to examinations of specific institutions in the public and private sectors and in civil society.