A new book published by the Witherspoon Institute aims to provide this perspective. The Thriving Society is a collection of essays by notable public intellectuals, and it provides the perfect opportunity to refresh our dialogue. While talking about everything from universities to family structure to healthcare, the central goal of the book is to help us understand – how do we promote a thriving, flourishing society that encourages innovation and develops human happiness?
The first step is to think about what truly makes up a thriving society. In his opening essay, Robert George lays out the “five pillars of a decent and dynamic society.” George describes three pillars that form a decent, or moral society – respect for the individual, the flourishing of marriage and the family, and a reliable and fair system of justice.
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 the key. “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,” said George.
After this introduction, essayists in The Thriving Society expand on these pillars and introduce other aspects that are needed to create a flourishing society.
Harold James (one of the editors of The Thriving Society, along with James R. Stoner, Jr.) writes about how religion can help prevent against the negative consequences that 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,” said James.
But the family, though not always perfect, also helps to create an environment in which individuals can learn the virtues necessary to contribute to society. According to 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 Thriving Society also examines our economic system and tries to present 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,” said Roger Scruton in his essay.
After understanding the philosophical basis for a thriving society, the essays begin to focus on how to create policies and a culture that encourage both individual and societal well-being. Candace Vogler argues that traditional, physical universities offer engagement and collaborative learning in a way that virtual learning never can. Michael D. Bordo and Harold James discuss the causes of the Great Recession and even lay out 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 explicitly does not provide a list of reforms, Steven Justice offers advice to university students, donors, and faculty on how to encourage debate and deepen the educational experience. The most policy-specific essay is the book’s last, on healthcare. Jesús Fernández-Villaverde describes the fundamental problems with today’s healthcare system and some proposals that could solve some of the major issues.
Though they clearly don’t agree on every point, the authors share a similar vision and thus prevent 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 a great deal of perspective on how to think about the major issues of our time. For anyone interested in a thoughtful approach to improving the world we live in, this should be required reading.