Political economy

The term political economy originally meant the study of the conditions that determined the relative wealth or poverty of polities (e.g. nation-states). The term was first widely used in the 18th Century by philosophers such as the physiocrats and Adam Smith - in 1755 Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote a Discourse on Political Economy which begins with the derivation of the word economy from the Greek. There are those who use the term as being completely identical to economics, however, the most commonly quoted definition is from Webster's 3rd International Dictionary:

The branch of social science that deals with the production and distribution and consumption of goods and services and their management.

Political economy is, broadly speaking, concerned with all phases of human activity that involve production, exchange, consumption and disposal of the needs and wants of human beings, including the political ramifications of this activity, while economics is more specifically concerned with activity as it manifests in price movements, and sees other aspects of political economy as effects with respect to price.

Political economy is centrally focused on the development of the polity. It pays particular attention to whether the polity is running a surplus or a deficit, since in the view of political economy, any deficit must be met by selling assets, such as gold or other capital, to other polities - or by some form of borrowing or externalization.

Political economy, then, studies the mechanism of human activity in organizing material, and the mechanism of distributing the surplus or deficit that is the result of that activity. Note the difference betwen this paradigm and that of economics which sees human wants as unlimited and resources as generically scarce.

Table of contents
1 Central concepts of political economy
2 Disciplines which relate to political economy
3 General paradigms of political economy
4 The market
5 Current uses of the term political economy
6 External links

Central concepts of political economy

Political economy studies the means of production, specifically capital, and how this manifests itself in economic activity. Where as economics focuses on price, and sees production and consumption as "effects" on price - political economy sees economics as a manifestation of underlying reality which is effected by policy and law. The division into "value in use" and "value in exchange" makes a clear distinction between what would now be called "value" and "price" or "capital value" and "commodity value", in constrast to the denial of intrinsic values separate from prices in, for example, neoclassical economics.

In political economy labor is used to mean human activity which produces change, and capital the means by which the change from that labor is made greater. The results of labor are commodities which are exchanged, and consumed, which leads to the problem of disposal of the results of consumption.

Private exchange occurs in the market, and is based on a legal framework of possession and title, this is also called the private sector. Government exchange occurs through politics, and influences market decisions through policy. The government as a player in the market economy is called the public sector.

Political economy in its normative form focuses on the necessities of production, exchange, consumption and disposal, refered to as infrastructure. In its descriptive form it focuses on the classification and detailing of the workings of production, for example as in David Ricardo in [On the Principles of Political Economy]

Political economy, because it is concerned with a view of underlying reality is often required to be multi-disciplinary in its approach.


In political economy production refers to the use of labor, with the aid of capital, to create a determinate and recognizable thing which has use, or utility (see Utilitarianism). Studying the relationship of production is crucial to political economy, since economics only recognizes general demand, while production is often bottlenecked by specific resources, and political activity is often centered around securing of resources perceived to be creating a bottleneck.

Political economy views production as the central activity of a political economy, and views the labor available as the ultimate bottleneck for state activity. The polity must supply its needs from its available stock of labor, and thus must have sufficient capital available to allow that labor to be sufficient. Thus the basic equation of political economy may be phrased as:

Labor involves not only time in the abstract sense, but the realities of human beings, both as social and economic beings.

capital(labor) - investment - consumption = surplus/deficit

Capital is the function, into which is put labor. Investment is the amount spent developing the stock of capital, and consumption is the use of utility. A polity which has a surplus is then able to buy assets or capital from abroad, or increase investment or consumption. A polity where investment and consumption taken together are less than the production will run a deficit, and must borrow or sell assets to make up the difference.

The study of production then focuses on how capital interacts with labor, in the broad, rather than narrow sense. This is because labor must, to make use of capital have the necessary skills and social infrastructure. In Marxian terms, social infrastructure is refered to as consciousness and societies with sufficient social infrastructure to produce what they consume and control their own capital are said to have the "objective" basis for production.


Capital may be said to be any tool which increases the ability of labor to organize material into usable form. Physical Capital refers to tangible objects which, when employed, allow greater production. Intellectual Capital refers to concepts, ideas, designs, theories and information which allows an individual act with greater effectiveness. Physical capital implies an intellectual capital required to use it. Human capital can be described as the readiness of labor to use capital, and includes education, social norms, ethical understanding, networks of relationship and communication, health and general well being.

Capital can be for postive production, but, in political economic terms, weapons are also capital. States pursue political economy, in no small degree, to be able to produce the capital of projecting power and force. Often the projection of force is to acquire resources required for production, or the opening of labor to be utilized in production, or to open markets for the results of national production.


