In 1965, the British government purchased the Chagos Archipelago, including the island of Diego Garcia, from its owners, their self-governing colony of Mauritius. In 1966, the U.S. and British governments concluded a treaty allowing the U.S. military to have rights to the area for the next 50 years, with a 20 year option. In 1971, the indigenous populations were evicted, in the name of U.S. military interests in the region. History books say it was done for the greater good. The indigenous people disagree, and continue to fight their expulsion in World Court.
Bikini Atoll is part of the Marshall Islands. The indigenous population was removed in late 1945, so in June of 1946, the U.S. government could begin atomic weapons testing there. The islands continued to be used for this purpose until 1958. In 1964, the U.S. government tried to bring back the people, but had to remove them again, because of unsafely high radiation levels in their bodies. History books say the use of Bikini Atoll was done for the greater good.
These are two examples in the history of governments doing things against their basic tenets, all in the interests of what those in power rationalize as being in the greater good. But at what point do we leave the good, making what we are contemplating wrong? Is it only through the eyes of history that we see the compromises and slippery slopes that lead from bad decisions into worse consequences?
It happens in economics. It seems right to many for the government to take care of the poor and elderly. Someone has to do it. But a look at U.S. history shows it wasn’t the government who did it before the Civil War. It was families, churches and charities. No one had to tell them to
do it. They did it from love and a spirit of generosity and compassion.
But when it became sponsored by the government during the Great Depression because private institutions were overwhelmed by the size of the need, compassion became pity. Pity is a sad way to run charity. It forces from the giver and expects no gratitude from the recipient. It leaves no room for individuality of need or giving. It does not encourage leaving the system. It wipes out the humanity of the process. It is something we are told being done for the greater good that harms the very people it intends to help, and the population.
The TARP bailouts by the U.S. government between 2008 and 2010 are another example. This looked like a good idea to save American businesses and thus jobs that were declining and threatening to fail in the post-2008 crash. However, there was no oversight in the funds, and some companies that were rescued still failed. Others wasted the money on luxuries for their corporate leaders. The government spent money it didn’t have on something it didn’t belong doing, mortgaging the future of our grandchildren on the debacle. Another project done for the greater good failed because of short-sighted thinking and a lack of accountability.
In the movie “Star Trek: Insurrection,” there is a moving scene in which the Captain confronts his superiors, who want to move a small population away from their home, a move that will kill the people. It would benefit the civilization the leaders represent. The move is against everything they stand for as a culture. As they rationalize to him, the Captain says, “How many are enough, sir? 300? 500? 1000? 1,000,000?” His superiors stop him before he can go father, but we can get his point.
When a politician stands up and says they is going to fix something by throwing money at it or do something “in the interests of the greater good,” I pay closer attention. Because the money that politician is about to spend isn’t theirs; it’s mine and yours. The thing they may want to do may look good in the short-term, but could have unseen long-term consequences no one wants to visit on future generations. The good the politician is promoting may or may not be my good, or your good. It could be the good of someone else, and a “good” that causes a harm to you or me in some way. This harm would at least be to take away some of my freedoms if it taxed my money to do it. I don’t know anyone who likes more taxes, no matter the cause.
Just because politicians say it’s “good,” doesn’t mean it’s always good. Political office doesn’t convey godlike powers. It never has and never will. We have to look closer, at long-term and big picture consequences, particularly as we endure this season of U.S. presidential rhetoric and electioneering politics at every level. In December of 1783, William Pitt the Younger told the British Parlaiment,
“Necessity was the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It was the argument of tyrants; it was the creed of slaves.”
It has been said the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, or the one. When it comes to governmental choices, however, the good of the one is the only choice promoting freedom we have available.
(My great thanks to mentor David Phillips and husband Bob. A conversation with them on a June afternoon prompted this post, formerly called ‘Diego Garcia, Bikini Atoll And The Politics Of “The Greater Good”‘.)