for Each, Bad for All
By Ernest Partridge, The
the cultures of India and China, male children are much preferred
to female children. First of all, a girl born to a family
incurs the eventual financial burden of a dowry. But even
more significantly, perhaps, sons are cherished because they
will carry on the family name.
For all time, the outcome of a pregnancy, a boy or a girl,
has been a lottery - until now. With the advance of medical
science, it is now possible to know whether a fetus is male
or female. Accordingly, it is reported that to avoid the birth
of a girl, many pregnancies are being "terminated." In addition,
of course, there is the more ruthless option of female infanticide.
If these practices of sex selection were to become widespread,
it is obvious that there would be many more males than females
in the coming generations.
Thus an intriguing paradox emerges. The attempt by each
couple to produce an heir that will "carry on the family name,"
results in fewer potential wives in the population, and thus
a decreased opportunity for the sons to fulfill their filial
The upshot: the ability of each couple to achieve
the benefit of a male child, diminishes the opportunity of
all couples to have grandchildren, and thus "carry
on the family name." In sum: what is good for each family
is bad for all families.
An obvious solution would be to outlaw female feticide and
infanticide, so that the sex ratio on the population would
return to an approximately normal 50-50. Bad for each, good
The paradox of "good for each, bad for all," and its reciprocal
"bad for each, good for all," far from being accidental consequences
of this bizarre case are arguably the very foundation of social
life and the fundamental justification of government. Furthermore,
the failure of the radical right - libertarians, free-market
absolutists, self-described "conservatives" - to acknowledge
this paradox, renders their doctrines politically untenable
and morally indefensible.
That will be the contention of this essay. But first, consider
some additional examples:
The voting paradox. Much easier to stay at home and
let others take the trouble of studying the issues and going
to the polls (good for each). But such apathy erodes the foundation
of democracy and leads to autocracy (bad for all - except
the autocrats, of course). Conversely, it is the civic duty
of each citizen to take the trouble to study and vote (bad
for each), if a democratic government is to flourish (good
The Wal-Mart menace. Face it, Wal-Mart offers the
lowest prices in town, so it is to the advantage of each individual
to shop at Wal-Mart. But the terrible wages and working conditions
at Wal-Mart drive down the wages and working conditions at
competing stores, and, furthermore, the central business districts
of small towns throughout the country are being devastated.
That which is good for each shopper is bad for the community
and for workers in general. If, like me, you choose not to
shop at Wal-Mart, you will lose in cost and convenience -
bad for each. But if the boycott is widespread, "the Wal-Mart
plague" will be contained, wages will rise, and "Mom and Pop"
in the downtown stores will thrive again - good for all. One
solution, of course, is for the workers to organize and to
act collectively (union dues are bad for each worker and good
for all, as they help to improve wages and working conditions).
Wal-Mart knows this full well, which is why it ruthlessly
suppresses union activity.
Antibiotics. The over-use of antibiotics "selects"
resistant "super-bugs," decreasing the effectiveness of antibiotics
for all. But just one more anti-biotic prescription for a
trivial, "self-limiting" bronchial infection won't make a
significant difference in general, while it will clearly benefit
the individual patient. But multiply that individual doctor's
prescription by the millions, and we have a serious problem.
"Good for each patient, bad for the general population."
These examples can be added to endlessly, and are in fact
formalized in game theory and elaborated through such moral
paradoxes as "the prisoners' dilemma."
The principle of "good for each, bad for all" was forcefully
brought to public attention in 1968 by Garrett
Hardin, in his essay The
Tragedy of the Commons - which was for a while, the
most widely reprinted scientific essay of the time.
Hardin, a biologist, cites as an example a pasture owned
in common by residents of a village. The pasture is at "carrying
capacity" - the number of sheep is such that the villagers
can, with that number, use the pasture indefinitely without
reducing the productivity of the land. However, any additional
sheep will degrade the pasture and thus its capacity to support
It thus becomes immediately apparent that any individual
who adds a sheep to his personal flock will gain in personal
wealth, while, at the same time, by degrading the common resource
and the value of the other sheep, he slightly decreases the
wealth of every other villager. Each villager is similarly
situated. Absent common agreement and enforcement thereof,
it is rational for each individual to increase his personal
flock, even though, in Hardin's words, "ruin is the destination
toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest
in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons."
In other words: "good for each, bad for all."
The solution? Hardin prescribes "Mutual coercion, mutually
agreed upon." In other words, the rule of law enforced by
government. Each individual agrees to a curtailment of liberty
on behalf of the common good - bad for each, good for all.
These principles, "good for each, bad for all" and "bad
for each, good for all," resound throughout the history of
political thought - from Aristotle, through Hobbes, Locke,
Rousseau, and Jefferson, on to the present day. Indeed, the
practical applications of these principles are implicit in
successful communities, from the present extending far back
into pre-history. They are the key to the survival of communities
of social insects such as bees and termites, and of social
animals such as wolf packs, wherein evolution, not argument,
provides their validation.
And yet, amazingly, those who presume to call themselves
"conservatives," reject these principles, in favor of another:
"good for each, good for all." This principle of the political
right, exemplified by trickle-down economics and the assurance
that "the rising [economic] tide raises all boats," is immediately
appealing. Who would not desire that collective "goods" should
result from the achievement of personal well-being? And in
fact, the progressive will readily admit that many human endeavors
that achieve individual benefits, also benefit society at
The error of the right resides in its embrace of the principle
"good for each, good for all" as dogma, applied a priori
to society and the economy, virtually without exception. By
rejecting, implicitly, the principle of "good for each, bad
for all" and vice versa, the Right recognizes no personal
price that must be paid for the maintenance of a just social
order, and pays no heed to the social costs of one's personal
pursuit of happiness.
