The New Statesman Essay - The road to the good society

The Third Way is doomed unless the rich change their ways

People frequently criticise the Third Way for being fuzzy and vague. If they mean that it isn't fully etched, that it indicates the direction in which we should move but isn't a fully developed doctrine or an ideological road-map, they are certainly right. It is not a road you can travel, but one that is being paved. That is one of the merits of the Third Way, compared with the doctrines that sought to prescribe every facet of our lives and gave us so much trouble in the previous century.

But if the critics mean that the Third Way is indefinable or that it lacks a core, they are wrong. The Third Way takes for granted that the state is neither the problem nor the solution, that unfettered markets can cause much havoc and suffering, and that carefully contained markets can be powerful engines of economic growth and employment. Above all, it maintains that a society best relies on three pillars: a strong but lean government; a well-developed but encapsulated market; and a vibrant community. So far, all the societies that have adopted the Third Way - though they differ in how they combine the roles of state and market - have neglected the third pillar. In my view, they will have to strengthen it if they are to make much further progress. I believe that, in the years to come, communities must shoulder an increasing share of social services, because they do it at lower cost to the public, and with greater humanity, than either the state or the market.

What do I mean by communities? Communities, in my book, are groups of people who share bonds of affection (somewhat like those shared by members of an extended family) and a moral culture. In the past, communities were largely residential. Today, that is often not so; indeed, they may have no geographical base at all, since communities now form in cyberspace. Communities may be based on work (the doctors in a particular hospital, the academic staff of a particular university), on race or ethnicity, on sexual orientation, on a shared political or cultural outlook.

Mutuality is central to communities. A good society relies even more on mutuality - people helping each other rather than merely helping those in need - than it does on voluntarism. We see mutuality at work in, for example, crime prevention, childcare, care of the sick and in bereavement. Mutual help groups (oddly often called self-help groups) can play a big role in helping with cancer, contagious diseases, alcoholism, obesity and much else.

Good communities tend to nourish what the philosopher Martin Buber called "I-thou" relationships: people treat one another as ends in themselves, not merely as instruments; as whole persons rather than as fragments; as something like an extended family rather than only as employees, traders, consumers or even fellow citizens. The market, by contrast, encourages what Buber called "I-it" relationships. The state-citizen relationship also tends to the instrumental.

There is a wealth of evidence that people who live in communities benefit, both physically and mentally. According to one study, "socially isolated men have nearly double the mortality from cardiovascular disease of those with the largest social networks". In 1988, Wellsburg, in western Virginia, had a particularly high incidence of heart disease - 29 per cent above the national average. Then the community decided to do something about it, organising walks, healthy suppers, aerobics classes and so on. By 1996, the area's cardiovascular health profile was one of the best in the state.

In their classic study of lonely New Yorkers in high-rise apartments, Mental Health in the Metropolis, Leo Srole and his associates found that 60 per cent of the residents had subclinical psychiatric conditions and 20 per cent were judged psychologically impaired.

Strong communities have lower rates of juvenile delinquency, less drug and alcohol abuse, and less need for publicly funded social services such as childcare and grief counselling. Practically all kinds of antisocial behaviour are relatively low among Mormon communities in Utah, Orthodox Jewish communities in New York and black Muslim groups, as well as in villages and in small towns. In the county of Tillamook, Oregon, both religious and non-religious groups collaborated to reduce the teenage pregnancy rate. They succeeded: it fell from 24 pregnancies per 1,000 girls in 1990 to seven per 1,000 in 1994. These are just a few of the examples that support my argument for communities.

If we want to foster good social behaviour and curb the anti-social acts (damage to the environment, domestic violence, neglect of children, selling alcohol and cigarettes to the young), we would do better to rely on the community's subtle and informal pressures, such as approbation and censure, rather than on the state's coercive powers. A Third Way government should resist the rush to legislate good behaviour, because legislation numbs the moral conscience. We know from the history of legislation on divorce, and alcohol that the law is often an ineffective restraint on social behaviour.

How can we encourage and renew communities? We can provide occasions for social gatherings - for example, through opening schools for community meetings and fostering neighbourhood street festivals. We can assign temporary organisers to get groups started. We can recognise that communities are formed and reinforced largely in public spaces, not in homes and cars. If these spaces are unsafe or depleted, communities are diminished. So we should increase the safety and accessibility of public spaces and increase investment in playgrounds, pavements, pedestrian areas, parks and plazas.

We can also increase people's participation in making decisions. Which streets should be turned into pedestrian areas and at what times? What should be the opening hours for a park? Who should use it? (Children? Dogs?) What should be its primary purposes? (Holding public assemblies? Communing with nature?)

We must also allow communities to levy fees, dues or taxes above or beyond those levied by the state. We should welcome parents who contribute services, money and assets to their own children's schools rather than expect them to put their resources into an anonymous pot from which all schools can draw. Ethically, it is too heroic to expect people to do for one and all as much as they will do for their own communities. At the same time, though, we should use tax breaks to encourage the better-off communities to help the more needy ones.

The most important thing is that we should angle public policy to ensure that it helps communities to survive and grow, rather than the opposite. Vibrant communities need schools, post offices, banks and shops. For the sake of economic or administrative efficiency, it may seem to make sense to consolidate such services. A Third Way society, while not discounting such considerations, would give at least as much weight to the social "efficiencies".

