Sunday, February 08, 2004

Exporting democracy or making the world safe for democracy were themes that infused U.S. foreign policy through much (not all) of the 20th century. The War on Terror has shifted the focus to exporting Civil Society. The broadening of the vocabulary is welcome but foreboding. What is CS? What do people do when left with a minimum of top-down rules? I count these: 1) they specialize, trade and create wealth (and growth); 2) they form voluntary associations that channel the impulses of their other-regarding selves; 3) they form social capital; 4) they form communities (spatial and not); 5) they participate in the evolution of practical institutions, bottom-up; 6)they provide and manage infrastructure. The Voluntary City offers examples, past and present.

Most of economics focuses on #1 but says little about the others five. Yet, people participate in all these activities -- in the context of an ever expanding political ambit, among others. Of course, the capacity of top-down decision making is in serious doubt -- moreso now than in recent memory. What, therefore, will be the direction of the (largely) spontaneous evolution of CS? To what extent does prosperity expand the demand for economic freedoms while expanding freedoms expand prosperity? In other words, how potent is the virtuous cycle? The latter can be boiled down to two (hard to specify) equations, that we could actually start to test as the international data improve. It's a good time to be alive and curious.