For theirs is a radically reductive view of society. According
to the free-market absolutist faction of the falsely-labeled
"conservatives" (henceforth, "regressives"), an optimal society
emerges naturally and automatically out of an aggregate of
individuals in exclusive pursuit of their personal self-interest.
To the regressive, "the common good" and "public benefit"
are myths. Indeed, so too is society itself - in the words
of Ronald Reagan's favorite Brit, Margaret Thatcher, "there
is no such thing as society - there are individual men and
women and there are families." So-called "society" is merely
an aggregate of private individuals, like a pile of sand grains,
occupying contiguous space. Ideally, all associations are
strictly voluntary. And because "there is no such thing as
society," there are no systemic social harms. It follows that
those who are poor are not victims of society or the economy,
they choose to be poor due to their personal moral
For the libertarian right, the only legitimate functions
of government are the protection of the three fundamental
rights of life, liberty and property. Hence, the only legitimate
disbursement of tax revenues is for the military (protection
from foreign enemies), the "night watchman" police (protection
from domestic enemies), and the courts (adjudication of property
disputes). Because there are no "public goods," compulsory
tax payment for public education, research and development
of science and technology, medical care, museums, promotion
of the arts, public and national parks, etc., is the moral
equivalent of theft. (See the first three sections of my "With
Liberty for Some").
According to this account of human nature and society, with
the exception of the just noted protections of life, liberty
and property, there is nothing that government can accomplish
that private initiative and the free market cannot achieve
with better results. As Ronald Reagan famously said in his
first inaugural address: "government is not the solution,
government is the problem." Milton Friedman concurs: "There
is nothing wrong with the United States that a dose of smaller
and less intrusive government would not cure." Note the uncompromising
absolutism of these remarks.
No regulation, no governmental functions beyond basic protection
of life, liberty and property, no taxes except to support
these minimal functions. Any governmental activity beyond
this should, in Grover Norquist's words, be "drowned in the
Let the free market reign without constraint, allow all
"capitalist acts between consenting adults" (Robert Nozick).
As each individual, in Adam Smith's words, "intends only his
own gain," then each individual will be "led by an invisible
hand to promote... the public interest."
Good for each, good for all.
In contrast, the progressive views society as more than
the sum of its parts; it is what philosophers call an "emergent
entity," with properties and principles distinct from those
of its components. In this sense society and its economy is
like a computer, an engine, an ecosystem, a living language.
If the system malfunctions, there are victims - the poor,
the oppressed, the addicted, the uneducated - and the system
is thus in need of adjustment or repair or even overhaul and
redesign. And these are legitimate functions of government.
The progressive is not a dogmatist; he is empirical and
pragmatic. Thus he does not completely reject free markets.
That is the fatal
error of communism. Instead, Progressivism affirms that
markets should neither count for nothing nor count for everything.
No question, free enterprise has produced an abundance of
beneficial goods and services, and has won many individuals
well-deserved fortunes. It should be protected and cherished.
But it should also be regulated.
For a marketplace involves more than voluntary transactions
between buyers and sellers. There are, in addition, "stakeholders"
- non-participating individuals who are involuntarily affected
by private transactions; for example, people who live downwind
and downstream of industries that spew out pollutants. Pollution
is but one of many types of "externality" resulting from private
transactions that have serious public consequences. And in
a democratic society, the institution specifically instituted
to act in the public interest and by public consent is the
government. (Those who do not believe this should re-read
the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution
of the United States).
Every complex game requires
a referee, beholden to no "side" but rather functioning
to regulate the activity and enforce the rules, to the advantage
all players in general, and none in particular. In the game
of commerce, the referee is the government. For history has
shown, time and again, that an unregulated free market leads
to monopoly. In other words, it contains within itself the
seeds of its own destruction. The remedy, of course, is anti-trust
legislation, which is to say, government. (See my "The
"Good for each, bad for all." "Bad for each, good for all."
The "referee function" of democratic government - these are
not original ideas. Quite the contrary, throughout the civilized
and industrialized world, they are commonplace and virtually
axiomatic, like gravity and the multiplication tables.
But not here in the United States. The free-market absolutism
plus libertarian anarchism proclaimed here by the right wing
and accepted with scant criticism by the corporate media,
is regarded abroad as somewhat insane. Unfortunately for us
all, most Americans are immersed in this insanity.
Why, then, is regressivism dominant in our society, despite
its obvious shortcomings?
Quite simply, because regressivism is what Nietzsche called
a "master morality" - an ethos devised and promulgated by,
and operating to the advantage of, the wealthy and powerful.
Regressivism, with its precepts of "trickle down," "the sin
of poverty," taxation as theft, the unqualified superiority
of privatism over government, is essentially an elaborate
justification of greed and an institutionalization of privilege.
It is, in effect, a contemporary re-incarnation of the eighteenth
century dogma of "the divine right of kings." We had to fight
a revolution to rid ourselves of that dogma. Must we fight
another to free ourselves of the" master morality"
of regressivism? If so, then let it be a bloodless, velvet
And let begin now, with the November election the first
decisive step away from this dark night of theocracy, lawlessness
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer
in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He
publishes the website, The
Online Gadfly and co-edits the progressive website, The