Philosophical commentary on contemporary political issues in the tradition of Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Sandel.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Government's Role in Fostering Healthy Communities and Fulfilling Relationships

A fundamental aspect of liberal economic theory is that individuals are the best judges of what will effect their own happiness. The point of a market system is to allow individuals the ability to spend as they wish on what they wish, thus leading to outcomes that are favorable to their personal happiness. Recent research, however, is calling this assumption into question. It turns out that many of the economic decisions that we make do not necessarily lead to our own fulfillment, likely because of our inability to foresee effects of our decisions and misunderstanding of what it is that truly makes us happy.

What is the government's role in rectifying this error? While our current condition in America of political polarization is centered on a question of what the role of government truly is, arguments on both sides are built on a single assumption: that government exists to promote the welfare of its citizens. While this is a perspective that stands in contrast with that offered by the Rand/Nozick/Friedman camp, the theory of the role of government put forth by Nozick is not one that is generally accepted in moral discourse. When people talk about the benefit of limited government, it is defended by the claim that limited government will better work to promote the welfare of its citizens. The modern understanding of government is deeply Aristotelian.

Thus, if government exists to promote the welfare of its citizens, then it has an obligation to work to create systems that benefit its citizens. If science can show us that individuals find more fulfillment in lives that are social rather than solitary, as recent research has begun to uncover, then government should be working to foster the communities, friendships, and families that facilitate that fulfillment.

This is where psychology is beginning to connect with views of human nature put forth by MacIntyre in Dependent Rational Animals. Human beings are built to live in communities and to care about others. When we create systems that encourage people to separate from one another, we are not actually facilitating freedom, but are instead cutting people off from the opportunity to enjoy fundamental human capacities. This is not to say that a more invasive government is the answer in this respect, it may very well be that a more laissez-faire government can allow people to have more authentic experiences with one another. But it does say that government has an interest in healthy relationships and communities within its jurisdiction and that it has an obligation to promote them amongst their citizens.


  1. The topic of this post is one that interests me a great deal, too. I wonder if you have any practical suggestions. First of all, I agree with you - it is hard to just come out and say one way or another whether the government should be more invasive (or, let's say involved) or hand's off. What would it mean for the government to be involved? ...I would suggest that the left/right debates going on in mainstream media are misleading at best. Many (including many every day folk) recognize that there is actually very little that separates the positions and philosophies of republicans and democrats. Given THIS reality, I wonder what it would take for media AND/OR the government to begin to foster the sort of community lifestyle you (and perhaps I) would ideally desire. From a different angle, I would add that the sort of community being sought out is one that obviously requires an expressed desire from the people themselves. It is people who most benefit from community. Thus, how do organized people best use their tool called "government" to bring about more true, fulfilling sense(s) of community? I wonder.

  2. Hi Robert,

    I saw your post in reddit. I enjoy your blog and the topics it deals with. I'm a big fan of Sandel and admire the position he takes.
    I added Essentially Interdependent to my blogroll on my blog:, you might want to take a look at it as it deals with political theory and contemporary political discourse as well as many "communitarian" political and moral issues.