Robert Reich’s book on the common good is not important because of what it says about the common good. To a large degree it is important because he wrote it. Reich is a former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration and currently Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a prolific author of books. His essays appear in leading journals. He himself appears regularly on talk shows. He is a public intellectual active politically. He is an authority, a thought leader, as some might put it, an opinion maker. What he says or writes somehow both reflects and shapes what people think.
Reich is also a life-long Democrat. Thus we should not be surprised that what he writes reflects his political commitments. Indeed, as we will see, there is a lot of evidence in the book that Reich’s talk of the “common good” and his efforts at non-partisanship are only a veil covering typical progressive preferences. For example, he does manage to criticize the Clintons, and even once Obama (72–73), whom he endorsed for President, but reserves his wrath for Trump and the Koch brothers. Against the latter, he repeats unsubstantiated charges of criminal activity (138). His veiled partisanship aside, Reich’s account of the common good consists of various claims, several that are contradictory, none justified or analyzed. The book is useful for just these reasons, however. It shows what is assumed or taken for granted in progressive thinking, the thinking that dominates American politics. In displaying the character of contemporary progressivism, and in making so many different sorts of claims, Reich provokes us to think about the common good and allows us to see how progressivism differs from both leftist political thinking (identity politics) and what is commonly known as conservative political thinking.
Reich opens his book by making a host of claims about the common good. According to Reich, the common good is our shared values or ideals; what we owe one another; “a set of common notions about right and wrong;” trusting one another; it is “inextricably bound up with the good of the rest of the planet;” “it is about inclusion;” about “giving others an equal chance to succeed;” about “respect for the rule of law;” “being open to change and tolerant of our differences;” “discovering and spreading the truth;” following the procedures by which we govern ourselves; participating in civic life together and being willing to make sacrifices for that common life (17, 22, 25–26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 39, 34–35, 44–45). These claims – all made in the opening chapter – and the chapter as a whole read as if they were part of a high school commencement address delivered by a well-meaning, not very bright head master determined to offend none and appeal to all.
What Reich really thinks becomes clearer as he proceeds. Reich claims that Americans once had a common good but have lost it. This loss is most evident in what he calls the winner-take-all approach in politics and business that he claims dominates American life (65–89). Winning all, for Reich, is the opposite of the common good. This attitude has led to greater and greater disparities in wealth in the United States, which in turn has put the rich in a position to buy more influence in politics, thus increasing even more their own power and influence, and more greatly harming everyone else. The concentration of wealth in private hands is the root of all evil for Reich. He in fact claims that our current problems began about five decades ago (i.e., as he does not say, in 1968, with the election of Richard Nixon) when “a few people with wealth and power began exploiting social trust [i.e., the commitment of other people to the common good] in order to gain even more wealth and power” (52). To restore the common good, therefore, we need better public control over private wealth, over both its accumulation and its influence in politics. In addition, we need a campaign of education or re-education in the common good, which Reich proposes to achieve with better civic education and two years of mandatory public service.
As this brief description makes clear, Reich’s account of the common good reveals him to be a progressive, the inheritor of early 20th century progressivism, via Franklin Roosevelt, one of Reich’s heroes (13, 33). Reich even echoes the Progressive criticism of contract as a way of understanding political and social life (99), implying absurdly that contractual arrangements, because they serve the self-interests of each party, cannot have anything to do with the common good. Like earlier progressives, he is pro-Union and anti-business. He spends pages recounting some recent flagrantly unscrupulous, if not criminal, business dealings, but never mentions any business man or entrepreneur who through competition does any good for anyone by, for example, creating jobs and the opportunities that Reich says make up part of the common good he wants to restore. (For an example of the kind of businessman that Reich praises, see 125–26.) He never has a bad word for bureaucrats or public policy intellectuals, those who will think up and implement his progressive solutions, or worries about the effect such people might have on the common good. Unlike businessmen, apparently, these people have no self-interest or at least never act on it.
The most revealing of Reich’s progressive solutions is stakeholder capitalism, which he contrasts with shareholder capitalism. In Reich’s view, anyone affected by a business has a stake in that business. For example, everyone in a town with a factory is a stakeholder in that factory, even if they do not work in it, have not invested in the company that owns the factory, as shareholders or the owners have, or even bought any of its products. If the factory’s owners want to move the factory or close it to increase profits for shareholders or themselves, the owners should compensate the stakeholders in the town by making “severance payments” (74–82, 127–28).
