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.

Two boo’s for ‘living in order to work’


Call me puzzled. I can’t help but recall a wealthy man I used to tutor while I was living in New York City. He was an heir to a famous American dynasty and was doubtless so wealthy that none of his grandchildren would ever need to work. Despite this, he worked very long hours, founding and co-founding companies, some of which would be very familiar to you. Why would someone who doesn’t have to work long, hunger to work–and to do scarcely anything else?

I’ve only begun reading Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, which was originally published in 1899. On the opening pages, Veblen makes plain that barbarian cultures initiated a class distinction between laborers and elites (who were engaged, variously, in politics, warfare, religion, and sport). Until very recently in human history, it simply appeared self-evident that, provided that an economic order had advanced to the point at which not everyone needed to work (there could be slaves, women, and a class of male laborers, say), leisure was regarded as obviously preferable to working, that one worked (if one did, if one had to) for the sake of leisure, and that whatever we mean by ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ or ‘significance’ must needs be sought in non-work. Furthermore, leisure was the honorable, dignified, laudatory term and the second term–whatever is not leisure, i.e., work–would be derived from the leisure concept.

It is therefore surprising (a) that the wealthy, early 50-something man I used to tutor should choose to spend most of his life working and (b) that someone who is out of work would, even if financially secure, find his life boring because he is not working. What is going on? It is a question I cannot yet answer.

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Openness, wonder, and joy

Philosophy is not for those who presume to know all there is to know. Nor is it for those who, being bourgeois, take life to be wholly self-explanatory. ‘The commonplace mind,’ writes Josef Pieper in ‘The Philosophical Act,’ ‘rendered deaf-mute, finds everything self-explanatory’ to the point at which ‘”wonder” is no longer there.’ Now that must be a great loss unknown to the self-professedly knowledgeable, such a magnificent and terrible loss to the one blanketing all reality in the endless commonplace. What unmarked, unremarked upon despondency!

There is only wonder, so we shall learn, once one is brought to doubt whether he knows something at all. But then how is someone brought to such a doubt, and what disposition brings one to wonder’s doorstep?

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Letting others be: A fictitious admonition

No words must needs be addressed to him if what he is doing does not accord with what I think he would be better off doing. Let him be. That there may be other ways of doing something, some incontrovertibly or demonstrably better than this one he prefers or seems to anyway: what of it, man? Am I to concern myself each passing day with the details of this man’s affairs by sticking in a finger–a pointer, a probe, a dull knife? Must my tongue be fastened to his business or to hers? Come now: let it pass.

Or stay. Turn. Turn around. What urges my this way when I say what I do or, if I don’t, seethe in it all or if I wait until the pot falls and then tighten my heart in frisson, in torqued satisfaction? Shall I have a deep look–at myself, at this ugliness?–for ugliness it is. Looking, looking closely, if I dare, I see: self-righteousness…

With this, I cannot let myself be. No more nonsense now. All this time lost exhorting, lost chastening, spent correcting others! No letting be for an instant! All this stupid incorrigibility! The arrogance, the futile ignorant arrogance! What a roundabout!

Shocked? Horrified? Revolted–with myself? A good entry point from which to investigate myself: only, careful, unincriminatingly.

Kaos Pilots: The Cultivation of Character

What would unify the curriculum at Kaos Pilots? One way, which I explored in yesterday’s post, would be to treat the education as articulating and specifying what, concretely, making a difference means for me. A second way would be to explicitly teach the cultivation of character. This is called character education.

As far back as antiquity, the question of how to teach young men to be excellent or outstanding, the further question of what virtue was, whether it could be taught, and which should be taught, and other related questions were considered and debated with the utmost seriousness. And as recently as the eighteenth century, Enlightenment reform pedagogues sought to ground education on character and citizenship: a good education would furnish the pupil with training in character development and would instill in him a commitment to being a good citizen.

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