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“General good,” “common good,” “common benefit,” “general welfare,” these are expressions of the most misunderstood concept in American politics. Ask a progressive what these phrases mean and he will tell you that the government must make sure everyone has a good outcome.
Ask a conservative what these phrases mean and he will tell you that every law must affect everyone equally at the time it is enacted.
However, if you asked John Locke, the originator of the concept what they mean, he would tell you something quite different.
In his “Second Treatise on Government,” Locke explains the concept of common good quite articulately. Every man is born equally into a state of nature in which he has full Legislative, Executive and Judicial jurisdiction to protect his life, liberty and property; and no man can be put under the governance of another except by his own consent.
However, in this state of nature we can lack a set of common laws, we may be without an objective judge (for every man is likely biased to his own favor) and we may be unable to enforce punishment, and therefore, we establish governments to exercise our powers objectively. The end result of this government is to be the common good.
We see this concept explicitly enumerated in about half of the original state Constitutions and the Constitution for the United States of America. In the Constitution of the state of New Hampshire, it is in Article 1 of the Bill of Rights; “All men are born equally free and independent; Therefore, all government of right originates from the people, is founded in consent, and instituted for the general good.”
Locke goes on to explain that no individual enters into a state of civil society except that ”it being only with an intention in every one the better to preserve himself, his liberty and property; (for no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse) the power of the society, or legislative constituted by them, can never be supposed to extend further than the common good; but is obliged to secure everyone’s property, by providing against those three defects above mentioned, that made the state of nature so unsafe and uneasy.”
To put it in more contemporary terms, in order for a law to comply with the concept of general or common good, the general welfare, it must leave each member of the community in a better state than if there were no law and no government. Any statute that does not meet this acid test is no law under the most fundamental concepts of American government, the Lockean social contract.
Daniel C. Itse is a conservative Republican and has been a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives since 2001. A professional engineer who lives in Fremont, he advocates the revival of state sovereignty. In the 2011/2012 term he was the chairman of the Committee on Constitutional Review and Statutory Recodification.