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Freedom and Virtue in the Good Society

Freedom and Virtue in the Good Society

10 Mins
February 8, 2011

Winter 2010 -- One of the pleasures of being idealistic and pointing out society’s flaws is being asked all too frequently, “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you leave?” My fellow Canadians mean that I should leave this vast country that is Canada. They don’t see this as an unreasonable request—although these same people often do find it unreasonable to ask a sensitive non-smoker to leave a private bar that chooses to allow smoking.

But when I say, as I will below, that I would like to live in a good society, I understand that Canada is a pretty decent place to live. I know that Canada is as acceptable a place as any on Earth, and better than most (brutal winters notwithstanding). I certainly appreciate that it is far superior to hellholes like Somalia, Zimbabwe, and North Korea. It even remains, though for how long is anyone’s guess, preferable to up-and-comers like China, India, and Brazil.

I acknowledge wholeheartedly that we in the developed nations of the world have come a long way. Yet I cannot bring myself to say that Canada is a good society. No place on the planet really deserves that honorific, in my opinion. No group of humans has yet been consistently ambitious enough to fulfill what I see as our extraordinary potential.

Caveat in place, then, let me say it: I would like to live in a good society. I imagine that most people, if asked, would admit to a similar desire. I also imagine that at a broad enough level of abstraction, most of us would agree about what such a society would look like. Though we might quibble over specifics, most accounts would include what I will call the pentatonic pillars of the good society: prosperity, peace, positivity, passion, and privacy.


Prosperity. Though some might think it materialistic, the first thing to pop into many people’s heads when thinking of a good society is prosperity. In order to dispel as quickly as possible images of Scrooge McDuck, let me iterate what prosperity means. It means food in your belly, and in your children’s bellies. It means time for education through childhood and adolescence, and even into early adulthood and beyond. It means modern dentistry and medical care. It means safe, rapid transport for purposes of business or pleasure. It means time for pleasure on weekday evenings, weekends, long weekends, and weeks off for vacations. It means instantaneous communication, information, and opinion. It means a wealth of arts and entertainments to divert the mind and elevate the soul. It means concern to spare for conserving the beauty and diversity of the natural world. It means buildings that remain standing when earthquakes hit.

Humanity cannot shrink itself to salvation.

Such prosperity is already commonplace in developed countries. It makes us the envy of the rest of the world, and rightly so. But we lack imagination if we think there is no room for improvement. With greater prosperity, more of us can afford a greater variety of tastier, more healthful foods, and someone to cook them for us, and fine wines at every meal, and more time to eat slowly, savoring and digesting properly, conversing with friends. More time for education, too, and better education for all. More advances in medical care, available to more people more quickly. More and better cars that pollute less and more vacation time to drive those cars into the countryside (which is better preserved). If you can dream big enough, imagine a society that has the resources to conquer aging and populate other planets and moons. We will likely get there eventually, assuming we don’t destroy the prosperity we have, but an even more prosperous society would get there sooner.

Yet many also worry about prosperity, that it comes at too high a cost. Leisure, family, and community are sacrificed to work, and the natural world to industrial growth. John Adams expressed a different concern in a letter to his friend Thomas Jefferson: “Will you tell me how to prevent luxury from becoming effeminacy, intoxication, extravagance, vice and folly?” But all of these worries are misplaced. People today earn greater real incomes for fewer hours of work than their forbears did, and pressures on the natural world have eased as well. Tradeoffs do exist, but prosperity brings us more of whatever we value. While some in a prosperous society will mistakenly value vice, others will just as surely embrace virtue.

Peace. In addition to wealth, people in the good society must be secure from malevolent threats to their persons and property. In other words, criminality and war must be kept at bay. Adequate defense from foreign aggression must be ensured, as must defense from the domestic aggression of thugs and thieves. A peaceful society must also be tolerant of diversity, willing to live and let live.

The principle that must be applied for human beings to peacefully coexist is the non-initiation of force. Physical force is only justified in retaliation against those who have initiated its use. Pains must therefore be taken to determine, in any given conflict, who has initiated the use of force—or of fraud or coercion, which are simply indirect initiations of force. The procedures for determining who initiated the use of force must be widely trusted and worthy of that trust.

