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The lack of common good in society

BY The Centre for Progressive Network 

The idea of “common good” has completely disappeared from our society. We remember hearing about a time when Sri Lanka was a much close-knit society, in which everyone used to care about one another. However, with the rapid expansion of capitalism and free market ideologies, we gradually changed. Today, we live in a capitalist society – a capitalist system with capitalist rules – where the businesses only think about maximising profits for their investors and employers completely neglect employees.  

Most people are hardwired for some degree of co-operation and compassion towards others. Human beings would not have survived on earth to this point if we were entirely selfish. Take for example, the 1990 Suwaseriya first responders who have been heroic during our fight against Covid-19, the armed forces who stay up late to make sure that we are safe at home, whistleblowers and journalists who put their lives at risk in bringing us the most accurate news on a tyrannical Government. 

However, the term “common good” is no longer a fashionable idea. From a very young age, children witness their parents or their parents’ friends or close ones living a very luxurious, flashy lifestyle, which they strive to have when they are older, regardless of what it takes to get there. We witness it all around us, beginning with the chief executive officers (CEOs) trying to exploit their customers or investors, athletes involved in doping scandals, doctors who do unnecessary procedures to collect bigger checks, lawyers and accountants who look the other way when corporate clients act immorally, police officers that look the other way when they are paid off or are told to look the other way, film producers and directors that look the other way when young girls are sexually harassed, and, most importantly, politicians who take donations from wealthy donors and businesses to enact laws that benefit a few. 

We live in a system where people have forgotten what it means to do good. Nonetheless, common good does exist, as it is essential for a society to function; the most basic example being with regard to the people’s widespread and voluntary willingness to abide by the laws. Consider what would happen if no one voluntarily obeyed the law without first calculating what they could gain by violating it, as compared with the odds of the violation being discovered multiplied by the size of the likely penalty; we would be living in chaos. 

If everyone acted similarly to the actions of Cabinet Ministers that take hefty commissions on projects that are unfeasible, or government cronies that continue to break the law because they believe that they are above it or the politicians they backed would get them out, we would be living in anarchy. 

Why we believe that we should reinvigorate the “common good” ideology is, for example, if education is viewed as a private investment yielding private returns, there is no reason why anyone other than the “investor” should pay for it, but when it is understood as a public good underlying our democracy, all of us have a responsibility to ensure that it is of high quality and available to all. Thanks to Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara, we Sri Lankans are able to enjoy free education, although the quality of the education and the job opportunities post graduation are questionable.  

Nevertheless, our central obligation as citizens is to preserve, fortify, and protect our democratic form of government – not allow it to be flooded with big money and buy off politicians. We must protect the right to vote and ensure that more citizens are heard, not fewer. The way things are progressing in Sri Lanka under the Government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it seems that democracy will cease to exist. 

We cannot hate our Government, as the Government is the way in which we can come together to help solve common problems. We may not like the people in the Government, but then again, that is once again our choice, our vote. Our obligation should be to improve the Government and not let special interest groups or the wealthy gain too much power over it.  

The biggest factor eroding the common good is the “whatever it takes” politics; it removes all constraints on gaining and keeping political power. We have big money pouring into politics in order to change the rules of the game in favour of wealthy donors and businesses, so that they could rake in even more profits. The “whatever it takes to win” politics disregard what has been the unwritten rules of good government, based on equal political rights – thus enabling the most powerful players to extract all the political gains, similar to what is currently happening. The Government and their cronies continue to profit, while the majority of the country is in darkness or in queues for most essential items. 

Whatever it takes to rig the economy dismissed what had been the unwritten rule that the “free market” should work for everyone – permitting the most powerful economic actors to extract almost all economic gains. As a result, the key political and economic institutions of our society – political parties, corporations, and the free market – have abandoned their commitment to the common good. The consequence of this has been over 500,000 people being pushed into poverty in the past two years, as there was no “cushion” or social protection programme to help them transition. 

More importantly, according to a former Central Bank Director Dr. Roshan Perera, Government revenue fell by at least Rs. 500 billion in 2020 as well as in 2021, signaling a loss of over Rs. 1 trillion in total revenue in the last two years, due to unwise tax cuts that benefitted only the top layer of Sri Lankans. Moreover, the bottom 20% of Sri Lankans represent merely 5% of the total income while the top 20% account for over 50% of the total income as a result of the “whatever it takes” politics. The middle class is shrinking and most Sri Lankans are working longer hours and still not making enough to make ends meet. The majority of Sri Lankans no longer have faith in the Government or the political system as a whole, as they believe that they are vessels for the few.  

Special interest groups and campaign donations that result in laws and regulations favouring special interest groups or wealthy donors are not triumphs if they weaken public confidence in our democracy, as they too are huge failures of leadership. But how can leaders ignore the pressures to do whatever it takes to win when not doing so allows their political or economic competitors to prevail and puts them out of a job? 

This is why it is of utmost importance to bring in campaign finance reforms in Sri Lanka. This will even the playing field for potential youth and female candidates who would otherwise be neglected by the system due to the lack of funds or influence. Unregulated campaign finances lead to a huge gap between the politician and the elector, as we are currently witnessing. The politicians have no sense of responsibility or empathy towards the thousands of people struggling to make ends meet or standing in queues in the hot sun to keep food on the table for their children.  

“Whatever it takes” politics have created politicians that only care about making their pockets larger, while largely ignoring the majority of the country, and making their donors even richer. Giving others an equal opportunity is an essential aspect of the common good. That is why we believe that we need to reinvigorate the common good in people, in order to help ourselves as well as the others around us. 

(The CPN is a youth-led and youth-focused think tank seeking to get more young people involved in important policy discussions and anti corruption practices and efforts, including focusing on campaign finance)

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.