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The Good Society by Robert N. Bellah
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The Good Society

by Robert N. Bellah

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Review by Eric Thomas

One March day 161 years ago Henry David Thoreau borrowed an ax and walked to the woods near Walden Pond to cut down some trees for a cabin.

"It was a pleasant hillside where I worked, covered with pine woods, through which I looked out on the pond, and a small open field in the woods where pines and hickories were springing up. The ice in the pond was not yet dissolved, though there were some open spaces, and it was all dark-colored and saturated with water. There were some light flurries of snow during the days that I worked there; but for the most part when I came out onto the railroad on my way home, its yellow sand-heap stretched away gleaming in the hazy atmosphere, and the rails shone in the spring sun, and I heard the lark and the pewee and other birds already come to commence another year with us."

So began Thoreau’s two-year experiment in simple living. By escaping the petty distractions of town and the mind-numbing work he saw so many of his neighbors succumb to, he hoped to find freedom. Freedom to contemplate nature. Freedom to think.

Thoreau wasn’t the first to seek freedom in the American wilderness. The “Yankee spirit” embodied in Thoreau, which today might be called rugged individualism, motivated countless American pioneers, homesteaders, mariners, trappers, adventurers, and hermits. Even though most Americans today would shy away from the ascetic life Thoreau led on the shore of Walden Pond, his individualist legacy still smolders on in the collective American consciousness in the form of an overarching desire for personal autonomy and a profound uneasiness about institutions.

But life in the United States has changed since Thoreau’s day. Times are tough for the trapper and the hermit, for the person who wants to head off into the woods and live off the land. For better or for worse, our lives are subtly and completely interwoven with the very institutions—government, corporate, and social—we fear will impinge on our individual liberty. Most of us today recognize the vital role such institutions play in our lives, but our individualistic spirit keeps us from fully comprehending them.

Or so claim the authors of The Good Society, who argue that in order to solve the problems we face in the modern world, we need to change the way we think about institutions.

"The culture of individualism makes the very idea of institutions inaccessible to many of us. We Americans tend to think that all we need are energetic individuals and a few impersonal rules to guarantee fairness; anything more is not only superfluous but dangerous—corrupt, oppressive, or both. . . . Some of our institutions have indeed grown out of control and beyond our comprehension. But the answer is to change them, for it is illusory to imagine that we can escape them."

Fundamental to the book’s message is a rejection of classical liberalism, an ideology commonly associated with seventeenth century philosopher John Locke. Among other things, classical liberalism promotes limited government, individual property rights, and a laissez-faire economy. For the classical liberal, freedom is the right to be left alone and to pursue one’s own economic interests. Americans have modified the ideology in practice by regulating the economic free market (anti-trust laws are one example) and building a limited social safety net (although not nearly to the extent of some other developed nations), but we cling to it in spirit. In fact, most Americans, including those of the middle and lower classes, look favorably on a system where it’s possible to get rich (even if that means others may be poor).

The classical liberal view holds that institutions should function as neutral tools that individuals can use to pursue their goals. If they’re not neutral, the argument goes, then there is a danger that they’ll oppress the people they’re meant to serve. Robert N. Bellah and his four coauthors (whom I will refer to from here on as Bellah) contend that it is impossible for institutions to be morally neutral. For every action (or inaction) of an institution, there are consequences. Leaving healthcare to the marketplace, for example, contributes to the 46 million uninsured Americans who overwhelm emergency rooms or simply go without care. “A political tradition that enshrines individual liberty as its highest ideal leaves us ill prepared to think about ways of managing a modern economy or developing broad social policies to meet the needs of society as a whole,” writes Bellah.

Individualism, he argues, does more than hinder an equitable society; it threatens our ability to act democratically. “Americans fool themselves when they think they can strengthen democracy by weakening government.” Bellah acknowledges that government has grown in size and power, and that citizens expect more from it than ever. We depend on government to ensure the safety of the food we eat, give us monthly checks when we retire, regulate the airwaves, the airlines, and the level of contaminants in the air itself; we rely on government to protect us from our enemies, and settle our disputes. We depend on government to set interest rates, regulate the financial and banking industries, and insure our deposits. We drive on government-built roads and highways, visit parks and wildlife refuges protected by the government, and attend government-funded schools and universities. While we expect government to take care of more than ever, we have left important decisions about government’s role in creating a good society to technocrats and the courts. Politicians and political parties, who Bellah believes should be leading a public debate, concern themselves mainly with monitoring public opinion polls with a view to reelection. “It is not that the government does nothing—its numerous balkanized and poorly coordinated agencies do a great deal—but that it does it in a sort of holding pattern, often with reduced resources and with no vision of how to respond to new conditions and new challenges.”

