In today’s entry, I intend to answer a question that humanity has struggled to answer for most if not all of its existence. What is a good society, and how do we get from here to there?
First of all, notice that the title of this entry is “A Good Society” rather than “The Good Society.” I don’t think that there can be, or should be, a single monolithic definition of what qualifies as a good society for all people, all places, and all times. However, as a human, I am a social and political animal. As a social and political animal, I desire to live in a good society, with good being defined relative to both my innate human potentials and the social and ecological context I live in. Therefore, I feel driven to describe what I, as a human being situated in a particular personal, social, and ecological context, believe are qualities of a good society that apply to my context in particular and arguably to most human contexts that are even remotely similar to mine.
I’ve come up with several qualities that I would argue describe a good society. Where possible, I relate these back to the principles outlined in my Foundations of Philosophy of Politics article.
Freedom is a core quality that defines us as humans. A good society embraces this quality and does what it can to protect and nourish this quality. Any society that places involuntary limits on anyone’s freedom without offering them a way to “opt out” and forsake their social contract with other members of society is not a good society.
Some people believe that freedom is a quality that must be balanced with other concerns such as a concern for the common good. I disagree. This implies that we must take away certain freedoms in order to serve the common good, and that we must sacrifice a bit of the common good in order to let people remain free. This is sloppy, one-dimensional, zero-sum thinking. Instead, I argue that freedom and the common good must be harmonized, not balanced.
What does this means? Balancing our innate tendencies toward freedom and social cooperation means that we must learn to create social, economic, and political structures that empower us to choose to cooperate with each other while not eliminating our freedom of choice in the process.
The default assumption in a free society is that all individuals are free to do whatever they choose to do. The only valid reason for an individual or institution to even consider restricting someone else’s freedom is because that someone is attempting to harm to others, either by restricting their freedom or acting in a way that disrupts their health or well-being (i.e. physical injury, emotional/mental suffering, exposure to carcinogens, etc.).
Types of freedom include, but are not limited to: freedom of thought and belief; freedom of expression and communication; freedom of assembly and association; freedom of movement and migration; and freedom to form consensual contracts with other free individuals and groups of free individuals.
2. Direct Democracy
As social, economic, and political animals, most humans almost inevitably choose to live in a society with one another. As mentioned in the previous section, our dual nature as both individual and social creatures creates a potential tension between our choices as individuals and the interests or decisions of social, economic, and political groups or institutions. This tension, however, can be resolved through direct democracy.
Direct democracy is a decision-making process in which all members of an organization have equal authority and opportunity to participate in decisions made about actions that will be taken by the group as a whole. Depending on the size, purpose, and preferences of the group, this can vary from a simple majority to a two-thirds majority to more complex systems such as formal consensus decision-making.
Not all organizations in a good society need to be direct democracies. Unless there is harm or coercion involved, people should be free to form whatever types of organizations and relationships they choose. For example, parent-child relationships, teacher-student relationships, and clergy-congregant relationships are all examples of potentially non-democratic relationships that can exist in a good society. The parent-child relationship is a special case due to the fact that the child is not yet able to offer informed consent and the parent is their guardian. The other examples, however, are cases where individuals freely choose to enter into arrangements where one person has more decision-making authority than another, but all people involved have agreed that this is an acceptable arrangement. In a sense, since these are voluntary forms of association, entry into the organization or relationship is a way of casting a vote in favor of letting certain people in the organization or relationship make decisions on behalf of the group.
Non-democratic organizations, and non-direct democracies, may be acceptable social arrangements if all people involved have joined them voluntarily and are equally free to leave them voluntarily. However, they should be strongly discouraged or avoided entirely in an economic and political context.
Economic and political decisions are both matters of life or death and matters of freedom or bondage. The process of making economic and political decisions is the process by which we individually and collectively secure both our freedoms and our livelihoods. Therefore, each individual must have the power to participate directly and democratically in all economic and political decisions that affect their freedom and their health and well-being.
