Saturday, December 19, 2009

Is the 'good society' a useful concept?

Readers of this blog will know that over the last couple of months I have been thinking about the concept of the ‘good society’. The time has come to try to summarise why I think the ‘good society’ is a useful concept.

First, I think it would possible for nearly everyone to agree that a good society is one that is good for its individual members and that such a society would have certain objective characteristics. The institutions of a good society would:
• enable its members to live together in peace;
• provide its members with opportunities to flourish – to have more of the things that are good for humans to have; and
• provide its members with a degree of security against threats to individual flourishing, including security against misfortunes such as accidents, ill-health and unemployment.
Some people would want to go further in specifying characteristics that may make a society good for the people living in it, but attempts to do this may place at risk the ability of people to live together in peace. (See: Is there such a thing as a good society? and What are the characteristics of a good society?)

Second, the ‘good society’ concept is distinguishable from other similar concepts such as the ‘great society’ or ‘open society’. When a society agrees to provide individual members with a degree of security against threats to individual flourishing, for example through provision of a welfare safety net, it departs to some degree from the liberal principles of an open society. But it may still be a good society. (See: Are the institutions of a good society the same as those of the great society?)

Third, the characteristics of a good society are measurable.
• It is possible to measure the peacefulness of different societies using the safety and security sub-index of the Legatum prosperity index. A large part of the variation in peacefulness of different societies can be explained by World Bank governance indicators relating to political stability and the quality of legal institutions. (See: What institutions explain the peacefulness of societies?)
• It is possible to measure opportunities relating to a range of aspects of human flourishing in different societies such as: economic opportunity; the extent that people feel happy or satisfied with life; safety and security; health and longevity; educational opportunity; freedom to choose how to live; the opportunity to participate in political processes; social capital; satisfaction with efforts to preserve the natural environment. Many of these indicators tell similar stories about human flourishing. Economic freedom and governance indicators also tend to tell similar stories about the potential for human flourishing in different societies. (See: Do all well-being indicators tell similar stories about human flourishing? and Do economic freedom and governance indicators tell similar stories about human flourishing?)
• Economic security in different societies can be measured by indicators such as the average income of people at the lower end of the income distribution. This measure is closely related to average income levels and measures of economic freedom and good governance. (See: Does economic security depend on average income levels?)

Fourth, it possible to identify fairly clearly how good various societies are for the people who live in them without making the subjective judgements that would be necessary to combine various indicators into a ‘good society’ index. The indicators generally tend to tell a similar story – but a combination of indicators tells a more reliable story than any single indicator considered in isolation.

Fifth, it seems to me that the concept of a good society is an aid to clear thinking about the kinds of societies we want to live in. When people suggest, for example, that policies in particular societies should be changed to place more emphasis on life satisfaction and less emphasis on raising incomes it may be useful to remind them that high average life satisfaction and high incomes are both common characteristics of good societies.

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