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Common good natural to trees, chimps and people

Some years ago I upset a man by mentioning that Republicans saw greed as a virtue. I was surprised that he hadn’t heard that before. Our school library had received a complimentary video with Fox reporter John Stossel explaining why someone else’s greed can benefit you. For example, if a store owner didn’t raise the price of bottled water during a flood, some other guy would buy the entire stock and raise the price even more.

We see plenty of support for greed in our legislature. Year after year Republicans have passed taxes for those with big incomes while refusing to eliminate the sales tax on food. They refuse to consider increasing the minimum wage even though two wages aren’t enough for a couple to pay for housing, food and car insurance. Legislators passed some restraints on landlords this year, but still protect their right to charge inflated fees for background checks even when they don’t anticipate any available units.


And what about working to replace public education with for-profit schools?

On the other hand, many Republican legislators prefer to act for the common good rather than get high ratings from the Idaho Freedom Foundation.


The Hidden Life of Trees by German researcher Peter Wohlleben was published seven years ago, but its revelations still amaze me. Trees communicate with one another. They have social communities. And, after years of believing that big trees would deprive smaller ones of sunshine–and therefore life, research supports the opposite. Big trees distribute food to smaller ones.


Years ago anthropologist Jane Goodall found that, when food was scarce, leaders among the wild chimpanzees saw that everyone had enough. When Goodall introduced a surplus by using bunches of bananas to attract the animals, the social order broke down. Big males that had made sure nursing mothers’ needs were met started elbowing everyone out of the way to get more than they needed.

Economist Robert Reich views acting together for the good of all as the natural order for people. He is releasing a chapter of his 2019 book The Common Good on his blog every Friday.


“The idea of ‘the common good’ was once widely understood and accepted in America. After all, the U.S. Constitution was designed for ‘We the people’ seeking to ‘promote the general welfare’--not for ‘me the selfish jerk seeking as much wealth and power as possible.’”


I can’t help but wonder if the chimpanzees ever restored their social order–and did it take great shortages of food for them to do so.

Clearly, the men pledging “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” when signing the Declaration of Independence believed fervently in the common good. These wealthy, educated men recognized rebellion would inflict great damage, but they believed it was the right thing to do.


When Thomas Nelson Jr. learned that British General Cornwallis was using Nelson’s home for his headquarters, Nelson “quietly urged General George Washiington to open fire. The home was destroyed, and Nelson died bankrupt'' (michaelwsmith.com).


But the assumption that people are truthful and bound by a common code, leaves us open to exploitation by others. Reich lists 53 major events between 1964 and 2017 where prominent leaders in government or finance deceived and/or cheated Americans. “All were the result of people seeking personal gains in wealth or power at the expense of the common good.”


After nearly 60 years of publicity about political and business leaders putting personal advantage first, it’s amazing how many people still act for community and the common good. In 2022 over 17,000 Idahoans helped the Idaho Food Bank get food supplies to nearly 170,000 people each month. Volunteermatch.org lists 294 Boise-area organizations that use volunteers for tasks as varied as mending library books, leading activities for children, talking to suicidal persons, and helping with medical emergencies.

And by September 8, hundreds of Idahoans will sign up as candidates to help manage cemetery districts, city governments, and school districts. Only a few will get paid; a few more may get health insurance coverage. Most will run, however, to take on-time consuming tasks in order to help make their community a better place. Many others are serving on library boards, highway district commissions or planning and zoning commissions for cities and counties.

I suspect that these volunteers are among the happiest of Americans. They have enough income that they don’t need to work two or three jobs. They have the luxury of making a choice to contribute their time And they aren’t so consumed with getting money to buy more or bigger or newer houses and cars that they can’t make time to serve their communities.


Most of us couldn’t and wouldn’t charge $609 for two doses of epinephrine that cost $1 to make. That’s against our nature.


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