The Good Society: An Alternative Vision of Progress

When John Locke made his pronunciations in the 18th century, the ideal of an autonomous individual was embedded in a complex system that included family and church on one hand, and on the other a vigorous public sphere in which economic initiative, it was hoped, grew together with public spirit – creating a discursive community capable of thinking about the public good. Every good society conjured up by philosophers and reformers presupposes an imaginary man managing his behavior by the dictates of pure reason and keeping in mind the long-range effects of his every action. Faced with growing homelessness, under-employment, crumbling highways and ecological disaster, our response is one of apathy, frustration, cynicism and retreat into our private worlds. Today, we search for a society built around core values: equality, democracy and sustainability. Rather than being a specific vision, or end point, the Good Society is a framework that enables us to evaluate political ideas and actions against core values.1

In a 1900 article in Rivista Alfredo Pareto commented on the radical movements at the turn of the century in France and Italy. He concluded that rather than restoring democracy and promoting social welfare, they were just seeking to replace one elite with another elite, the privileges and structures of power remaining intact. The struggle was not for a Good Society, Pareto concluded, but a squabble among elites over who was going to govern. What were the ideals and theories they claimed to fight for? Just propaganda, Pareto declared, the way upwardly mobile people manipulate the helpless, hopeless mob to take to the streets on their behalf. From Pareto’s point of view – socialism, libertarianism – all ideologies are smoke screens foisted by ‘leaders’ who really only aspire to enjoy the privilege and power of governing. He suggested class struggle is eternal, and recognized the predictions of economics fail to correspond to reality.

To seek answers, Pareto turned to sociology. He identified two factors, the circulation of elites and the irrationalism in politics. Change is associated with people always entering and leaving elites thereby tending to restore equilibrium.2 However, decisions in politics are emotional and non-rational. In such a system the function of reason is to justify past behavior or to show the way to future goals, which are determined not by reason, but by emotional wants. During the 1980s, school systems lowered educational standards to protect children from failure. The world would be saved from crime, drug abuse and under-achieving through bolstering self-esteem. In order to ensure positive self-esteem education standards were lowered, creating a milieu for extreme individualism. When there is too much self-esteem there are problems of self-tolerance, entitlement and narcissism. The culture of extreme individualism ushered in the narcissism influencing decision-making and accountability today.

With narcissism, such a person lacks empathy and does not recognize boundaries: personal, corporate or legal. The world viewed from an emotional rather than a rational perspective allows personal feelings to override the distinction between right and wrong. Individualism reinforces the person who thinks that he/she should not have to contribute to the community’s common good but should be left free to pursue his/her own personal ends. Neoliberal capitalism has nothing to do with democracy as it is now linked to a market logic that divorces itself from social cost. The harshest costs of modern economic practices fall upon ecosystems and populations with little current economic power or value, including generations not yet born. “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” observes John Kenneth Galbraith.

The deregulation and minimal role for government has been ‘culturally empowered’ since the 1970s through the universal intellectual deference to external authorities such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Their followers accept unquestioningly every word of their writings as a rational explanation for laissez-faire economics. Hayek claimed laws are to protect the liberty of the individual, even though it created a system with built-in inequality. Friedman proposed that trickle-down economics helps poor people by the trickle-down effect in which economic growth flows down from the top to the bottom indirectly benefiting those who do not directly benefit from the policy changes. With respect to trickle-down economics, the 2008 financial crisis is the greatest broken promise (or lie) of our lifetime. While neoliberalism champions that individuals have maximum freedom, a crisis exposes the clash with neoliberal interpretation of freedom and responsibilities, on the balance between personal freedom and the common good.

But even more so, we have a right to expect that the state does everything in its power to promote human flourishing, to provide the conditions under which all individuals have the opportunity to live well. While achieving moral virtue or knowledge may be largely within our power, other goods like wealth or health may be largely determined by fortune. While a good government cannot guarantee that citizens will attain moral virtue or have good lives, it can provide the condition under which this is possible, and it can help alleviate much of the injustice caused by misfortune. A ‘good society’ can only be achieved if there is an acceptance of the need to tame capitalism and strictly regulate it. A good society is a society that doesn’t hesitate to ask the hard questions, to lead and participate in critical conversations about what is important to us, what we value, what is working and what is not working.

In a world of increasing complexity and interdependence, we can no longer afford ‘to go our own way.’ Rather, we need to exercise our capacity for developing institutions that recognize our interconnectedness, moving toward the creation of the good society, where the common good is the pursuit of the good in common. We can define a new vision of progress based on social justice, sustainability and security. These are fundamental preconditions for the Good Society. Not only because ‘more equal societies almost always do better’ as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have shown in their impressive study. But also, because self-fulfillment of the individual, the right of everyone to achieve their own unique way of being human, needs social justice, sustainability and security. If these preconditions are lacking, opportunities are limited to the few. The Good Society wants to make them equally achievable for all.

The economic elite provide campaign contributions to both parties, which allow them to place key individuals in regulatory positions in Washington. This means decisions in government are handled from the perspective of the economic elite. The 2016 election exposed the level of degradation of the public sphere. A propaganda system created by the economic elite and their proxies manipulates the public through misinformation and echo chambers. Because of this control of information, the public only gets to agree, rather than provide an alternative vision of progress. The politics of fear is used as a driving or motivating factor for the people, to get them to vote a particular way, allow excesses in spending, or accept policies they might otherwise abhor. It’s banking on the fact that presenting people with an alleged threat to their well-being will elicit a powerful emotional response that can override reason and prevent a critical assessment of policies.

Markets will also not by themselves be able to ensure the ecological balance of our planet. Thus, functioning markets need rules and preconditions that will not be established by the market itself. These public goods will not be provided by the markets themselves. They must be provided by society. In a society where wealth is distributed on a performance-base, those owning or earning above average must contribute more to these public goods. The idea of social progress is based on a better quality of life for all. This goes far beyond increasing consumption, which can be provided by markets. People do not achieve sense in life through commodities you can buy on the market. Humans want to be part of the society, and are striving for security, participation and emancipation. Security means being protected against fundamental risks like unemployment, illness and old age (which is a “risk” only in an economic sense). It also means being protected against discrimination and exploitation.

The Good Society, based on the notion of sustainability understood as social, economic, and environmental sustainability, needs a functioning public sphere. The idea of a public sphere is an ideal of good and accountable governance. Its requisites are the free flows of information, free expression, and free debate. Such a public sphere is truly participatory and the best protection against abuse. In reality, we only find approximations of this ideal to create the inclusive society in which the  government might be organized to serve the collective interests of ordinary people – the public – rather than the personal interests of rulers and economic elites. Progressive politics can develop an alternative vision of progress that combines the dynamism of markets with more equal societies. The Good Society is built on the idea that more equality is possible; is values-based, and the challenge is more to bring these values back into our daily political and social lives, rather than changing them.3

1 Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez. (Spring, 1992) Creating the Good Society https://www.scu.edu/ethics/ethics-resources/ethical-decision-making/creating-the-good-society/

2 An Analysis of the Circulation of Elites in America (10 June 2018) http://questioningandskepticism.com/analysis-circulation-elites-america/

3 Andrea Nahles (31 March 2011) Equality and The Good Society https://www.socialeurope.eu/equality-and-the-good-society

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