The common good is generally defined as that which benefits society as a whole, as opposed to the personal good of individuals or selected sections of society.

Common purpose is when two or more like-minded people join together with the same intent to accomplish the same goal.

The “tragedy of the commons” is a phrase used to describe a problem that occurs when individuals misuse or deplete a resource to the extent that it cannot be renewed and/or becomes harmful to society.

In 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower did something special for the common good. Having served as a supreme allied commander during World War II, he understood the logistics of transporting troops and goods in an efficient way.

America had built a railroad for the common purpose of moving people and goods across the continent in days instead of months. The automobile and heavier utility vehicles had been designed and built through accelerated mass production. They were used for quick and easy transport, but the question of the day became, “What will we do when the roads and highways they use become congested?”

The Interstate system was born when the president decided we needed a nationwide network of freeways to accommodate the growing demand. It became our country’s new common purpose.

In the 1960s, the system began to thread its way through Utah. My family in Farr West was asked to contribute to the common good by sacrificing a beautiful orchard and garden which were in the path of the planned Interstate 15. As a kid I would awaken to the songs of the meadowlarks and enjoyed the fresh fruit from our trees and garden. These were replaced with a concrete, four-lane freeway and the noise of swift moving traffic.

My parents were compensated in a manner the government described as “fair.” Though life changed dramatically on Farr West Drive, my mom and dad never complained about that circumstance. They understood the need to support the common good.

However, they did join with neighbors for the common purpose of protecting the Coy family across the street whose home was in the freeway’s direct path. The Coys were a poor, elderly couple who had constructed their home, piece by piece, in a fashion that didn’t merit a high appraised value. Like the transaction with my parents, the government offered the Coys a “fair” settlement. But what was “fair” in the government’s eyes was not even close to enough to acquire new living quarters. So, the people of Farr West protested on the Coys’ behalf in a strong, humanitarian common purpose. It worked. The government compensated by covering the cost of a modest new home for the Coys on a nearby lot.

Working together for a common purpose is clearly an extension of the common good. Life is not always fair. Things are not always equal. Some must sacrifice more than others for the common good, but when common good and common purpose are coupled with good intent, everything seems to work out.

Supporting the common good includes volunteering as a tutor, sharing produce from neighbor to neighbor, donating to faith-based and human-service organizations, studying issues before voting, establishing a neighborhood watch and, yes, even paying taxes.

When the common good and the pure-mindedness of common purpose are ignored, tragedy of the commons occur. For example, when the Weber Industrial Park was established near Harrisville, all neighboring communities agreed not to annex in order to maintain an enticing taxation climate, and it should remain so for the common good.

Communities that grab land from the commonwealth of economic development inventory, people who overuse and waste precious energy and water resources, citizens who carelessly disregard the opportunity to reuse, renew and recycle — these are some examples of practices that can be changed.

In order to help, we can look to these questions: How am I contributing to or detracting from the common good? What is my community’s common purpose? Just what is my personal responsibility?

Earnest attention to these questions will help us avoid the tragedy of the commons and reach a higher common good.

Robert A. Hunter is director of The Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University. He may be contacted at rhunter@weber.edu.

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