Life in the good society

Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
November 2022

Imagine this kind of life:

During pregnancy your parent or parents regularly visit a doctor who monitors the pregnancy, listens to concerns, and dispenses advice about optimal diet, things to avoid, how to deal with stress, and related matters. The birth occurs in a hospital — or perhaps at home but with access to physician assistance and appropriate technology. Throughout the first year of life, a nurse checks in with you and your parents to promote well-being and supply information about breast-feeding, your sleep patterns, eating, illnesses, and more. All of this is provided free or with a small copayment.

A universal parental leave program provides your parent(s) with 14 months of leave from paid work, replacing about 80% of their former salary. Parents can split these months however they like, though if your father (or other second parent) doesn’t take at least two of them they get a total of 12 instead of 14.

After your first birthday, your parents can enroll you in a high-quality “early education” (childcare) center either part-time or full-time, depending on how they want to balance their paying jobs with caring for you. The staff in these centers are required to have the same qualifications as elementary school teachers. Many of these centers are run by the government; they are, in effect, extensions of public elementary schools, though they focus more on social activities and play than on education. Others are privately-run — some for profit, some not. Private centers may be formed by groups of parents or by companies. They must meet the same quality standards as the public centers. Your parents pay for early education, but the total amount they owe is capped at less than 10% of their income.

Throughout your childhood your parents receive a “child allowance” of about $300 per month per child from the government to help defray the cost of childrearing.

Around age 6 you enter the public school system, where you attend elementary and secondary school up to age 18. This costs your parents nothing. There may be some fees for participation in sports or band or the arts, but they are small and families with low income pay less. School provides free, nutritious lunches and, depending on family income, also free breakfasts. It also offers free or low-cost after-school activities. If your parents prefer to pay to put you in a private school, they are welcome to do that.

If you have a physical, mental, or emotional disability, you receive support services. When you’re young, an aide may come to your home regularly. Once you enter elementary school, much of the service provision may be through the school system. There is no cost to your parents. If your needs persist beyond school age or throughout your life, you will continue to receive appropriate services.

During childhood, and throughout the rest of your life, you probably live either in an apartment within a multi-unit building or in a single-family house. Your home has a roof, floors, and walls. There is furniture, some wall decorations, appliances (refrigerator, stove, dishwasher, clothes washer), cooking items, toys.

Your home has running water, provided to you at little cost. This requires significant work. A government agency or a nongovernment utility company must find sources of water, transport it to where it can be cleaned, clean it by running it through a set of filters and adding some chemicals, transport it to your home, and ensure that it arrives with sufficient pressure to exit sink faucets and showerheads. After it gets used, it must be transported to where it can be cleaned again and then either disposed of or recycled to be transported back to homes. A separate system collects and then uses or disposes of rainwater.

Humans produce waste — solid, semisolid, and liquid. Solid waste is collected from your home once or twice a week. Some of it is recycled, some burned to generate energy, and some buried in landfills. Most liquid and semisolid waste disappears into sink drains, shower drains, and toilets. A separate system transports it to where it can be separated from usable water and then used for fuel or disposed of.

Your home has electricity to provide light, heat, cooling, and power for devices such as refrigerators and televisions. This too requires significant infrastructure. Even if your home generates power, perhaps from solar panels on your roof, that power typically must be transported somewhere else, converted, and then transported back to homes and other buildings. Much of the available power is generated elsewhere, via solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal stations, and nuclear plants. Because some of this power is generated only during certain hours of the day or certain days of the year, it must be stored temporarily before it is dispatched to users. The fact that the energy you use comes nearly entirely from renewable sources doesn’t mean you have access to only a small amount. On average, you use about 30,000 kilowatt-hours per year, roughly the same as the current average in Europe.1

You’re connected. Your home, like everyone’s, has access to broadband internet at a small cost. And public WiFi is available in schools, other public buildings, and commercial areas. Coupled with your public library membership, this gives you free or low-cost access to virtually the entire store of human knowledge via books, journal and magazine and newspaper articles, and online content.2 You can listen to virtually any piece of music that’s ever been recorded. And you can watch any recorded movie or television show or sports contest or live performance.

Your apartment or house may have a yard or a common area with some grass and trees. If it doesn’t, within a ten-minute walk or a five-minute ride there is greenspace to play or relax in. Access is free. Because you likely live in an area with mixed-use development, you also are within walking distance of one or more stores, restaurants, and cafes, and possibly your workplace.

