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The culture of responsibility

Stefano Zamagni’s latest book discusses one of today’s critical issues

The modern business has significant responsibility. Actually, businesses of the past and the present have always had significant responsibility. So do each one of us, we all have a certain degree of personal responsibility. It’s important for everybody to understand what that means, but it’s particularly key for those who – owners and managers – are responsible for managing production organisations (without even mentioning those who have the destinies of entire communities in their hands).

Reading this latest volume by Stefano Zamagni (who is a Professor of Political Economy at the University of Bologna and at Johns Hopkins University, but above all is one of the most perceptive observers of our time), which is dedicated to the concept of responsibility, may prove to be very useful indeed.

Zamagni discusses what it means to be responsible today, not so much from the perspective of single individuals, but from a collective standpoint. A subject that raises many questions.  For example, who is responsible for the growth in inequality, unemployment, poverty, and climate-related disasters? And what’s going to happen in the society of big data and social networks, where smart machines will be able to “think” and make decisions? And furthermore, whatever happened to the corporate social responsibility that everyone talked about so much?

Zamagni attempts to answer these and other questions, doing so with clear language even when discussing particularly complex issues. He starts by considering that in today’s world (hyper-connected and globalised), each and every action leads to unwanted, and often even unimaginable, consequences.  This situation applies to governments as well as to companies. Zamagni’s message tells us that being responsible is not just about not “doing harm”, but is also about taking actions which do some good. Within the market, behaviours should be adopted that assert responsibility as a way of caring. This means not just “not doing”, but also and in particular “doing things the right way”.

The book (just over two hundred pages to be read calmly and carefully) is a narrative that is divided into six chapters and contains an epilogue. The author begins by talking about “types of responsibility”. He then continues by examining “market outcome responsibility” before moving on to an analysis of corporate social responsibility and the possible existence of “responsible finance”. After, he tackles the subject of “machines that think” and “machines that make decisions”, finishing by clearly stating that “only neohumanism will save the economy”.  In the epilogue, Zamagni attempts to summarise his reasoning by saying: ‘Today, being responsible means this: not considering oneself as the mere result of processes that are out of our control, nor as a self-sufficient entity that doesn’t require relationships with others. In other words, it means thinking that what lies ahead of us is never completely determined by what came before.’ It is from here that the need arises, according to the author, to reassess the market model, and more generally that of the economy, which is the most widespread today.

Besides direct arguments, Zamagni’s book has another highly positive characteristic: it discusses a complex issue using clear and understandable language whilst still managing to bring into the discussion stimuli and ideas from the worlds of economics, history, philosophy and literature. Thus, Musil ends up alongside Keynes, Machiavelli with Marshall, Plato, Cicero and Guicciardini with Mill, Friedmann and Drucker, not to mention Kafka, Einaudi, Eco, Leopardi and many more.

Responsabili. Come civilizzare il mercato

Stefano Zamagni

Il Mulino, 2019