There is a sense in which authoritarian regimes, if they are stable, can seem peaceful. When I was in China a few years back, I was told that Shanghai was a very safe city, because criminals were dealt with very severely. We can argue about what amount of retaliatory force is appropriate under which circumstances—how to fit the punishment to the crime—but unfortunately, authoritarian regimes do not as a rule limit themselves to the retaliatory use of force. They initiate force as well, against student demonstrators or religious heretics, for instance. Even in times of superficial peace, the threat of force is omnipresent.

All civilized societies apply the principle of the non-initiation of force to some considerable extent. No society anywhere has yet come close to applying it consistently. But the good society could and should do so.

Positivity. True peace and great prosperity would by themselves be considerable achievements, but three other aspects of the good society deserve mention. One is positivity. A truly good society would be optimistic. Its members would tend to look to the future with anticipation, confident in their potential to solve problems and self-organize.

For an image of what positivity means, think of the can-do attitude of Silicon Valley, where engineers meet in coffee shops to dream up world-changing new companies, and social problems are seen as business opportunities. Now contrast that with the pessimism of the doom peddlers who see unmanageable catastrophe around every corner and preach a return to “simpler times.” But humanity cannot shrink itself to salvation. We must face our challenges with a positive future orientation that is not overly rosy, but rather grounded in a realistic appraisal of our admittedly uneven progress throughout history.

Privacy matters because of the good and the great it nurtures.

Passion. A peaceful, prosperous, and positive society that lacked passion would be a dry place. Instead, the good society would value strong emotions, embracing life’s glorious possibilities. Its members would tend to throw themselves into their work, performing even the simplest tasks with as much care and skill and attention to detail as they could muster. But if people worked hard, and derived profound satisfaction from working hard, they would also play hard, as it were, indulging in leisure and entertainment, and also enjoying great works of art celebrating the struggles and triumphs of the human spirit.

The standard bearer for emotionally repressed societies everywhere is Victorian England, with its sexual prudery and stiff upper lips. While Victorians enjoyed great economic freedom and productive achievement, and hence rapidly rising prosperity, and also lived during the Pax Britannica, a period of relative peace in Europe, they are certainly not renowned for their joie de vivre. In contrast, romantic American iconography, especially of revolutionary heroes and daring frontiersmen, is much more passionate.

Privacy. The greatest passions, however, require privacy, and the good society would not deserve to be so-called if it lacked ample opportunities for seclusion and solitude. In work and in love, creativity requires time alone, to think and plan. Great, passionate works of art are not usually brought into existence by committee. The deepest friendships and loves also need time away from prying eyes to blossom; time to share intimacies not shared with others; time to build a special microcosm of private meaning within the wider, public world. A society devoid of privacy would be a society with no room for great passion, and hence not a place I would want to live.

Warrantless wiretaps and extensive networks of closed-circuit television cameras have contributed to the United States and England being ranked alongside other “endemic surveillance societies” like Russia and China, according to Privacy International. But those who say, in defense of such invasive government actions, that people who have done nothing wrong have nothing to hide, reveal a profound misunderstanding of the importance of privacy. Privacy matters not because of the bad that it hides, but because of the good and the great that it nurtures.


What kind of people could bring about and sustain a prosperous, peaceful, positive, passionate, private society? People of great virtue, committed to being morally excellent. According to Objectivist ethics, this means people who are rational, productive, honest, just, benevolent, integrated, independent, and proud.

Rational people see reality for what it is, not running from it but seeking to understand it more profoundly. They are aware of the common pitfalls of fallacious thinking and guard against them. With their hard-earned knowledge of the world and of human nature, they are natural problem solvers. They can identify goals worth pursuing and also help bridge the gap between life as it is and life as it could be.

In a free society, benevolence would be bolstered.

Productive people, of course, are the ones who create prosperity. There is no wealth without work. Not just any work, either. Digging and filling up holes—to hijack one of John Maynard Keynes’s most celebrated images—creates zero wealth. Only work that is guided by productive minds to valued purposes creates wealth. Oil is nothing but worthless black sludge until minds and muscles wrench it from the ground and convert it into useful energy. Millennia after millennia, sand was just sand, until someone figured out how to use it to make silicon computer chips and solar power cells.

Productive people also tend to be peaceful, since the markets they rely on do not function well unless the threat of violence is kept to a minimum. Their work being extended into the future, they also tend to be positive, and in the best of cases they are passionate, too, at least about their work.

