One way, unfortunately, is to use coercion. All those people who came together in the blazing Egyptian sun to build the Great Pyramid for the Pharaoh would probably have stayed at home in the shade drinking beer if the Pharaoh had not had the power to compel them to do it. A very different way of getting several people to work together is to convince each of them that goal is worth the effort. Friends don’t coerce friends. Friends persuade each other to pursue common goals by finding opportunities to bring shared values to life. We see this sort of common action inspired by a shared vision of the Good in many different settings. Team sports, when they escape the corruption of egoism and money, exemplify such unity. Happy families find unity in shared daily activities. Unity of purpose is found in the ordinary friendships that happen among people who work together or go to school together. It also arises explosively during natural disasters when people drop their individual agendas to come together to deal with the emergency. This sort of unified action not only accomplishes results; it feels great. Most people have the dull aching sense that they do not get this feeling often enough. Such coming together should be the normal background pulse of our lives. Instead it is all too rare.
The Enlightenment held up a model for human interaction which was neither so harsh as the master-slave model nor so idealistic as the friend-friend model. It was a compromise between the two that was seen as both humane and realistic. It is the commercial model. And honesty compels me to admit that it has produced wonders far greater than the pyramids. The Brooklyn Bridge was built by capitalism with free labor. If the pay had been too low the workers would have chosen to stay home and drink beer instead, but the pay was adequate and the bridge became a reality. This is far, far better than the slave labor that built the pyramids but it falls far short of the ideal for human beings.
A favorite truism of mine, because it cuts in both directions, is the good is the enemy of the best. The hard honest individualism of the Enlightenment is good. It is better than authoritarianism and slavery. But it is not an ideal that we should strive for, nor should we ever be satisfied with it. Many progressive people are attracted to the extreme individualism of representative democracy and free market capitalism. But a truer progressivism is found in a deliberative democracy and a socially conscious capitalism.
These Enlightenment ideals are differently valued by red and blue Americans. The reds tend to favor radical individualism in the marketplace but are suspicious of it in people’s personal lives. The blues are suspicious of unregulated economic individualism and see the need for community and consensus in that area but tend to resist community standards of accountability when it comes to personal decisions. The genius of the Quaker vision is that it has always been ahead of the Enlightenment and has never fallen for the temptation to place an excessive emphasis on the individual at the expense of the community. Quakerism is the future and this future has been around for over three hundred years waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. We will not settle for the merely good but insist on an uncompromising vision of the best—the peaceable kingdom where everything is in gospel order.