What kind of country do we live in? What does it even mean to talk about a “kind” of country? We all know what it means to ask of a strange creature “what kind of animal is this?” But it is less clear how to ask the same question of a society. The question is muddied further by the fact that societies can change. A leopard can’t change its spots. But a society can become more or less productive in the organization of its economy, more or less equal in its distribution of opportunity, more or less democratic in its politics.
This course provides an extended answer to the question of what kind of a country the United States is. It also explores the implications of that answer for understanding, and making progress in solving, some of the social problems that confront America today. Our discussion revolves around five key values that most Americans believe our society should realize:
Freedom: the idea, commonly thought to be the most essential to the “American creed,” that people should be able to live their lives, to the greatest degree possible, as they wish. This means people should be free from coercive restrictions imposed by others and, as much as possible, have the capacity to put their life plans into effect.
Prosperity: the idea that an economy should generate a high standard of living for most people, not just a small privileged elite.
Economic efficiency: the idea that the economy should generate rational outcomes, effectively balancing costs and benefits in the way resources are used.
Fairness: the idea that people should be treated justly and that they should have equal opportunity to make something of their lives without unfair privileges and unfair disadvantages.
Democracy: the idea that our public decisions should reflect the collective will of equal citizens, not of powerful and privileged elites.
A central theme throughout the course will be: To what degree does contemporary American society realize these values, and how might it do a better job?