Is the Doctrine of Common Interest Dead?

The concepts of general welfare and collective action are core elements in the Constitution of the United States, which I collectively refer to here as common interest.  Although common interest has been with us since the birth of our nation, and has been a fundamental component of social order since the days of hunter-gatherers, it appears to be in peril today.  The phrase itself draws ire from all political corners: some deride the invocation of common interest as a dangerous slide toward socialism, while others argue it marks the deceitful rhetoric of plutocrats who wish to extract wealth from the middle class.  Yet, our history suggests when our common interest is served—when we work together toward mutually beneficial ends—America is at its best; we are all better off.  President Kennedy’s ambitious objective of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth” launched one of the most successful programs of political initiative and private enterprise in the history of the United States.[1]  Among other gains, the miniaturization of computing power necessary to accomplish this feat is why we have laptop computers today.  There are many other examples of the benefits of common interest, but the point is this: the security and prosperity of America has never been won by the few, it has been assured by the many with the support of both private and public entities.  So why is common interest being attacked from all sides?  What follows here are some possible contributing factors.

  1. The Ascent of Me-ism.  While doing my doctoral research on the rise of religion in the political sphere by the mid-1970s I came across a monograph on the 1960s by Mark Hamilton Lytle wherein he argued (much to this baby boomer’s chagrin) that “many people in the sixties passed off self-indulgence and arrogance as moral and political commitment.”  In other words, while we traveled in the clothing of righteous liberation, we were actually just enjoying the hell out of ourselves.  Lytle continues, “by listening to Dylan, smoking dope, marching for civil rights, wearing long hair, and protesting the war in Vietnam, anyone could claim to have joined, though what they belonged to was far from clear.”[2]  More recently, Kurt Andersen at The New York Times joined Lytle in boomer bashing when he suggested that the late 1960s marked the beginning of individualism run amok.  Andersen argues, “‘do your own thing’ is not so different than ‘every man for himself.’”[3]  He further finds that the “Me” decade of the 1960s expanded to encompass the entire last half of the century giving rise to a super-selfish culture that has lost its capacity for considering the interests of others.  Recently, this selfish hyper-individualism has been cloaked in a veil of self-deterministic rhetoric most often conveyed by those who identify with the Tea Party.  These are the folks who live in the fantasy of self-sufficiency, while often disproportionately relying on government support programs like Medicare, agricultural subsidies, mortgage interest deductions, federal mortgage guarantees, and Social Security.  They suffer from what philosopher Firmin DeBrabander calls the “delusional autonomy of Freud’s poor ego.”[4]  For Tea Partiers (unless they are the beneficiaries) all government programs are evidence of toxic socialism.  The questions are, how has this selfish impulse been generalized in American society, and how is it sustained?  Part of the answer lies in three largely exogenous variables: affluence, technology, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
  2. Affluence, Technology, and Hubris.  Three structural events have occurred since the 1960s to fuel our selfishness and contempt for common interest: we’re rich, we suffer the illusion of ‘connection’ with others, and a force equal to ours no longer threatens us.  Let’s start with affluence.  Don’t get me wrong, I love wealth, but it can produce nefarious effects.  Since Saigon fell and we retreated “with honor” as President Nixon often claimed, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has increased sixteenfold.  By most any measure there is no wealthier nation than the United States, and money (and the debt capacity it supports) has been a significant sustaining force of our selfishness.  If we wanted something, we were a swipe of a credit card, or another issuance of US Treasury bills away from getting it.  Even though the US is fast approaching technical insolvency, the rules of financial prudence do not apply to us since the dollar is (for now) the world’s reserve currency of choice.  Next up: technology.  Again, I love it, but I also recognize it has produced its own deleterious effects.  Humans need to be connected to form a sense of empathy, which is the foundation of many things including our subscriptions to human rights and common interest.  Technology has tricked us into thinking we are connected and that we are bonded by common interest.  We are not. We suffer the illusion of connection and common interest.  Just because someone ‘friended’ you or ‘follows’ you does not mean they know you, or care about you. Just try reaching out to your so-called friends and followers when you are in need.  Absent an established sense of empathy, those cheerful beeps, ringtones, and vibrations that signal friendship quickly fade to silence.  Finally, there has been no other state since the collapse of the Soviet Union to keep the US from imperial overreach; the natural boundaries of power collapsed as well. The result: we, like empires before us, risk decline at our own hand.  Hubris is deadly to both people and states and we Americans have been quite full of ourselves in the last twenty years, as we have sought to remake the world in our own (selfish) image.  Other contributors to the threat to common interest include what I describe here next as the twin delusions.
