How to Talk: Richard Whately, The Constitutional Conversation, Informal Social Groups, and Reform

Nathanael David Snow

Major Professor: David M Levy, PhD, Department of Economics

Committee Members: Peter J Boettke, Richard E Wagner

Buchanan Hall (formerly Mason Hall), #D180
July 15, 2019, 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM


This thesis describes the rules of conversation as described by Richard Whately and the consequences of following or breaking those rules. Every organization, formal or informal, keeps a set of rules, a social contract. The social contract is the outcome of a conversation among those who have an interest in the organization. However, the conversation itself must be governed by rules. The rules of conversation are partially determinative of the constitution that emerges from the constitutional stage. Whately provides instruction on how to talk.

In informal settings, rules for social interaction emerge, just as price emerges in a market. Informal social groups develop a tacit social contract embodied in a repertoire. Informal social groups lack an authorized decision maker, so they have difficulty engaging in exchanges as a unit. Formal associations may emerge from an informal social group, like firms emerging in the market, with local decision makers authorized to engage in exchanges. Formal associations may pursue social profits or social rents, analogous to a market firm. Informal factions may also develop within an informal social group. Factions may simply be specialized sub-groups, or they may adopt party-spirit that demonstrates antipathy to outsiders.

Evangelicalism developed as an informal social group with a shared religious repertoire. In Britain, evangelicalism formalized about William Wilberforce, who channeled the group repertoire toward a grand exchange, the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. American evangelicals could not agree, and fell into party-spirited factions. Emancipation in America was achieved through the Civil War.