Rediscovering Political Economy

By Barnett, Timothy J. | Journal of Markets & Morality, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Rediscovering Political Economy


Barnett, Timothy J., Journal of Markets & Morality


Rediscovering Political Economy

Joseph Postell and Bradley C. S. Watson (Editors)

Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2011 (259 pages)

It is not easy to find a book on political economy that starts as well as this one does, with real insights on themes that matter. Unfortunately, the work does not progress as neatly as it begins. The problem is not the prose or concepts: both are impressive from start to finish. The issue is that ten scholars have written ten chapters that exist in some disconnect.

If one is looking for something like a potpourri of ideas related to the moral complexity of political economy, this book delivers a good experience, especially for those who enjoy historical observations. If, however, one seeks an integration of competing ideas (or at least some intriguing rational combat), one will not find much intellectual interplay between the chapters. Nonetheless, while each scholar's work stands alone, there are a few cross-pollinating dynamics.

The book rises from ten papers presented by notable economic thinkers at a conference cosponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the Center for Political and Economic Thought (at St. Vincent College, Latrobe, Pennsylvania). Allegedly, each essay aims to contribute something to the reuniting of economics with political and moral principles, especially in the context of the US Constitution. This is an admirable goal. Still, as the book's organizers point out, economics as a discipline has little capacity to adjudicate between competing presuppositions that underlie the political economy discourse. There is little in the text to suggest that such capacity has suddenly grown. Nonetheless, it is good that the conference participants have provided interested parties an opportunity to evaluate the observations, rationales, and assumptions that inform their endeavor to reseed the logic of moral principles into the field of political economy.

Robert Sirico, a cofounder of the Acton Institute in 1990, begins the book's first chapter by observing instability in the social order arising from a defense of liberty on the ground of efficiency rather than a legitimate normative basis. He argues that the management of a libertarian society without reference to morality will ultimately prove injurious to the liberty itself (4). While Sirico does not reference Theodore Roosevelt in this context, the idea calls to mind President Roosevelt's famous dictum that "sweeping attacks ... upon all men of means, without regard to whether they do well or ill, would sound the death knell of the Republic; and such attacks become inevitable if decent citizens permit rich men whose lives are corrupt and evil to domineer in swollen pride . over the destinies of this country."

Sirico then dissects political economy's torn sinews with the dexterity of a surgeon. He declares, "In any market, the kinds of goods and services producers provide reflect the values of the consuming public" (4). In other words, the free market model is not inherently good or evil: It is as good and wise as the minds and hearts of those who create market demand and consume the supply. Sirico continues, "That is both the virtue and the vice of the consumer sovereignty inherent in market transactions where the consumer is king. Where the values of the buying public are disordered, the products available in the market will be disordered as well" (4).

The argument to this point is splendid and the core ramification inescapable: Where cultural drift results in foolish consumer demand, an economy and polity will sink as a consequence. Casting Sirico's argument as a baseball game, two runners are now on base with no outs. Unfortunately, Sirico's batting line-up does not bring these particular runners home, at least in my reading. Instead of arguing that regulatory guardrails must be erected as a lesser evil when sobriety is no longer behind the wheel on the free-market highway of life, Sirico moves to a discussion of other matters such as rights versus privileges--useful corollaries but not the same thing as scoring the runners on base. …

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