Since Michael Walzer is often identified as a leading communitarian thinker I did not expect to agree with his views about the good society. I thought it might be interesting to read his short article, ‘What is “The Good Society”? (Dissent, Winter 2009) just to see how much his views differed from my own (See, for example, ‘Is the good society a useful concept?). I was surprised to find that there wasn’t much difference.
Walzer begins his article by asking how there could be one good society, given the immense variety of human cultures. He then proceeds to talk himself around to the position that the good society ‘is constituted by the peaceful co-existence of all the societies that aim at goodness’.
Walzer argues that this view of the good society involves focusing our hopes for goodness on ‘more local, more particularized “societies” rather that a single society in which all members share a single goal. What he has in mind is the possibility that a single individual could take part in many different good societies (movements, associations and communities uniting for a common purpose) organized at different levels of social life and over different geographic areas (p78).
This reminds me of similar views expressed by Friedrich Hayek: ‘It would be a sad misunderstanding of the basic principles of a free society if it were to be concluded that, because they must deprive the small group of all coercive powers, they do not attach great value to the voluntary action of small groups. ... The true liberal must on the contrary desire as many as possible of those “particular societies within the state” ... Liberalism is not individualistic in the “everybody for himself sense”. A few paragraphs further on he wrote: “It is the great merit of the spontaneous order concerned only with means that it makes possible the existence of a large number of distinct and voluntary value communities serving such values as science, the arts, sports and the like. And it is a highly desirable development that in the modern world these groups tend to extend beyond national boundaries ...’ (LLL, vII: 151).
The communitarian libertarianism that Michael Walzer is advocating in this article makes a refreshing change from the vision of the good society favoured by social democrats and paternalistic conservatives who view governments as having the central role of defining and achieving ‘societal objectives’. Our chances of continuing progress toward good or better societies in coming decades will be enhanced if there is more widespread recognition of the importance of the spontaneous activities of numerous small groups comprised of individuals who share common goals.