Labor and resources need to be able to get to capital, and commodities need to be moved to where they can be exchanged and consumed. This creates the need for transportation - of people, things and information.

The need to move labor and resources to within range of capital is seen in the creation of transportation grids, such as trains and roads. The need to coordinate production is seen in the creation of communication grids.


From the view of political economy, exchange is the process where the producers of commodity or investment exchange with consumers. Each producer is then a consumer, and each consumer is a producer. The market provides a mechanism for exchange, and money provides a medium of exchange. Consequently, the dynamics of monetary exchange are a central focus of much of political economy.

The infrastructure of exchange determines the possible range of market possibilities. Political economy views the long term of economic activity as the successive creation of political capital sufficient to manage the range of monetary exchange required by the society. In simple terms, the money is a commodity which a society produces, and in order to function, the money it produces must be capable of sustaining the market which the society uses. Adam Smith enumerates early in Wealth of Nations a list of requirements for the functioning of a market, which include stability of exchange and expected rates of profit in various enterprises.

The mechanisms of exchange are generally studied through a framework rooted in economics.


Consumption is the return of material organized by production back to a state of being unusable. Consumption is based on the utility of that which was consumed, and is the goal or purpose that people seek to attain.


Disposal is the least glamorous area of political economics, but in many respects the most vital. People produce waste. Waste, if allowed to accumulate, creates disease and other undesirable effects. Providing the infrastructure of removing that waste, or neutralizing its harmful effects, is a large fraction of the history of urban development. As Fiorella LaGuardia famously remarked "there is no Republican or Democratic way to collect the trash on time".

Sewage systems, garbage collection, clean air laws and recycling are all results of the need to dispose of after effects, and take up a significant fraction of the political life of most localities. On the scale of political economy, wastes produced often require more space or expertise than can be managed locally.

Disciplines which relate to political economy

Because political economy is not a unified discipline, there are a variety of studies that use the term which have overlapping subject mater, but radically different viewpoints.

Sociology is the study of the effects of involvment in society on individuals as members groups, and how this changes their ability to function. Many sociologists begin from a framework of production determining relationship drawn from Karl Marx.

Anthropology often studies political economy by studying the effects on individuals, their life styles, and patterns in human activity.

Psychology is frequently the fulcrum around which political economy centers, in that it deals with decision making, not as being a black box whose effects are seen only in price decisions, but as being a source of study, and therefore the assumptions in a model of political economy.

History since it documents change over time, is often used as a means of arguing in political economy, and often historical works have a framework of political economy which they assume or argue as the basis for the narrative structure.

Economics, because it studies activity and price relationships and the effects of scarcity, grew out of political economy. It is often used in political economy to argue policy effects and study the results of actions, and it is often in opposition to political economy, in that many, if not most, practicing economists see political economy as being a hinderence to the operation of economic forces. From the point of view of political economy, economics is a branch of the entire study, and economics has, at its basis, a theory of political economy which should be open to examination.

Law since it concerns the creation of policy, or the mediation of policy ends through political acts which have specific individual results, is seen, in political economy, as both political capital and social infrastructure, on one hand - and as the result of the sociology of a society on the other.

Ecology is often involved in political economy, because human activity is one of the single largest effects on the environment, and because it is the suitability of the environment for human beings which is one of the central concerns of most human beings. The ecological effects of economic activity on the environment have spured the creation of a great deal of research studying means of changing the incentives balance of the market economy. This work is particularly controversial in its interaction with economics, since it questions the fundamental econometric assumptions of market economics and their basic validity. See the commons.

General paradigms of political economy

Political economy has the paradigmatic assumptions of its practioners in greater visibility than many other fields. The two general areas of paradigmatic controversy, not to say endless and rigid ideological trench warfare in many cases, center on two major questions: the paradigm of distribution, and the paradigm of production. At the extremes they are related, however, there are a vast number of cases of individuals accepting almost diametrically opposite views on these two paradigms in the same context.

Paradigms of distribution

Societies produce more than isolated individuals, and labor with the aid of capital produces more than labor alone. Societies also generate more waste, and capital makes demands for investment and organization. The first can be refered to as the social surplus and capital surplus respectively, and the second social costs and capital requirments. One of the most important social costs is war. Indeed the difference between political economy and economics is that, in economics, war is a temporarily alteration in price variation, the old joke being that "World War III, should it come, will be noted in two sentences in the Wall Street Journal, with an article inside on its effect on soybean futures."

