Avvenire - 03/10/2009

For the economist Stefano Zamagni, "the idea of civil economy ought to be salvaged: we´ve seen that "political" economy is not enough"

Fraternity, the forgotten principle

By Marco Girardo
Published in Avvenire on 3/10/2009

Zamagni_rid"The concept was already elaborated in Italy in the 17th century in Genovese abbeys, and then forgotten in favor of Adam Smith´s thesis. But his cardinal points - efficiency and equity - are not enough if reciprocity is not put into play."

When "there is much confusion under the sky", lining up concepts and finding order to the words is not a sterile intellectual exercise, or an amusement in itself. And in the economic skies of this last year, we’ve been hit by the perfect storm: financial collapse and global recession in a period of twelve months. While the world is still assessing the damage, the great powers (G20) try to remodel the appearance of "turbo-capitalism" drugged by finance: more transparency, shared rules and increased attention to sustainable growth. An attempt to change the economic paradigm. Luigino Bruni and Stefano Zamagni - the former an economist at the University of Milan-Bicocca, the latter a professor of political economy in Bologna - offer a "exquisitely" Italian contribution with the first Dictionary of Civil Economy (Cittá Nuova, €65). In alphabetical order, from the "a" of accountability to "z" of "Zappa Gino" (reorganizer of book-keeping doctrine), they retrace a theoretical journey that is beginning to interest American universities.

Professor Zamagni, why are we dealing with an "exquisitely Italian" contribution?

"Because ´civil economy´ was born in our home. It’s an Italian invention. The term appeared for the first time in 1754 at the Federico II University of Naples. That year, Bartolomeo Intieri entrusts the abate Antonio Genovesi (student of Giambattista Vico) the first economics professorship in history. The professorship was entitled, "of Mechanics and of Commerce", for which Genovesi gave lessons on civil economy, which would also be the title of the work he would publish in 1765."

Flipping through manuals of economic history, Italian or foreign, it´s not easy to find the term "civil"...
"That´s because the expression ´civil economy´ had suddenly disappeared at the end of the 17th century. It was supplanted by Adam Smith´s ´political economy´. His most famous work, The Wealth of Nations, 1776, represents not only a semantic turn but also a change in paradigm."

What difference is there between political economy, the paradigm which is still ´dominant´ today, and civil economy?
"Political economy is based on two cornerstones: the principle of the exchange of equivalents, from which efficiency derives, and the principle of redistribution, to guarantee equity. Civil economy adds a third principle which makes the difference: reciprocity. It serves to bring about fraternity. Civil economy, therefore, includes political economy, but not the other way around. And Italian economic thought - to give a name, Luigi Einaudi - has always maintained this setting unlike traditional Anglo-Saxon thought, which is guided by the motto ´business is business´."

However, the Social Doctrine of the Church takes up this "Italian tradition" again'.
"Exactly. It´s not against capitalism or the market, as is mistakenly heard said too many times. And it doesn’t even choose collectivism. Instead, it´s for the principle of fraternity theorized by civil economy, and which thanks to such civil economy surpasses political economy. This is considering that it supplements it and certainly does not stand against. The very Caritas in veritate - where the word capitalism doesn´t appear - places itself in this hive and, bringing back the concept of civil economy, presents it as a revolutionary on the scene of the current economic-financial crisis. All this precisely in the moment when people are starting to debate again over the very basics of capitalism."

Do you think on Wall Street or at Harvard or at the London School of Economics there might be someone ready to call into question the conceptual systems of economic theory?
"A collection of signatures promoted in the New York Times by Nobel winner Paul Krugmann, is circulating among economists in these days. The statement sustains that one of the faults of the current economic crisis is that of that dominating paradigm in economic studies. So far, 1,550 economists worldwide have signed the statement. What does this mean? That finally, we´re asking ourselves about the limits of the model that governs us since the times of Adam Smith."

And what are these limits?
"The first is that of separating the principle of reciprocity from the other two. The second is having produced a model of welfare that is, by now, unsustainable. This is because it applies redistribution in an anonymous way, making people feel "dependant", "helped", and  instead doesn´t apply reciprocity, which is always "personal". Finally, because since the times of Adam Smith, market and democracy are separate. Today, we know that this model doesn´t function: civil economy functions only when inserted in a democratic context. Democracy, therefore, cannot be set only in politics but also in economy. And this allows  for an outlet to the creative forces of the civil society, as are, for example, the non-profit and the cooperative. I´m working on the ´theory of cooperative business´ precisely in order to give this sector the same dignity as capital business."

When did you bring back the concept of civil economy?
"In the beginning of the ´90s, finding Genovesi´s book by chance."

Let´s trace the genealogical tree of civil economy.

"Abate Genovesi, Giacinto Dragonetti, Ferdinando Galliani, Pietro Verri, Giandomenico Romagnosi and Cesare Beccaria, as far as the origins. In more recent times, Luigi Einaudi and the Social Doctrine of the Church."

And it´s philosophical fathers?

"Augustine, before everything. The Franciscans, then, with Bonaventure from Bagnoregio. The second Scholastica, especially the School of Salamanca. Then, Vico, who was Genovesi´s teacher and the first to have used the metaphor of the "invisible hand" to describe the market that made Adam Smith famous. Finally, personalism, with Mounier and Maritain."

see original (Italian)

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