Whither, or wither, the good society?

Author:Champlin, Dell P.

Human liberation requires an affluent, egalitarian, and democratic society in which man is free from domination by nature's caprice and, in all spheres of life, free from domination of other men.

--William M. Dugger

The recent election is a timely reminder of the importance of the concept of the "good society" in American public policy. Indeed, a strong vision of the good society has arguably become the mark of a successful president. Ronald Reagan was lionized as the president who reminded us of "the shining city on a hill" (Walsh 2004). Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush, was chided for ignoring the "vision thing," while George W. Bush's re-election has been attributed to the large turnout of "values voters" (Joel Achenbach, "A Victory for 'Values,' but Whose?" Washington Post November 4, 2004, C01; Meyer 2004). (1)

A clear vision of the good society aids voters because it provides a coherent vision of morality, the role of government, and the place of America in the world. (2) Historically, there have been a number of competing visions of the good society in American culture. In this paper, we focus on three. We begin with two visions currently competing for dominance among political and economic conservatives. We then define the institutionalist vision of the good society to counter these first two. We close by briefly speculating on the apparent greater appeal of conservative visions and offer a solution.

Conservative Views of the Good Society

A particular view of the good society not only offers guidance for "the right thing to do" but it also puts forward a concept of immorality or corruption. (3) Among political conservatives, the negative vision provides the unifying force of this movement. (4) While conservatives are united by their common aversion to the misguided, immoral society that they associate with liberals, there are actually two distinct conservative moral visions. First, there is the strand of conservatism associated with classical liberalism and today identified with libertarians, neoconservatives, and neoliberals who, despite some differences, share a vision of the good society as composed of free, rational individuals. Traditional conservatives, on the other hand, hold to a vision of the good society as con> posed of moral individuals. (5)

We begin with the conservatism most familiar to economists since it is the foundation of neoclassical economics. The conservatism of the 1950s that culminated in Barry Goldwater's 1964 nomination is fundamentally liberal in origin. This free market conservatism is based on the pre-1930s liberalism of J. S. Mill or Herbert Hoover (Brinkley 1994). (6) The moral force of this type of conservatism is not found in economics, however. The power of this brand of conservatism stems from the elevation of individual freedom as the single most important characteristic of the good society. Freedom, an iconic word in American culture, is the most important moral value and, for libertarians, perhaps the only value that matters.

Libertarian conservatism can be traced to Friedrich Hayek and his influential book, The Road to Serfdom. For Hayek, New Deal liberalism was not qualitatively different from communism. (7) Resistance to welfare capitalism was nothing less than the struggle of freedom against totalitarianism. According to Niels Bjerre-Poulsen, Hayek provided the moral basis to free market capitalism. "The virtue of laissez-faire was no longer simply economic efficiency. Democracy was at stake" (Bjerre-Poulsen 2002, 27). Libertarian conservatives, following Hayek's lead, are zealously individualist and anti-statist. (8) Notions of "the common good" are incompatible with this belief, and conservatives are strongly opposed to any concept that appears "collectivist." For example, libertarian conservatives were strongly opposed to the Civil Rights movement because of the presumed infringement on individual freedom. (9) Antipathy toward "collectivist" ideas also leads to a disdain for egalitarianism. Consequently, longstanding liberal concerns for inequalities in income and wealth distribution are not only dismissed by conservatives but viewed as threats to a free society. In essence, a moral stand by a liberal against economic injustice is interpreted as an immoral and insidious threat to the libertarian's most cherished value, freedom.

As economists, we are only too familiar with the free market philosophy of libertarian conservatives. Thus, we may be tempted to interpret the current rising tide of conservatism as a triumph of free market capitalism. However, "efficiency" is an economist's word. The key political word for libertarian conservatives is "freedom." The neoconservatives who supported the invasion of Iraq, for example, were not promoting prosperity through the spread of unfettered capitalism; they were promoting freedom through the spread of democracy. While the ambitions of both neoliberals and neoconservatives may appear naive and dangerous to nonconservatives, the distinction is important for two reasons. First, it clarifies the populist appeal of neoconservatism. "Freedom and democracy" are easier to sell, and harder to campaign against, than "free markets and economic efficiency." Second, counterarguments must respond both in tone and substance. Nonconservatives cannot answer emotional appeals to freedom and democracy with fact-laden explanations regarding the inefficiency and inequity of markets.

While libertarians exult in the ideal of a society composed of autonomous and atomistic individuals living free of all social or governmental restraint, traditional conservatives regard the libertarians' love of freedom with suspicion. For the traditional conservative, the...

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