What a Better Society Might Look Like

Stephen H. Unger
January 27, 2017

The recent changing of the guard in Washington has stunned many Americans. At such a pivotal moment in history, it might be appropriate to step back and consider the basic issues, which haven't changed since the election.

Let's fantasize a bit about what might be done to address our environmental and economic problems, to end international violence, and to improve the lives of the American people in general. In a sense, I am going to outline some ways in which we might make things generally better, without discussing how to get there from here. The idea is that, if enough important features of a better society can be credibly described, this might inspire people to figure out how to implement them, at least partially. I suspect that others could identify important problems and solutions that I overlooked.

Political rights

Fundamental to any decent political system is that individual rights are fully respected. There is ample evidence proving that, without strong mechanisms for enforcing basic political rights, other features of a good society will not be durable. The absence of such mechanisms proved to be critical factors in the failure of efforts to create decent societies in such places as the Soviet Union.

In the US, we start with the Bill of Rights. Free speech is the outstanding contribution of the US. While other English speaking countries, and European democracies, also have free speech, nowhere is it quite as free as in the US. In addition, freedom of the press, the right to vote, the right to privacy, the right to free assembly, freedom of religion, protection of minority rights, are all essential.

In recent years we have seen serious assaults on our privacy via government surveillance programs, including massive snooping on telephone communications. Tens of billions of dollars are included in the federal budget for numerous agencies dedicated to surveillance, a great deal of which is contracted out to private companies. Such activities are not compatible with a free society and should be shut down.


Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US has dominated the world militarily. We have been continuously at war since 2001. We have killed many hundreds of thousands of people, in at least 7 countries, spending trillions of dollars in the process [1]. These assaults should be terminated, overseas bases (there are hundreds) closed, the over 200,000 troops stationed abroad should be brought home and discharged. We should stop supporting authoritarian governments (e.g., in Saudi Arabia). Our military budget should be slashed. A portion of the savings should go to foreign aid programs to help the people of poor countries.

Liberty and justice for all

In principle, every American should be treated the same when accused of a crime, in that such matters as economic status, religion, race, should not affect the legal process. At present this is far from true. Accused people who are poor are not able to get released on bail pending trial, and are usually represented in court by very busy public defenders. Wealthy people in similar situations are released on bail, and have top notch attorneys working full time on their cases, aided by whatever types of experts are deemed useful. Since, under our adversarial system of justice, the quality of the attorneys plays a major role in determining outcomes, it is not surprising that rich people are far more likely to be victorious in court than are middle class people, and that poor people fare even worse.

Is there a better way to handle such matters? Consider a system where, for each case, the state provides a team of two or three attorneys, whose job it is to work together with the parties involved to marshal the arguments for both sides. These attorneys would have access to investigators, and to the results of police work. As at present, they would call witnesses, and present arguments to a jury, that then deliberates and tries to reach a just verdict. This approach, with appropriate variations, might be taken in both criminal and civil cases. (A more detailed discussion of this idea is presented elsewhere [2].)

Our shaky democracy

For many years now, our government has fallen far short of being "by the people". Members of all three branches of government, at all levels are, with very few exception, limited to those belonging to one of the 2 major parties, which differ only with respect to a few issues that wealthy people often disagree with one another about. It is clear that, under both Democratic and Republican rule, the desires of the general public are usually ignored. E.g., altho most Americans would like to have medicare extended to cover everybody [3], neither major party supports this. There was never any real debate about this in the congress.

The problem is deep rooted, but there are a few improvements that might be implemented in the near term. The most obvious is to eliminate the electoral college, which is currently very unpopular after its distorting effect on the results of the recent election. We are actually very close to a solution via the National Popular Vote idea, which would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes nationwide [4]. This has the support of people all over the political spectrum, and there is a real chance that it will be implemented in a few years. It has already been endorsed by legislatures of states with a total of 165 electoral votes. Only 105 more electoral votes are needed.

