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Economic Reflections 7: Communitarianism, Free Riding, and the Common Good

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In “Cross-Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate,” Charles Taylor proposed an analysis of the debates over these two political theories to sort out confusion between what he termed ontological issues, or “the terms you accept as ultimate in the order of explanation” (181,) from advocacy issues, or “the moral stand or policy one adopts” (182.) In contrast with a Rawlsian view of society as “mutually indifferent contracting individuals” (184,) Taylor advocated a communitarian position in which citizens adopt a “willing identification with the polis” and are “really attached to the common good, to general liberty;” citing Montesquieu, he argued that patriotism is “une préference continuelle de l’intérêt public au sien propre” (“a continual preference for the public interest over one’s own,” my translation, 187.)

In the light of an economic analysis, however, Taylor’s argument fails to address at least two central issues in such a polity.

The first is free riding, or the tendency of each to try and benefit from others’ actions at minimal cost to oneself; in contrast to Montesquieu, an economic analysis expects that “each will not do what is in the interest of all unless it is in the interest of each” (HBP 261, emphasis original.) Free riding is not a cynical assumption that people are totally selfish or that altruism is absent from public life; rather, in the absence of a clear shared idea of the common good and what actions are entailed for each in society to maintain it, the positive externalities of others’ actions are such that one can benefit without exerting oneself.

That leads to the second issue, the question of transaction costs necessary to impart an idea of the polis and the common good to which citizens will voluntarily adhere as rational individuals, not as subjects subsumed within the polis. Who defines the common good? Assuming such is even possible, attaining a broadly accepted view of the common good through dialogue in a large multi-cultural society is at best a dynamic process of adapting to changing political, economic, geographical, climactic, and other influences. By its inherently dynamic nature, the common good can never be reduced to a set of prescriptive actions that individuals can follow without high personal cost to understand what is required of them for the common good.

Without political institutions that solve (at least) the free rider and common good definition problems, communitarianism would seem to face formidable challenges.

Taylor, Charles. (1995.) Philosophical Arguments. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

* This is adapted from a series of one page papers I wrote for an independent study in micro- and macroeconomics; the material included the excellent text The Economic Way of Thinking by Heyne, Boettke, and Prychitko, as well as several texts I brought in from communitarian, market anarchy, and experimental economic perspectives.

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