THE BLOG
03/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bring Back the Counter Culture

President Obama has a unique talent: He is able to inspire people all over the world to deliberate and dialogue about burning issues. At the top of the agenda for such a global give and take is what makes for a good life. At first, it may seem preposterous for a nation deep in an economic crisis and mired in wars to pay mind to what at first blush seems like a philosophical subject. Actually, there is a profound connection between our multiple crises -- add that of the climate to the mix -- and the characterization of what makes a life good.

As long as those whose basic needs have been well-sated, whose creature comforts have been secured, keep defining the purpose of life as making more and more dough in order to purchase more and more consumer goods, we will not rein in wild capitalism, protect the environment (climate included), advance social justice, or, arguably, stop killing one another. Only after we come to see that additional goods add precious little to our happiness; that pursuing them is Sisyphean -- the more we gain, the more we seek; and that deep contentment and human flourishing rise out of spiritual projects and bonding with and caring for others, shall we be able to come to terms with much that bedevils us.

These are hardly new thoughts. What is current -- and provides the reason the new President is well advised to keep this topic in mind and in the public eye -- is that the incessant quest for ever more material goods is at the heart of the economic crisis. President Obama correctly mocked President Bush for calling on people to go shopping after the September 11, 2001 attacks on America. However, today Americans and the citizens of many other nations are again urged to go shopping to dig us out of the current economic crisis. (This is what a stimulus package is all about.) Moreover, there is no doubt that given the way the economic system is set up, if people do not buy stuff, there will be more unemployment and more people will lose their homes and empty their retirement funds.

However, the good way out of the crisis does not lead to a return to the old ways of the better-off purchasing ever larger homes, stocking them with ever more appliances, and driving SUVs and Humvees. It does not call for people to save nothing and to go into debt in order to buy still more goods -- many of which those who are better-off do not really need -- nor for people to labor long hours, take work home, delay retirement, send their teenagers to labor at fast food chains, and cut short social and cultural life to make some more money.

The precept of a good life calls for setting ceilings for purchases and for work, for setting fairly modest limits on that which we seek to own and purchase, and on the amount of time we are willing take away from our children, spouses, friends, communities and ourselves, in order to work.

There are a whole slew of public policies that can express, foster, recognize and promote the good life. A steeply progressive income tax will do wonders. Consumption tax (or VAT) on all items that are not defined as basic goods, will help send a message. Limiting government insured or subsidized mortgages to houses of a reasonable size (McMansions are out), a tax on gas guzzlers and on cars by weight, and insuring only one bank account up to 100,000 dollars (rather than the current, unlimited number) are but a few illustrations of setting limits.

Last but not least, there is a deep connection between a life worth living and social justice. To achieve a major reallocation of wealth, those who have more than enough must find sources of contentment other than laying their hands on still more goods. This is what many religions offer. Those who have lost this source of goodness, or have found it twisted, are called upon on to search for other springs of meaning. And nobody is better placed or more equipped than President Obama to return us to this old, but never more current, subject: What makes a good life.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University and author of The New Golden Rule. Contact him at icps@gwu.edu