ON no subject has Ronald Reagan been more eloquent or more effective than what columnist George Will has termed ``the small republic renaissance'' (Newsweek, Sept. 2, 1985). In opposition to modern liberalism's reliance on big government or abstract conceptions of community, the President has regularly and powerfully evoked family, neighborhood, church, synagogue, and voluntary organization in his calls for ``an end to giantism'' and ``a return to the human scale'' that ordinary people can understand. The great irony of this administration, however, has been its unrelenting attack on the basic vision that supports such values: the commonwealth. The word commonwealth derives directly from the old English words ``common'' and ``weal.'' Its original meaning in English suggested common well-being, the general good or the prosperity of the community. But it soon became associated with older biblical notions of common property and republican ideas of political participation and civic-mindedness as well. By the 17th century, the idea strongly conveyed government of and by free citizens.
Those in the revolutionary generation in America were so fond of the term commonwealth that they applied it to streets, clubs, and four states. As historians Oscar and Mary Handlin pointed out in their book ``Commonwealth,'' for the nation's founders the word conveyed the value of common and cooperative action. Democrats like Jefferson believed the commonwealth could be sustained only through an active participation by ordinary people in their communities and in their government which taught a concern for the common good. Conservatives like Madison and Hamilton stressed rule by the well-born. But they also saw national well-being as dependent upon a general consciousness of the commonwealth. In the commonwealth perspective, private property, while valuable and important as a source of independence, was never an end in itself. As Benjamin Franklin put it, property should always be considered the ``Creature of Society,'' subject to the claims of the commonwealth.
The ideas associated with the commonwealth have proved an enduring and powerful strain in our culture. Even the giants of American business like Andrew Carnegie argued that captains of industry must see their role as trustees of the country's resources and wealth, with a duty to husband it for the general welfare and for posterity. Meanwhile, the vision of the commonwealth formed a central, animating theme for broad democratic social movements throughout American history. Artisans in the Knights of Labor and hard-pressed farmers 100 years ago described themselves as producing ``for the commonwealth,'' instead of greedy industrialists or merchants. Nineteenth-century women suffragists like Frances Willard contrasted the commonwealth with a ``male dominated'' public arena corrupted by robber barons and big-city bosses. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., drawing on earlier commonwealth theologians like Walter Rauschenbusch, revitalized the idea that ``we are bound together by a single garment of destiny.''
Today the word sometimes sounds old fashioned. As the Roman Catholic bishops have recently observed in their Pastoral Letter on the Economy, our sense of membership in the commonwealth has been weakened by private affluence, the fragmentation of modern society, and other factors. But our ancestors' conviction that smaller communities, places of worship, voluntary groups, even families cannot long survive without an appreciation of the broader context that sustains and nourishes them has perhaps a greater relevance than ever. It is just this context that the administration undermines.
Business executives now warn that a spirit of short-term greed and a ``merger mania'' encouraged by the administration's economic policies threaten the nation's economic foundations. Environmentalists express alarm about the plunder of the nation's natural resources and the inattention to long-range problems like acid rain which have resulted from the administration's focus on unbridled economic development. Most recently, even ardent budget-balancers have doubted that the proper way to reduce the deficit is the administration's idea of selling off agencies like the US Postal Service, the Federal Housing Administration, and NASA's space shuttle to the highest bidder.
Ronald Reagan has often invoked the vision of our land as a ``city on a hill,'' as the 17th-century Puritan John Winthrop held. But with the President's forgetfulness about the commonwealth has come an oversight about Winthrop's warning. ``If our hearts shall ever turn away so that we worship the gods of pleasure and profit, we shall surely perish from this good land,'' Winthrop told his contem-poraries. It is a timely reminder for the sake of our own national well-being today. And it should help recall the critical test of the commonwealth, the future of our children.
Harry C. Boyte is co-author of ``Free Spaces: the Sources of Democratic Change in America.