Experiencing the Public Good

By John L. Hodge
My wife and I gained some important insights about America by visiting the Netherlands. During our recent two-month stay there, we saw the workings of an important societal glue that is often missing here – the concept and practice of the public good.
The people we talked to, including an American expat who has made Amsterdam her home, see the public good as the best way to enhance the well-being of individuals. They willingly pay their government to provide for the necessities that everyone needs to thrive. They see providing for the public good as the means to a happier society and understand that the happiness of others and their own happiness are interconnected.
Through the government, everyone has access to quality health care; college education is free; parents are granted extensive paid parental leave; public transportation is superb, including well-designed and heavily used bicycle lanes; gun ownership is illegal except in limited and highly regulated circumstances; and public places are child and adult friendly. It is a government that the people have chosen and constantly monitor.
What we experienced was a society where relaxed parents interact attentively with their children, and the children seem happy and free. We could go anywhere easily without a car. We felt safe at all hours in any neighborhood. That the people are relaxed and happy showed in how friendly and helpful they were to us. It also showed in the considerate way that they related to each other.
Many Americans think that this success requires a homogeneous society. This is a convenient myth with racist overtones.  Thirty to forty percent of the residents of the major Dutch cities are from outside of the Netherlands, and most of them have non-European ancestry. It is visibly an international place that incorporates people from around the world.
The Dutch society differs from that of the United States not in its diversity but in its way of thinking about social justice. This way of thinking is not unusual in Europe.  Anu Partanen poignantly describes it in her insightful book, The Nordic Theory of Everything. I have described a similar concept as the “caring society.”
The concept of the public good consists of everything that is despised and opposed by the political party that is now dominant in the U.S. For a writer of social justice, this presents quite a challenge.
John L. Hodge is a member of the NWU Boston Chapter Steering Committee. His writings address democracy and human rights. He is the author of Overcoming the Lie of “Race”: A Personal, Philosophical, and Political Perspective (2nd ed., 2017) and How We Are Our Enemy-And How to Stop: Our Unfinished Task of Fulfilling the Values of Democracy (2011).