Academic journal article Global Virtue Ethics Review

Balanced Ethical Perspective to State and Local Economic Development Policies

Academic journal article Global Virtue Ethics Review

Balanced Ethical Perspective to State and Local Economic Development Policies

Article excerpt


Economic development has become a major policy challenge for state and local governments in the United States for the past two decades. Many studies evaluate these policies from the perspective of political economy but few examine the topic from a balanced ethical perspective. This paper applies natural law theories to evaluate state and local economic development policies and in the process emphasizes the principles of life, friendship, knowledge, beauty, playfulness, and justice. It also stresses the importance of social deliberation in resolving value conflicts in the policymaking process.


In the new global economy where capital is internationally mobile and localities face stronger competitive pressure daily, economic development is a hard challenge for state and local governments especially over the past two decades (Clarke and Gaile, 1998; Eisinger, 1995). From the emphasis of using tax incentives in the 1980s to the recent emphasis on long-term growth and infrastructure needs, state and local governments created many tools to attract new investment, secure job opportunities, and increase labor productivity.

Although common today, regarding income and job growth as the ultimate goals of economic development is a very limited view. As early as in the 1960s, economists who studied developing countries pointed out that "economic development" should be more than economic growth and should include concerns of social development, such as education and public health (Black, 1966: pp. 55-60; Meier, 1984: pp. 5-6.) Following this tradition, this paper defines "economic development" more broadly as a process of creating and managing economic growth with the objective of enhancing residents' quality of living and providing support for the pursuit of human values.

Investment and jobs are only tools to reach those broader ends of economic development. Economic growth is not necessarily "development" if it produces changes that hinder human progress and pursuit of social well being. Therefore, economic development is not simply industrial development or an increase in business investment. It is also a quest for the "good" of society. Both quantitative and qualitative concerns of economic growth are equally important. Before asking, "How to create faster growth?" policymakers need to ask, "What should we accomplish with growth and what progress will it bring to our society?"

Since a discussion of "What is good?" is a value question, economic development inevitably involves ethical considerations. Ethics should therefore be the primary theoretical and even political foundation for economic development and in fact almost all government decisions. Such emphasis on the relationship between ethics and policymaking and public administration is not new. For instance, the "new public administration" in the 1960s advocated that public administrators should encourage public participation and protect the interests of the minority and the disadvantaged (Marini, 1971). Ethical principles, such as benevolence, efficiency, fairness, justice, and responsiveness to clients, are often advocated as policy and administrative guidelines for the government (Denhardt, 1991; Worthley and Grumet, 1983).

There are diverse philosophical foundations for ethical principles in public administration and policymaking (Denhardt, 1991, p. 91; Rohr, 1990, p. 97). Using state and local economic development policies as the focus, this paper suggests that we should apply natural law philosophy to guide ethical decisions in policymaking. By natural law, I mean an ethical approach believing that there are inherent ethical principles in nature that should guide our decision-making. Theories of natural law assert that these fundamental principles are important to human well being and societies should therefore follow these principles in their pursuits.

From the classical work of political philosophers, many people believed that natural law philosophy is theologically based and therefore is less applicable to today's pluralistic society. …

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