The notion of stakeholder capitalism is not really capitalism, of course, if we include in that term the private ownership of the means of production. By the logic of Reich’s argument, all Americans are stakeholders in all economic activity in America. This is the idea that has made the commerce clause the justification for the federal government’s control over economic activity that is not interstate or even commercial: all economic activity affects the national market, and that market affects all Americans. Stakeholder capitalism means, therefore, the public ownership of the means of production or the end of private property. If factory owners should compensate stakeholders, why would it be wrong for the law to require that they do so? (Consider Reich’s comments on the market, government and law, 23–24, 127.) And who would decide on the appropriate compensation or if it is in the interest of the stakeholders that the factory move? It would have to be the public policy intellectuals and bureaucrats in whom Reich has such confidence. (Under Obama, the National Labor Relations Board started to play this role, for example, in adjudicating between Boeing and its unions.) Everything would belong in reality to these intellectuals and bureaucrats. They might allow some limited amount or kinds of “private property” to exist to encourage efficiency but these would be exceptions to the rule of public ownership. Furthermore, any property owner faced with claims of stakeholder capitalism in some city or state will either never set up shop there or will flee to another without such laws. This means that in order to carry out stakeholder capitalism it must be the law throughout the United States, that is federal law, and the federal government must have whatever power is necessary and proper to implement it, and no state the power to prevent it. Stakeholder capitalism leads to socialism and a federal government in command of the economy to bring it about.
The purpose of pointing out the socialism lurking in Reich’s conception of capitalism is not to raise a bogeyman. It is rather to make a point about the common good. First, as noted, Reich does not question the assumptions behind “stakeholder capitalism.” Why, we want to know should those who have care about those who have less. Why are self-interest and private property opposed to the common good? Do not both encourage the accumulation of wealth and is not wealth part of the human and common good? Certainly, the accumulation of wealth might endanger the common good, but so can the excessive pursuit of any mere instrumental good. For example, government power – some means to act collectively – is part of the common good certainly, but excessive government power could endanger the common good. Yet, Reich never questions the staggering amount of power his ideas will hand to public policy intellectuals and bureaucrats. He is as blind to the dangers of concentrated government power as he claims conservatives are to the dangers of concentrated private wealth.
Second, Reich insists reasonably, as part of what we might call his procedural account of the common good, that the common good requires civil discussion and compromise. Yet, his account of the common good is precisely what will make those who do not share his assumptions unlikely to compromise at all. Those who reasonably believe in the importance of property for the common good will sense that Reich is hostile to private property, even if they do not see that his argument leads to its abolition. They will therefore be suspicious of his calls to control or limit the rights of property owners because they know they are not made by someone friendly to private property. They will be disinclined to compromise with those espousing Reich’s views, therefore. They will suspect that any concession or compromise is a step toward the end of private property and the destruction of the common good. Supporters of property rights who understand where “stakeholder capitalism” leads will fight against Reich with all they have. They will work for the utter defeat of such views and the political forces that support them. They will, in other words, engage in the “winner-take-all” politics that Reich decries, just as will those who see private property as the root of all evil.
Reich’s account of the common good reveals the character of progressivism and suggests why current American politics is so divisive, partisan, and uncompromising. We see another source of partisan division in the fact that Reich does not mention freedom in his account of the common good. One might argue that in talking about equality of opportunity (e.g. 39–40) Reich is talking about freedom. There is some truth in this, but Reich emphasizes equality, not opportunity. He dislikes traits associated with freedom, such as ambition, entrepreneurial daring, and self-assertion. But are not freedom and these traits part of the common good? Do they not make contributions to the good we enjoy? Would not human life be diminished by their absence?
