Better Rules or Stronger Communities? On the Social Foundations of Institutional Change and Its Economic Effects



Abstract: Much of the literature on the impact of institutions on economic development has focused on the tradeoffs between society and community as mutually opposed forms of institutional coordination. On the one hand, sociologists, geographers, and some economists have stressed the positive economic externalities that are associated with the development of associational or group life. Most economists, in contrast, hold that the development of communities may be a second-best solution to the development of formal institutions or even have negative effects, such as the promotion of rent-seeking behavior and principal-agent problems. Societal institutions—such as clear, transparent rules and enforcement mechanisms—are held to be universally positive for development. But there are no real-world cases in which only one of the two exists; society and community are always and everywhere in interaction. This interaction, however, has attracted little attention. In this article, society and community are conceived of as complementary forms of organization whose relative balance and interaction shape the economic potential of every territory. Changes in the balance between community and society take place constantly and affect the medium- and long-run development prospects of every territory. The depth and the speed of change depend on a series of factors, such as starting points in the interaction of society and community, the sources and dynamics of change, and the conflict-solving capacities of the preexisting situation.