What is a good society?

Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society

Life is complex and multifaceted. To flourish, we need a variety of things. Here is my list of the most important (in alphabetical order):

  • Community
  • Democracy
  • Economic equality
  • Economic opportunity
  • Economic prosperity
  • Economic security
  • Economic stability
  • Education
  • Employment
  • Environment
  • Family
  • Freedom
  • Good government
  • Happiness
  • Health
  • Housing
  • Privacy
  • Safety
  • The United States and the world (how we relate to other countries)

Some of these desiderata take precedence over others. But which ones? Most of us would agree that basic liberties are more important than economic prosperity. Yet are they also more important than economic security? Than democracy? Than safety? Do they trump environmental sustainability?

Prioritizing is difficult. If we ask 100 people to rank-order these various ends, we might well get 100 different orderings. Libertarians privilege freedom.1 Utilitarians emphasize happiness.2 Marxists tend to focus on material needs.3 For many conservatives, safety and order get top billing.4 The Declaration of Independence prized “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The French Revolution highlighted “liberty, equality, fraternity.” Communitarians emphasize civic engagement and social connections.5 For proponents of the “capabilities approach,” opportunity takes center stage.6 Environmentalists emphasize planetary survival.

Is there an objective way to decide? The best-known device is John Rawls’ “original position.” In A Theory of Justice, Rawls asks us to imagine we will be born into the world without knowing what our assets, abilities, and preferences will be. Rawls concluded that a rational person in this scenario would privilege basic liberties, equality of opportunity, and the maximum possible well-being of least well-off.7 Rawls’ conclusion isn’t universally shared, however. And his notion of the well-being of those at the bottom in effect lumps together a number of the ends in the above list, such as economic security, housing, safety, and happiness.

Existing societies reinforce the conclusion that there is nothing close to a consensus about which of these desiderata to prioritize. Modern rich countries strive for varying combinations.8

In The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen makes the sensible point that thinking and arguing about the ideal society distracts from the more important task of improving on what currently exists.9 There is no optimal, achievable good society. There is only better and worse. Our aim should be to do better, not to achieve perfection.

The task for scientists, then, is to answer these two questions:

  • Which institutions and policies, alone or in combination, are more effective than others at achieving these ends?
  • To what extent are there tradeoffs? For instance, if we want more equality, do we have to sacrifice some liberty or prosperity? If so, how much? In other words, how close can we get to “all of the above”?

  1. Friedrich A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, University of Chicago Press, 1960; Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman, Free to Choose, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979. 
  2. Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation; Richard Layard, Happiness, Penguin, 2005. 
  3. Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx, Cambridge University Press, 1985. 
  4. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan; James Q. Wilson, “The Moral Sense,” American Political Science Review, 1993. 
  5. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America; Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon and Schuster, 2000; Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic, Basic Books, 2016. 
  6. Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, Oxford University Press, 1999; Martha C. Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities, Harvard University Press, 2011. 
  7. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, 1971. The “original position” device formalizes the age-old notion “There but for the grace of God go I.” 
  8. See, for instance, Gøsta Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, Princeton University Press, 1990; Peter A. Hall and David Soskice, eds., Varieties of Capitalism, Oxford University Press 2001; Lane Kenworthy, Jobs with Equality, Oxford University Press, 2008. 
  9. Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice, Harvard University Press, 2009.