Bellah also acknowledges that citizens are participating in politics, but again he criticizes their form of participation. “As government and politics have become central in American life, the political arena has not effectively formulated a vision of a common good. Rather, the political arena has become dominated by congeries of private interests (best symbolized by the increasing significance of single-issue Political Action Committees), which fight it out without regard to how the outcome affects the good of the community as a whole.” Part of the solution is to “shift the balance of power from the candidate to the party” because, in theory, parties have the capacity to develop a more coherent vision of the public good. The Good Society calls for “election-funding reforms that would increase party influence over campaign financing while reducing the direct ways organized interests finance individual candidates.” Another measure the book calls for is to completely outlaw campaign advertising on radio and television.

Like the widely read Habits of the Heart, the previous book from Bellah and his team, The Good Society is written for a broad audience. The authors favor a conversational tone over jargon and personal anecdotes over statistics. This is not a book the authors intended to be lost in a library or disappear into the dusty ether of academia. They clearly wanted the book to be read by the public—and influence the public’s patterns of thought and behavior. To that end, they traded the voice of the professor for that of the preacher. And, at least in my case, I felt they were preaching to the choir. As I read The Good Society, I was persuaded by its diagnosis of the sickness of American culture. And as someone who favors collective solutions to complex social problems such as the healthcare crisis in the US, I agreed with the book’s prescription for public debate and strengthened, morally guided institutions. However, my attitudes are not the attitudes of every American.

The Good Society stumbles, I believe, in its explanation of how to get to from A to B, from a society of self-centered individuals to a society that values the common good. The problem is, of course, who’s idea of the “good” are we talking about. Bellah brushes the argument aside by saying that a good society would “allow a wide scope for diversity and would draw on resources from its pluralistic communities in discerning those things that are necessarily matters of the good of all.” That’s all well and good, but isn’t it another way of saying that we’ll pay less attention to matters that aren’t the “good of all.”? As an example, Bellah points to discussions sponsored by the California Legislature’s Joint Senate and Assembly Committee on the Family. “There was no significant sector that was not concerned about the plight of the family today, nor was there any great disagreement about many of the necessary remedies.” But the plight of the family is not the same as the plight of the poor, of the disenfranchised, or of the powerless. Would discussions sponsored by the California legislature have found no “great disagreement” about the plight of immigrants?

When Bellah in The Good Society or I in this review use the word “we” to refer to Americans as whole, we are overlooking differences of opinion. Everyone in New Hampshire may drive around with the phrase “Live Free or Die” on their license plate, but that doesn’t mean some don’t think freedom is the right to own a gun and a snowmobile while others think of freedom from extreme poverty and suffering. The fact is, “we” Americans don’t all agree and probably never will. Some of us think Bellah’s vision of morally grounded and citizen-guided institutions is grand. Others think such an idea is an abomination. Even if we could all agree, it would probably eventually lead to apathy, not lively civic debate. It’s the give-and-take between these groups that’s the essence of democracy—not the seemingly attractive (yet unattainable) agreement Bellah cherishes.

Despite its flaws, The Good Society has much to offer as a critique of the current sorry state of civic participation in the United Sates. Especially telling is this anecdote from pollster Geoffrey Garin that Bellah relates: while polling Americans in 1990 about the cost of the savings and loan bailout, people responded, “Why do the taxpayers have to come up with the money? Why can’t the government?” When citizens in a democracy don’t even recognize that they are the government, that the government has no money that doesn’t come from them, then there is a grave problem. Bellah is right; the people need to take back their government from the technocrats and the moneyed interests they serve, and that means paying attention, as the title of the book’s conclusion suggests. This book should serve as a kick in the pants to those who are so disgusted by what “the government” does that they retreat to a private life of complaining to other likeminded cynics. Elements of the book could also serve as a decent manifesto (and possibly a key to winning elections) for progressives willing to fight for campaign finance reform and institutional solutions to our country’s escalating problems.

For me, The Good Society reinforced what Bellah’s last book, Habits of the Heart, helped me to reluctantly conclude ten years ago: the rugged individualism represented by Thoreau that was once an honorable, viable philosophy has become merely a simulacrum—a posturing, dishonest, “a-man’s-home-is-his-castle” excuse for sitting by while the world goes to shit and others pay the price for your “right” to get as rich as you like. But despite all this, the original vision of freedom—Thoreau’s vision—is a hard one to let go of. I am embarrassed to say that reading about Thoreau on his hillside among the pines and the hickories, listening to the cries of the lark and peewee that had returned after the winter, I get choked up with nostalgia for that time when it wasn’t morally reprehensible to go off and pursue your own interest, a time that perhaps never was.

Bellah describes this nostalgic pull as our “longstanding frontier mentality”:

"when you can see the smoke from your neighbor’s chimney, it’s time to move west. But today there is no West we can go to (if there ever was) that will not involve us with other people in ever more complex interrelations."

And that, perhaps, is one of the tragedies of the age we live in. Our nostalgia for a simple freedom that may never have existed leads us to make mistakes that hustle us ever faster down the cooperate-or-perish path of the modern, interconnected world. ( )
  ericevanthomas | Oct 25, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679733590, Paperback)

THE GOOD SOCIETY examines how many of our institutions- from the family to the government itself- fell from grace, and offers concrete proposals for revitalizing them.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:13 -0400)

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