Marvin Brown on the Civic Economics of the Commons

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Biographical Material

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Marvin Brown:

"Civicism believes that all citizens have certain obligations to each other based on such civic norms as solidarity, moral equality, and reciprocity.

Solidarity may seem rather irritating for libertarians, because they tend to ignore the very essence of citizenship: civic membership. A bit of reflection, however, should make clear that without membership in a political community, no one could enjoy property rights. It is a “we” that makes it possible for any “I” to enjoy the benefits of ownership. [but cf. the December 2010 issue of !] At the same time, membership does not negate ownership; it simply places it in the context of civic relationships. Health care also belongs to these civic relations.

Civic moral equality may be an even greater challenge for libertarians than solidarity, because libertarians tend to divide the world into the haves and the have-nots. If the government tells them what to do with what they have, they see it as a form of tyranny. For them, morality is a kind of property management—the management of their personal and private property. Some would say that socialism is also about property management. They just want the government to manage it.

The civic view of moral equality, however, begins with the notion of persons as moral actors. Moral equality means that most of the time, most of us do what we think is right considering the world we think we live in. Most conflicts, in other words, are conflicts between right vs. right rather than conflicts between right vs. wrong. This understanding of moral equality serves as the foundation for civic deliberations about controversial policy issues. All citizens have the right to participate in public conversations about our life together. This means that everyone’s voice deserves equal representation and equal attention in the conversations about health care.

Reciprocity refers to the foundation for making exchanges, for giving and taking, and for mutual insurance against the risks we all face. One finds it in almost all cultures. And yet, in our society, it has been mostly replaced by the notion of market price. Today, many calculate whether to participate in health care insurance programs in terms of whether the costs outweigh the benefits. “Is health insurance a good investment for me? If not, why bother?”

After 250 years of living in an economic legacy that pictures exchanges as based on self-interest, this seems quite normal. In fact, in terms of human history, it is an aberration. Human communities, for the most part, have assumed that what one gives will someday be returned. It is not so much a calculation as an expectation towards oneself and toward others. Obviously, it rubs against the individualism of the libertarian. Still, even they can see (if they want to) that we all live today in complex systems and get most of what we have through these systems. Even a drink of water comes from an elaborate water system. That is also true of health care. The fact is that we do depend on one another. Reciprocity transforms that dependence into one of moral value. It honors our capacity to provide for and to protect one another.

In the United States, we do have a tradition of civil rights and civic virtue. It is based on the recognition of the dignity of the individual as a member of the civic community: as a citizen." (

==Citizen's Economy

Marvin Brown:

"The first premise of a citizen’s economy is that it belongs to citizens—not to some citizens or citizens with property, but to all citizens. And who is a citizen? We can return to the original meaning of citizen: a member of a city, so all who belong to the city are citizens. Citizenship, in other words, is based on membership, not on ownership. So what is a city? A city is the place where people must cooperate in order to live together. This cooperation does not stifle diversity, conflict, or even competition. In fact, it does the opposite. It facilitates it and allows it to flourish.

Today, of course, systems of cooperation include urban and rural areas. Few places still exist beyond these systems, especially when we think of issues like global warming or sustainability. We are all citizens today (belong to systems of cooperation) because we live in relationships with one another, even if some refuse to acknowledge this.

A citizen’s economy would begin with this basic premise and then citizens would design an economy based on such civic norms as reciprocity, moral equality, and representation. This would require a change in our current thinking as big as the change we need if we are going to move our economy toward justice and sustainability." (

Dissociate Economics of Property

Marvin Brown:

"If you want to understand the foundation of libertarianism, there is no better place to look than Adam Smith’s view of property relations.Laced throughout Smith’s book, The Wealth of Nations, one finds the Enlightenment doctrine of the four stages of history: the evolution from a hunter society through herding and agriculture to a commercial society. These stages were also about the development of property and the development of government. At the commercial stage, ownership of property had become the basis of free enterprise and government’s role was to protect property.

I think that libertarianism fits squarely on this legacy of property relations. Freedom is the right to do what I want with what I have, with my property. What is especially irritating to libertarians is for the government to take from the “haves” and give it to the “have-nots.” What is equally irritating to non-libertarians is the practice of treating the people and the planet as property, and of ignoring how everyone is interrelated and interconnected in social and economic systems. In contrast to the Anglo-American property-based tradition, the philosophers of continental Europe based human freedom on the moral will and human dignity. This has given them a framework for seeing people related to one another as a moral community. The Anglo-American tradition of property relations does not have the same resources. In fact, if we want to create a political economy that would move us toward justice and sustainability, we will need to move beyond Smithian economics and libertarianism. We will need to create a global civil society that includes all as members, instead of a property-based society that separates us into the haves and the have-nots." (