The worth of a Smile – Reciprocity and Stefano Zamagni

A small group of us had dinner earlier this week with one of the world's greatest economists, Professor Stefano Zamagni.  I first met him several years ago when he proved, using economic graphs, that the smile of a person with severe disability is an important source of social capital which encourages a stronger climate of trust which is in turn essential for the operation of a healthy economy.  I've been hooked on his writing ever since! 

So too is the European Union which has just passed a resolution he co-authored on the social economy.  So too, is the Pope who consults with Professor Zamagni to understand our current economic crisis and to write his encyclicals on the civil economy.  So too, is Phillip Blond author of Red Tory  which references Stefano's economic and social theories.  (Red Tory is the book I suggested in a previous post was central to understanding
the 'Big Society' agenda of newly elected UK Prime Minister David
Cameron.)  At a time when traditional economic theories are leading to societal breakdown, environmental disasters and economic collapse, Professor Zamagni's theories are refreshing and never more relevant.It is heartening and deeply moving to find an economist who takes into consideration, and with such authority, factors that matter to most of us: trust, reciprocity, belonging, relationships, civil society, the public good, redistribution of wealth, justice, ethics, and social capital.  Other economists dismiss these as insignificant and unimportant externalities.  Zamagni makes them central to how societies should and can operate.  And he has the authority, credentials and connections to influence governments.

Prof. Zamagni rejects the reductionist view of many economists that humans are exclusively motivated by selfishness.  He believes this is a distorted view of human behaviour.  Instead he offers an economic theory that takes into consideration the well being of individuals and the public good.  He assigns theoretical significance to our values, beliefs and ethics that go well beyond personal interest.  In this regard he reminds us of Adam Smith's 'theory of moral sentiments' which articulated civic and economic morality.  This is conveniently ignored by those who espouse self interest as the motivating force behind all human behaviour and who, out of context, quote Smith's invisible hand of the market to smooth out our excesses.

The foundation of Zamagni's economic theory is reciprocity – the countless reciprocal acts going on in families, in networks, in neighbourhoods in communities, in cities all the time.   These informal transactions or gifts number in the millions and re-distribute wealth and nurture social capital better than the marketplace or the state. We ignore reciprocity at our peril.  It is no surprise social breakdown and diminished civic involvement coincides with our economic troubles.  Reciprocity creates and strengthens relationships and social networks. It is the foundation of associational life of social life.  For Zamagni, the basic unit is the relationship not the individual  “only in relations with you can I discover myself…these things are instrumental, the relationship itself is of value, and important to my well being.” 

Zamagni has coined the phrase, 'relational goods' which are as important as private goods and public goods.  And he believes the fundamental problem of western societies is, too few relational goods.  An imbalance in this area is just as dangerous to society as being over over occupied by the seductions of the marketplace or becoming too
dependent on the state  to provide care.  The former can become a substitute for relationships and the latter dehumanizes the
recipient and ignores and inadvertently destroys the power of our
natural relations.

During our dinner he offered another aspect of justice he also feels is neglected – contributive justice.  Contributive justice, as opposed to distributive justice, is the responsibility each of us has to contribute to civil society, and to our collective well being.  Contributive justice matches a person's obligations with his or her capabilities and role in society.

His theories have particular meaning to the work we have been doing at PLAN to formulate a citizen based theory of disability – one that recognizes that everyone, regardless of condition or situation, has a contribution to make and further that everyone is expected to make a contribution.  Most of our work is contained at – a global dialogue on citizenship and disability.  Our observations about the importance of contributions of 'being' fit very well with his economic theories.  We distinguish between contributions of doing and contributions of being.  Contributions of being include the gift of our presence, our appreciation, our gratitude, our silence, our ability to inspire kindness and of course our smile.  These are all important to a strong civic life and fostering belonging. Stefano reminded us that before the 1900's, economics was referred to as the science of happiness.  My, has it ever gone astray!

It is not surprising Zamagni's insights emanate from the Italian region of Emilia Romagna – which boasts one of the world's strongest cooperative economies. There are 8000 cooperatives in Emilia Romagna combining entrepreneurship and cooperation.  Cooperatives are natural vehicles for reciprocity.  Reciprocity is embedded in cooperative institutions for example Vancity Credit Union, where people use their money to help each other rather than for profit.  Professor Zamagni's words are validating for those of us concerned about the degradation of natural care in our society and who intuitively understand that taking care of each other is central to society's well being, not something you get to after the economy is fixed. Our caring relationships are indeed the economy.

Dr. Zamagni is the former Dean of Economics at the University of Bologna and
currently directs the world's only post – graduate program in
cooperative studies there, as well as being an adjunct Professor at John
Hopkins University.  This is his seventh visit to Vancouver.  Thanks to
Bob Williams and Vancity Credit
Union as well as John Restakis and the BC Cooperative Association there is an
annual intellectual and cultural exchange between Vancouver and Bologna.

Anyone interested in pursuing Professor Zamagni's theories can click here  for a list of his books.  For a video of one of his speeches courtesy of Vancity click here.

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  1. J(esse)

    Some very interesting perspectives which made me think about relationships/smiles/economics/contributions in many new ways. Great post Al!

  2. Al Etmanski

    Thanks J – Stefano has that impact on many.

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