Civil Society and the Iceberg Economy

I enjoyed this piece by Rebecca Solnit on what she calls the iceberg economy and the power of voluntarism:

Who wouldn’t agree that our society is capitalistic, based on competition and selfishness? As it happens, however, huge areas of our lives are also based on gift economies, barter, mutual aid, and giving without hope of return (principles that have little or nothing to do with competition, selfishness, or scarcity economics). Think of the relations between friends, between family members, the activities of volunteers or those who have chosen their vocation on principle rather than for profit.

…The shadow system provides soup kitchens, food pantries, and giveaways, takes in the unemployed, evicted, and foreclosed upon, defends the indigent, tutors the poorly schooled, comforts the neglected, provides loans, gifts, donations, and a thousand other forms of practical solidarity, as well as emotional support.

With much of this I wholeheartedly agree. But Solnit's piece is marred by an analytical framework that places cooperative charitable activities poles apart and in opposition to unprincipled, selfish capitalism. Charity and trade, however, are both species of voluntarism more closely aligned with one another than with the coercive apparatus of the state. Indeed, it is through markets that human beings achieve the most extensive cooperation. True, capitalist cooperation is not as deep as that of say the family but precisely because it is not as deep it is far wider in scope, encompassing the world. To propose the deep ties of the family as an alternative to capitalist cooperation is to understand neither and when implemented to be inimical to both.

In the introduction to The Voluntary City (note the title) Peter Gordon, David Beito and myself argued for a more inclusive framework.

The authors of this volume manifestly include non-profits in the market sector. The inclusion is important because by focusing on for-profit firms proponents of markets may have overstated the case for markets narrowly conceived. Yet by ignoring the role of non-profits, opponents of markets may have understated the case for markets broadly conceived. Alternatively put, what conventional economics refers to as market failure may actually be a limited set of problems associated with for-profit firms and markets. If the term "market" is broadened to include non-profit firms and other voluntary but not for-profit organizations, the scope of such failure may be diminished. Thus, rather than saying that the authors of this volume argue for a larger role for markets, it is more revealing to say that they argue for a larger role for civil society.

One virtue of the term civil society is that it is not wrapped up in the same baggage as the term markets; in particular, to favor civil society is not necessarily to regard self-interest as the sole or even most important motivator of human action. Unfortunately, the market/government debate has often proceeded as if it were a debate between self-interest and other-regardingness. Yet there is growing support for the view that our ancestors learned to forge connections and developed a social nature for the practical reason that such connections enhanced survival, just as did their capacity for self-interest (Ridley 1996; Wright 2000). Humans are neither purely self-interested nor purely other-regarding; humans are individuals who join groups and they possess all the skills appropriate to such a classification. It should come as no surprise then that other-regardingness is not absent from markets and self-interest is not absent from government.

Hat tip to my friends at The Browser.

Addendum: Andrew Gelman comments.


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