What happens when individuals can coordinate their actions and efforts to promote interests that aren’t merely personal?  What goals can be achieved and goods can come from the collective efforts of smart and successful people who work to improve the state of a community outside of conventional markets and government?  Anton Howe’s new book Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation opens with a one line dedication “to the public-spirited,” and what he then proceeds to show his readers is that public spirited people can overcome collective action problems and accomplish very remarkable things when they rely on self-interest, ambition, and our desire for social standing.  His conclusions about human nature, the structuring of institutional incentives and the sweeping scope of the Royal Society’s history over the past 300 years is well worth reading for individuals in history, public policy, and economics.

The philanthropic sector has long been a subject of scholarly interest, and this book fits in that category — sort of.  Howe’s subject is what he calls “the Society.” Founded by the visionary William Shipley in 1754, the Society originally attracted successful, intellectually curious individuals from the upper and middle classes.  Its membership was open to anyone who could pay the dues, and the goal was to promote research and investigation into a wide range of tangible areas including agriculture, manufacturing, mechanical matters, trade, and the “polite” arts (the founders were no fans of luxury).  This was done primarily through the creation of “premiums” in which investigators, inventors, artists, and others were awarded prizes for their work in various subject areas specified by the Society.  Throughout its continued existence, the Society has sponsored work on thousands of new ideas, inventions, and discoveries in various fields, but it specifically focused on fields that were not patentable (and therefore not obviously profitable), yet broadly defined to be in the public good.  What did the public good mean? That changed quite a bit over the years.

Who joined this organization?  When Shipley founded the Society, he targeted upwardly mobile professionals, the emerging middle class, along with some upper class members to give the organization prestige.  The idea was to provide the members with some tangible and intangible benefits.  Tangible benefits included participation in the events, talks, and presentations addressing new scientific, artistic and technological advances in various academic and practical fields.  The members could also network with like minded professionals and even meet new clients if they were artisans or producers of other wares.

But Shipley also wanted the organization to be prestigious and to allow the newly ascendant professional classes access to philanthropic, public spirited endeavors that had previously been the purview of the upper classes and royalty.  He was providing a chance for the newly minted wealth of the country to serve the public good, and to do so publicly, signaling their patriotism and status.  For example, members paid dues to participate in the meetings, but also to signal to their families, friends, neighbors, and fellow professionals that they were public spirited and hard working.  The society allowed members to reap both material and social benefits from their membership fees which in turn paid for the research and premiums awarded. It drew partially on vanity and enlightened self-interest to create something more broadly viewed as “good”.

What types of projects did the organization support?  As Howe describes it, the Society “rewarded means of preventing accidents on horse-drawn carriages, the reduction of smoke from steam engines, ways to prevent steam locomotive accidents, the reduction of noxious fumes from industrial processes, extendable fire-escape ladders, and safety apparatus for use in mines” (p. 79).  Later, the society supported efforts to prevent forgery of British currency, the development of lithography, and numerous artistic projects to promote a sort of British national painting that included women artists.

The Society was also involved in three significant and important political battles that helped to promote the cause of liberty.  First the Society actively helped to promote Richard Cobden’s campaign against the Corn Laws in the late 1830’s.  The Society was filled with members of the new “productive” classes who weren’t wed to the ancient and stale British agricultural system.  This prompted the Society to engage in various activities to promote free trade and the ideas of Adam Smith.

The Society also helped to fundamentally change patent laws in England in ways that helped to encourage innovation and artistic expression.  When the Society was first founded, getting a patent was incredibly difficult and expensive.  The Society helped to promote the passage of a streamlined patent law that was widely lauded for promoting innovation and intellectual creativity.  Through its work to promote dialogue during labor unrest in the latter part of the 19th century, the Society also served as a platform for discussion about the prospects for introducing limited liability in corporations in the UK.  A bill allowing for this revolutionary change was passed with the help of influential members of the Society.

The Society has been through at least three distinct periods according to Howe.  The first was the actual founding, development, and activities of the society itself. Howe focuses on the work that Shipley did not only in growing the organization through sheer force of will, but also the very unusual institutional framework that he built.  At the outset, the Society was a majoritarian democracy – Shipley himself had no more tangible power than any other member.  Meetings were open to all members, and at those meetings important policies were made about the future of the Society.  Shipley gave the members almost complete responsibility, though ultimately some delegation and committee work developed once the Society became too large to be governed through large meetings that drew hundreds of members into packed spaces.

And the membership rolls were filled with many well known historical figures that will surprise readers.  Among the more prominent names you will recognize includes Ben Franklin, Adam Smith, Hogarth, Dickens, as well as a wide variety of slightly lesser known figures in British history.  What’s more the membership was widely open to both men and women throughout the history of the Society.  Women were allowed as members from the outset, which made the Society an outlier for that time.  The group provided a critical outlet for women to participate in civic and professional life when most other avenues were closed off to them.

The second part of the story involves the Society’s second major leader, Henry Cole, utilitarian disciple of Jeremy Bentham and force of nature.  He rapidly rose to become the head of the Society and eventually used the organization to help launch Britain’s famous Great Exhibition of 1851.  Howe describes Cole as an ambitious, scheming do-gooder who strove to raise his profile and influence while advancing specific goals in the arts, education, and other aspects of British life.  The idea of what goals were in the public’s best interest began to shift toward things Cole himself and his fellow utilitarians viewed as “good”.  Some of these involved “improving” the public’s taste for art and expanding the power of government in education, things we might now view skeptically. 

The third part of the story recounts Howe’s belief that the Society became more interested in its own glory by establishing connections to the famous and powerful throughout the world.  During the middle of the 20th century, he notes that the Society’s  leaders were increasingly drawn from members of the professional bureaucracy that developed in Britain after World War II, giving the Society an even more favorable outlook towards government and those in power. The Society has moved away from premiums paid for successful research promoting the public interest to awarding medals to famous individuals throughout the world, many of whom are politicians.  Whereas before the organization paid for inventors to solve legitimate problems, now it simply awards medals and prizes to people in order to raise the profile of the Society.

The book has obvious interests to historians. Those interested in public policy, particularly philanthropy, will be intrigued by the way the Society influenced Britain and affected many other European nations creating spin-offs elsewhere. In addition, this is an organization which for much of its existence skillfully aligned the interests of its members with that of “the public,” along with the work of innovators who would otherwise have had no outlet. It’s a marked departure of the model of grant giving we see so prevalent today.

For economists, this book will serve as yet another example of how much institutions change as their rules and practices change.  The early part of the book focused on the large, rowdy meetings in which groups of self-interested people tried to co-opt the Society and create prizes to serve their narrow goals is fascinating reading.  But there’s also a great lesson about how institutions that pursue non-market goals can effectively use self-interest, both intangible and tangible, to unleash a torrent of creativity and innovation over a period of several hundred years.  Howe is clearly conversant in economics and the history of economic thought, and his explanations for things like limited liability and the advantages of free trade are lucid and accessible to a wide audience.

It is clear the Society was a powerful force for change that had a positive impact in Britain and elsewhere.  Howe has written a very readable and interesting book on pursuing “the good” that will hopefully attract a wide readership.