19 January 2011
My Teaching: Political Economy
Last semester I taught a course entitled "Different Wealth of Nations." It took its name from Adam Smith's great work, but the word "different" suggested the course's twist on Smith's investigation. The course focused on two questions: One, why are there such tremendous disparities of wealth in different parts of the world today; and two, why did standards of living begin to increase so rapidly just when (around 1800) and where (Britain) they did?
Two of the courses I am teaching this semester, "Liberalism" and "Ethics and Politial Economy," have caused some students to ask me how they differ both from each other and from what was in DWN. Moreover, how do they relate to or differ from two other courses I have taught recently, namely "Capitalism and Morality" and "History and Philosophy of Economic Thought"?
There is a handful of themes that run through all these courses, including: By what criteria should we evaluate systems of politics and economics, and which are the best? What can the discipline of economics contribute toward our understanding of the good life? What have the great thinkers in political philosophy and economics believed, and what arguments have they adduced to support their beliefs? What institutions are required for peace, prosperity, freedom, justice?
All of these questions fall within the provenance of a field of inquiry called "political economy." That term is perhaps less familiar today than it was in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, in part because as the discipline of economics developed, especially during the twentieth century, it increasingly saw itself as a "positive"--that is to say, value-neutral or even value-free--discipline. That left the discussion of values--whether religious, moral, or cultural--to other disciplines, including in particular moral philosophy and political theory or political philosophy. So what was once a single discipline of political economy became two disciplines: moral or political philosophy, and economics.
In my view, the bifurcation of moral philosophy from economics was, and is, a mistake. Human beings are purposive creatures, so the study of their behavior must also take into account their purposes, which includes their religious, moral, and cultural ends. That is not to say that moral philosophy and economics do not have their separate methods and their distinctive approaches to understanding human behavior. But the division between them can be taken too far, which is partly why there is considerable mutual suspicion between practitioners of each discipline.
What I am interested in, and what I believe every economist and every moral philosopher should ultimately be interested in, is in discovering those institutions that are necessary for or that encourage human flourishing. What are the political and economic, the moral and religious, the social and cultural institutions that can enable human beings to live together in peace, to associate and create and prosper, and to construct lives of dignity, virtue, and happiness? To make some headway in this regard requires drawing on a number of disciplines: economics and moral philosophy to be sure, but also political theory, psychology, history, anthropology, cognitive science, even rhetoric, languages, and literature--in short, all the species of study that would, in Adam Smith's time, fallen under the single genus moral philosophy.
Back to my teaching. The courses I teach approach in their own way the discipline of moral philosophy, classically understood. I intend for them to complement one another, and indeed for them to form something of a coherent introduction into the field of political economy.
My hope, then, is that a student who has taken all of these courses will have completed a competent survey of the field of political ecnonomy. He will have some idea of what the great figures of the field have believed; he will have acquired some basic knowledge of human economic history, including some of the political, economic, and moral experiments that human beings have attempted; he will have a sense of the current lay of the scholarly land, as it were; he will have an understanding of the complexity of human life and human behavior, and the difficulties involved in trying to comprehend, predict, or affect it; and he will have developed some tentative judgments about what kinds of institutions encourage, and what kinds discourage, human prosperity.
I believe these questions are not only vexing but also among the most interesting we can explore today. But I also think there are few that are more urgently important or timely. That is why I have developed this circuit of courses in political economy, why I teach them, and why I welcome students to take as many of them as their busy schedules permit.