You are safe. There is violence in your country and perhaps even your neighborhood, but it isn’t common. In a typical year, just one person out of every 100,000 is murdered. Rape, assault, and other types of violence also are rare. Expansive provision of public and near-public goods and services along with widespread economic opportunity reduce the incentive for violence. Safety also is aided by effective policing. There is both more and less policing than the current norm in a country like the United States. In high-crime areas, police create a large and highly visible presence, as this tends to reduce violence. At the same time, other matters that currently are under police purview, such as emergency mental health calls, are handled initially by mental health specialists, with police called in only if there is an identifiable threat of violence.

You have health insurance from cradle to grave. There may be copayments, and some elective procedures aren’t covered, or are covered only partially, but you are never in danger of dying or suffering a significant deterioration in your quality of life because you lack access to the funds needed to pay for medical care.

As you go through life, institutions and individuals that affect your opportunities and outcomes — schools, businesses, landlords, hospitals, government agencies, and others — aren’t permitted to treat you differently because of your sex, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, national origin, or religion. No one is required to like you or your beliefs or behaviors. But they can’t discriminate against you on these grounds.

After graduating from high school, you may attend college. If you choose a public university in your state or region, there is no tuition charge. Unless you live at home with your parents, you will owe for the room and board at college. To pay for this, you can take out a government-guaranteed loan. This loan will have a low monthly payment because the interest rate is low and because it can be paid back over 20 (or perhaps 30) years. And if your wage or salary turns out to be below average, your payments are further reduced.

When you finish college, you may decide to get additional education. Postgraduate schooling isn’t free, but again you are eligible for low-interest long-term loans with an income-based repayment plan.

If you aren’t interested in college, you may choose, around age 16, to enroll in an apprenticeship program that combines schooling with on-the-job vocational training. These programs run for three or four years and are tightly integrated with local firms and employer organizations to ensure that the skills being produced are needed ones rather than simply ones schools feel competent to provide. The apprenticeship programs are paid for by companies with a subsidy from the government.

Following school or an apprenticeship, most adults will get a paying job. If you struggle to find employment, you are eligible for government help. That will be true throughout your life if your company downsizes or goes out of business. Firms must notify a local labor market board in advance when they plan to lay off employees and when they have job openings that have lasted more than a few weeks. Workers who are displaced or who leave their job by choice can receive subsidized training. Staff in the labor market boards keep in close communication with firms and with boards in other areas regarding trends in skill needs. The training programs are full-time and range in duration from a few weeks to more than a year. The service then helps to place workers in new jobs. If necessary, an employer subsidy may be used to encourage a private-sector company to hire, or a public-sector job may be created.

Throughout your working career you’ll receive about 80% of your former pay if you can’t work due to sickness, injury, or unemployment. Depending on your condition and that of the national and local economy, these payments may last just a short time or as long as a year or more.

Each year you get 30 paid days (six weeks) of vacation or holiday.

You can start up a business. There are legal requirements, but a government office will help you to navigate them. Antitrust laws make it less likely that established firms can impede entry by new startups such as yours. You can borrow money to fund your company, and eventually you may decide to get additional financing by selling ownership shares to passive investors. Limited liability rules allow such investors to purchase shares in a company without the risk of losing more than they have invested in the event the company fails. If your business does fail, bankruptcy protections mean you won’t spend the rest of your life repaying the debt.

While some people in your society own a home, many rent. Government policy ensures there are few barriers to construction of new rental properties, particularly in cities and near them. This increases the likelihood that the supply of rental housing meets or exceeds demand, which helps to keep housing affordable. A housing assistance program provides a subsidy to low- and middle-income renters so that rent takes no more than 30% of their income. Landlords aren’t permitted to discriminate against prospective tenants who receive this assistance. In addition to ensuring that housing is affordable, this gives families genuine choice about where to live, allowing them to escape from problematic neighborhoods if they wish to. Government also provides some rental housing directly (“public housing”) and subsidizes additional affordable rental housing owned by nonprofits and communities (“social housing”).

You might own a car, or multiple cars, but you probably don’t need one. Fewer than half of all trips are made in private vehicles.3 Public transportation, in the form of rail lines, subways, buses, trolleys, and bike- and scooter-sharing, is extensive and affordable. And government provides additional incentives for construction of housing within walking distance of core public transport routes. To get to and from work, there’s a good chance you take rail or a speedy bus that travels in a dedicated lane. In a typical day you might use multiple forms of public transport, including a bike or scooter to take you the last half mile or so of your journey or to move around quickly between stores. You pay for this with an integrated app on your phone that automatically tallies your use. If your physical mobility is constrained or you are short on time, you can order just about anything to be delivered to your home, from a new television to a jar of ground cumin for the stew you’re making for dinner.

