Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
To thrive, humans need some degree of order — in our day-to-day lives, in our community, in our society. Order increases our safety and security. It enhances predictability, which makes it easier to plan and to decide when to take risks. Order thereby improves people’s mental well-being, facilitates commitment to family and community, promotes creativity and innovation, increases our productivity, and eases collective problem solving. We tend to do best with moderate, rather than large, amounts of uncertainty and change.
Achieving order is challenging because individuals, groups, and organizations have diverse capabilities, interests, beliefs, and preferences. How do we coordinate behavior to avoid chaos? How do we allow for change while convincing those who fare worse than others to stay in the game, rather than abandoning it or trying to overturn it? How do we achieve order?
A government is a body with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in a particular territory. Humans can function without governments; our ancestors did for roughly fifty thousand years. And governments sometimes do bad things. But having a government tends to be better than not having one, in part because it increases order. Government has been a key contributor to, among other things, the slow but steady reduction in violence over the past millennium.1
Most people spend their entire childhood — that is, age 0 through 17 — in a family. Families enhance order in two ways. First, they typically provide us with one or more people we can count on to help when we need it. Second, they provide an authority structure, with parents having authority over children, that allows coordination to be achieved via commands. Humans (teenagers) don’t always enjoy being on the receiving end of a command relationship, but it does tend to impose a degree of regularity on interactions and behaviors. It helps that this authority structure usually doesn’t have to be regularly renegotiated; it’s simply understood that parents have the authority to instruct their children about what to do and what not to do.
Organizations too provide an authority structure that helps to coordinate key aspects of our lives such as education, work, and religion. We could leave learning up to individuals, or to their parents or neighbors. But typically we do it in schools, with teachers guiding and instructing students. Work, too, typically occurs in an organization — a business firm, a nonprofit group, a government agency. And typically one’s job is defined by the organization, or by one’s superior (boss) within the organization. In most religions, there is an established hierarchy of decision making.
In some workplaces and even in some religious traditions, decisions are made democratically. But that doesn’t alter the fact that there is a recognized pattern of decision making that participants for the most part can take for granted and that contributes to orderly functioning.
Laws are rules that formally spell out what kinds of behaviors are and aren’t permissible, the conditions under which people get access to various goods and services, and how conflicts get resolved. Laws tell us what kinds of things we can and can’t do, and they specify what the consequences will be if we break those rules.
Laws inevitably are incomplete. They can’t possibly cover every conceivable behavior. Order also depends on norms, which are standard and generally accepted ways of doing things. Norms help to guide our behavior when the law is silent or ambiguous.
Examples abound: Don’t litter. When talking with someone other than a family member or good friend, don’t stand too close. Form a line based on time of arrival. Don’t try to get a legitimate election overturned by knowingly spreading false claims of vote fraud. Don’t use nuclear weapons for an offensive purpose. Acknowledge that there are objective facts — not just perspectives or discourses — and that we get closer to identifying those fact by using scientific methods, including evidence and reasoning.
It would be reasonable to presume that the only way to effectively coordinate the buying and selling of goods and services is by planning it. But it turns out that, in practice, markets tend to work quite well. A market is a decentralized form of coordination in which each economic actor chooses a price at which to sell her service or good and buyers decide whether or not to purchase it. Sellers and buyers adjust prices in response to feedback.
Prices turn out to be a very useful source of information.2 If a producer of a good or service finds that too few people are purchasing at the price he has set, he can reduce the price in order to increase sales. He also may try to figure out ways to improve efficiency in his operations, or to improve the quality of the product, so that he can increase sales at the lower price or reach enough sales at a higher price. Similarly, buyers facing prices they’re unwilling or unable to pay may look for other sellers; or they might try to find ways to earn more money in order to pay the higher price; or they might choose to purchase alternative items. The sum of these independent decisions turns out, in many instances, to yield a significant degree of coordination and order.
This result is even more remarkable in that markets don’t require people to act altruistically. For the most part, individuals and organizations pursuing their own material self-interest will end up acting in ways that result in an orderly — and relatively efficient — process.
What about planning? In a planned economy, an agency decides what entities will produce which goods and services, in what quantities, and at what prices. The planning process can also include decisions about which people will perform which roles in the production. This kind of planning is commonplace within companies. We also observe such planning in economic sectors that are run by government, such as K-12 schooling and health care.
There have been attempts to use planning to coordinate economic activity across an entire economy. With modern computing power, this is doable. But attempts at economy-side planning have proved inferior to markets. Planned economies have tended to respond less rapidly to changes in economic conditions and preferences. They’ve been less effective at generating innovation and increases in productivity. And they’ve tended to be used only by authoritarian governments.3
Concluding that markets are an effective way to order an economy is not the same thing as saying, as “neoliberals” might, that markets are more effective at everything. Nor is it to suggest that even where markets are most effective they must therefore be used. For some services and goods, such as health care and education, markets may not be as useful as other forms of coordination, and in any case we might prefer to limit their use.4
We haven’t always had formal units of time — seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years. Individuals and societies managed to survive for thousands of years without these. But formalizing time and creating devices to measure it and convey it, such as clocks, helps people to order their lives. We can more effectively plan to do multiple things during a day. We can more easily arrange to meet with other people. Business operations can better coordinate their workforce. They can preplan their service operations by scheduling appointments, making reservations, selling advance tickets. And so on.
Let’s return to politics. An authoritarian government can provide order, as plenty of examples, both historical and contemporary, attest. But its lack of fairness and its thereby-limited legitimacy among the governed will tend to reduce its long-term effectiveness at doing so (and probably endanger its survivability).
