Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Philosophical Tuneup for the US

THE daily news is full of the apparently intractable problems the United States faces today: drugs and crime, homelessness, inadequate schools, decaying infrastructure, tight government budgets. The public demands solutions from politicians, yet votes in steadily decreasing numbers. Corporations, sometimes saddled with debt from the buyout mania of the 1980s, seem near-sightedly focused on short-term gains while competitors overseas plan for the long term and outmaneuver the US.During the coming election year, politicians will try to sell the US public on their solutions to these challenges. Yet if the authors of "The Good Society" are correct, the solutions these politicians offer will mostly address symptoms instead of causes - because the problems are rooted in the basic philosophical ideas underpinning US society. Mere technical adjustments won't do it. Scholars Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven Tipton argue that the core problem behind America's difficulties at every level is a failure to understand how Americans relate to each other and especially to their institutions. By the term "institutions," they are not describing organizations, but rather "patterned ways of living together." Although few Americans may realize it, US society is based on the philosophy of John Locke, a philosophy the authors call "one of the most powerful ideologies ever invented, if not the most powerful." This Lockean ideology champions individual freedom, unlimited economic opportunity, and limited government. Locke was a strict Calvinist, and his political and economic ideas were closely tied to his theological sense of individual obligation. What happened in the early history of America is that the secular aspects of Locke's thought became divorced from the spiritual and were reduced to "the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ... exemplified by the solitary individual's appropriation of property... ." Government, the authors note, is thus reduced to the guarantor of an order that allows ind ividuals to accumulate property. While this ideology was at least plausible when the US was a society largely made up of small farmers, the authors write, industrialization and the emergence of large corporations have so changed the equation that Lockean individualism can take us no farther along the road to a public discussion of and solution to our difficulties. What is needed, they argue, is an understanding that we depend on one another and that we must renew and reinvigorate the ways we live together - our institutions - if we are to improve the lot of all our citizens or, as the authors would put it, to create a "Good Society." The name of the book is itself instructive of what the authors are trying to accomplish. It is taken from a 1937 book by social commentator Walter Lippmann. The authors say they are attempting to "renew earlier efforts to create an American public philosophy less trapped in the cliches of rugged individualism and more open to an invigorating, fulfilling sense of social responsibility." This discussion went on vigorously until the outbreak of World War II. Since then, Americans seem to have become distrac ted by abnormal economic growth and the struggle with communist totalitarianism - both of which, the authors say, have threatened the individual liberties citizens were trying to protect. During this time, they say, Americans have also fallen into the trap of believing that they could solve problems through technical adjustments and "management" rather than by questioning basic moral assumptions. To renew this debate, Bellah and his colleagues have turned to its original participants: men like Lippmann, John Dewey, and Reinhold Niebuhr, as well as many others. This book is a follow-on to the authors' "Habits of the Heart" (published in 1985), in which they argued that individualism has to be weighed along with such other virtues as responsibility and care. They bring their analysis to bear on issues affecting marriage and family; the political economy; government, law, and politics; higher education; the church; and America's role in the world. The result is more a call for public discussion and renewal than concrete answers and proposals, and in this regard, some readers may find it a bit facile. It is one thing to call for a public discussion and a change of public philosophy. Effecting such a far-reaching change is another matter. The analysis also appears more valuable at the level of family, school, and church than it does in the areas of the economy and foreign policy, which are the weakest portions of the book. On the economy, for example, the authors call for altering the entire legal basis on which American corporations are organized. But there is little acknowledgment of the upheaval such a change in the rules of the game would entail. And on foreign policy, the book does not, could not, take account of the Gulf war or the collapse of the Soviet Union. Still, those very events make a discussion and a new consensus regarding US foreign policy all the more necessary. One refreshing aspect of "The Good Society" is that its authors, serious intellectuals all, take seriously the proposition that religion has had and will continue to have a major role in shaping US society for the better. The authors take neither a politically liberal nor conservative tack. Many of their observations and proposals will be unpopular with one side or the other. But that is exactly the point - the authors say that neither approach can lead to a more moral society and a greater participation in American democracy. Despite its flaws, this is an important book. If it succeeds in sparking a new public discussion of where our society is and where it is going, it will have served its authors' purpose. The pity would be if the rest of us think we are too busy - or too sophisticated - to bother.