The common good is distinguished, on the one hand, from progressivism, which identifies "common" with "public" and "public" with the state. In the contemporary progressive view of life, the state is the principle means by which the good of all advances. Thus, any non-governmental entities such as family, church, school, etc. exist only at the state's sufferance and only to the extent the state determines they add value to the vision of the good determined by the elites who pull the levers of state action.
As Smith describes the progressive point of view,
Imagine how all of this sounds if you believe that "government" is synonymous with "public" and the "common" good is synonymous with the "public" good: to challenge the state's monopoly and to encourage non-state communities will sound like a strategy for excusing ourselves from loving our neighbor and seeking permission to set up enclaves that benefit "me and mine." Indeed, if you treat "public," "government," and "the common good" as basically synonymous, then anything "private"—anything outside of the state—is going to be seen as selfish and unjust.On the other hand, a popular version the libertarian vision of the common good is merely the aggregation of individual goods, hardly the stuff of a vibrant civil society.
Countering the suspicion from the Left with the individualizing atrophy of the Right entails that conservatives must provide a vision that addresses the mess of the current society as it is actually is. Appeals to subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty alone will not persuade the many in the middle who hunger for freedom and order. Eviscerating Leviathan state will not immediately generate the "little platoons" that constitute a well-functioning social order. Smith's prescription is a dose of real history:
We need to beware of policy proposals that are "principled" but fail to attend to history. Society is never a blank slate. We always already find ourselves in some historically determined moment. Our "here and now" is always the product of a "there and then." While good policy should be informed by enduring, even timeless wisdom, it is always policy for a particular people at a particular moment with a particular history.In other words, Smith is something of a Red Tory. I'm not sure if there's much to distinguish Smith's take from my common-law conservatism so I'll county myself one of his fellow travelers.
But to Smith's application; consider: "Now, when we call for limiting the state's monopolies in order to make room for other spheres of social flourishing, we have to recognize that, for many, the state is all they've got." In other words, the thick middle between state and individual has been so evacuated of substance that for vast swathes of modern Western populations there is nothing other than the state to hold matters together. Given that state of affairs,
Those who rightly seek to foster civil society outside government, and who do so for the sake of justice and common good, need to concurrently address how to care for all those who, severed from any meaningful little platoons, are effectively wards of the state.As Smith later puts it, "[conservative] reform can only be enacted in the messiness of history, so challenging the monopoly of the state should not be confused with burning it to the ground." Reality, not ideology, is called for as we confront our fraying ends of our society.