In the Good Society, sociologist Robert Bellah and his coauthors challenge Americans to take a good look at themselves. Faced with growing homelessness, rising unemployment, crumbling highways, and impending ecological disaster, our response is one of apathy, frustration, cynicism, and retreat into our private worlds. The social problems confronting us today, the authors argue, are largely the result of failures of our institutions, and our response, largely the result of our failure to realize the degree to which our lives are shaped by institutional forces and the degree to which we, as a democratic society, can shape these forces for the better.
What prevents Americans from "taking charge" is, according to the authors, our long and abiding allegiance to "individualism" -- the belief that "the good society" is one in which individuals are left free to pursue their private satisfactions independently of others, a pattern of thinking that emphasizes individual achievement and self-fulfillment.
As the authors point out, this way of thinking about ourselves and our society can be traced back to our country's eighteenth century founders, most notably John Locke: "Locke's teaching was one of the most powerful ideologies ever invented, if not the most powerful. It promised an unheard of degree of individual freedom, an unlimited opportunity to compete for material well-being, and an unprecedented limitation on the arbitrary powers of government to interfere with individual initiative." Our nation's founders, however, assumed that the freedom of individuals to pursue their own ends would be tempered by a "public spirit" and concern for the common good that would shape our social institutions: "The Lockean ideal of the autonomous individual was, in the eighteenth century, embedded in a complex moral ecology that included family and church on the one hand and on the other a vigorous public sphere in which economic initiative, it was hoped, grew together with public spirit...The eighteenth century idea of a public was...a discursive community capable of thinking about the public good."
It is precisely this sense of common purpose and public spirit crucial to the guidance of institutions in a democracy that is absent from our society today. A ruthless individualism, expressed primarily through a market mentality, has invaded every sphere of our lives, undermining those institutions, such as the family or the university, that have traditionally functioned as foci of collective purposes, history, and culture. This lack of common purpose and concern for the common good bodes ill for a people claiming to be a democracy. Caught up in our private pursuits, we allow the workings of our major institutions -- the economy and government -- to go on "over our heads."
One way of summing up the difficulty Americans have in understanding the fundamental roots of their problems is to say that they still have a Lockean political culture, emphasizing individual freedom and the pursuit of individual affluence (the American dream) in a society with a most un-Lockean economy and government. We have the illusion that we can control our fate because individual economic opportunity is indeed considerable, especially if one starts with middle class advantages; and our political life is formally free. Yet powerful forces affecting the lives of all of us are not operating under the norm of democratic consent. In particular, the private governments of the great corporations make decisions on the basis of their own advantage, not of the public good. The federal government has enormously increased its power, especially in the form of the military industrial complex, in ways that are almost invulnerable to citizen knowledge, much less control, on the grounds of national defense. The private rewards and the formal freedoms have obscured from us how much we have lost in genuine democratic control of the society we live in.
The authors see hope, however, in renovating our institutions in a way that will revitalize and transform our democracy. In a culture of individuals possessed by individualism, such a transformation will not be easy. First and foremost, we will have to shed our individualistic blinders and learn to "pay attention" to ways in which we are dependent on and collectively responsible for the institutions that shape our common life.
Second, we will need to find or create spaces in our lives where we can "practice" democracy -- beginning with our families (responsibilities shared equitably between parents) and our places of work (increased worker participation). Educational and religious institutions, as bearers of our moral ideals, will also play a vital role in preparing us for active and intelligent participation in public life. Our larger political and economic institutions can be redesigned to encourage and nurture citizen participation. More government policy and planning decisions, for example, can bc relegated to local levels, encouraging wider citizen participation and responsibility for government policy.
Underlying these proposals is a belief that as we begin to participate in public projects, our perspectives and concerns will broaden. From a focus on self and a view of society as unrelated autonomous individuals, we will come to look beyond ourselves and come to view ourselves as members of a larger community concerned not only about ourselves but about our fellow Americans, peoples of other nations, future generations, and non human life. "When citizens are engaged in thinking about the whole, they find their conceptions of their interests broadened, and their commitment to the search for a common good deepens."
The result: an informed and morally sensitive public active in discussing and debating issues ranging from international financing to day care, within a framework informed by a shared vision of a good society; and a citizenry capable of instituting reforms in our economic and political institutions so that they work for the common benefit of all peoples.
This reinvigoration of democracy is not proposed as an idealistic project but as a practical necessity. The authors write that nowhere is the need more evident than in the international sphere, where problems are beyond the capacity of any single nation to solve.
Our economic life is dominated by the dynamics of a vast world market that cannot be controlled by the action of any single nation-state. Problems of environmental pollution transcend national boundaries. The proliferation of nuclear weapons threatens the security of all. Vast disparities in global wealth and power lead to petering conflicts that endanger economic health and political security around the world.
In a world of increasing complexity and interdependence, we can no longer afford "to go our own way." Rather, we need to exercise our capacity for developing institutions that recognize our interconnectedness, moving toward the creation of "the good society," "where the common good is the pursuit of the good in common."
The Good Society, by Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1991)
This article was originally published in Issues in Ethics - V. 5, N. 1 Spring 1992.