Honest people do not seek to fake reality by lying or dissembling, and they do not seek the unearned by stealing or defrauding. They therefore do not undermine the peace in society. Perhaps more importantly, they provide the foundation for complex markets, which would collapse if dishonesty were widespread. Honest people are therefore extremely important for prosperity.

Just people, at a minimum, do not initiate force against others and so do not undermine the peace. But furthermore, to varying degrees they fight to defend themselves and others when they are the victims of aggression. Whether as lawyers, judges, police, soldiers, writers, reporters, or simply in their day-to-day lives, they support peace by providing resistance against the thieves and thugs who would use force, fraud, and coercion to get their way. Beyond the legal realm, the just treat others the way they deserve to be treated: identifying and promoting life-affirming actions and individuals while dissuading and deterring that which runs counter to human flourishing. They therefore promote the positive that they see in the world. They are also likely to be very passionate, at least about individual rights, and are likely to include among these the right to privacy.

Benevolent people are above all positive people, seeking out mutually beneficial connections with others and giving freely of their surplus resources, secure in the knowledge that what goes around comes around. Their optimistic outlook is essential for the organization of collaborative productive endeavors. Expecting to find win-win opportunities in the world, they tend to find them, and, finding them, they help bring them to fruition, and hence can be equally good peacemakers.

Integrated people see their minds and bodies as indivisible entities. They therefore value both reason and passion, the one because it supports life and the other because it makes life worth living. Because of their rejection of the mind-body dichotomy, integrated people think like men of action and act like men of thought (to paraphrase French philosopher Henri Bergson). Confident in their own abilities, they tend to be positive about the future.

Independent people not only take responsibility for their lives materially by working for a living, and so make at least some contribution to prosperity; they also take responsibility for the content of their own minds. Though valuing others’ expertise, they do not place anyone’s authority above their need to come to their own conclusions. They tend to place a high value on their own privacy and, as a corollary, on the privacy of others. They are therefore a bulwark against authoritarian threats to that privacy and to the peaceful coexistence of all members of society.

Proud people are cognizant of their own worth and competence. Neither inflated with hubris nor burdened with excessive humility, they are unwilling to sacrifice their dignity to others, and so, like independent people, are a bulwark against authoritarian threats to peace. In addition, though, they are the ones who will take up ambitious projects—for instance, projects for bringing about and maintaining a truly good society.


If the good society requires virtuous people, moving toward such a society would therefore reasonably include the promotion of virtue. But how, exactly, is this to be done? Parents bear primary responsibility for promoting virtue in their children, to be sure. Teachers, if they are good at their jobs, might come next. Artists, too, have the ability to promote virtue in people of all ages, if they so choose. This is all hard work, though. Wouldn’t it be easier just to force people to be virtuous?

Proud people are not easily ruled.

The initiation of the use of force is a means of gaining control over other human beings. There are those for whom control over others is an end in itself. Ayn Rand rightly referred to such people who are in love with power as the worst kind of second-handers, and this essay is not addressed to them. It is addressed, though, to all of those who are seduced by the notion that government power can be used to lead people to virtue.

Few people in the developed world seriously advocate overt authoritarianism, such as the rule of kings and dictators. Even in places like China, the allure of tyranny is fading, to the great benefit of the Chinese. What very much does retain its power over the minds of many, though, is the soft authoritarianism of social democracy, in which the power of the state is at least nominally in the hands of “the people” and is ostensibly used for their benefit.

This is a favorite shortcut of both the Left and the Right, which differ only in emphasis. But it is really more of a short-circuit because it is ultimately counter-productive. The problem, even for those who do not object in principle to being subject to force, is that active, expansive government intervention in people’s lives undermines virtue at every turn. Freedom, in contrast, tends to support virtue.

To take a glaring example, government-run education undermines rationality. There will be good teachers in any school, but government systems are explicitly designed to “socialize” students, to clip their wings and prune their thorns so they will “fit in.” Obedience to authority is reinforced through propaganda glorifying the state and vilifying human nature.
Children who start out engaged and curious about the world often have their love of learning sucked right out of them.

