Who Stole the Common Good?

This essay by Julian Edney is a few years old, but I just found it today. And it’s well worth reading, especially if you share my concern that we live in an increasingly uncivil society.

Who Stole the Common Good? The Shadow of Ayn Rand

Here’s a juicy excerpt:

So, do you want to find out if your friends, coworkers or spouse understand the common good? Some do, some don’t. Try a simple game you can play called the Nuts Game — with things you find around the house.

Three people sit around a kitchen bowl. You, the fourth person, with a timer, start off placing ten small items in the bowl — quarters, dollar bills, or nuts. Tell the three players the goal is that each of them get as many items as possible. Tell them one other thing before they start: every ten seconds (you have your watch ready) you will look in the bowl and double the number of items remaining there by replenishing from an outside source (a separate pile of quarters on the side).

I used to run this game with college students. You would think the players would have figured out that if they had all waited, not taking anything out of the bowl for a while, the contents of the bowl would soon have grown very big, automatically doubling every ten seconds. Eventually they could each have divided up a pot that had grown large. But in fact, sixty percent of these groups never made it to the first 10-second replenishment cycle. Group members grabbed all they could as soon as they could, leaving nothing in the bowl to be doubled (destroying the common good), and each player wound up with none or a few items. I saw the bowl knocked to the floor in the greedy melee. And even if allowed to try again, not all groups cooperatively worked out a patient, conserve-as-you-go playing style, necessary for eventual big scores. They didn’t trust each other.

Read the full article here.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com Darrell Grizzle

    Interesting timing on this post, since I’m currently reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand…

  • judith collier

    Individualism, independence, competitiveness, all american ideals. Not bad in themselves but with self control, group mindedness and a bit of class. What ever happened to class? Crudeness, vulgarity, self love, all fruit of attempts to get what one wants (the epitome of life) No God, no love, no respect. When you see this know you are witnessing the spiritual dead.

  • http://peters-rants.blogspot.com/ Peter

    Wonderful post. I sent it to my liberal daughter (who had some very insightful comments) and also to several of my extremely conservative friends. Still awaiting their comments!

    Somewhere in the century or so between Kierkegaard and Ayn Rand, the pure and holy existential concept of individual responsibility/freedom, the subjective encounter with the challenge of heavenly light and life, the quickening of the individual conscience, got kidnapped and brainwashed into slavery to the individual ego. Any comments on how this tragedy occurred?

    I would ask Bear in particular to consider this, since 1) I know you are a loyal Kierkegaardian, and 2) you just said above that you are reading Atlas Shrugged.

    I just read an article on the Hippie roots of neoconservatism; I have been encouraged to see some folks coming “back” as noted in an article on Obamacons….

    Personally the “cause” that is all-sufficient for me, my “passion,” is the Kingdom of God; but the definition of that is crucial, and in my view it MUST include components of social justice, non-violence, compassion, restrictions on greed, etc., to avoid just being pie-in-the-sky. I like what Rob Bell says about heaven: “The whole movement of the Bible is not for us to go away to heaven, but to bring heaven here to where we live.”

    All thoughts and comments welcome!

    Thanks and love,

  • judith collier

    That’s easy, Peter, good thoughts and ideals without Christ will be just that, the ego will turn them into idols and the whole time deceiving the uninformed and once again, people will search for something better.

  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com Darrell Grizzle

    Peter, I think there are some commonalities between Kierkegaard and Rand – both talk about the importance of one’s own experience and standing with integrity in one’s own truth. The difference is that Kierkegaard’s experience is grounded in the teachings of Jesus (he would say Christianity but not Christendom), with its emphasis on compassion for others, and Rand’s is not.

    Rand also seemed to be closed-minded to the experiences of others that were outside her own frame of reference. Her worldview would have no place for understanding someone like me, a mystic because of my existentialism: as an existentialist I cannot deny the primacy of my own experience, and many of my experiences can only be described as mystical. That would make no sense at all to Rand, but Kierkegaard would probably welcome me (in his melancholy way) and invite me to join him at the pub or coffeehouse.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    I think you’re right, Darrell. From an integral theory perspective, Rand represents rationalist consciousness, while Kierkegaard represents existential consciousness (of course). Rationalist consciousness (think also Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Madeline Murray O’Hair) is typically hostile to mythic and magical consciousness, whereas existential consciousness, painfully aware of the absurdity of it all, ironically is more tolerant of “lower” levels of being (including the rationalist level), albeit, as Darrell says, “in [a] melancholy way.” Ken Wilber, incidentally, gently pokes fun at existentialism’s trademark cynicism, seeing it as the despair that emerges right before liberation.

  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com Darrell Grizzle

    Interesting distinction between rationalist consciousness (which would definitely include Ayn Rand) and existential consciousness. But I don’t think cynicism necessarily needs to involve despair. Sartre said he never felt despair, and when I read most of the existentialists – no matter how cynical – I see more hope than despair.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    I hear you, Darrell, but then again, I’ve met some pretty despairing existentialists in my day (present company notwithstanding). :-)

    Maybe “despair” isn’t the right word. What I’m trying to communicate is something along the lines of “it’s always darkest just before dawn.” I do agree that at its lyrical best, existentialism is deeply hopeful, just not in any kind of inauthentic way.