Critics object that communities can be authoritarian and oppressive. And so they often have been. I am not suggesting that they can be relied upon as the sole arbiters of morality; we only have to think how Nazi or Afrikaner communities might reach 100 per cent consensus to lynch people on the basis of their race. We should not tolerate communities that wish to practise child labour or female circumcision, or those that force young girls into marriage with much older men against their will. But this is where the state steps in, to protect basic rights, including free speech, assembly and so on. Unfettered communities are no better than unfettered markets or states. Balance is at the core of the Third Way. Like medicine, food and drink, communities, if taken in reasonable measure, are essential to the good life but, if taken to excess, can destroy it.

The state retains other important functions. The Third Way involves curbing welfare costs and overcoming some of the psychological side effects that welfare generates. However, we have seen not just a lowering of safety nets, but some people being cut off welfare completely. In the US and Britain, for instance, hundreds of thousands of patients have been released from state mental hospitals on the assumption that they would be absorbed in non-existing community centres. They ended up on the streets, constituting a large part of the homeless population. In both countries, welfare recipients are cut off all welfare if they fail to meet certain conditions.

Such measures are not compatible with the Third Way. In a community, responsibility from all is paralleled by responsibility for all. In other words, a community has a moral responsibility to ensure that no one is treated inhumanely, to ensure that all get a rich basic minimum. Voluntary associations, extended families, friends, mutual saving associations and religious charities can carry part of this burden, but they cannot take on the final responsibility to ensure that everybody receives basic provisions. That is the state's responsibility. Whether people who act in antisocial ways, or do not discharge their social responsibilities, do so because of their genes, their parents, "the system", poor upbringing or character failings is beside the point. They deserve, at least, shelter, clothing, food and elementary healthcare, which we provide even to prisoners of war or to pets.

It follows that no one should be completely cut off from welfare or dumped on to the streets, even if they refuse to work, attend classes or do community service. The provisions for such wilful slackers (which by no means all of these are) may reasonably be reduced and they may not include cash beyond some small amounts. But the state's duty in a good society is to ensure that no one will go hungry, homeless or, when sick, unattended. To allow them to do so is morally demeaning, psychologically debilitating and politically foolish.

Providing basics will not kill the motivation to work for most able-bodied people, as long as work is available. And if there are some who abuse the system, a good society should consider that a small price to pay in order not to deny anyone's basic humanity.

Equally, nobody seeking work should be without a job or fear not being able to find one. The state should provide community service jobs to those who cannot find any other. Work is not merely the best source of income for people, but an essential part of their sense of self-worth. Citizens in former communist countries yearn for the days when they were all provided with a secure minimum, however grungy and meagre it was. Workers in the US will forgo increases in wages and benefits, even endure some cutbacks, in order to enhance job security.

There can be no good society if general increases in well-being keep increasing the economic distance between the elites and the rest of the people. That applies even if some benefits do trickle down to the poor. While we may debate what exactly social justice entails, there is little doubt what a community requires. If the elite, whether of the private or public sector, leads a life of hyper- affluence - isolated within gated estates, transported by chauffeured limousines - its members are not only insulated from the community's moral cultures, they are also blinded to the realities of the lives of their fellow citizens. They tend, then, to favour unrealistic policies (let them eat cake), thus undermining trust in those who lead and the institutions they head, leading ultimately to further damage to the social fabric.

It is argued that, if the state tries to achieve equality of outcome, it will undermine effort and creativity, act unjustly to the industrious and make labour costs so high as to make a society uncompetitive. Equality of opportunity has been extolled as a substitute. But there can be no equality of opportunity without some equality of outcome. If all are to have similar opportunities, they must have similar starting points.

That is why a rich basic minimum is so important. It is also why a minimum wage matters. Critics say that it will price people out of the market. But given that I have already argued that society is morally obliged to ensure subsistence above the poverty line, the only alternative to a proper minimum wage would be welfare payments. These tend to degrade people and to develop dependency, and politically they are even less attractive than a minimum wage.

At the other end of the scale, measures to curb inequality would include a progressive income tax, some form of inheritance tax and a tax on capital as well as on labour. The difficulty is to come up with politically feasible measures that do not conflict with a country's capacity to compete internationally. Measures to curb inequality may well require international harmonisation.

Ultimately, politicians will not properly attend to such matters until there is a basic change in society's moral culture and in the purposes that animate it. Ever greater consumption of material goods is not a reliable source of human well-being and contentment, let alone of a morally sound society. A good society would recognise that pursuit of well-being through ever higher levels of consumption is Sisyphusian, that enough is enough. It would build on the realisation that profound contentment is found in bonding, in community-building and public service, and in cultural and spiritual pursuits, once basic creature comforts are securely provided for. Capitalism never aspired to address the whole person; at best, it treats people purely as economic beings. Statist socialism subjugated rather than inspired. It is left to Third Way societies to fill the void.

None of the profoundest problems that plague modern societies will be adequately addressed until those whose basic needs are well sated shift their priorities up the scale of human needs, to giving and gaining affection, cultivation of culture, community service and spiritual fulfilment. We need a change in priorities to bring us into harmony with the environment, to make people willing to share wealth and power, and to lay the social foundations for I-thou relations rather than I-it relations.

Democratic societies cannot legislate for such things. But its leaders - its intellectuals, its media commentators, its politicians, its company bosses - can help launch a grand dialogue about our personal and shared goals. They can also set an example: by moderating consumption at public events and ceremonies; by adding visits to pubs to visits to the opera; by taking beer and sandwiches with working-class people rather than confining themselves to posh yuppie restaurants; by celebrating those whose achievements are compatible with the good society rather than with a merely affluent one. Ultimately, such a shift lies in changes in hearts and minds, in the values and conduct, of us all. We shall not travel far up the Third Way unless such a dialogue is soon launched.

Amitai Etzioni is the author of The Spirit of Community and The New Golden Rule. This article is based on The Third Way to the Good Society to be published by Demos later this year