Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Are the institutions of a "good society" the same as those of the "great society"?

In my last post I suggested that nearly everyone would agree that a good society has the following characteristics:
· institutions that enable its members to live in peace;
· institutions that provide opportunities for members to flourish; and
· institutions that provide members with security against various threats to flourishing e.g. foreign military threats and economic misfortune.

There is substantial overlap between the institutions of a good society and the institutions of the “great society” or “open society”, as discussed by Friedrich Hayek.

Hayek emphasized that “only the observance of common rules makes the peaceful existence of individuals in society possible” (LLL, I: 72). He argued that the aim of the rules of just conduct is to define “the protected sphere” of each person in order to prevent, as much as possible, “the actions of different individuals from interfering with each other” (LLL, I: 108). He observed: “The Great Society arose through the discovery that men can live together in peace and mutually benefiting each other without agreeing on the particular aims which they severally pursue” (LLL, II: 109). Hayek went on to make the point that in the great society we all “contribute not only to the satisfaction of needs of which we do not know, but sometimes even to the achievement of ends of which we would disapprove if we knew about them (LLL, II: 109-10). In the great society we have no way of knowing the purposes for which others will use the goods we supply.

If we perceive living in peace to be a necessary condition for a good society then I think we must accept the primacy of liberty - individual freedom and rules that determine the boundaries of the domains of freedom (the protected spheres of each person) are necessary conditions of a good society.

The implications of the primacy of liberty might be more profound than they appear at first sight. For example, a society in which the majority of people flourish could hardly be viewed as a good society if it has laws that cause individuals to be denied liberty if they pursue lifestyles that are offensive to the majority, even though those individuals have done nothing to infringe the protected spheres of other people. The majority might argue, perhaps with good reason, that the individuals concerned would have a better chance of flourishing if they were put in jail, but this does not justify the use of force to make them change their lifestyles.

Other aspects of the relationships between particular sets of institutions and opportunities for human flourishing and security against threats to flourishing seem to be of a more empirical nature. I would argue, for example, that high levels of economic freedom tend to provide greater opportunities for human flourishing, but that is a testable hypothesis. Some relevant discussion is here. Similarly, I would argue that governments have an important role in providing members of society with security, but the extent to which such a role might be warranted involves empirical questions.

The institutions of a good society may differ from those of the great society in relation to personal income security. Hayek argued that the provision of some kind of welfare safety net was not only “a wholly legitimate protection against a common risk to all, but a necessary part of the Great Society in which the individual no longer has specific claims on the members of the small group into which he was born” (LLL, III: 55). He recognized, however, that national safety nets that would be higher in wealthier countries would necessitate restrictions on migration. In my view such considerations may make it necessary for the institutions of a good society – one that its good for its members - to depart to some degree from the liberal principles of the great society.

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