Commerce & Community

In Commerce & Community: Ecologies of Social Cooperation (Routledge 2014), Robert Garnett, Paul Lewis and I set out to encourage interaction and cross-fertilization among several contemporary lines of research that have begun to reject the division of economic life into separate spheres of commerce and community (impersonal, amoral Gesellschaft vs. face-to-face, ethically imbued Gemeinschaft) and to recast the economic domain as a heterogeneous provisioning space through which individuals secure, in Smithian terms, “the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes.” By rethinking basic categories such as rationality, identity, reciprocity, cooperation, beneficence, justice, commerce, community, and economy, a new generation of scholars are painting the ecology of voluntary cooperation in richer colors and subtler dimensions than would be possible based on Samuelsonian/Stiglerian (Max-U, markets-only) conceptions of economy or capitalism.  Unfortunately, the ecology of cooperation among these theorists themselves remains quite limited; their integrative approaches exist mostly as islands within segregated academic tribes.  One finds few venues in which, for example, feminist, Austrian, and evolutionary economists jointly interrogate the commercial/communal dualism (impersonal, amoral Gesellschaftvs. face-to-face, ethically imbued Gemeinschaft).

We were gratified to elicit contributions from two dozen contributors and grateful to Routledge for publishing the volume.


Lost in Methodenstreit

Lost in Methodenstreit: Reflections on Theory, History, and the Quest for a Science of Association

In my contribution to What is Classical Liberal History? , edited by Michael Douma and Phil Magness, I sought to offer a reflection on some of the epistemological and methodological problems that arose with the development of classical liberal thought.  These problems can be seen in the successive methodological battles in which classical liberals have found it necessary to engage both in justifying their approach to creating a science of human action and in their working out of the historical, moral, and political implications of this science.  I suggest that as classical liberal thought has developed into a distinct intellectual tradition that now seeks to narrate its own theory and history, its adherents have largely ignored addressing what may be the central historical puzzle that classical liberalism is challenged to solve.  In failing more intentionally to address Alexis de Tocqueville’s call for a new science of association as a indispensible guide to human action in the democratic age, classical liberal scholars have as yet missed the opportunity to formulate a paradigm of social and political thought capable of garnering epistemic authority that might help democratic societies become less vulnerable to the paradoxical situation through which excessive individualism generated by equality of conditions produces despotic government.

Recovering Constitutional Dignity After the Election

In which G.M. Curtis and I strive to caution constitutional equanimity in the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election…

Recovering Constitutional Dignity After the Election

Every day since the election has brought with it a new affront to public civility. By and large, those in leadership have tried to rise to the occasion; signaling, yet again, Americans may be able to manage a peaceful transition of power….read more

Review essay on Charles Murray’s By the People


July 21, 2015

Has the American republic passed its zenith? A building chorus of social commentary suggests that it has. Works such as Os Guinness’ A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (2012), Donald J. Devine’s America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution (2013); James L. Buckley’s Saving Congress from Itself: Emancipating the States and Empowering Their People (2014);  and Kevin D. Williamson’s The End is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure (2013) each seek to describe the illness besetting our contemporary political order and to consider whether we can halt the decline.

With By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission, Charles Murray joins this chorus, which speaks to an increasingly palpable kairos, that opportune, and perhaps fleeting, moment in time when things must be said and done if a propitious outcome is to be achieved. Murray has been writing over the past decade—see his In Our Hands(2006) and Coming Apart (2012)—with a sense of urgency that has reached a crescendo in By the People, where he confesses in the tones of a jeremiad, “I am frightened by how close we are to losing America’s soul.”

Read more… 

Can Civil Society Save Us?

Published in The Freeman Online, August 28, 2013

American public discourse is characterized today by predictions of decline and fall that offer little hope to the rising generations. From economic, social, and political critics, there is ample commentary on America’s self-destructive path.

Such prognoses have given birth to a mini-industry of Tocqueville studies, with partisans of all stripes hearkening back both to Tocqueville’s analysis of the strength of American democracy in our habit of association and to his awareness of a young nation’s underbelly, vulnerable to soft despotism.

“Like Tocqueville, I believe that spontaneous local activism by citizens is better than central state action not just in terms of its results, but more importantly in terms of its effect on us as citizens,” writes Niall Ferguson in his current bestseller, The Great Degeneration. So far, so good.

While I share the contemporary fascination with Tocqueville’s powers of description and prognostication, I am cautious about claiming that “civil society” holds the solution to our present decline. The current institutions and leaders of civil society to which so many are looking for answers have themselves been shaped by their partnership with the welfare state. Few are in a position to articulate, much less reclaim, their independence from the State.

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Common Sense Philanthropy

One watch set right will do to set many by.

—American folk saying

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.

—Alfred North Whitehead, as quoted by F. A. Hayek

In a recent presentation to the Hewlett Foundation, Bill Schambra adroitly contests the sensibility of the foundation community’s current fascination with “strategic philanthropy.” For Schambra, the best tool in the philanthropist’s tool kit may be simple common sense. He proposes that instead of filtering grant-making decisions through complex rationalizations involving the development of theories of change and logic models, philanthropists should put more trust in the more pedestrian logic of people and their communities:

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