  3. The Twin Delusions: Free Markets and Big Government.  Both sides of the great political debate of this presidential season—those who hold fast to their belief in free markets and those who believe with equal certitude that more government is better government—are wrong.  Neither thesis alone has any chance of solving the problems we face, yet to even suggest a middle ground that includes elements of both ideological extremes is met with hatred and hostility.  The Affordable Healthcare Act (aka Obamacare) has been one lightening rod of these twin delusions. Healthcare is not a right, nor is it a privilege (as it is most often debated by adversaries); rather, it is a classic example of a public good.  When we are healthy individually, we are also collectively better off.  I often ask: do we really want those who teach our children in school, or prepare our meals in restaurants, to be without healthcare?  Public goods like security, financial stability, and clean air and water are only created out of a subscription to common interest.  As Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel argued persuasively in his new book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, markets alone are an ineffective tool in the production and sustainability of public goods.  He cites our slide from a “market economy to being a market society” as a dangerous illustration of the moral limits of markets.[5]  Public goods, like landing a man on the moon, or healthcare, or addressing the onset of climate change, are accomplished with a blend of market flexibility and centralized governance. All public goods rely on competitive and innovative markets as well as centralized command and control.  Healthcare should be addressed in the same manner.  The good news is there is more than enough money in the system today to make it work for more people at a level of service unmatched in the world.  However, common interest must be established once again or issues like this will continue to be hijacked by small thinkers and powerful interest groups, which endangers the future of America.  (In the case of climate change there may not be enough interest or resources to address it, but that is another story.[6])  The next factors that threaten common interest include those related to cognitive degeneration.
  4. The Demise of Critical and Integrative Thinking.  The now notorious decline of the American education system—particularly in math and science in our secondary schools—means that other nations will soon (if not already) exceed the United States in developing the critical thinkers who will produce tomorrow’s innovations to address our most urgent needs.  Through a combination of neglect, unintended policy consequences, and disengaged parenting, the education our children receive today is inferior to the education we boomers received that was achieved with fewer resources and analog technologies.  This condition has been further exacerbated by xenophobic attitudes toward immigrants who are educated in our superior universities, but who are then forced to return home when they would prefer to become the next generation of American innovators.  I am not sure whom we believe we are protecting with this backwater thinking, but it is most certainly not the future of America.  The other cognitive victim to the bipolar, zero-sum, us vs. them mind-set that has developed in the United States over the last few decades is integrative thinking.  Complexity, which is the nature of the globalized world we live in, requires multiple disciplines that each provide a piece of a solution that must be combined, or integrated, into an option that had never been thought of before.  This skill, or predilection, is what Roger Martin calls “the opposable mind.”  Martin suggests that, “integrative thinking shows us a way past the binary limits of either-or.  It shows us that there is a way to integrate the advantages of one solution without cancelling out the advantages of an alternative solution.  Integrative thinking affords us, in the words of poet Wallace Stevens, ‘the choice not between, but of.’”[7]  Integrative thinking has, however, fallen victim in part to the hubris mentioned above, and also from the application of cognitive constructs that have their roots in absolutist and universalistic thinking, which emanates from different places; preeminent among them today is religious-based certitude.  In short, the religious righteousness that has ascended unabated since the early 1970s has closed our minds to options that reside in the relativism and complexity of the real world.  Moral certitude has placed absolutism right where we need it least: in addressing complexity.
