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  • The Good Society:A Retrospective
  • Stephen L. Elkin

Friedrich Hayek wrote someplace that he once had the reference for a footnote but could no longer remember it. This is pretty much the situation I find myself in trying to reconstruct the origins of The Good Society as part of my farewell if not to arms to pens. Perhaps it is just as well since, while it is possible that one or two readers of the journal will want the sordid details, the rest will doubtless wish to read something more edifying.

There are, however, some things that I can remember that may possibly fill the bill. I think the first thing to note is that the journal was conceived of as a part of a broader undertaking, The Political Economy of the Good Society (PEGS). This was an effort to bring together theorists, activists and practitioners in the service of developing institutional forms and civic practices from which a good society could be built. The organization sponsored a number of conferences, published some books and otherwise engaged in the kinds of activities that those in the world-improving business are inclined to undertake. PEGS continued its activities for many years, into the new century, and has carried on in new forms, notably inside The Democracy Collaborative and the new civics movement which includes the Summer Institute held at Tufts University.

But it is with the journal that the intellectual heart of what might be called the good society movement may be seen. Perhaps the place to begin is with the journal's motto, Walter Lippmann's statement that "the art of governing well has to be learned." This has graced the masthead since nearly the initial issue (interestingly, the first two issues had as a motto Franklin's [End Page 264] admonition that it is "a republic if you can keep it," a similar sentiment.) Lippmann's formulation has guided us from the start, indicating what work we wish to encourage. By "us" I mean Karol Soltan, Gar Alperovitz and me who constituted the Editorial Board in the first years of the journal. We were joined by Jyl Josephson who took up the unenviable task of being Managing Editor to my Editor. Lippmann's formulation I thought conveyed two things—that there IS an art of government and that it CAN be learned. In a word, the journal was meant to promote work aimed at considering what the art of governing might be, especially with regard to political orders in which the people are said to rule. We understood this inquiry to include an analysis of the institutions necessary to good political orders, of which self-governing republics are one, the character of the citizenry necessary for such orders to flourish, and the sources and actions of the statesmen that would be necessary to maintain them.

The idea was to publish such work not only to set out the institutions and behaviors that constitute the foundations of good political orders but to do so in such a fashion that thoughtful citizens could make sense of what was being claimed—in short, that they can learn to govern themselves, since most of our readers would either live in republics or aspire to live in one. We thus encouraged the work we published to be in essay form, discursive, short and inviting, bearing little resemblance to what appeared in a standard academic journal. Indeed, for most of its life, The Good Society's format was 8" × 11". As one of our most acute readers and contributors said, the journal didn't drop on your desk with a thud.

In a deeper sense, The Good Society has meant to publish work informed by political philosophy but not be a part of it, to draw on it, but not to aim at advancing it as that discipline is generally understood. This is still one of the journal's guiding concerns. Thus, our ideal contributor would be at home in the work of Machiavelli or Montesquieu but not offer an interpretation of their work or of the philosophical questions raised by it. If the distinction will be allowed, we wanted—and want—to publish work...


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pp. 264-268
Launched on MUSE
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