NEA Presidential Address: Political Economy, Race, and Morals
Review of Black Political Economy, Summer 1989
11 Pages Posted: 11 Dec 2013
Date Written: 1989
Long before economics acquired the apt designation as the dismal science, it was known as political economy. Its muses, though, were not known as political economists. Instead, they often responded to titles like "moral philosopher" and "professor of theology and jurisprudence." For example, you might recall that the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, was a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow when he penned his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
Morality in the context of the heirs to political economy often referred to issues of the public good. The focus repeatedly was upon the role of government and the state in the regulation of private affairs. The private affairs of dominant concern to these early writers were not those that evoke passionate discourse among moralists today. Church going behavior, reproductive choices, use of drugs, and crime were not the core elements of discourse in political economy. Yet, in a manner, discussions that appear at best on the boarders of such conventional economic phenomena as prices, markets, trade and wealth, are very much in the early tradition of political economy. Thus, Jeremy Bentham, an early precursor to modern utility theory which underlies much of contemporary studies of consumer demand, expounded at length on crime and criminal policy.
Adam Smith, moreover, devoted considerable attention in his famous lectures on jurisprudence to the role and financing of police and the militia. The theme of this paper is partially about morality in this classical political economy sense. On several aspects of public policy formation affecting blacks in America, private decisions come into conflict with public goals. The examples that emerge are notable ones of government regulation of private affairs where there are substantial public consequences: family disruption, crime and drugs. But the intention is not to reconstruct Milton Friedman's line of reasoning in Capitalism and Freedom or his more recent Free to Choose. Nor is the intent to rant and rave about the horrible consequences for blacks and their communities of the break-up of the nuclear family, the rise of drugs and the escalation of crime and thus a call for government intrusion. Instead, the intention is to raise the question of how the appeal to morals and morality in public policy discussions often hinders the development of effective and rational policies.
Keywords: NEA Political Address, race, morality
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