While the book shares personal and intimate details about Koch’s life, it starts off, as many free market–oriented books do, with his realization as a young adult that bottom-up economic systems are better than top-down ones at leveraging human creativity to improve everyone’s living standards.
This truth, while important, isn’t new. The 18th-century economist Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” was the principle’s first iteration. Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and many other scholars enriched our understanding that top-down systems produce one-size-fits-all “solutions.” Even when they are highly inefficient, the failed outcomes of a political process are more difficult to replace or modify than are market-based outcomes.
In contrast, bottom-up systems produce many options simultaneously, letting people choose how to best satisfy their needs. And the competition between different market options promotes improvement over time.
This book’s comparison of top-down with bottom-up is conveyed in a surprising way: through its application to civil society, a network of people and institutions that exists outside of the sphere of government and commerce that is too often overlooked by free market scholars. In the free economic market, producers use their skills to compete and provide the best services to consumers. Likewise, the most vibrant civil societies are powered by the same bottom-up forces, but the kind of wealth they create is different. Civil-society wealth is made up of thousands of often nonprofit institutions for the purpose of helping people who are poor, disadvantaged, and disenfranchised.
As in free commercial markets, civil society is decentralized. It takes on multiple faces, serving different populations and needs. But its engine is genuine compassion, a glue that holds communities together.
Variety of this sort cannot exist in a top-down system, a truth that’s illustrated through the stories the authors tell of social entrepreneurs dedicated to serving others. These civil-society entrepreneurs are former inmates, drug addicts, gang members, and what some might brand “losers.” But their losses turn into wins when they find purpose for their lives.
Take Antong Lucky. He’s a natural-born leader whose life was transformed in prison when someone told him, “If you can lead these dudes to do wrong, you can lead them to do right.” Lucky took this lesson to heart. After he got out of prison, he joined Pastor Omar Jahwar at Urban Specialists, a nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming inner-city culture away from violence.
We also encounter the chef who created Cafe Momentum, a transformative restaurant that helps kids coming out of juvenile detention to believe in themselves and find their paths on the outside. The Phoenix is another innovative organization that helps those struggling with addiction, many of whom had been imprisoned. As Koch writes, “The Phoenix isn’t just beating addiction — it’s helping the root causes of participants’ poverty,” so it also helps former addicts’ families and friends.
Alice Johnson was serving a life sentence without parole for delivering messages to cocaine dealers. Her sentence was commuted, and now she’s a devoted advocate for criminal justice reform. As she writes in the book, “I am but one person. You are but one person. But together we are many. And we can make a difference.”
Indeed, this book is about how we’re all part of a community that can make a difference. We all have different talents, experiences, and callings. A bottom-up system helps people discover who they could be. Some of us are called to be philanthropists (thanks to the wealth created in the marketplace); others are called to be both partners and philanthropists to these social entrepreneurs (such as Koch); others are called to fight poverty or violence; others fight for equality. Richard Tafel, for instance, fought for gay civil rights, including marriage equality, starting in the 1980s.
In his book Democracy in America, French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville describes with admiration America’s vibrant civic society. I thought of him as I read this book, of course. But I also often thought about Adam Smith, who said, “Man, naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely.” This book, including each of its authors, is about lovely people and what they do for each other in civil society.
Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. To find out more about Veronique de Rugy and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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Author: Veronique de Rugy