Review – The Thriving Society 

It’s so often the case that policymaking descends into a mire of statistics, regression analyses and legislative jargon. Rarely do we take a step back and reexamine the fundamental principles that should drive our politics and public policies.

thriving society

A new book published by the Witherspoon Institute offers a remedy. The Thriving Society is a collection of essays by notable public intellectuals, and it provides the perfect opportunity to refresh our dialogue. While the book covers policy areas ranging from higher education to family structure and healthcare, the central goal of the book is to help us think clearly about how to promote a thriving, flourishing society that encourages innovation and nurtures human happiness.

The first step is to consider what truly makes up a thriving society. Princeton University’s Robert P. George lays out in the book’s opening essay the “five pillars of a decent and dynamic society.” The first three George describes are respect for the individual, the flourishing of marriage and the family, and a reliable and fair system of justice. Those form the foundation for a moral society, he argues.

A dynamic society — one that experiences intellectual, social and economic progress — must also have institutions of research and education that increase and transmit knowledge and an economy that encourages businesses to grow. Combining all of these pillars is vital. “The two greatest institutions ever devised for lifting people out of poverty and enabling them to live in dignity are the market economy and the institution of marriage,” George argues.

The essays in “The Thriving Society” build on those pillars, and introduce other concepts essential for a society to flourish.

Harold James, who along with James R. Stoner, Jr., co-edited the book, makes the case that religion can help guard against the negative consequences that sometimes arise from a competitive economic system. When governments try to take on this task, they usually fail. “The freedom to experiment and to innovate — and to serve others — will be inhibited by the imposition of laws and regulations that attempt to micromanage social and economic interactions,” writes James.

But the family, though not always perfect, helps to cultivate an environment in which individuals learn the virtues necessary to contribute to society. According to University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus, who has studied the effects of a changing culture on society, “to be stably rooted in your married mother and father’s household is to foster the greatest chance at lifelong flourishing.”

“The two greatest institutions ever devised for lifting people out of poverty and enabling them to live in dignity are the market economy and the institution of marriage”

“The Thriving Society” also examines the Western economic system and presents a philosophy that acknowledges its benefits while minimizing its consequences. Rather than treating the market economy as a system designed to reward pure individualism and selfishness, we should recognize the value of personhood as potential. “We should see the life of the person as rooted in the community of others, growing into autonomy and independence, flowering in the moments of love and commitment, and bearing fruit, in due course, in the next generation,” argues British philosopher Roger Scruton.

After understanding the philosophical basis for a thriving society, the essays turn their attention to forming policies and a culture that encourage both individual and social well-being. University of Chicago philosopher Candace Vogler argues that traditional, physical universities offer engagement and collaborative learning in a way that virtual learning could never match. Rutgers economist Michael D. Bordo, in an essay with Harold James, discusses the causes of the Great Recession and offers eight specific financial issues to be addressed (keeping with the tone of the book, these are laid out more as guiding principles and areas to explore, rather than specific policy solutions).

Though the book avoids presenting laundry lists of reforms, a few essays offer concrete recommendations. Steven Justice, a professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, advises students, donors and faculty on how to encourage debate and deepen the educational experience. The most policy-specific essay is the book’s concluding chapter on healthcare. University of Pennsylvania economist Jesús Fernández-Villaverde describes the fundamental problems with today’s healthcare system and offers an even-dozen reforms, such as deregulation of the insurance market, overhauling medical malpractice rules and enhancing medical savings accounts. .

While the book’s contributors clearly don’t agree on everything, they share a similar vision, which saves the book from reading like a random collection of disjointed thoughts. Though not intended to be a handbook for creating a flourishing society, “The Thriving Society” offers much-needed perspective on how to think about the major issues of the day. For anyone interested in a thoughtful approach to improving the world, “The Thriving Society” is a must-read.

Daniel Huizinga is a columnist for Opportunity Lives covering business and politics. Follow him on Twitter @HuizingaDaniel.