A common election day dilemma many voters often face is that they dislike both major party candidates, and that a candidate of a third party, who they think is the best, has virtually no chance of winning. They often feel compelled to vote for the major party candidate they dislike the least (the lesser evil dilemma). A very simple, effective, solution to this problem, called Approval Voting (AV) [5], is to allow voters to vote for (approve) any number of the candidates on the ballot. As usual, the candidate getting the most votes would be the winner. Under this scheme voters could vote for any number of candidates they liked, and also, if they wish, vote for the contender they regard as the lesser evil. This solution does the job neatly without complicating the election process in any significant way. It would make it possible for lesser known, but better, candidates to receive enough votes to develop a following, and perhaps become contenders in the next election.

The role of money

The most difficult obstacle to democracy is gross inequality of wealth and income. It now takes a great deal of money to run for election to any high office, so a candidate must either be very wealthy, or be supported by wealthy people. It is rare that a winning candidate succeeds solely with the support of small contributions from a great many people. And campaign contributions are only one aspect of the financial picture. In order to win, a candidate generally needs extensive support from the media, both print and electronic. Virtually all such entities are controlled by wealthy people.

For this reason, I don't believe you can have a real democracy, a country where all citizens have roughly equal political power, if there are people with enormous financial assets. We can argue about exactly how much is too much, but certainly a hundred million dollars is too much. I recall a suggestion on the internet (don't have the reference) that a factor of 10 would be a reasonable ratio of the greatest to the least income and wealth. The most extreme suggestion, by George Bernard Shaw, was that everybody should have the same income [6]. There are over 525 Americans worth over a billion dollars [7]. Nobody should have the power associated with such fortunes.

Common paths to great wealth generally involve being highly successful on Wall Street, heading a giant corporation, managing a hedge fund, or coming up with a clever scheme to sell widgets. Over a third of the super rich inherited their fortunes.

Individuals able to spend tens of millions of dollars can use money in many ways to exert great power. They can finance election campaigns, publish newspapers and magazines, control radio and television stations, finance think tanks that can exert political influence, subsidize academics who reflect their views, organize foundations to promote ideas they favor. Another, obvious, way that they can, and do, use this power is to obtain even more money. This positive feedback effect is causing the continual growth of inequality that we have seen over the past several decades. Such a gross maldistribution of power is incompatible with any reasonable definition of a real democracy [8].

Misuse of science and technology

The benefits of technology should be enjoyed by the entire population. New technology that reduces the amount of labor needed to perform some task should not, as is now the case, benefit owners and managers, while harming workers by eliminating their jobs. Of course, those who produced these benefits, scientists and engineers, should be rewarded, but these rewards are naturally in the form of appropriate pay for their work, and self satisfaction. Now, virtually all benefits go to the money people. An appropriate solution to this problem might be to tax companies using new technology to provide funds for the re-education of displaced workers for new jobs, and to support them while they are being re-educated. This would have to be done carefully so as not to discourage innovation.

American workers are being hurt by being treated as commodities, whose value is determined by an international market, the same way the price of a bushel of wheat is set. One of the ways this is being done is by importing workers from low-pay countries, legally, illegally, or temporarily. This process should be terminated. Immigration should be cut by an order of magnitude from the present legal rate of about a million a year [9]. Another reason to do this is that increases in our population are ecologically harmful [10].

Carefully designed tariffs are needed to protect American manufacturers from unfair competition from companies in countries that grossly underpay their workers or abuse the environment. We also need to adjust tax laws to discourage American companies from closing their factories in our country and importing goods made in low-pay countries.


[1] "Body Count", Physicians for Social Responsibility, March 2015

[2] Stephen H. Unger, "Justice for All", Oped News, March 25, 2014

[3] Philip Bump , "Poll: Most Americans want to replace Obamacare with single-payer--including many Republicans", Washington Post, May 16, 2016

[4] "National Popular Vote", 2016

[5] "Approval Voting", The Center for Election Science

[6] George Bernard Shaw, "The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism & Capitalism", Amazon, 1928

[7] "List of Billionaires 2017", October 2016

[8] Stephen H. Unger, "Putting a Limit On Wealth", Oped News, 1/10/2016

[9] Stephen H. Unger, "Immigration--A Thorny Subject", Ends and Means, August 2, 2016

[10] Jeffrey S. Passel, D'vera Cohn, "U.S. Population Projections: 2005-2050", Pew Research Center, February 11, 2008 ", December 30, 2015

Comments are welcomed and can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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