The Economic Anthropology of Peace and Goodwill

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The Economic Anthropology of Peace and Goodwill

By: John A. Baden, Ph.D.
Posted on December 22, 2017 FREE Insights


Surely in Bozeman, and throughout much of America, "peace and goodwill" is the Christmas theme.  The Bozeman Symphony's wonderful Christmas program featured this goal and each year the Presbyterian Church presents Handel's Messiah in a community concert. Our tradition is to attend with Jewish friends, join the church reception, and adjourn for a long dinner.


Friendship, respect, and reciprocity naturally produce peace and goodwill.  People sort themselves into groups where these qualities prevail. Goodwill is contagious and gradually builds.  Aside from military personnel doing their duty, only criminals, deviants, and missionaries choose to move into hostile territory.


Peace and goodwill is the optimal social condition.  Economists call the conjunction a “Schelling point”. How can we foster it within a nation?  Admonitions are helpful but they surely don't suffice.


A few cultures, Quakers for example, are peaceful at their core.  Cultures, however, can't be changed by intent and efforts to do so normally go awry. Leaders can't successfully pour their nation's culture into a peaceful mold.  A large-scale society intended to be governed by love ends up being ruled by fear and force.  That is the predictable outcome.


Cultures evolve and may be helped by nudges. Consider littering. The national "Keep America Beautiful" campaign was founded in 1953 and has been highly successful. Today no responsible people litter. It is recognized as slovenly behavior and naturally avoided by all good community members.   


Since it is extremely hard to change the fundamentals of culture, how can we encourage peaceful behavior in society? The answer involves institutional and legal arrangements that encourage voluntary cooperation when managing and exchanging land, goods, and services.


The strategy is to make it hard, expensive, and uncertain for employ force and shenanigans to gain control over valuable resources.  Avoiding these negative practices encourages peace among men; goodwill then often evolves.


One sure way to achieve this admirable end is with clearly defined, legally enforced, and readily transferable property rights to valuable things that can be legally exchanged or managed. This must operate under the rule of law rather than the whim of politicians and bureaucrats.  According to the World Justice Project, “the rule of law reduces corruption, combats poverty and disease, and protects people from injustices, large and small. It is the foundation for communities of peace, equity, and opportunity-underpinning development, accountable government, and respect for fundamental rights.”*


Clearly defined property rights foster the Christmas admonition to find peace. When such property rights don't exist, conflicts naturally follow.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the Holy Land.  A close second is conflict over environmental management.


Current controversies over wilderness study areas are in their 35th year and remain vitriolic. Letters to the local newspaper proclaim, “We must raise our fists for wilderness now...Stop playing politics with public lands and dividing Montana.” It is not just Montana, it is also national: “A federal judge declared a mistrial Wednesday in the case against Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, saying U.S. prosecutors willfully withheld critical and "potentially exculpatory" evidence from the defense.These are common, unextreme, and fully expected statements about federal land management. They are rare with land owned or managed by the Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society, American Prairie Reserve, or other public trusts insulated from politics by clear property rights.


Property rights are sometimes difficult or impossible to define in the environmental arena.  This is not a problem we can pretend away.  Fortunately, however, environmental entrepreneurs are creating new organizations that foster cooperation and reduce conflict. When organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and American Prairie Reserve own the land, cooperation and productivity are enhanced while conflict is reduced.  As independent organizations, they also broker arrangements among agencies, firms, organizations, and individuals.  They do so in ways no government bureau could do.


Still, I have yet to hear ministers or other cultural leaders proclaim and advocate the fundamental contributions of property rights to peace and goodwill.  They are missing an important opportunity to foster values they sincerely advocate and cherish.


Economic understanding is not about money but rather peaceful social cooperation. Clear property rights generate both the wealth required for a wholesome life and the peace needed to sustain it. This is an optimistic Christmas message.




*The government as well as private actors are accountable under the law.


The laws are clear, publicized, stable, and just; are applied evenly; and protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property


The processes by which the laws are enacted, administered, and enforced are accessible, fair, and efficient.


Justice is delivered timely by competent, ethical, and independent representatives and neutrals who are accessible, have adequate resources, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.

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