What Are the Characteristics of a Good Society?

In my last post, (Is there such a thing as a good society?) I suggested that a good society would have good institutions – norms and laws that are good for its members.

In thinking about the characteristics of a good society different people tend to emphasise different things that they consider to be important e.g. egalitarianism, personal freedom, moral values and spirituality. Rather than just agreeing to differ I think it might be useful to try to identify some characteristics of a good society that nearly everyone would agree to be important. Then it would be possible to consider what evidence might be available about the nature of the institutions that would foster those characteristics. This might enable us to develop a view about the nature of the institutions of a good society that would be widely accepted.

So, what are the characteristics of a good society? First, as I suggested in my last post, the most important characteristic of a good society is a set of institutions that enable its members to live together in peace. This entails an absence major threats to persons or property such as those associated with civil war, high levels of corruption and absence of rule of law. The institutions should also prevent use of the coercive powers of the state by despots or influential interest groups to enrich themselves at the expense of others or to restrict the freedom of others to choose how they will live their lives. Institutions that promote the peaceful co-existence of individuals and groups with differing interests and values are obviously a necessary condition for human flourishing.

Second, nearly everyone would agree that a good society would provide its members with opportunities to flourish – to have more of the things that are good for humans to have. This would include opportunities to live long and healthy lives, economic opportunities, opportunities for educational and cultural pursuits, opportunities to make important decisions affecting themselves and their families and opportunities to participate in political processes.

Why focus on opportunities rather than outcomes? Good institutions can make it possible for humans to flourish but humans can’t be made to flourish – for much the same reasons as you can lead to water but can’t make it drink. Human flourishing is an inherently self-directed process. The best we can hope for is a set of institutions that will maximize the probability that any individual chosen at random will be a flourishing individual.

Third, I think there would be widespread agreement that a good society would provide its members with a degree of security against potential threats to individual flourishing. For example it would endeavour to maintain good foreign relations and provide national defence capability sufficient to deter foreign aggression; it would maintain safeguards against government corruption and misuse of the coercive powers of the state (e.g. processes that make it difficult for narrow interest groups to acquire or maintain disproportionate influence in policy-making processes and processes for removal of governments that do not have popular support); it would maintain appropriate machinery to prevent or deal with environmental disasters; it would prevent “the tragedy of the commons” by maintaining appropriate institutions for ownership, pricing and use of natural resources; and it would provide members with a degree of personal economic security against misfortunes such as accidents, ill-health and unemployment.

What evidence do we have about the institutions that tend to foster these characteristics of a good society? An attempt to answer that question will be left to a later post.

2 comments to What Are the Characteristics of a Good Society?

  • pat

    Freakonomics can be thought of in terms of health care where the dollars invested in illness and disability are greater than the dollars invested in reproductive care and illness/disability prevention maintenance.

    Obviously, putting the cart before the horse will not yield progress promised no matter how good the presentation or how seductive the argument.

    Should not all “good societies” begin there?

  • Pat:
    I’m not sure I understand your point.
    Perhaps you are saying that individuals have a natural inclination to look after their own well-being. A good society/ healthy society would avoid interfering with this incentive as far as possible. A society in which which government gives individuals an incentive to become dependent on others is likely to end up with a lot of disabled people to be supported by taxpayers.
    If that is what you are saying, then I agree!

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