Let´s rediscover civil economy

There is need for responsibility in the economy, whose role has been defined in the most recent studies as that of contributing to the serenity of present and future generations

Simone Baroncia´s interview with Luigino Bruni

Published on www.giovanipace.org, September 2009

What is the relationship between agape, the economy and the common good?
The Italian tradition of public happiness considered the economy in view of the common good. The public good, corresponding to the English "common" (collective good), is a direct relationship between the individual and the consumed good. The common good is exactly the opposite: it´s a direct relationship between people, mediated by the use of goods held in common. In the Social Doctrine of the Church, the common good is intended as the "social and communitarian dimension of moral good", and that is why it is "indivisible, because it is only possible to reach it together", as affirmed in n. 164 of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Agape is a form of love that appears with Christianity. On one hand, in the modern definition of the common good, agape has been set aside, relegated to the private sphere of the family. On the other hand, it has been entrusted to the state through the welfare system, or, in Anglo-Saxon culture, to philanthropy. These are two public forms that have only partially gathered the richness of the dimension of agapic love. One of civilization’s challenges is that of bringing agape back to the center of city life.

But can the history of economy be read from the viewpoint of agape?

The history of economy is not only history of contracts, and neither is it only the history of public intervention and philanthropic actions. The history that dates from the Fransiscans´ Mounts of Piety to today´s economy of communion and fair and supportive business cannot be fully understood without taking into consideration agape as the basis of their birth and development. In this sense, I believe that the principle of subsidiarity, until now seen only in a vertical function - in the relationship between the various levels of public administration - ought to be revised in it´s agapic function. I believe that this fundamental principle of civil life needs to take on a new inflection.

By not acting on the assumption that contracts are the basis for friendships and that friendships are the basis for agape. It´s good to remember the words of Giacinto Dragonetti, a lawyer from Aquila and disciple of Antonio Genovesi. In the introduction of his book, Of Virtues and Rewards (1766), he wrote, "Men have made millions of laws to punish offenses, and they have not established even one to award virtue". For Dragonetti, virtue is associated with the public good and agape is the cornerstone of civitas, or the body of citizens who constitute a state.

Therefore, agape is connected to happiness, which is the foundation of civil economy?

Civil economy is an ancient Italian tradition that originated in civil humanism. In 14th century Italy, the regions of Tuscany, Umbria and Marche were very important for economic and commercial development. Then, in the 18th century, in Naples, there was a new springtime with Antonio Genovesi´s economic thought. He said that the ultimate goal of economy is not wealth but public happiness. From this point of view, the growth of a country is important only and in as much as it improves people’s well-being. If a growing Gross National Product (GNP) makes us poorer, because the environment is being polluted or relationships are worsened, Genevesi would say that the economy does bad, because an economy is good when it makes quality of life better. Today, therefore, in a world like ours where environmental and social goods are scarce, where we have many goods and few relationships, civil economy is coming back in style. This old Italian tradition is very important and very up-to-date. With other authors, I´m re-launching it into the practice and theory of contemporary economy.

A return to public happiness, a word that´s no longer fashionable…
It´s not in style because the public meaning of happiness has been lost. During the days following the earthquake in Abruzzo, one could understand what it means when a country also has a body. During normal times, during times of abundance, we forget that a country is a community, a body, and so that happiness regards everyone. When there is a natural disaster, we again feel part of a dimension that is bigger than our family. Public happiness says that this dimension should be the norm and not an exception. To think of a country as a family, where we are either all okay or no one is okay, where many common interests exist rather than a conflict of interests.  Instead, over the last few decades, the social fabric which kept the country together has frayed, and today the other is seen as a rival and not as an ally. This is a signal of a decline which must absolutely be corrected.

Public happiness also implies the concept of gift.
Gift, with it´s ambivalences, is a complex experience: in a certain sense, gifts obligate. This concept has to be taken into account in a civilization that no longer gives gifts or wants to accept them if they are not part of publicity schemes or sales. Nobody wants a true gift anymore out of fear of exposing himself to the other. It´s a civilization that is making itself sadder. A significant sign that something is not working is that today there is a lack of joy, typical of a world where the dimension of relationships with others were important. But I´m optimistic: we´ll go ahead - we´ll make it.

What does the economy of communion have to do with all of this?
It´s part of the civil economy because it aims at public happiness. It deals with those key words created by Christian and civil humanism. The Economy of Communion is an important and innovative project of entrepreneurs, workers, executives, consumers, savers, citizens, scholars, economic operators, launched by Chiara Lubich in May of 1991 in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The objective: build and show a human society where, like the first (Christian) community of Jerusalem, "no one among them was in need". Businesses are the pillars of the project. They freely commit themselves to putting their profits in common according to three aims given equal attention: 1) helping disadvantaged people, creating new jobs and meeting basic needs through development projects; 2) starting businesses which much remain efficient and competitive even while open to gratuitousness; and 3) spreading the culture of giving and of reciprocity. The Economy of Communion was born from a spirituality of communion, lived in civil life, pairing efficiency with solidarity, aiming at the strength of the culture of giving to change economic behaviors. It does not consider the poor as a problem, but as a precious resource.

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