Economics of Community

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Towards an Economics of Community

Excerpt from a 2012 interview conducted by Almantas Samalavicius.

John Cobb:

"When we wrote the book, the title in our minds was "Economics for Community". That would express the distinctive feature of the economic thinking for which we called and continue to call. The academic discipline of economics is based on the idea of Homo economicus. This assumes and reaffirms extreme individualism. Members of the species Homo economics compete with one another for scarce resources. Policies based on this understanding of human beings typically result in the destruction of human community. Even if the result is also that there is more consumption of goods and resources per capita, the people involved are, for the most part, not happier or better off. Instead, we advocated that we understand and treat people as persons-in-community. Persons-in-community find that their individual lives improve as the quality of community improves. Competition among them plays some role, but much of it is to see who can contribute most to the life of the community as a whole. This often involves some increase in the production and consumption of goods and services; but "growth" in this limited sense is by no means the goal. Sometimes, improved distribution of products can improve the quality of community life without any such increase. If the increase of production impoverishes the environment of the community, a decrease can be better. The proper role for economists is to discern what kind of economic activity contributes most to the health of the community at the least cost to the environment. Sometimes, regenerating the natural environment can contribute more to the sustainable wellbeing of the people than maintaining even the present level of production.

Accepting this different view of human beings would require reconstructing economic theory from the ground up. Such a reconstruction has been partially discussed by economists from time to time. Much more has been done, outside the guild, among ecological economists. It is not impossible that the guild will take on this task, but there are few signs that it will do so. Academic disciplines as a whole devote themselves to the socialization of new members of the guild, rather than seeking a broader or deeper truth. The policies of most governments and international economic organizations largely follow from the individualistic economic theory of the professional academics. If the graduate departments of economics changed, there is a good chance that the policies of governments and global economic institutions would change also. But, of course, they might not. Established policies and institutions have powerful constituencies. On the other hand, the increasingly manifest problems generated by the individualistic economic theories might open nations and global institutions to take an interest in human communities and the natural environment. Indeed, some of the problems are so serious that changes in actual policies and programs might proceed even without any theoretical support from professional economists.

If we focus concern on communities, some of these communities will be nations. We will encourage nations to control their own economies so that they will serve the national community rather than only the international economic elite." (