Bowles, “Moral Economy”

The doux commerce thesis, a staple of liberal economics for centuries, teaches that markets tend to civilize people, to make them more stable, gentle, hardworking, and governable. Markets do this by creating incentives for industry and tolerance, and against sloth and fanaticism. From the beginning, skeptics like Edmund Burke have pointed out that the moral values the doux commerce thesis extols actually come from outside the market, and that market incentives, alone, cannot create them. I don’t know if the author is a Burkean, but a new book from Yale University Press, Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens, by behavioral scientist Samuel Bowles (Santa Fe Institute), offers a critique of the classical liberal position. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

6727288eb91b6f2c8611bbe1950071e6Why do policies and business practices that ignore the moral and generous side of human nature often fail?

Should the idea of economic man—the amoral and self-interested Homo economicus—determine how we expect people to respond to monetary rewards, punishments, and other incentives? Samuel Bowles answers with a resounding “no.” Policies that follow from this paradigm, he shows, may “crowd out” ethical and generous motives and thus backfire.

But incentives per se are not really the culprit. Bowles shows that crowding out occurs when the message conveyed by fines and rewards is that self-interest is expected, that the employer thinks the workforce is lazy, or that the citizen cannot otherwise be trusted to contribute to the public good. Using historical and recent case studies as well as behavioral experiments, Bowles shows how well-designed incentives can crowd in the civic motives on which good governance depends.

Montero, “All Things in Common”

Rod Dreher’s recent bestseller, The Benedict Option, calls on Christians to reestablish tighter, more intentional communities in order to survive in a post-Christian, and increasingly anti-Christian, culture. Dreher uses the Benedictine communities of the fifth century as an example, but there are even earlier ones. The Book of Acts describes Christian communities that were very tight and very intentional, including with respect to property. Few Christian lay communities hold everything in common nowadays, though some, like the Bruderhof, continue the practice.

In April, Wipf and Stock released a new monograph on the subject, All Things in Common, by Roman A. Montero. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

9781532607912All Things in Common gets behind the “communism of the apostles” passages in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37, using the anthropological categories of “social relationship” espoused by David Graeber and other anthropologists. Looking at sources ranging from the Qumran scrolls to the North African apologist Tertullian to the Roman satirist Lucian, All Things in Common reconstructs the economic practices of the early Christians and argues that what is described in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37 is a long-term, widespread set of practices that were taken seriously by the early Christians, and that differentiated them significantly from the wider world. This book takes into account Judean and Hellenistic parallels to the early Christian community of goods, as well as the socioeconomic context from which it came, and traces its origins back to the very teachings of Jesus and his declaration of the Jubilee.

This book will be of interest to anyone interested in Christian history, and especially the socioeconomic aspects of early Christianity, as well as anyone interested in Christian ethics and New Testament studies. It would also be of interest to anyone interested in possible alternatives to the ideology of capitalism.

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