Political Economy and Justice, 2017-2019

March 2022: The edited volume generated by this research theme is now available! You can find A Political Economy of Justice (University of Chicago Press) here and at your local book seller. 


Almost no one any longer defends “unregulated capitalism.” But what passed for communism has been tried and has failed; Europe has largely backed away from at least one vision of “socialism” as a model; and in the U.S. there is high frustration with government regulation even as there is high frustration with economic and political arrangements that have worked poorly for lower and middle income Americans over recent decades. Where is political economy to go, and how do decisions about political economy intersect with understandings of justice, legitimacy, human flourishing, ethics, and moral commitments?

Capitalism is not a “single-level system” consisting merely of property rights and markets but a “multi-level” system of economic governance involving economic markets that are embedded in institutions created and governed by political authority, accountable to political markets, resting on social norms, and instantiating specific values. Most public firms are hierarchical organizations with carefully structured decision rights and autocratic tendencies (stemming from espoused goals related to wealth maximization and related capital market and product-market performance metrics). As pressing as ever is the question of how principles of legitimacy and justice, of rights, liberties, and a just distribution of resources, can best be served through structured hierarchies of decision-makers set up to serve, primarily, capital market and product market constituencies. Can answers be found along this path?

At the same time, views under the general heading of “socialism” are attracting renewed interest from philosophers and the general public. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ideological development of China, socialist views are implemented in many versions around the world. Some philosophers have argued that much further-reaching versions than are currently implemented are both institutionally possible and even required to bring about true human flourishing. Others have argued that the cultural penetration of capitalism is the root cause of many social evils from terrorism to widespread loneliness in mass-societies. How should we assess these arguments? How do they relate to efforts to re-imagine capitalism or a mixed economy?

Because of the widespread sense that economic problems are connected to political problems, the issues of political economy and justice are also closely connected to the topic of democracy, as both a theoretical and practical question. With sharp divisions about what ought to be done—compare Trump supporters with Sanders supporters in the U.S.; Leavers to Remainers in the Brexit vote and so on—politics can look intractable, and current trends are ugly and dangerous in many ways.

Merely recognizing these facts does not answer the questions of whither political economy nor of how to define justice and legitimacy in relation to economic questions. Sustained, hard-hitting, multi-disciplinary conversation is necessary.

We expect that serious conversations about the intersections of political economy and justice will take up issues of human flourishing, ethics, and moral commitments; of democracy, system governance, and legitimacy; of corporate governance and legitimacy; of alienation and consumerism; of labor and quality of life; of social, political, and economic equality and opportunity; of inclusion and sustainability; of globalization, cosmopolitanism, and tribalism. We do not begin with a pre-conceived view about whether solutions lie in capitalism, socialism, or a mixed economy. Our goal for the next two years is to craft a conversation that will help us deepen our collective understanding of political economy and human well-being.