The common good (sometimes called the public good) may refer to the collective welfare of the community. It also may refer to the individual welfare of each person in the community.
A communitarian view of the common good in a democracy is equated with the collective or general welfare of the people as a whole. The well-being of the entire community is considered to be greater than the sum of its parts, and the exemplary citizen is willing to sacrifice personal interests or resources for the good of the entire community. The good of the country or the community is always placed above the personal or private interests of particular groups or individuals. From this communitarian perspective, the ultimate expression of the common good is the elevation of public or community interests above private or individual interests.
When viewed individualistically, however, the common good is based on the well-being of each person in the community. In a democracy, the government is expected to establish conditions of liberty and order that enable each person to seek fulfillment and happiness on his or her own terms. The exemplary citizen respects and defends the individual rights of each person in the expectation of reciprocity from others. From the perspective of individualism, the ultimate achievement of the common good is when the rights of each person in the community are protected and enjoyed equally.
In most democracies today, both the communitarian and individualistic conceptions of the common good are expressed and somehow combined. In particular countries, however, there usually is a tendency to favor one idea of the common good more than the other. In the United States, for example, the individual interest model of the common or public good tends to prevail. By contrast, in Japan and Poland, for example, the collective sense of public good is dominant. In these democracies, the general good of the community, and the people as a whole, is usually considered to be more important than the interests or needs of any individual within that community.
In every democracy there is some degree of tension—in some countries higher and in others lower—between the perceived rights and interests of individuals and the communitarian idea of a common good. In the second volume of “Democracy in America,” published in 1840, the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the necessity for citizens to blend personal and public interests in order to achieve and maintain the common good. Tocqueville referred to this kind of citizenship as “self-interest rightly understood” because, through some reasonable voluntary contributions of time, effort, and money to the civil society and government, citizens cooperated to maintain the conditions of public safety, order, and stability needed to successfully pursue their personal interests and liberty. They recognized that their personal fulfillment could not be attained unless the general welfare of their community was strong.
Tocqueville wrote, “The principle of self-interest rightly understood is not a lofty one, but it is clear and sure . . . Each American knows when to sacrifice some of his private interests to save the rest.” -John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide