Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

To Belong or Not to Belong: That’s not quite the right Question.

Posted Jan 30, 2011 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, No Comments

At a recent session on Socio-Economics in Berkeley, I argued that a civic economy would be superior to our current property-based economy because it would include everyone.  A participant asked if I thought that civic membership should be voluntary or forced.  Given the two choices, I said forced.  On further reflection, I think the question was a set-up.  A better question is whether everyone belongs to the civic or not.

The central meaning of “belong” is to be dependent.  “To belong” also means to be a part of something, such as belonging to a family or a class.   Once we think about it, “to be” is “to belong.”  OK, it is not quite so simple.

There are some things I must belong to in order to live my life.  We acquire most of our daily provisions, such as water, housing, or even entertainment, through different systems.  Check out how you acquired your coat or your Internet access.  Didn’t it become accessible to you through some system?  We are a part of many different systems, and in this sense, belong to them.  At the same time, there are organizations and groups that we can join and leave.  Belonging to them is a matter of choice.  It turns out, however, that is not always the case.

For all practical purposes, everyone in developed countries belongs to the food system.  Most of us acquire the food we need by being a part of this system that includes everyone from farm workers, food processors, and distributors, to retailers.   Here is an interesting point:  If we were to see food as only a commodity, then those who could not afford to buy food would die of starvation.  But that is not what usually happens.  Instead most people who cannot afford food may acquire food stamps, or receive food from charities, so they have the food they need.

The food system, in other words, is not ultimately based on property relations, but civic relations, and food is finally not a property only to be traded among property owners, but a provision that everyone deserves.  We belong not only to the system of provision, in other words, but also to the civic morality on which it depends. Obviously a civic economics would highlight this civic membership instead of hiding it, as much of our current economic theory does.

So am I “forced” to belong to the food system?  It is odd to say one is forced to do what one wants to do, and since the only way to feed one’s family is to depend on the food system, you simply belong to it.  You depend on it. The real question is whether belonging to the food system as a system of provision entails that you also belong to the civic system that undergirds it?  Do you have an obligation, in other words, to pay taxes and give to food banks so those who cannot buy food on the market are still provided for?  I would argue that just as the food system depends on a civic foundation to prevent food from becoming a commodity, which would limit its distribution to property owners; as a part of the food system, you also belong to its civic foundation and its civic obligations.  This obligation is not an obligation to become a member, but to decide what kind of member you want to become.  The question, in other words, is not really to belong or not to belong, but rather how to belong.

If we were to see health care as a provision similar to food, then I think we can make similar arguments about one’s obligations as a member of the health care system.

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Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

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