This is a profound statement, and a contentious statement that some people will disagree with. It is, however, firmly rooted in the foundations that proceed it. If we are to have a free society, and we are to have a democratic society, then each of us must be able to participate directly and democratically in all economic and political decisions that affect our freedoms and our health and well-being.
What does this look like in practice? It will vary from person to person, place to place, culture to culture. I will explore the question more thoroughly through my issue-based articles. In the meantime, here are a few general examples of what I mean.
In economic terms, any economic entity that conducts business of any sort should either be a self-employment sole proprietorship (an individual freely making their own economic decisions) or an economic cooperative/collective (a group of individuals who have chosen freely to engage in directly democratic decision-making about their shared economic enterprise). For-profit corporations, and other arrangements that involve capital being held by one or more capitalists while labor is conducted by one or more workers, create an inherent tension between the freedom of choice of the capitalists and the freedom of choice of the workers. Once such hierarchies of economic authority are created and institutionalized, society is stuck trying to “balance” the rights of these two classes. As noted earlier, “balancing” rights leads to choosing one over the other rather than finding ways for both to exist simultaneously and harmoniously. Rather than descending into an endless conflict between capitalists and workers, as humanity has done far too often, it is better to ensure that all people who work are co-owners of the material resources with which they do their work.
In political terms, this principle of direct democracy means that representative democracy is merely a transitional form of democracy along the path to direct democracy. Representative democracy is preferable to feudalism, or plutocracy, or other forms of unabashed authoritarianism. It is, however, itself a kinder, gentler form of authoritarianism. The “common people” choose a “leader” to make political decisions “on their behalf” for two, four, or more years. If the people who that politician “represents” decide that they don’t agree with these decisions, there is often little or nothing they can do about that until the next election cycle. If most or all of the politicians are corrupted by bribes or other outside influences, the citizens of the representative democracy are simply out of luck.
In a direct democracy of any size beyond about a dozen people, there will surely be politicians, and these politicians will almost inevitably be making decisions on behalf of their constituents. But politicians should be administrators, not policy-makers. They should serve the will of the people by enacting our decisions, not supersede the will of the people by making policy decisions on our behalf. We, the people, should decide on questions of policy directly and democratically, in accordance with the principles of our society and our educated opinion as to what policies will be most helpful in putting those principles into practice.
3. Ecological Integrity
Humans are ecological animals. In retrospect, I should have included this in the list of premises in my Foundations of Philosophy of Politics article. It slipped my mind, however, because referring to us as animals strongly implies (for me, anyway) that we are ecologically situated creatures rather than abstract forms that exist independent of an ecological context.
As ecological animals, we must ensure that the physical and institutional infrastructure of our society are designed both to fulfill our goals and to work in harmony with ecological principles. Arguably, this is an ethical or moral imperative based on our innate capacity to engage in free and mutually beneficial cooperation with the non-human world. In addition to ethical and moral considerations, however, this quality of a good society is also a measure of our very sanity and capacity to survive in the long term. Living communities that act in harmony with ecological principles are capable of finding a niche in their local ecology and living there indefinitely. Living communities that don’t live in such harmony, and don’t find such a niche, inevitably exhaust crucial resources and end up experiencing environmental stresses and ultimately a crash in population.
I’ll talk about the specifics of ecological integrity in future articles. In the meantime, the general principle of ecological integrity is one that arguably all human societies must adhere to. If we do not, our behavior will be corrected in rather unpleasant ways by the ecological realities we have chosen to ignore. It is better to choose freely and reasonably how we relate to our ecological environment than to ignore said environment and end up having harsher and narrower choices forced upon us down the road due to our collective lack of foresight.
The Path from Here to a Good Society
Do we in the United States of America currently live in a good society?
“Good society” is a relative term. Relative to feudal societies, I think we do. Relative to some of the less free and less fortunate societies in the world today, I think we do. But how are we doing relative to the social democracies of other nations? Perhaps more importantly, how are we doing relative to where we could be in ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred years if we put our minds to it?