Reich’s neglect of freedom may also explain the absence of identity politics from his account of the common good. Identity politics – the view that humans are defined by their race, gender, and class – is the extreme of human freedom and self-assertion. According to the tenets of identity politics, gender, race, and class determine what human beings are, even determining what we think and say. Yet, at the same time, but more fundamentally, the premise of identity politics is that humans are free to choose at least their gender and race, which means that humans are free in a radical sense. Moreover, by asserting that race, gender, or class – what makes us different – is fundamental, identity politics asserts that there is no common good or that the common good is only negative: the freedom that allows us to assert our differences. Identity politics is thus the left wing equivalent of the radical right wing individualism or selfishness that Reich criticizes (19–21). This radical individualism asserts that there are only individuals who have nothing in common with other individuals. It is selfishness because it asserts that there is nothing in the world other than individual selves. Both this individualism and identity politics are equally incompatible with the common good. Both, in fact, are winner take all approaches to life and politics. It is unclear whether Reich realizes this or not, because he has a tactical political reason to remain silent about identity politics. (What does this tell us about his claim that a commitment to the truth is part of the common good?) By ignoring the identity politicians but criticizing the conservatives, he favors those in the current political alignment who are his allies in practice, even as they are his enemies in principle.
If Reich has enemies to his left, might he have friends to his right? In one of the odder passages of the book, Reich offers an account of Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart that goes beyond caricature to outright misrepresentation. He then, immediately, offers in his own name a version of Murray’s argument. Reich alleges that Murray claims white working class Americans “brought their problems on themselves by becoming addicted to drugs, failing to marry, giving birth out of wedlock, dropping out of high school, and remaining jobless for long periods of time.” Murray, of course, did not argue this. At the risk of another caricature of his complex argument, we might say that he argued instead that economic changes deprived working class males of the jobs that gave them status and made possible or encouraged marriage and the rest of those good things that Reich’s list of negatives shows are now largely missing in their lives. The changed economy as cause of the changes in working class life is exactly what Reich then goes on to explain (102–103). He claims that Murray won’t acknowledge the economic causes because doing so would argue for reducing economic inequality. This is an absurd claim, since Murray has argued in favor of a guaranteed income. What Murray claims, rather, is that the structure of the economy has changed, change that we summarize by speaking of globalization and the information technology revolution, and that simple redistribution schemes such as those favored by Reich or even stakeholder capitalism do not address this change. Such schemes will only reduce freedom and wealth, without really addressing the problem. For his part, Reich downplays globalization (92), we suspect, precisely because it shows the futility of the old-fashioned redistribution schemes he champions. Reich, like Obama and Trump, wants us to believe that we still live in FDR’s economy.
If Reich were less partisan, if he could come to see some good in freedom and property, he might see in Murray a friend, someone who shares his concern for the working class, as part of a larger concern for the common good. That would not put an end to argument about what the common good is and what the proper policies are to promote it, but it would open up the possibility for civil conversation and compromise.
It would also lead to a revision in Reich’s political history, giving us a more accurate framework for understanding our current situation. The revised history would see the source of our current controversies not in the actions of rich people 50 years ago but in the second American revolution that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th century in response to industrialization. A moral and political concern with the effects of the industrial revolution led some to question the principles and practices they argued had created these effects, principles and practices identical with the first American revolution: property rights, individualism, federalism, and limited government. They offered in their place the kind of principles and practices that FDR most effectively espoused, taking advantage of the crisis of the Great Depression, and Reich continues to support. For two decades, opposition to the revolution of the New Deal was muted. (This is the period that Reich presents as a golden age when businessmen cared about the common good; see, for example, 74–75.) In Barry Goldwater, and especially Reagan’s speech “A Time for Choosing,” the opposition spoke up and began to gather political force, culminating in Reagan’s election in 1980. Also in the 1960s a critique of bourgeois society arose that rejected the rationalism and progressive outlook of both FDR’s liberalism and Reagan’s conservativism. This critique culminated in identity politics, which as we noted is, with regard to the common good, equivalent to the extreme individualism on the right that arose in response to the statism of the New Deal. Extreme individualism and identity politics are the true enemies of the common good because they deny its possibility. The common good lies away from these extremes toward the center.
Even if some current combatants could come to think of themselves as centrists and possible allies, discussion of the common good and action to approximate it would remain as difficult as it is necessary. The common good is complex. Acting in its behalf in a specific situation often means committing to one aspect of it or another. Commitment tends to shape thinking, and more certainly speaking. Partisanship or at least its appearance constantly re-emerges. The best we can do, driven by the need for the common good, is to continue to pursue it in word and deed. The distinctively American hope, one that we should not yet give up, is that out of the continuing debate and politicking, something like the common good will emerge.
 Robert B. Reich, The Common Good (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018). Page references are in parentheses in the text.