The “Politician’s Job” and the “Common Good”

“It is the politician’s job to translate this abstract, theoretical concept of the ‘common good’ into concrete, working terms. The politician must decide how many dollars and cents constitute a ‘fair or just’ minimum wage. Is it 75¢, 90¢, a dollar? The politician must decide whether public, tax-supported housing is required for the common good. How much housing? Where? The politician must decide whether, and for how long, men may be imprisoned for crimes; what to do, and how to do it [...] Political decisions about these political questions control and create the very environment and atmosphere of our lives.”
Sargent Shriver |Chicago, IL|May 7, 1956

Our Quote of the Week shows the importance of public service. Through Sargent Shriver’s words, we understand the high stakes of holding public office and the influence of political decisions on our everyday lives.

Sixty-five years ago, Sargent Shriver spoke about government to a young audience in his Speech to YMCA Youth Citizenship Luncheon in Chicago. He invited them to think about a “dream government for the future”, saying that ultimately, government “will need leaders who believe in the high destiny and importance of public service”, who will not blame “others, foreigners and foreign wars, for our troubles”, and will truly take responsibility for the common good. Shriver also challenged the idea that “the best government is the least government,” arguing that this is a “glittering inaccuracy” that prevents us from having functional, effective leadership that makes a positive difference in people’s lives.

In his remarks, Sargent Shriver stressed that, in one way or another, each of us has a role to play in creating a “dream government of the future”. He tells his young audience:

“There may be a future mayor of Chicago sitting before us here today, a foreign ambassador, or a secretary of state. But even if none of us should ever reach such eminence in public life, all of us, as responsible citizens, as inhabitants of a democracy, still have the obligation to practice good government, and this does not mean merely voting.”

In this moment, we can see quite clearly the importance of government’s role in our lives. Perhaps our most stark examples can be found on Congress’ docket right now: a scheduled vote on a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and a related vote on an ambitious Democratic-led spending bill that could cost up to $3.5 trillion; along with a potential government shutdown and a threat of federal default as we near the debt limit. The economic impacts of the bills, should they pass, will be far-reaching, with significant investments not just in traditional infrastructure (i.e., roads, bridges, etc.), but in child care, job training, health care, climate change, and more. And the fallout of Congress not working together to pass these bills in a sustainable way would be a missed opportunity and could put the credit rating of the US at risk. Either way, the decisions being made this week will impact our lives, potentially for years to come.

As we watch political events in Washington unfold, we must remember that we have a role to play in the direction that the country takes. From voting, to engaging publicly with our elected representative, to advocating for our communities, and even to running for office, as citizens we can use our skills to effect our own influence and to contribute to the public good.

We close with the wish that Sargent Shriver expressed in 1956 to his young audience:

“May each of you in your own personal lives achieve the fullest measure of personal happiness. May each of you also make an important contribution to the society in which you live, to the happiness of others, and to the dream government of the future.”

Like this quote? Read the speech and subscribe to receive our Quote of the Week by email.

Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
Get the Quote of the Week in Your Inbox