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.


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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