Rethinking Economics: Husbandry, Commerce, & Gift


Yesterday, John Thackara (@johnthackara) tweeted a link to one of the feminist economist Julie Nelson’s recent articles, “Husbandry: A Feminist Reclamation of Men’s Responsibility to Care.” I think Nelson makes a very important contribution to our reconsideration of what an economy is or could be, and I also believe that she makes a mistake. I want to speak to both. The very important contribution first.


She is rightly concerned that economics as it is currently understood is disjunct from care. She writes, “if we want to create economies that preserve and enhance our societies as well as protecting the Earth and future generations, we need new metaphors, images, myths, and stories. We need new images that combine care and economics.” Thus, she proposes employing the metaphor of husbandry in the service of this combinatory project. I quote at length:

Picture yeoman farmers who carefully nurture the growth of their crops, tilling and weeding and protecting them. Or shepherds who watch over their sheep, making sure that they are safe and fed and watered. Or the nomads who tend their cattle in the Serengeti. Tell yourself a story about how such people call their dog or horse by name, or how they know the challenges of drought and flood intimately, the lore concerning breeding and protection, and the shape of the surrounding landscape.

The image of ‘good husbandry’ is useful because it joins together what are usually seen as opposites: ‘husbandry’ is both clearly recognizable as sitting within the realm of economic production and as deeply engaged with carefulness and concern. I’ve chosen a word with masculine gender connotations deliberately: we don’t have a problem associating women with care, but we do lack images that illustrate care with a masculine face. Popularizing the ideal of husbandry could help to even up the balance.

The examples she offers us–farmers, shepherds, nomads–bring out something that is only there implicit but later on becomes more explicit: “Natural resources are carefully ‘husbanded’ when they are protected and preserved for the use of future generations” (my emphasis). Broadly speaking, the objects of care are natural resources: land, water, sunlight, vegetable and animal life, and so on.


It was while reading Jane Jacobs’ Systems of Survival in 2014 that I came to recognize that there is another form of economic life that is not well-expressed or understood in the terms we’ve taken for granted in modernity. Rather unfortunately, Jacobs calls this take as opposed to trade or, what is the same thing, exchange. At the time, I reformulated this economic act in the form of a maxim: “Kindly use what we have.” And from here, given the hunter-gatherer backdrop, I made the mistake of imaging such kindly use in the archetype of the warrior.

Nelson’s husbandry metaphor helps me to make a correction both to the sense of this economic act and to the image associated with it. A better maxim would be: “Kindly care for what we have,” and the better image associated with it would be that of husbandry.


I promised that I would speak about what I take to be Nelson’s mistake; I do so in this section. Implicit in her argument is the claim that husbandry will replace our current set of economic metaphors, the idea being that husbandry could somehow stretch across the entire social-economic space. The mistake, I think (and here I’m arguing in a Kantian way), is to apply this metaphor too expansively so that it goes beyond the bounds of its legitimate applicability.

I want to claim instead that husbandry should be reserved for what I’ve previously called Category I, leaving two other categories, Category II and Category III, to function according to their own internal logic. Each category, I submit, is sui generis.


This means that the Category II maxim–“Fairly exchange what’s in hand.”–and the Category III maxim–“Generously offer and receive what you can.”–apply to different social-economic phenomena. The images associated with CII and CIII are the merchant and the priest, respectively.


  • Category I: Kindly care for what we have. Image: Husbandry.
  • Category II: Fairly exchange what’s in hand. Image: Merchant.
  • Category III: Generously offer and receive what you can. Image: Priest.

Elsewhere, I’ve tried to argue that we get into a heap of trouble when we confuse husbandry with commerce and commerce with priestliness.


Time doesn’t permit me to spell all these claims out, but one example may help to shine some light on how an economy writ large could be said to be the system in which CI, CII, and CIII play themselves out. Suppose a family-run farmer in Southern California grows vegetables. In the first place, her relationship with the land and its bounty should very well be one of stewardship. Hence, her land ethic follows the maxim set out by CI.

But now it is Sunday and she is coming to the local farmers’ market to sell her produce. When I approach her farm stand, I do not think about how to “kindly care” for her. To me, she is a stranger and toward her I hope to be perfectly friendly and vice versa. Indeed, she and I just don’t care about each other not because we’re callous human beings but because care isn’t an appropriate factor in our considerations. But what, then, are the appropriate terms with which we think and speak to each other? They are CII terms. If I want these tomatoes, I’m trying to figure out whether X USD is a fair exchange for Y tomatoes. If I paid too dearly, then I may say that the exchange was unfair, in short, that I got a “raw deal.” If she sold them too cheaply, she could say that she got a “raw deal.”

Now suppose it’s the end of the market day and the farmer has extra produce that has gone unsold. She might say to her employees, “Would anyone, as a gift, like some tomatoes?” Afterward, she might then go home, knowing that for the next couple of nights she will be hosting friends who will be staying with her at the farm. These are both CIII considerations. She is generously offering what she can.


Now some, indeed many, ethical and political questions are open for contestation and debate, but it’s important that we get the terms of the debate right. Is the object in question an exchange or a gift? Is health care best regarded as a form of exchange, an instance of husbandry, or a gift? Are employees, as workers, to be treated fairly or, as human beings, with care? The political debates occurring at the borderlines of vague and contested cases will here continue to ensue, yet it is of the first importance that we get right what it is we’re arguing about to begin with.

It is also a crucially important lesson that we not continue to make the mistake of allowing any one category to “totalize” the entire social field. Within bounds, markets (CII) make sense. Within the proper bounds, doing a favor for your friends, fulfilling your friends’ requests, sharing what you have, lending a helping hand, and so on–all these being instances of CIII–make sense. Finally, within the proper bounds,  caring for the land (CI) upon which we live and the resources bequeathed to us make sense. When we don’t respect those boundaries, we produce monsters such as neoliberalism and state socialism.