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A reading list for the Little Free Library vandals

A former Little Free Library on Boise’s North End. There are dozens of these in the Treasure Valley, according to LittleFreeLibrary.org.
A former Little Free Library on Boise’s North End. There are dozens of these in the Treasure Valley, according to LittleFreeLibrary.org. dstaats@idahostatesman.com

A terrible thing happened in my neighborhood. Someone took all the books from many “Little Free Libraries,” boxes people put in front of their homes to foster reading.

This heinous act made me wonder about the foundations of our society, including those of the culture and institutions on which our prosperity is based.

Yes, I am exaggerating. The theft of a couple of hundred used books is no crime wave. Perhaps I am bothered by symbol rather than substance.

But symbols are important. The cooperative impulses causing people to erect libraries in their lawns underpin a healthy society.

Moreover, though economists often shy away from cultural issues, such cooperation also is vital economically. Thwart trusting initiatives too often and our economy begins to crumple.

The idea of the vitality of cooperation within community is not new. Indeed, it was famously expressed by two 18th-century British thinkers.

Edmund Burke asserted that, “To love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle ... of public affections.”

Adam Smith’s book “The Wealth of Nations,” marked the separation of economics from philosophy. But Smith himself thought his earlier work on “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” was more important. I agree. In it, Smith examines how individual conscience and collective societal values arise from iterative social interactions. These values, in turn, are key to just and prosperous societies.

Many champions of Smith stress his views on the importance of competition to economic efficiency but ignore his exposition of the importance of societal values. That is unfortunate. One complements the other. We cannot understand his ideas on markets without the rest of his ideas.

Smith’s work captures the yin and yang of successful economies. Competition between producers for customers leads to innovation and efficiency. Stifling competition through restrictions on commerce makes society poorer.

But cooperation also is vital and an economy needs shared cultural values that favor productive use of resources and fairness in distribution. And it needs what thinkers like Richard John Neuhaus call “mediating structures,” noncommercial groups filling needs that businesses cannot.

Absent such structures, which may include churches, garden clubs, Scout troops, library associations and even bowling leagues, communication and trust erode. Not only does society suffer from the lack of needed organizations, but also from the honesty and trust that underpins market exchange.

Francis Fukuyama is best known for his 1992 writing on “The End of History” and is often mocked for having been wrong. That is a mistake. He poses important questions, even though his immediate answers aren’t always right. That is true of his 1995 book, “Trust: Social Virtues and Creation of Prosperity,” on how the levels of trust in a society influence economic outcomes. Higher trust levels, he argues, foster commerce and investment. Low trust saps these.

Diasporic peoples often thrive economically. These include Jews in many times and places, Syrian-Lebanese in South America since 1880, and ethnic Chinese expatriates all over Southeast Asia.

One advantage they have is that their kinship ties, fostered by being outcasts and often discriminated against, lead to better interchanges of information needed for commerce and to higher levels of trust needed for finance and trade. All of this often works across political borders. The Chinese community in Malaysia had far better communication with other Chinese in Thailand or the Philippines than the natives in these countries had with each other. So the overseas Chinese communities gain a strong position in international and domestic commerce.

Such groups also may have cultural values related to education, hard work, innovation, risk-taking and saving that put them at an advantage compared to the majority groups among which they live.

This leads us into a minefield, however. Bigoted characterizations of ethnic, religious or national groups were once common and usually wrong. Discussing cultural differences today invites condemnation on the grounds of bias, and people increasingly avoid it, especially in academia.

That doesn’t mean that culture and institutions don’t matter, or that acknowledging differences inherently implies that one culture or group is superior to another.

The culture of Sao Paulo, Brazil, is not “superior” to that of the northeastern state of Alagoas, but the economic productivity of the first long has exceeded the second. Culture is part of that.

Milan, Italy, differs from Naples, just as Medellin and Arequipa differ from other cities in Colombia and Peru respectively. The differences in levels of living are sharp.

So what does this have to do with stolen books?

My home state of Minnesota is rich in terms of “mediating structures.” Our state’s culture long has valued education, diversity, tolerance, saving, innovation and enterprise. There is a high level of trust.

These are particularly true in my neighborhood, which has the advantage of relatively high average incomes. There are all sorts of associations from a pioneering block nurse program to a “sustainable food group.”

And there are lots of little free libraries. These make our lives better, regardless of income, but they also make our state, city and neighborhood more economically productive. Trust is a vital part of that, but if someone’s selfish actions undermine that trust, the social contract breaks down. If books get stolen from little libraries often enough, eventually no one will contribute books and nobody will install one in their lawn. And we will be worse off.

How do we collectively and reciprocally appeal to “the better angels of our natures,” in Abraham Lincoln’s phrase?

There is the rub. Identifying the role of cultural values such as trust is not hard. Fostering these values is.

St. Paul economist and writer Edward Lotterman can be reached at boise@edlotterman.com.

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