Life in the good society

Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
April 2023

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 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. Solid waste is collected once or twice a week. Liquid and semisolid waste disappears into sink drains, shower drains, and toilets. A separate system collects and then uses or disposes of rainwater. These services come free or at modest cost.

Your home has electricity to provide light, heat, cooling, and power for devices such as refrigerators and televisions. The energy you use comes entirely (or almost entirely) from clean sources, but that 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.

You have an array of civil and political protections: freedom from slavery, freedom from torture, the right to a fair trial, the right to be treated with humanity in detention, and more.3

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, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, or religion. No one is required to like you, your physical features, your beliefs, or your preferences. 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, or if you lose a job or leave it by choice, you are eligible for government help. 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. Non-employed persons 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.

If the pay for your job is low, you may receive an “earnings subsidy” to boost your income.

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.

If your household’s total income is below a level deemed necessary for a minimally decent standard of living and you are neither able to find additional employment income nor eligible for money from various government programs, you will receive cash from a separate public program (typically called “social assistance”) to bring your income up to that minimal level.

You can start up a business. There are legal requirements, but a government office will help you to navigate them. Competition (“antitrust”) law makes 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.

If you’re an employee in a medium-size or large firm, you and fellow employees will elect works council representatives who negotiate hiring rules, working conditions, work hours, and firing procedures with management. You also will elect one-third to one-half of the members of the board of directors, who are the firm’s main decision-making authority.

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.4 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, data collection (census, health, economic, etc), enforcement of speed limits, air traffic control, weather forecasts, 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 very person, 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.

You have 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.

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, donate money to a campaign, run for office, protest, 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.

Many of the services, goods, and programs I’ve described here are paid for and/or provided by government. That’s because the government, in a democratic society, is the only mechanism through which we can guarantee people access to these kinds of goods and services and insurance. There is, unfortunately, no way to guarantee that you’ll grow up in a family with two loving, devoted parents, nor that a family member or friend or charitable organization or employer will be there to provide you with food or clothing or money or job training or help in caring for your elderly parent.

The total cost of public programs, goods, services, and government operations amounts to about half of your country’s yearly income (gross domestic product, or GDP). For most households, somewhere between one-third and one-half of income goes to the government in taxes.5

Government 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.

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 array of institutions, policies, and programs I’ve described here can’t guarantee you will find your soulmate and your calling and live blissfully for 115 years. But it does ensure that you have much of what’s needed for a life that is fulfilling, or at least satisfying. Life tends to be stunted when people have to spend much of their day worrying about their personal safety, fetching water or food, driving for hours to and from a job, fearing they’ll be unable to pay the rent or get needed medical treatment or afford childcare. These types of concerns dominate mental bandwidth, cause stress and anxiety, impede long-term thinking and planning, and make change risky.6 Thankfully, we have the knowledge and the resources to remove these and other 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.7

  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. Lane Kenworthy, “Human Rights,” The Good Society. 
  4. 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. 
  5. Lane Kenworthy, “Taxes,” The Good Society. 
  6. 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. 
  7. Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society; Kenworthy, Social Democratic Capitalism Oxford University Press, 2020; European Parliament, Council of the European Union, and European Commission, European Pillar of Social Rights, 2017.