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The Economics of Monasticism - Working Paper

Nathan Smith  Robert R. Martin
Department of Economics Pennsylvania State University
George Mason University  
Since their emergence in ancient times, Christian monasteries have proven to be among the most durable of all human institutions, and in the medieval centuries made enormous contributions to the emergence of Western civilization. They are organized internally on socialist lines: monks own no property and owe total obedience to the abbot, making the monastery a miniature 'centrally planned economy.' A puzzling contrast exists between the longevity of monasteries and the transience of secular socialist communes might be viable despite 'shirking' problems, yet fail due to turnover, and how worship, which induces people with high 'spiritual capital' to self-select into the monastery and then grows that spiritual capital through 'learning-by-doing,' can solve the turnover problem and make a worship-based socialist commune-a monastery-stable. Monasticism, like the market, is a form of 'spontaneous order,' but unlike the market, it does not depend on third-party enforcement (e.g., by a state) to function: this explains why monasticism (unlike capitalism) was able to thrive in the anarchic Dark Ages. Monasteries, in principle and largely in practice, are a form of society based on consent of the governed, unlike liberal states which preach but do not practice consensual governance, and it is interesting to juxtapose the real, live 'social contracts' of the monasteries with the notional social contracts of liberal political theory.

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