Government is attentive to provision and maintenance of a wide array of public spaces and infrastructure — roads, bridges, bike lanes, walking paths, sidewalks, stoplights, enforcement of speed limits, air traffic control, museums, parks, sports fields, public restrooms, forests, campgrounds, beaches, oceans, lakes, swimming pools, zoos, phone lines, broadband, the internet, public television and radio programming, subsidization of free private television and radio networks, libraries, festivals, and more.

During your working years you have access to the same family-friendly policies used by your parents — paid parental leave, early education, a child allowance, and so on.

You, like every citizen, are eligible for a free public bank account. In-person banking services are provided by post office branches, and you can use any public or private ATM machine multiple times per month at no charge. The government also provides free tax preparation services for the 80% or so of the population who have an uncomplicated tax return. Each person receives a postcard or short letter explaining the government’s calculation of the tax they owe or refund they are to receive. If the information is correct, you send a text or email to confirm.

You are eligible for basic legal services. If you are accused of a crime or your landlord is attempting to evict you, you will receive legal representation at no cost.

People tend to enjoy being part of a group. In your society everyone has not only the freedom but also the capability to form groups and to participate actively in them. As a result, there are groups for nearly every interest, belief, and activity imaginable. Some are in-person, some online. Some are local, while others span larger areas. For some, being a “member” means nothing more than signing up or making a small financial contribution. For others, it involves a substantial commitment of time or effort.

If you are religious, you have extensive freedom to practice your faith. You can pray and engage in other religious practices. You can join an existing religious organization or create a new one.

If you are interested in participating in politics, you have multiple options for involvement, particularly at the local level. There are the usual avenues available to citizens in a democracy: you can vote, lobby policy makers, organize in a group, run for office, and more. Beyond this, you may be surveyed regularly by your local government to gauge your opinion on policy issues. You may be randomly selected to participate in a deliberative advisory assembly — similar to a jury but focused on a matter of public policy. You can serve on a user board that oversees the provision of a particular public service such as transportation or job training. You might, as a representative of an interest group such as labor or business, participate in discussions and negotiations over major policy decisions.

When you reach retirement age, you are guaranteed a basic government pension. It’s relatively small, but it’s enough, when coupled with other public goods and services, to ensure that you can get by. There is a more generous public pension funded by earmarked tax payments throughout your working life, with benefits roughly proportional to your earnings. And many companies offer an additional defined-contribution pension to their employees.

You are eligible to receive public long-term care assistance. You may choose to live in an eldercare institution or to receive eldercare services in your home. In-home assistance can be for several hours, throughout the day, or round-the-clock if needed. There is a copayment, but it is modest — a few hundred dollars per month.

In its provision of goods and services, government is customer-friendly. Some of the things it pays for or provides have eligibility requirements, such as age, income, or health. Where such restrictions exist, government’s foremost goal isn’t to ensure that no one gets a service or benefit for which they aren’t genuinely eligible. Preventing cheating is a concern, but the chief aim is to ensure that eligible recipients are able to access services and other benefits at minimal cost and with little hassle. This is achieved via integrated databases that handle multiple programs, one-stop registration at a website or a physical office, simple sign-up procedures available in multiple languages, and a plentiful supply of service providers who offer one-to-one assistance.

The kind of life I’ve described here doesn’t guarantee that you will find your calling and your soulmate and live blissfully for 115 years. But it does sharply increase the likelihood that you’ll have a productive, fulfilling, satisfying life. Life tends to be stunted when people have to spend much of their day fetching water or food, commuting for hours to and from a job, and worrying about their personal safety and whether they’ll be able to pay the rent or get needed medical treatment. These types of concerns dominate mental bandwidth, cause stress and anxiety, impede long-term thinking and planning, and make change risky.4 Thankfully, we have the means and the knowledge to remove these impediments for nearly everyone.

Indeed, what I’ve described here isn’t hypothetical. There are actual humans living this kind of life right now. Our challenge is to identify the institutions and policies that make it possible, to facilitate the spread of those policies and institutions across the planet, and to build on this success to do even better.

  1. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “Energy Use Per Person,” Our World in Data. 
  2. Articles in academic journals will no longer be behind a paywall. 
  3. This is true in more than a few urban areas today, including London, Amsterdam, and Singapore. See Sybil Derrible, The Silent Urban Infrastructure, book manuscript, 2022. 
  4. Anuj K. Shah, Sendhil Mullainathan, and Eldar Shafir, “Some Consequences of Having Too Little,” Science, 2012; Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir, and Jiaying Zhao, “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function,” Science, 2013; Luis Bettencourt, “Mass Urbanization Could Lead to Unprecedented Human Creativity — But Only if We Do it Right,” Huffington Post, 2017.