356. "The Good Society: Goals Beyond Money." The Futurist (July-August 2001), p 68.
The great success of the economy in the 1990s alerted Americans to numerous moral and social questions that capitalism has never aspired to answer and that the state should not promote. These include moral questions such as what we owe our children, parents, and friends and neighbors, as well as people from other communities.
Most important, we must ask ourselves what is the ultimate purpose of our personal and collective endeavors. Is ever-greater material affluence our ultimate goal and source of meaning? What are we considering the good life? Can a good society be built on ever increasing levels of affluence, or should we strive to center it around other values, those of mutuality and spirituality?
The journey to the good society can benefit greatly from the observation, supported by a great deal of social science data, that ever-increasing levels of material goods are not a reliable source of human well being and contentment--let alone the basis for a morally sound society. For example, in Social Indicators of Well-Being: Americans' Perceptions of Life Quality, (Plenum, 1976), Frank M. Andrews and Stephen B. Withey found that the level of one's socio-economic status had meager effects on one's "sense of well-being" and no significant effect on "satisfaction with life-as-a-whole." Psychologist David G. Myers reported that, although per capita disposable (after-tax) income in inflation-adjusted dollars almost exactly doubled between 1960 and 1990, 32 percent of Americans reported that they were "very happy" in 1993, almost the same proportion as did in 1957 (35 percent).
The pursuit of well-being through ever-higher levels of consumption is Sisyphusian. When it comes to material goods, enough is never enough. This is not an argument in favor of a life of sackcloth and ashes, of poverty and self-denial. The argument is that, once basic material needs (what Abraham Maslow called "creature comforts") are well sated and securely provided for, additional income does not add to happiness. On the contrary, hard evidence shows that profound contentment is found in nourishing ends-based relationships, in bonding with others, in community building and public service, and in cultural and spiritual pursuits. Capitalism has never aspired to address the whole person. And, of course, statist socialism subjugated rather than inspired. It is left to the evolving values and culture of centrist societies to fill the void.
Nobel laureate Robert Fogel showed that periods of great affluence are regularly followed by what he calls Great Awakenings and that we are due for one in the near future. Although it is quite evident that there is a growing quest for purposes deeper than conspicuous consumption, we may not yet have the faculty needed to predict which specific form this yearning for spiritual fulfillment will take. There are some who hold firmly that the form must be a religious one, because no other speaks to the most profound matters that trouble the human soul, nor do others provide sound moral guidance.
These observers are supported by numerous indicators of a considerable revival in American religion over the last decades of the twentieth century. The revival is said to be evident not merely in the number of people who participate in religious activities, but also in the stronger, more involving, and stricter kinds of commitment many are making to religion. (New York Times writer Margaret Talbot argued effectively that conservative Christians, especially fundamentalists, constitute the true counterculture of our age; they know and live a life rich in fulfillment, not centered around consumer goods.) Others see the spiritual revival as taking more secular forms, ranging from New Age cults to a growing interest in applied ethics.
A broadly based upward shift on the Maslovian scale is a prerequisite for better addressing some of the most tantalizing problems plaguing modern societies. The shift is required before we can come into harmony with our environment, because these higher priorities put much less demand on scarce resources than do lower ones. And such a new set of priorities may well be the only conditions under which the affluent would be willing to support serious reallocation of wealth and power, as their personal fortunes would no longer be based on amassing ever-larger amounts of consumer goods.
The upward shift in priorities, a return to a sort of moderate counterculture, a turn toward voluntary simplicity-these require a grand dialogue about our personal and shared goals. A return to a counterculture is not a recommendation for more abuse of controlled substances, promiscuity, and self-indulgence, but the realization that one can find profound contentment in reflection, love, and walks on the beach rather than in the further pursuit of material goods.
Ultimately, such a shift lies in changes in our hearts and minds, in our values and conduct-what sociologist Robert Bellah called the "habits of the heart." We shall not travel far toward a good society unless such a dialogue is soon launched and advanced to a good, spiritually uplifting conclusion.
About the Author
Amitai Etzioni, founder of the Communitarian Network, is a professor at George Washington University specializing in the advancement of socioeconomics. His address is George Washington University, 2130 H Street, N.W., Suite 703, Washington, D.C. 20052. Telephone 1-202-9948190; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web site www.gwu.edu/~ccps.
This essay draws from his most recent book, Next: The Road to the Good Society (Basic Books, 2001), which is available from the Futurist Bookstore for $23 ($21.50 for Society members), cat. no. B-2377.