Graduate Theological Union

Who Should Organize the Economy?

“What would it be like if the purpose of the economy were to make provisions instead of to accumulate property?”

Civilizing the Economy
Marvin Brown

In his new book, Civilizing the Economy: A New Economics of Provision, Marvin T. Brown (Ph.D. ’78) recounts that as the Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations — the first modern work of economics — Scotland was getting very wealthy from the tobacco trade, and the tobacco trade was dependent on the slave trade. But in that book that advocated a free market economy as more productive and more beneficial to society, and laid the groundwork for modern economic theory, Smith never mentioned slavery’s role in wealth creation.

Brown, who teaches business and organizational ethics in the Philosophy Department at University of San Francisco and in the Organizational Systems program at Saybrook University in San Francisco, observes in Civilizing the Economy, “It was not the invisible hand that coordinated the production and distribution of tobacco … but the whip of the slave driver, the helping hand of the Scottish merchant, and the imperial hand of the British government that protected and maintained a very lucrative Atlantic commerce.” He points out that the role of the government now, as then, is basically to protect property. But he offers a new framework that would move us from the economics of property that Smith advocated, to an economics of provision. “What would it be like if the purpose of the economy were to make provisions instead of to accumulate property?” he asks. Brown proposes the civic sphere as the platform for building an inclusive economy that would be organized by the people, as citizens, through civic conversations that occur in many different types of organizations, including commercial, religious, non-profit, and government organizations. He envisions such an economy as the context for a more just and sustainable world.

Brown, who marched from Selma to Montgomery during the peak of the American Civil Rights movement in 1965, focused his doctoral work on theology and rhetoric. He says now he’s less interested in how people can create good arguments, and more interested in how to create the conditions so people can say what needs to be said. Brown describes himself as a practical philosopher, facilitating civic conversations he hopes will lead to systems of provision that are just and sustainable.

You can learn more about Marvin T. Brown’s work and about Civilizing the Economy at and at Brown will be presenting Capital, Credit, and CSR in Crisis: What Concepts, Systems, and Behavioral Criteria Are Needed for Future Wealth Creation? on October 29–31 at the Third International Conference on Business Ethics at the Center for Business Ethics, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, China, and at The Global Summit, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco November 8–10.