In a free society, however, rationality would be supported, as schools would tend to nurture and develop children’s ability to think straight. With parents able to educate their kids as they saw fit, there would be increased competition among schools. Owners and administrators, in order to win their business, would place parents’ and children’s interests first, before teachers’ interests. Indeed, the best schools would find innovative ways to harmonize students’ and teachers’ interests. Without official government curricula and other guidelines to follow, innovation in course material and teaching methods would also flourish. The most successful schools would build good reputations and thrive. Others would be free to imitate their successes or develop alternate models, while the worst schools and teachers would be free to fail and make way for their betters.

Look no further than punitive taxation rates if you want to know how social democratic governments undermine productiveness. When a third or a half or more of the product of your effort is siphoned off without your consent—even if you get “services” in return for your extorted “contribution”—some of your desire to make an effort inevitably gets siphoned off too. Throw in mountains of regulations, the disincentives of generous unemployment insurance and welfare benefits, and the hidden tax of inflation, and it is little wonder that some people, when considering working harder or opening their own businesses, find themselves asking: Why bother?

In a free society, productiveness would be encouraged. Taxes would ideally be voluntary and at any rate would be kept to a minimum. The rewards of productive work would therefore accrue to those who did the work, providing a clear incentive to work hard and work smart. Tort law and concern for reputation would protect people and their property from the unscrupulous while respecting the dignity of honest producers and not burdening them with reams of paperwork. With access only to the unemployment insurance they could contract for and the charity they could solicit voluntarily, people’s incentive to work would be reinforced. Sound money would also ensure that governments could not erode the value of every dollar by printing more and more of them whenever it pleased them to do so.

Governments undermine honesty with their tax codes as well, since people who want to keep more of their money sometimes decide they are willing to lie in order to do so. Inflation is worse still: the government can’t even be forthright about the money it is taking from you by force, but has to disguise it by printing money. Perhaps most sinister, governments consistently abuse language, from Social Security “contributions” to “non-repayable loans” for favored businesses, making a mockery of the virtue of honesty.

In a free society, honesty would be supported. People would have little incentive to lie on their tax returns if taxes were kept to a minimum. Limited governments, for their part, would have less incentive to print money and abuse the language. Governments would police the dishonesty of fraudulent claims, of course. But reputational effects in an open, competitive market would also promote honesty and keep lying in check, given the vital importance of trust and objectivity to positive voluntary relations among people.

Given that one of the main proper functions of government is to provide organized resistance to the unjust initiation of force, it is especially perverse when governments undermine justice by initiating force themselves. Compulsory taxation is a corruption of this proper role of government, since it is an initiation of force, but injury is heaped upon injury when funds illegitimately collected are put to illegitimate uses. Among the most egregious examples of this is the War on (Some) Drugs, in which people guilty of harming no one but themselves are routinely put behind bars. This undermines the peace in our streets by handing power to organized criminal gangs. Entire neighborhoods are thus thrown into chaos, catching innocents in the crossfire and making the administration of actual justice more difficult for police.

Governments do not merely punish those undeserving of punishment, however; they also routinely reward those unworthy of reward. Arts funding, for example, regularly transfers money to the creators of music, paintings, books, and films that most taxpayers would not choose to support voluntarily. This is the very reason for the existence of arts funding, in fact. But it is no less a travesty of justice to force people to support art they dislike than it is to prevent them from spending money on activities they do like.

In a free society, justice would be reinforced as government would be restricted to retaliating against those who initiate the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Government would neither force people to reward the unworthy nor punish those who have not initiated force against others. On the other hand, nor would adults who harm themselves be rescued, on the taxpayer’s dime, from their own bad lifestyle choices. The same goes for individuals (and banks) who make poor financial decisions. And actual criminals would be dealt with strictly. In short, people would be accountable for their own actions, but no one would be accountable for the actions of others.

For many people, the prime justification for social democracy is undoubtedly its perceived benevolence in lifting up the poor and downtrodden. By providing unemployment protection, subsidized housing, retirement benefits, education, and health insurance to the poor—or to all, in an effort to de-stigmatize the true recipients of this largesse—“society” demonstrates its goodwill. But what is the effect of forcing people to help others? Do they become more benevolent in their daily lives? Or do they become less so, feeling that they “gave at the office,” so to speak?

