When we started the initiative for the Good Society – during what became the most severe economic crisis since the 1920ies – our starting point was: There is an alternative. We do have a choice. We do not have to go back to unbalanced growth that leads into crises. We do not have to accept high levels of inequality and anxiety in a market society. Instead we can build a Good Society.
We can define a new vision of progress based on social justice, sustainability and security. These are fundamental preconditions for the Good Society. Not only because ‘more equal societies almost always do better’ as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have shown in their impressive study. But also because self-fulfilment of the individual, the right of everyone to achieve their own unique way of being human, needs social justice, sustainability and security. If these preconditions are lacking opportunities are limited to the few. The Good Society wants to make them equally achievable for all.
Every person is responsible for his or her own life and should have as many opportunities as possible. The state should not try to “make people happy”, but neither should the economy press people into role-models and reduce them to economic factors. Everybody should be able to develop his or her personality and life without impairing the freedom of others.
Freedom grows out of feelings of safety, a sense of belonging, and the experience of esteem and respect. Freedom means being free from undignified dependencies, misery and fear. Therefore the Good Society is about solidarity and social justice. Solidarity creates trust, which in turn provides the foundation of individual freedom. Self-fulfilment needs a balance in our lives between producing and consuming, and a balance between work and our lives as individuals and members of society. Progressive politics wants to make self-fulfilment possible by empowering and emancipating all members of our societies. The idea of equality is a pre-condition for this.
Because self-fulfilment is important to everybody, market-economies are so successful. At the same time markets can undermine the possibilities for self-fulfilment, e.g. for workers in an economy dominated by financial markets. In an unjust world economy, people in poorer countries have fewer chances for a good life and markets alone will not change this. Markets will also not by themselves be able to ensure the ecological balance of our planet. Thus functioning markets need rules and preconditions that will not be established by the market itself.
In the introduction to this debate Kajsa Borgnas, Christian Kellermann and Henning Meyer wrote that an “understanding of equality within a market-oriented system needs to critically reflect and assess the competitive necessities of markets”. I agree and would even go further by saying that creating dynamism and innovation in the end can only be maintained, if there are sufficient public goods. These public goods will not be provided by the markets themselves. They must be provided by society. In a society where wealth is distributed on a performance-base, those owning or earning above average must contribute more to these public goods.
To ensure equal chances and security for all, we need solidarity within our communities and societies. The provision of public goods can only be achieved together: democratic institutions, rule of law, infrastructure, education, culture, health, security including social security.
These goods must be accessible for all. Where unequal distribution divides society into people giving and following instructions it infringes upon equal freedom and is thus unfair. In our paper “Building the Good Society” Jon Cruddas and I wrote: “The guiding principle of the Good Society is justice, the ethical core of which is equality. Each individual is irreplaceable and of equal worth. In the Good Society each is afforded equal respect, security and chances in life, regardless of background.”
The idea of social progress is based on a better quality of life for all. This goes far beyond increasing consumption, which can be provided by markets. People do not achieve sense in life through commodities you can buy on the market. They are more than just producers and consumers.
Humans want to be part of the society and are striving for security, participation and emancipation. Security means being protected against fundamental risks like unemployment, illness and old age (which is a “risk” only in an economic sense). It also means being protected against discrimination and exploitation.
Participation in the economic, political and social life needs good work, good education but also fair distribution of wealth. It also means that democracy is a guiding principle in all spheres of life. Democracy should not be limited to political institutions. It is also needed in our local communities as well as in the economy. Workers do have a say in their companies and citizens independent of wealth or origin should be empowered to actively participate in the communities they live in. Security and participation thus are the preconditions for emancipation. To achieve the Good Society politics has to go beyond markets. Progressive politics can develop an alternative vision of progress that combines the dynamism of markets with more equal societies. The Good Society is built on the idea that more equality is possible.