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Communities still matter, but are falling behind, says Raghuram Rajan

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For early humans the tribe was their society – their state, markets, and community rolled into one. It was where all activities were conducted, including the rearing of children, the production and exchange of food and goods, and the succour of the ill and the elderly. The tribal chief or elders laid down the law and enforced it, and commanded the tribe’s warriors in defense of their lands. Over time, as we will see in Part I of the book, both markets and the state separated from the community. 

Trade with more distant communities through markets allowed everyone to specialise in what they were relatively good at, making everyone more prosperous. The state, aggregating the power and resources of the many communities within it, not only regulated markets but also enforced the law within its political boundaries, while defending the realm against aggressors.

Markets and the state have not only separated themselves from the community in recent times but have also steadily encroached on activities that strengthened bonds within the traditional community. Consider some functions the community no longer performs. In frontier communities, neighbours used to help deliver babies; today most women check into a hospital when they feel the onset of childbirth. They naturally prefer the specialist’s expertise much more than they value their neighbour’s friendly but amateurish helping hand. On a more mundane level, we used to offer to take our elderly neighbour shopping because she did not have a car. Today, she orders her groceries online. Similarly, the community used to pitch in to rebuild a household’s home if it caught fire; today the household collects its fire insurance payment and hires a professional builder. Indeed, given the building codes in most developed countries, it is unlikely that a home reconstructed by neighbours would be legal.

The community still plays a number of important roles in society. It anchors the individual in real human networks and gives them a sense of identity; our presence in the world is verified by our impact on people around us. By allowing us to participate in local governance structures such as parent-teacher associations, school boards, library boards, and neighbourhood oversight committees, as well as local mayoral or ward elections, our community gives us a sense of self- determination, a sense of direct control over our lives, even while making local public services work better for us. Importantly, despite the existence of formal structures such as public schooling, a government safety net, and commercial insurance, the goodness of neighbours is still useful in filling in gaps. When a neighbouring engineer tutors our son in mathematics in her spare time, or the neighbourhood comes together in a recession to collect food and clothing for needy households, the community is helping out where formal structures are inadequate. Given the continuing importance of the community, healthy modern communities try to compensate for the encroachment of markets and the state with other activities that strengthen community ties, such as social gatherings and neighbourhood associations.

Economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren attempt to quantify the economic impact of growing up in a better community. They examine the incomes of children whose parents moved from one neighbourhood into another in the United States when the child was young. Specifically, consider

neighbourhood Better and neighbourhood Worse. Correcting for parental income, the average incomes of children of long time residents when they become adults is one percentile higher in the national income distribution in neighbourhood Better than it is in neighbourhood Worse. Chetty and Hendren find that a child whose parents move from neighbourhood Worse to Better will have an adult income that is, on average, 0.04 percentile points higher for every childhood year it spends in Better. In other words, if the child’s parents move when it is born and they stay till it is twenty, the child’s income as an adult will have made up 80 percent of the difference between the average incomes in the two neighbourhoods.

Their study suggests that a child benefits enormously by moving to a community where children are more successful (at least as measured by their future income). Communities matter! Perhaps more than any outside influence other than the parents we are born to, the community we grow up in influences our economic prospects. Importantly, Chetty and Hendren’s finding applies for a single child moving – movement is not a recipe for the development of an entire poor community. Instead, the poor community has to find ways to develop in situ, while holding on to its best and brightest. It is a challenge we will address in the book.

There are other virtues to a healthy community. Local community government acts as a shield against the policies of the federal government, thus protecting minorities against a possible tyranny of the majority, and serving as a check on federal power. Sanctuary communities in the United States and Europe have resisted cooperating with national immigration authorities in identifying and deporting undocumented immigrants. Under the previous US presidential administration, communities in the state of Arizona resisted in the opposite direction, ignoring the federal government while implementing stern penalties on undocumented immigration.

Although no country can function if every community picks and chooses the laws they will obey, we will see that some decentralisation in legislative powers to the community can be beneficial, especially if there are large differences in opinion between communities.

A critical function the community plays in modern market democracies is to serve as a training ground for aspiring politicians – recall that Barack Obama was a community organiser – with the community itself constituting a readymade structure for political mobilisation. Furthermore, it is community- based movements against corruption and cronyism that time and again prevent the leviathan of the state from getting too comfortable with the behemoth of big business. Indeed, as we will see in the book, healthy communities are essential for sustaining vibrant market democracies. This is perhaps why authoritarian movements like fascism and communism try to replace community consciousness with nationalist or proletarian consciousness.

In sum, the proximate community is still relevant today, even in cosmopolitan cities where ties of kinship and ethnicity are limited, and even in individualistic societies like those of the United States and Western Europe. Once we understand that the community matters, then it becomes clear why it is not enough for a country to experience strong economic growth – the professional economist’s favourite measure of economic performance. How that growth is distributed across communities in the country also matters immensely. People who value staying in their community are not very mobile. Since they cannot move to work where growth occurs, they need economic growth in their own community. If we care about the community, we need to care about the geographic distribution of growth.

What then is the source of today’s problems? In one word, imbalance! When the three pillars of society are appropriately balanced, society has the best chance of providing for the well- being of its people. The modern state provides physical security, as it always has, but also tries to ensure fairness in economic outcomes, which democracy demands. To do this, the state sets limits on the markets while also ensuring they offer people a level playing field. It also has to make sure that most people have the ability to participate on equal terms in the market, and are buffered against its fluctuations. The competitive markets ensure that those who succeed in it are efficient and produce the maximum output with the resources available. The successful have both wealth and some independence from the state, thus they have the ability to check arbitrary actions by the state. Finally, the people in industrial democracies, engaged in their communities and thereby organised socially and politically, maintain the necessary separation between markets and the state. By doing this they enable sufficient political and economic competition that the economy does not descend into cronyism or authoritarianism. Society suffers when any of the pillars weakens or strengthens overly relative to the others. Too weak the markets, and society becomes unproductive, too weak a community and society tends toward crony capitalism, too weak the state and society turns fearful and apathetic. Conversely, too much market and society becomes inequitable, too much community and society becomes static, and too much state and society becomes authoritarian. A balance is essential!