In a free society, benevolence would be bolstered. People with an abundance of resources would get to decide for themselves who needs and deserves a second (or a first) chance, and who is likely to make good use of it. Instead of resenting the impersonal imposition of helping the multitudes who squander their second (or third, or tenth) chances and still feel entitled to more, generous donors could experience the satisfaction of offering personal and genuine aid to others. Without government monopolizing most of the helping, there would be more competition among charities for donor’s dollars. With greater competition, service quality and innovation would naturally go up. And seeing their dollars get results, people’s benevolence would be reinforced. In fact, no longer feeling that others have a claim on the product of their efforts, people would be more benevolent in all aspects of their lives. They would not only be more generous, but also more civil, sensitive, and courteous in their relations with others, and hence would form more mutually beneficial connections of all kinds with their fellow men and women.

People’s integrity is undercut when they are separated from the product of their own efforts, denying them the opportunity to spend and invest that product as they see fit. Instead of it being used to support activities and causes they personally value, it is used to support what “society” values; which means, what the majority (or plurality) values; which means, what politicians and lobbyists value. In addition, even with the share of their money that they are permitted to keep, people are prevented from expressing their values peacefully in their daily lives whenever they are told how much fat or salt they can eat, how to educate their kids, whether they can carry a firearm, and on and on and on.

In a free society, integrity would be supported. A person’s income and wealth would be seen as extensions of that person, as the contents of his or her character made tangible. It would therefore be considered obscene to use regulations and taxation to separate people from their money against their wills, or dictate to them how they could or could not spend it. With their just rewards to look forward to, people would be more impassioned to work hard and smart, and more passionate about their leisure time as well.

Whatever the short-term benefits of government safety nets, they tend to undermine independence in the long term. Those who are given what they need to live often come to see themselves as entitled to outside assistance, and become dependent on that assistance. They learn to be helpless and to see others as sources of handouts or as competitors for those handouts. And as goes material independence, so goes independence of mind.

In a free society, independence would be encouraged. Those who are able would have to stand on their own two feet. Instead of learning helplessness, they would learn how powerful they are, able to take care of themselves and more. They would tend to see others as fellow producers and traders, and voluntarily come together with them to build a better future.

Finally, by undermining all of the other major virtues, active, interventionist, social democratic governments undermine pride as well. For what is it that a person can most purely take pride in but the substance of his or her character? And what is a strong character built upon but moral excellence, grounded in the practice of major virtues? Indeed, it is hard to escape the conclusion that for some supporters of active, expansive government—for those in love with power—this is the whole point. Proud people are not easily ruled. Those who want power do not want to encourage virtue. They want to encourage vice and attendant feelings of guilt. People who see themselves and others as naturally irrational, unproductive, dishonest, unjust, malevolent, corrupt, or dependent are more likely to see themselves and others as needing to be ruled.

Those of us who seek the good for themselves and others must reject this depraved view of humanity, lest we play right into the hands of those who crave only power.

In a free society, since all of the other major virtues are supported, people would be encouraged to develop strong characters—to be morally excellent—and so pride would be supported as well. The government of a free society is not the people’s ruler, but rather their servant. It enforces a framework of justice in order to encourage people to realize their virtuous potential. But beyond preventing the initiation of force, it allows people the greatest possible latitude in living their lives. Most importantly for the cultivation of virtue, it leaves intact “the rewards for behaving responsibly and the penalties for behaving irresponsibly,” to borrow a phrase from Theodore Dalrymple. This means it allows people to fail, knowing that when left to their own devices, people tend to learn and grow from their failures, and from the failures of others. They also tend to take appropriate preventive measures when they know they will bear the brunt of their own failures—and they tend to help each other voluntarily when true misfortune strikes.

In the end, as much as some might wish it were so, moral fiber cannot be imposed from on high; it must be built from the ground up. To be sure, it can benefit greatly from the assistance and guidance of wise elders with a personal or professional interest in its development: parents, relatives, friends, teachers, artists. But that is a different thing from imagining that it can be legislated into existence. Morality requires a voluntary society. The more the voluntary sphere is delimited and shrunk by government taxation, regulation, and control, the more the moral muscles atrophy.

The good society needs good people to support it. Freedom will not guarantee virtue, but lack of freedom will surely undermine it. Let the human spirit soar, constrained only by the rewards and penalties sewn into the fabric of reality, and watch as the heights we reach surpass our wildest flights of fancy.

Bradley Doucet
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Bradley Doucet
Ideas and Ideologies