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Imagining ‘The Good Society’

By Tristan Ewins - posted Tuesday, 6 May 2008

What makes a “Good Society”? Should such a thing be measured in purely material terms? What of free time; of family and friends; of room to develop ourselves as human beings? How best to pursue such aims as human liberty, social justice, democracy, as well as compassion and provision for the needs of the poor and vulnerable?

How to negotiate conflict between the liberal right of individuals to invest their wealth as they choose, and the imperative to alleviate or eliminate the exploitation of labour?

And how best to balance conflicting modes of social organisation: to allow for spontaneity, as well as instances of planning, and the proper functioning of markets where appropriate?


This paper examines the question of a “mixed democratic economy”; of getting the right mix of planning, public and democratic ownership, and market forces.

Using urban planning as a starting point, it is possible to develop arguments surrounding neo-liberalism, the mixed economy and centralised command economics.

A good city mixes diversity, spontaneity and the play of market forces, as well as strategic planning to provide for a truly “livable” urban environment. Too much planning renders a city “sterile”, uniform and predictable. And with not enough planning (including social justice measures) cities become unworkable and unlivable.

It is too common for sprawling urban metropolises to span out of control before transport networks and regional urban “hubs” become interconnected in a workable and orderly fashion. Suburbs become disconnected from the inner-city and from each other: sprawl outpaces the development of infrastructure, services and markets. And affluent suburbs rest upon “underworlds” of poverty, deprivation and exploitation.

At times there is a need for stability and predictability. And it is only with intervention and planning that cities might become truly “livable” for all. Such intervention might, for instance, include:

  • transport networks and hubs;
  • public health, public housing, aged care, child care and education facilities;
  • devoted civic space including public malls, squares, sports grounds and gardens: for civic activism, social life and recreation; and
  • workable planning for commercial, business, residential and social zoning - including - where appropriate - urban consolidation, and the interposition of commercial and business zoning with dedicated space for free public and community use.

The need to mix public and community space with commercial space is crucial. Modern consumer culture eclipses and suffocates public life: limiting it to consumption, and not providing for an active civil society and public sphere.

Upon this urban environment, though, a market economy can thrive in a state of constant evolution and responsiveness to the “flux” of consumer demand. A dynamic of innovation, diversity and change can be provided by markets - and contribute to the “livability” of cities, and the diverse needs of communities.

This same logic, on the whole, holds true also for nation-states - as well as for cities.

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About the Author

Tristan Ewins has a PhD and is a freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.

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