Movsesian on Markets and Morals

CLR_Bug_Logo_NoTextFor today’s Scholarship Roundup post, I’m going to exercise the host’s privilege and post a new essay of my own, “Markets and Morals: The Limits of Doux Commerce.” The essay, which I wrote for a symposium on Nate Oman’s book, The Dignity of Commerce, will appear in a forthcoming issue of the William and Mary Business Law Review. The doux commerce thesis holds that the market tends to promote the liberal virtues of pluralism and religious tolerance. Following Burke, I argue that the thesis gets things backwards. This was a fun essay to write, as it allowed me to go back and re-read the actual Enlightenment thinkers, as well as Alan Bloom’s great essay on The Merchant of Venice, which play figures prominently in Nate’s book.

Here’s the abstract:

In this essay for a symposium on Professor Nathan Oman’s new book, “The Dignity of Commerce,” I do three things. First, I describe what I take to be the central message of the book, namely, that markets promote liberal values of tolerance, pluralism, and cooperation among rival, even hostile groups. Second, I show how Oman’s argument draws from a line of political and economic thought that dates to the Enlightenment, the so-called “doux commerce” thesis of thinkers like Montesquieu and Adam Smith. Finally, I discuss what I consider the most penetrating criticism of that thesis, Edmund Burke’s critique from tradition, which suggests we should be careful attributing too much to markets’ ability to promote liberal pluralism. According to Burke, it is the Western tradition, including religion, and not commerce, which creates the tolerant, pluralist marketplace of the doux commerce thesis. That Burke was correct is suggested by several historical examples and by contemporary events in the United States and across the globe. That is not to say that Oman is entirely wrong about the potential political benefits of the market, only that we should be careful not to overstate them.

Rogan, “The Moral Economists”

9780691173009_0I don’t know too much about the subject, but the description of this new book on the history of economics from Princeton University Press caught my attention. The Moral Economists: R.H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, E.P. Thompson, and the Critique of Capitalism, by Cambridge historian Tim Rogan, recounts the criticisms of a set of twentieth-century British scholars who argued that capitalism is morally and spiritually lacking. These scholars sought a middle ground between an empty individualism and an authoritarian socialism and looked to tradition and custom — the book description puts those words in scare quote — as guides.

It looks to be an interesting intellectual history. This isn’t meant as a criticism of the book, which I haven’t read, but an even older body of thought, one that long predates the 20th Century, also seeks to apply moral values to economics and to chart a middle path between individualism and authoritarianism, and values tradition and custom to boot: Christian teaching on law and society. It’s odd that economists continue to ignore that source of insights and try to reinvent the wheel with each new generation. But maybe we’ll come up with something better. [UPDATE: Reader Samuel Moyn writes that Rogan does indeed address Christianity in the book. I was going by the description, which doesn’t mention Christianity at all. Now the book looks even more interesting!]

Here’s the description of the book from the Princeton website:

A fresh look at how three important twentieth-century British thinkers viewed capitalism through a moral rather than material lens

What’s wrong with capitalism? Answers to that question today focus on material inequality. Led by economists and conducted in utilitarian terms, the critique of capitalism in the twenty-first century is primarily concerned with disparities in income and wealth. It was not always so. The Moral Economists reconstructs another critical tradition, developed across the twentieth century in Britain, in which material deprivation was less important than moral or spiritual desolation.

Tim Rogan focuses on three of the twentieth century’s most influential critics of capitalism—R. H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, and E. P. Thompson. Making arguments about the relationships between economics and ethics in modernity, their works commanded wide readerships, shaped research agendas, and influenced public opinion. Rejecting the social philosophy of laissez-faire but fearing authoritarianism, these writers sought out forms of social solidarity closer than individualism admitted but freer than collectivism allowed. They discovered such solidarities while teaching economics, history, and literature to workers in the north of England and elsewhere. They wrote histories of capitalism to make these solidarities articulate. They used makeshift languages of “tradition” and “custom” to describe them until Thompson patented the idea of the “moral economy.” Their program began as a way of theorizing everything economics left out, but in challenging utilitarian orthodoxy in economics from the outside, they anticipated the work of later innovators inside economics.

Examining the moral cornerstones of a twentieth-century critique of capitalism, The Moral Economists explains why this critique fell into disuse, and how it might be reformulated for the twenty-first century.

 

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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