  5. The Rise of Religious Certitude.  For the last four years I have studied the impact of religious beliefs and convictions on presidential decision making in foreign policy.  I am often asked if religion is a good or bad thing when it comes to policymaking.  For me, the question is moot; it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that religious beliefs and convictions are a factor that we need to understand much better than we do.  Depending on the individual, religious beliefs contribute with varying emphasis on decision-making and, of course, the beliefs themselves differ both inter- and intra- faith.  When I construct the cognetic profile of a president each is as individualized as a fingerprint: no two are the same.  What applies more broadly here however, is that the level of religiosity in any given era matters, and in the contemporary era religion matters a great deal.  Since the mid-1970s, religion has been fully ensconced in the private, public, and political spheres in the US.  Throughout history this condition is not unprecedented, but the crescendo that has occurred over the last four decades matches if not exceeds other periods of high religiosity in US history.  During these periods—for better or worse—faith-based religious cognitive constructs find higher expression in all decision making.  While all religions purport a number of common values including tolerance, inclusion and, moreover, an expectation that we would all like to be treated well by our neighbors, the monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam)—the dominant religions of the Middle East and the West—produce a dangerous irony: they demand of their followers a strict adherence to their particular traditions that (by their monotheistic subscription) does not allow room to consider other religious traditions as theologically valid or worthy.  This sets up a cognitive construct of absolutism and universalism (black and white thinking applied to everyone and everywhere) which compromises the values of tolerance and inclusion that are necessary to form the empathy that is the foundation of common interest.  Absolutism and universalism may arguably be appropriate in establishing moral foundations, but they are ill-suited to deal with the complexity of those issues that effect all people—where common interest must be established and where integrative thinking is required to succeed. In effect, these cognitive constructs get too much playing time in periods of high religiosity that has a chilling effect on common interest.

While James Madison warned us of the danger of factions in his Federalist Papers, and Thomas Jefferson worried about the role of the church in the affairs of state, Tocqueville also observed the curious synthesis of individualism and community that he surmised was fundamental to the success of Americans.  These concerns and observations all point to the importance of common interest and to its preservation at all costs.  Today’s political discourse too often threatens the doctrine of common interest espoused by our Founding Fathers and memorialized in the Constitution.  Selfish hyper-individualism, affluence, technology, the absence of a formidable foe, the twin delusions of free markets and big government, cognitive degeneration, and absolutist thinking that emanates from religious certitude, all contribute to the peril facing the doctrine of common interest today.  It is time for our leaders to find the center again and to set aside notions of absolutism and exclusion in favor of compromise and integrative thinking.  We must once again embrace the concept of ‘the many’ over the idiocentric beliefs and needs of ‘the few’.

[1] John F. Kennedy, “Special Message to Congress on the Nation’s Urgent Needs,” May 25, 1961,
[2] Mark Hamilton Lytle, America’s Uncivil Wars: The Sixties Era from Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. xiii.
[3] Kurt Andersen, “The Downside of Liberty,” The New York Times, July 3, 2012, See also, Letters to the Editor, “Sunday Dialogue: Are Americans Selfish?” The New York Times, July 14, 2012,; and Frank Bruni, “Individualism in Overdrive,” The New York Times, July 16, 2012,
[4] Firmin DeBrabander, “Deluded Individualism,” The New York Times, August 18, 2012,
[5] See Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), p. 10.
[6] For a (reasoned) skeptic’s view on the climate change debate, see Bjorn Lomborg, “Environmental Alarmism, The and Now,” Foreign Affairs (July/August 2012), pp. 24-40.  For a decidedly unsettling account of climate change, see Bill McKibben, “The Reckoning,” Rolling Stone (August 2, 2012), pp. 52-60.
[7] Roger L. Martin, The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007), p. 9.