For the longest time, social innovation was available only to elites, who controlled governments and thereby decided which individuals could formally organize, on what terms, and toward what ends. The many benefits of formal association—of, say, chartering a corporation—not surprisingly flowed to them.

Only in a number of countries relatively recently, sometime during the 19th century, did the tools and benefits of formal organization become available in principle to all, on a more democratic, impersonal basis. When they did, “open access” social orders began to emerge in tandem with political democracy and greater economic dynamism.

That is the sweeping thesis behind Organizations, Civil Society, and the Roots of Development, a collection of essays edited by two of the best economic historians in the academy, Naomi R. Lamoreaux, and John Joseph Wallis. This book brings together an unusually diverse cast consisting of historians, economists, political scientists, sociologists, and a political theorist. The animating spirit of the volume is an earlier effort, coauthored by Wallis, Douglass C. North, and Barry R. Weingast.

You can agree with North, Wallis, and Weingast’s original thesis; disagree; or—like me—fall somewhere in between, and still benefit from reading Organizations, Civil Society, and the Roots of Development.

Read more about Organizations, Civil Society, and the Roots of Development by Jonathan Levy at Stanford Social Innovation Review