We have made progress as a species in the way in which we structure our societies. Some aspects of our institutional structure and cultural sensibilities in the United States of America are a shining example of this progress. However, other aspects of our society are examples of how systems of oppression are also becoming more advanced right alongside systems of liberation.
Our political system, especially on the state and federal levels, has become a tragically corrupt and twisted mockery of the democracy that many of us feel it should have and could have been. Politicians must raise millions of dollars to secure their place in office, and in the process they become beholden to the large corporations and other wealthy interest groups that fund their campaigns. I still believe that there are a small percentage of politicians who genuinely seek to serve their constituents against all odds, but the vast majority are either tainted by their corporate donors or had no genuinely democratic motivations to start with.
Our economic system is arguably in far worse shape. In the political sphere, there is at least the pretense, and the occasional reality, of democracy. The economic sphere, on the other hand, is dominated almost entirely by massive transnational corporations that are the very antithesis of a democracy. Bankers, traders, and shareholders rake in billions of dollars of profit and choose the executives who will make decisions on behalf of the corporations, while everyday workers in said corporations do almost all of the material labor and see almost none of the material benefit.
There is, however, still hope for the creation of a good society.
In order to get from here to there, we have to start a public conversation about what constitutes a good society. We have to explore this question in detail — like I’m doing in my articles, but in a public dialog rather than one person’s monologue. This may seem like a needlessly abstract exercise to some people, but since we obviously seem to disagree with each other vehemently on individual policies, we need to get to the root of the matter and examine the foundations of our political decisions. Otherwise, we will just be flailing at each other as we bicker about policy issues and have no shared foundation to draw on in making our policy decisions.
Admitting that there is a problem is the first step to finding a solution. Once we’ve taken that first step, we can work together to find solutions that most of us find agreeable, and that almost all of us find tolerable.
The most important part of this process is to start working in our own communities to build a better society from the ground up. We can draw on the strengths of what already exist and tear down what no longer serves us. We can create directly democratic political and economic institutions in our own communities that challenge and replace the local, state, federal, and transnational institutions that are currently failing to hear our voices and meet our needs. We can create local communities of freedom, direct democracy, and ecological integrity that are prefigurative of larger regional organizations that will eventually form the foundation of a better society.
What do I mean by prefigurative? I mean that our local communities can possess all of the qualities that we support in society at large. In other words, our communities can each be a miniature example of the general principles that we advocate for society as a whole. I also mean that as we work on creating a better local community, along every step of the way, we will talk about how what we’re doing can be a model for what others in our region and nation can do to create a better society. In other words, the process of creating a good community, when followed to its natural conclusion, will also result in the creation of a good society.
I realize that even as I become mildly more specific, some of this still remains rather abstract.
First of all, this is because I believe that it’s undesirable to lay out the details with too much specificity. Each person is different; each community is different; each region is different; each nation is different. The details of this approach can only be made clear by groups of people who have come together freely to make directly democratic decisions about how they choose to relate to each other and their ecological environments.
Second, this is because I’ll be answering some of the more specific questions of policy in my issue-based posts, which will soon follow. These issue-based posts will indicate what public policies I support based on the foundations I’ve presented in my philosophy of politics articles. While these policy statements are rooted in my foundations, they will also be heavily focused on what I believe can and must be done in the here and now rather than what I would do in some idealized “good society.” There are plenty of policy decisions we as a society can and must make right here, right now, in our current context, that will go a long way toward improving our society. I will explore what those policy decisions are in my future posts on public policy.
Thank you to those of you who have actually read these philosophy of politics articles. 🙂 I look forward to any comments you may have about them. Now that we’ve covered some of the basics, though, I look forward to delving into policy debates on issues such as health care, immigration, climate change, and whatever other policy questions come up in the next few weeks. Let me know what you think, and I’ll let you know what I think about these issues soon!