Associations are key. Under a regime in which government is limited to secure the unalienable rights men and women possess because they each were created in the image of God, society is as important as the state. “The chief and most potent instrument of achieving the common good—in such a novus ordo—is not the state but the society at large, in its full range of social institutions,” [Michael] Novak wrote. “These include families, churches, schools, workers’ associations, private enterprises, and so forth. Whereas in some earlier systems or social orders, the government was believed to be the chief agent of the common good, in the novus ordo a larger and more various set of social institutions would rightfully become the primary agents of the common good.” Novak often cited the following line from Tocqueville: “If men are to remain civilized or to become civilized, the art of association must develop and improve among them at the same speed as equality of condition spreads.”
So, government is not the only means by which the common good can be pursued. Equally if not more important to human flourishing are the mediating structures of family, religion, community, vocation, and voluntary association. Yes, law, economy, society, and individual character are connected. But social causation does not follow a straight line. And just as the structure of our economic institutions might be traced to political decisions, so might the strength and weaknesses of our social institutions. From Burke to Tocqueville to Robert Nisbet, conservative social thought has catalogued the ways in which the expansive state pushes through the mediating structures by assuming their functions. Then the solitary individual is left to face the Leviathan alone. The common good and the art of association are not separate phenomena. They are linked.
A post-corona politics of the common good that recognizes freedom must be exercised within the constraints of a moral tradition; that encourages able-bodied men and women to work and form families; that makes it easier to enter a profession, buy a home, raise children; that preserves the independence of religious institutions from state interference and resists the separation of religion from society; that protects communities from lawlessness, epidemics, and external threats; and that builds the capacity of public institutions to promote transportation, health, education, research and development, and the defense industrial base would fit comfortably in the American political tradition of “freedom and justice for all.” A politics that pursues a sectarian definition of “the common good”; that models its ideal government after a religious bureaucracy with a decidedly imperfect history; and that imperiously and rather impishly rejects longstanding indigenous norms of liberty and conscience does not.