Liberal democracy has proved to be, to this point in history, the political structure best suited to achieving order over the long run. It features5:
- Democratic government: free and fair elections to representative decision-making bodies, roughly equal opportunity for each citizen to influence policy making, and majority rule.
- A constitution specifying rights and freedoms that can’t be abridged by the government or other actors. “Liberal societies confer rights on individuals, the most fundamental of which is the right to autonomy, that is, the ability to make choices with regard to speech, association, belief, and ultimately political life.”
- The rule of law. “Law” here refers to a set of rules of behavior that is binding on even the most powerful actors in society. Effective application of the law typically requires independent courts and judicial review.
- A nonpartisan government bureaucracy (“administrative state”).
- Independent media and autonomous scientific community.
- Acceptance of diverse beliefs, preferences, and behaviors. “Classical liberalism can be understood as an institutional solution to the problem of governing over diversity, or, to put it in slightly different terms, of peacefully managing diversity in pluralistic societies. The most fundamental principle enshrined in liberalism is one of tolerance: you do not have to agree with your fellow citizens about the most important things, but only that each individual should get to decide what they are without interference from you or from the state.”
- Recognition that we frequently are wrong, and that science, debate, toleration of dissent, and commitment to incremental reform (rather than revolution) are therefore essential.
Liberal democracy helps to ensure order by providing a context in which people with differing needs and wants can resolve their disagreements peaceably, in which disputes can be settled without resorting to physical force. It lowers the temperature of politics. Adam Gopnik puts this point in the following way: “The greatest service of [liberal democratic] politics isn’t to enable the mobilization of people who have the same views; it’s to enable people to live together when their views differ. Politics is a way of getting our ideas to brawl in place of our persons…. Politics, as opposed to pure power grabs, involves an acceptance of the truth that these conflicts can never be cured but only contained, and made as peaceable as humanly … possible. Politics is stress. The objective of practicing it should be to keep the stress from turning into cardiac arrest.”6
Consider just one example from contemporary America: speech on college campuses. Harmful speech — a false advertising claim for a pharmaceutical, shouting “fire” in a crowded space, hate speech — can and should be prevented. But whether a particular type of speech crosses over the line should be decided by an appropriate governing body. When leftist students take it upon themselves to block a speaker from getting to the podium, or shout her down once she’s reached it, they forget that the other side can do the same thing. Who gets to speak on college campuses then comes to hinge on which side can shout the loudest or show up with the most bodies.
Liberal democracy also fosters sympathy and compassion for those on the losing side of economic and social change — people whose job gets automated out of existence, who are members of a formerly-hegemonic religion, who live in a place experiencing population exodus, whose traditionalist cultural views are in decline. And it provides mechanisms that give such people a voice and an opportunity to influence policies and institutions. This encourages losers to stay in the game, instead of opting out or trying to overthrow the game itself.
A potential threat to order for any political structure is military attack. Will liberal democratic governments tend to be militarily inferior to authoritarian ones? That hasn’t been the case historically, partly because liberal democracy, when complemented by a market-based economy, has proved conducive to innovation and technological advance. In addition, liberal democratic governance creates incentive and opportunity to identify errors and correct them, so it’s less likely to make calamitous mistakes.7
Governments tend to increase order, as noted above. But why not a single government for the entire world? Why do governments govern separate countries?
The main reason is historical. That’s how governments developed over time, and once in place they became difficult to dislodge.
A second is that a government needs something beyond the law to undergird its support among the people it governs. There must be some grounds for solidarity among the citizenry. Francis Fukuyama suggests that, at this point in history, the nation is “the largest unit of solidarity to which they feel an instinctive loyalty.”8
A third reason is that we have little evidence about how well something like world government would work. As Fukuyama puts it: “The fact that nations remain the locus of coercive power should make us cautious about proposals to create new supranational bodies and to delegate such power to them. We have several hundred years of experience in learning how to constrain power at a national level through legal and legislative institutions, and how to balance power such that its use reflects general interests. We have no idea how to create such institutions at a global level.”9
- Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Viking, 2011; Lane Kenworthy, “Safety,” The Good Society. ↩
- Friedrich Hayek, “The Price System as a Mechanism for Using Knowledge,” American Economic Review, 1945. ↩
- Janos Kornai, Contradictions and Dilemmas: Studies on the Socialist Economy and Society, MIT Press, 1983; Alec Nove, The Economics of Feasible Socialism, George Allen and Unwin, 1983. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Health Care,” The Good Society; Kenworthy, “Public Ownership,” The Good Society. ↩
- Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, Oxford University Press, 1999; Sen, The Idea of Justice, Harvard University Press, 2009; Paul Starr, Freedom’s Power: The True Force of Liberalism, Basic Books, 2007; Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014; Fukuyama, Liberalism and Its Discontents, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2022; Adam Gopnik, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism, Basic Books, 2019; Lane Kenworthy, “Democracy,” The Good Society. Liberal societies quote: Fukuyama, Liberalism and Its Discontents, pp. 1-2. Classical liberalism quote: Fukuyama, Liberalism and Its Discontents, p. 7. ↩
- Adam Gopnik, “Can’t We Come Up with Something Better Than Liberal Democracy?,” The New Yorker, 2022. ↩
- Starr, Freedom’s Power: The True Force of Liberalism; Gopnik, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism. ↩
- Fukuyama, Liberalism and Its Discontents, p. 132. ↩
- Fukuyama, Liberalism and Its Discontents, pp. 131-132. ↩