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What Are the Requisites for a Thriving Society?

26 Oct 2015
'The Thriving Society: On the Social Conditions of Human Flourishing' is a newly published collection of essays aimed at demystifying the key economic, social, and moral foundations of successful societies.

According to co-editor Harold James, the book is a kind of conversation, meant to ignite the debate about how issues of healthcare, education, family, government and economy intersect in the modern era. 

On the evening of October 20, 2015, The Social Trends Institute partnered with IESE to host four of the book’s many distinguished contributors. The panel discussion that ensued on “the political economy of thriving societies” was an extension of the conversation that The Thriving Society is meant to begin. 

The 5 Pillars of a Dynamic Society 

According to contributor Robert P. George, a dynamic society cannot exist without five fundamental pillars: respect for the human person, the institution of the family, fair and effective law and government, universities and economic organizations. 

While a decent society can exist that upholds just the first three of these pillars, it is the latter two—effective government structures and educational institutions—that differentiate societies that simply survive from those that thrive. 

Protecting Human Dignity 

At the base of these five pillars is the most basic societal responsibility, to protect the dignity of each individual. In discussing the importance of a free market economy, Princeton University Professor Harold James emphasizes the fundamental connection between a free market economy and human freedom. 

According to James, what makes a society both decent and dynamic is a legal and economic framework that enables individuals to interact freely with one another. Thus the ultimate goal of the free market is in fact, personal dignity. 

A Balancing Act: Caritas and Competition

The achievement of one’s full potential, says James, depends upon two primary human capacities: the ability to sympathize and the desire to compete. Ruthless competition would break down interpersonal trust and fundamental parts of the human psyche, while absolute caritas, or charity, would foster indolence. 

A thriving individual, much like a thriving society, will demonstrate a balance of both fundamental impulses. 

Disappointment Yields Dysfunction

This balancing act can be applied to the role of government as well. According to James, traditionalists who push for more government intervention often do so as a result of exaggerated expectations of governmental capabilities. 

These unmet expectations lead to disappointment and ultimately dysfunction. Successful societies on the other hand allow the law to reflect individuals’ values without undermining their capacities. 

Healthy, Efficient and Just 

Professor Jesus Fernandez-VillaVerde defines the law broadly as any set of institutions that works toward the public good. He argues that this should be the end not only of the law, but also of healthcare. 

According to Fernandez-VillaVerde, governmental health care reform should aspire to two main goals: efficiency and justice. 

With a higher percentage of the GDP funding healthcare than any other national institution, it is clear that America is suffering from a health care crisis. Recent reforms have aimed primarily to increase the role of government in public health, but Fernandez-VillaVerde suggests a different approach. 

Rather than attempting to enforce unwanted regulations upon its citizens, governments should prioritize personal freedom and work toward a system of distributive justice, in which individuals who are not a part of the top 25% of the population have equal access to quality healthcare that they do want, but which is currently accessible only to upper echelons of society. 

Preparing the Next Generation

Health care is not the only segment of American society in need of reform. The breakdown of traditional family structures and the inadequacies of formal education systems are leaving millions of American children unequipped to participate fully in society. 

According to Fernandez-VillaVerde, “The U.S. education system is in a structure of sin, because we are leaving behind 60% of our children.” 

A Thriving Economy Needs a Free Market 

Economic systems also play a tremendous role in determining a society’s success. According to Michael Bordo of Rutgers University, the free market economy is the most effective economic system because it provides the incentives that enable citizens to make optimal choices. 

Program for Monetary Reform

That said, even free, constitutional democracies face issues of economic externalities and public goods, and thus the governments do have a role to play in the market. In addition to providing pubic goods and solving collective economic issues, governments also provide an important safety net for its people during financial crises. 

However, fiscal policies aimed at protecting incomes tend to create a negative dynamic between protected groups and society at large. Rather than expanding government intervention through protective policies, governments should focus upon promoting price stability.

An independent central bank and long-run sustainable fiscal guidelines would provide a nominal anchor for prices within the economy and place helpful limits upon fluctuations in business deficits. 

“Ask Those Questions Now”

Having dismantled and deciphered the many facets of a successful society, professor Robert George closed with a pivotal emphasis on asking the “right” questions. 

According to George, there are two kinds of questions that we have to ask: first, what is the moral view that is implicit in any particular policy or proposal? Secondly, what does that moral worldview tell us about the direction in which things are going? 

In examining what makes a society flourish, one should question both the philosophies that underlie current government policies, and also what future policies those underlying philosophies may predict. In the words of professor Robert George, “We need to ask those questions now.”

'The Thriving Society: On the Social Conditions of Human Flourishing' is available for purchase at Amazon.com.

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