All Commentary
Tuesday, January 1, 2002

A Sense of Community Contradicts the Logic of the Market?

A Civilized Society Respects Individuals

On September 8, 2001, distinguished New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis joined the ranks of those who claim both to appreciate the ways in which freedom and competition produce greater prosperity and to think that we cannot have civilized communities coexisting with that freedom. These contradictory claims were brought to the fore in his mind by a visit to, of all places, Italy, where they have actually tried true communitarianism as recently as 50 years ago. That a visit to a formerly fascist country should make someone argue for stronger communitarianism is nothing short of baffling.

Lewis writes that there are values of community “that may require deviations from the cold logic of market theory.” Note of course that logic is only criticized for being “cold” when it is being used by one’s opponent. One presumes that Lewis uses it himself to make inferences and persuade others on a regular basis.

But rhetorical analysis aside, is it true that there are some values of community that contradict market principles? Of course it is! But they tend to be values Lewis probably doesn’t support, like suppression of dissent (mustn’t offend community sensibilities) or the subjugation of the individual to the state (mustn’t promote excessive individualism). For example, Lewis relates an anecdote about the Nazis killing the men of one village, Civitella, and how the remembrance of that massacre helps foster a sense of community in the village. But the Nazis were hardly robust individualists! Like Italian fascism, Nazism was a profoundly communitarian movement. The remembrance of the massacre may well promote a sense of community, but I hope those people also remember that it was an ideology in which the community was accorded supreme status that made the massacre possible. Ideas like a master race, or a fatherland, or theocracy, are examples of attempts to foster a sense of community, not examples of unbridled individualism and devotion to free markets.

More to the point, however, Lewis has chosen as an example of something that promotes a spirit of community something that doesn’t require an abandonment of market principles. The people of that village come together voluntarily to remember the massacre, their sense of solidarity genuine and freely given. Not only does that not contradict market principles, it is an example of what makes market principles work, although it may seem crass to use that terminology.

Markets operate by allowing people to work together voluntarily to achieve genuinely shared goals in the commercial sense. Similar examples of “coming together” in noncommercial senses are harder to see in economic terms, but are the same in their voluntariness (and, often, in their lack of central planning). People are not coerced to commemorate the massacre any more than they are coerced into saying “good evening” to one another or letting the kids play outdoors. These institutions are as much an “invisible hand” or “spontaneous order” as any market.

The logic of markets isn’t even “cold”: it allows people the freedom to seek happiness and prosperity in their own way rather than having them be told how to live. The logic of markets is that most people are presumptively decent judges of their own interests (even if some are not), and that freedom to trade promotes the well-being of all concerned. That’s only a “cold logic” if you think people are too stupid to determine their own well-being or are incapable of cooperating in a shared project. It is people who believe those kinds of ideas who end up supporting powerful statist governments, like the ones in Italy and Germany 50 years ago, or in China now.

Community Coercion

Indeed, of Lewis’s seven examples of things about that village which foster a sense of community, only two have even the faintest relation to markets and public policy: agriculture subsidies and national health care. But of course, these two do involve coercion. Lewis points to olive groves and vineyards that he calls “uneconomic,” claiming that they wouldn’t exist without subsidies from the European Union. He rhetorically contrasts this with “corporate agriculture” taking over and transforming all those quaint little farms into a single crop. But is there any evidence that, say, Archer Daniels Midland would turn all the olive groves into wheat fields? There is a reason why the crops that grow in Tuscany grow there, and one suspects that world demand for wine and olive oil is not something that requires subsidy. And those subsidies, of course, mean that someone else in the European Union is being made poorer in order to be sure that farming in Tuscany never changes.

Lewis’s use of medical care is especially puzzling. He describes a handicapped friend who lives in the countryside, and for whom travel to a city for treatment would be a hardship. So she gets home care, courtesy of the government. But here’s the paradox: if these villages have such a sense of community, why would anyone need national-level assistance? Are the people of the village so cold-hearted that they cannot help a member of their community? Of course, they don’t have to answer that, since the national government is taking care of the problem. So does nationally subsidized health care really foster a sense of community, or does it hinder it? In any case, the same objection arises in this regard: we’re happy this patient gets adequate care, but if someone else is getting inadequate care in order to make this possible, it’s not a clear moral victory.

There are arguments Lewis might have made in favor of socialized health care and farm subsidies, but he cannot make them, since he continues to endorse the claim that markets actually do produce greater prosperity for everyone. So he builds his case on vague notions like “a sense of community.” After all, everyone likes a sense of community. But we need to keep in mind that most of the good things a community offers have nothing to do with coercive state measures, and recent history’s worst evils were uniformly the result of putting too much emphasis on the community over the individual.

The title of Lewis’s essay was “A Civilized Society.” A civilized society is one that respects individual human beings and doesn’t treat them either as incompetent children or as cogs in a machine. What Lewis derides as the logic of the market is the instantiation of that respect in the economic sphere. It has nothing to do with being courteous to one’s neighbors. A truly civilized sense of community requires the “logic of the market,” in the sense that a civilized community respects individual autonomy and people’s ability to cooperate in truly shared projects.

  • Aeon J. Skoble is Professor of Philosophy at Bridgewater State University.