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Building a good society

By Don Aitkin - posted Tuesday, 18 March 2014


I was a graduate student when I became interested in this question, which is hard to escape if you are working in the field of political science. Human societies differ greatly in how they work, and in the opportunities they provide for their people. Some grow in strength and wealth; some collapse from within; some are over-run from outside. How and why this happens is a fascination for historians and social scientists, who like to offer explanations and advice.

The state of one's own society is of great interest to many people, though not all. Lots just take it for granted, as though it is both everlasting and a 'given' – there is nothing at all anyone can do to affect it. Yet change occurs all the time, prompted by technology, weather, the movement of people, and trade. Change occurs also when governments, rulers, make decisions that affect everyone.

Societies that have democratic forms of government argue constantly about how the society should be, and what should change, and who should benefit. Most of the time such argument goes on as though all those taking part share (or should share) the same values and the same knowledge. From time to time I try to examine my own values and the extent of my knowledge, and today's post focuses on the values.

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Half a dozen value statements follow. They are mine, and I have been working on them for a long time. If they stimulate you to look at your own, well and good. I don't suggest that mine are perfect, or right for everyone; but they affect how I write, and the judgments I make. They are not in rank order, and are plainly inter-related.

1. Human beings are capable of great altruism and also of great destruction. A good society employs the former and tries to avoid the latter. I do not subscribe to the notion of some kind of disembodied 'evil'.

2. Societies function best for the largest number when nearly everyone is a 'stakeholder': each sees real value in belonging, and has a decently positive view about the future, personal ills aside. Generating that feeling of being a stakeholder is a major task for governments.

3. In societies like Australia the best social change occurs incrementally. Rapid change is to be avoided if possible. Revolutions inflict great harm on large numbers, and rarely change much when the dust settles.

4. A good society has no established classes or castes or religions, and social mobility is the natural order: one rises (and falls) through one's skills, capacity for hard work and perceptiveness. The good citizen is self-confident, responsible, altruistic and creative. Entitlements, nepotism and the old school tie are small in their importance.

5. In a good society there may be wide differences in wealth, but there will be no real poverty. Human beings are not born equal in anything, and no law can make them so, other than in areas like voting, or equal responsibility to obey the law. The trick is to make people value what they have, and not to envy what others have. And as I said in a recent piece, who would want to live as Bill Gates has to live, with bodyguards and all the rest of the protection he has to have? Stakeholders are busy in making their lives, not in calling for the wealthy to be taxed so that they themselves can have more.

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6. I have seen enough of education and skill development to join with Howard Gardner (in Frames of Mind) in believing that nearly everybody is capable of high levels of performance in almost anything if they want to, they are encouraged to do so, and they are properly trained. So much gets in the way, and our education systems are all of the one-size-fits-all variety. Nonetheless there have been enormous changes in my lifetime, and without them our society would be much less enjoyable. Human knowledge has expanded greatly since the end of the Second World War, and that expansion has given us much more capacity to improve not just the length of our lives, but the quality of those lives as well.

That's a start. Books could be written about each of those numbered sections, and none of them is by itself enough. Moreover, if you make too much of any one of them, you collide with one or more of the others. That is why our arguments never end, and why politics is so heated.

But these six values are useful to me. I look at the 'climate change' debate with their aid, for example, noting how the AGW orthodoxy has its own stakeholders, worrying that too many scientists don't seem to know how important observations are, seeing high priests where there should be only seekers after truth, and lamenting that governments so often ignore what their proper tasks are.

Is Australia a good society? It's better than it was when I was a boy, and for a very much larger number of people. But it still has a long way to go. Perhaps human societies always will have a long way to go (see #1 above).

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This post first appeared on Don Aitkin. Don notes at the end "[update: this post created a good deal of interest, and in re-reading it I can see that I left out a value that I meant to put in - that human beings are equally valid, whether rich or poor, male or female, Christian or Muslim. I'll work on a Part II...]"



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, published in 2015, is Turning Point, the second novel in The Hogarth Trilogy.

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