The paradigms of political economy may be classified based on their view of distributing the social costs and benefits, and the capital costs and benefits.

Libertarianism: Libertarianism denies that there is any significant difference between capital surplus and social surplus: all improvments to productivity are capital surplus and belong to the individual. Libertarianism contends that by paying for inputs, an individual has paid for the social cost of their activity, and that to avoid disutility, individuals will rationally trade effects of economic activity that are adverse. Libertarians, therefore, generally believe in an absolute standard of value, generally the gold standard. Libertarians point to John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith and Ralph Waldo Emerson as antecedants, and argue that they are merely continuing "classical liberalism". In the libertarian framework, since there is no social surplus, any attempt to distribute is, by definition "socialism" - that is, that economics is separate from the political sphere. (See laissez-faire)

Libertarianism's first major school of thought was the Austrian School of economists, and found expression in laissez-faire economics. Libertarians may be said to be economic and social extreme individualists. Important, or at least widely cited, thinkers in Libertarian thought include Ayn Rand, Hayek and Mises

Liberalism: Liberalism believes that capital surplus should acrue to the individual, but that social surplus and cost should be distributed as widely as feasible within the context of maintaining the individuals expectation to the surplus of their own efforts. Liberals therefore believe in state intervention in political economy to measure and distribute social costs and benefits. Many thinkers are, therefore, held in common between libertarianism and liberalism - since when the social surplus is perceived of as being low, or in particular areas, there is nothing to distribute. Liberalism traces its roots to Machiavelli and his views on the importance of state power in growth, and continues forward through humanism. Liberals also agree with Conservatives about the need to protect against the ill effects of social disorganization, even if the manner of doing so differs.

Liberalism sees the expansion of the rights of the individual in the philosophy of Rousseau and Jefferson as being the entitlement to a certain reasonable standard of life necessary to participate in society. From the pragmatic viewpoint, the necessity of human capital sufficient to engage in the full range of production.

Liberalism has been propounded by such thinkes as John Dewey, john Rawls, Isaiah Berlin economists such as John Maynard Keynes and educators such as Mortimer Adler.

Conservatism:Conservatism belives that capital surplus acrues to the individual, and that there is little or no social surplus, but that there are significant social costs, which must be distributed across the society. Examples of this include military service, standards of personal morality and charity.

Conservative thought became established in English philosophy with the work of Thomas Hobbes, but became a political doctrine with Edmund Burke. Conservatism in the modern period looks to libertarian economic thinkers, but toward the absolute need for social structure enforced by normative institutions such as religion and nationalism. Prominent modern schools of Conservative include the work of Leo Strauss in the USA

Socialism: Socialism believes that the ratio of capital surplus to social surplus is very low, that most of the surplus involved in human production is predictated on being a member of society, and therefore social control of the means of production, and the profits, should be distributed first to provide benefits to all members of a society.

Socialism evolved from critiques of human misery in the late 18th century such as the political philosopher Fourier. In the view of socialists, the market could never efficiently distribute the social surplus, and private ownership merely substituted one form of tyranny for another.

Communism: Communism believes that there is no difference betwen capital surplus and social surplus, but, in the reverse of the libertarian viewpoint, it believes that all surplus is socially created. The most prominent communist thinker was Karl Marx, who called himself a "scientific socialist". There is a long tradition of using the word "socialism" as a synonym for "communism".

Paradigms of production

Work is done, however, the ability of some individuals to create capital or perform work with a far greater impact on society than others creates the question of what basis production should be measured.

Individualism: Individualist paradigms state that the single person, with his or her will, desires and decisions is the basis of production, and that only individual accomplishment and happiness matter. Society is an instrument in so far as it produces individual happiness or utility.

Communitarianism:Communitarian paradigms state that it is the action of a group, with particular exceptional individuals, which produces. Communitarian thinkers work in concepts such as inter-subjectivity and the dynamics of group production. The individual, within a community, is considered to be the basic unit.

Collectivism: Collectivist paradigms state that it is impossible to show with any degree of precision what the contribution of an individual is, and all artifacts and accomplishments must be regarded as the result of a group effort.

These two questions, generally move in this same direction, however this is far from universally the case. It is entirely possible, for example, to take the stance of being an individualist, and then conclude that individuals will be happiest in a communist society.

The market

One of the central conflicts in political economy is, of course, the role and functioning of the market economy in society. It is here where the broad range of paradigmatic assumptions collide, and on particular issues, individuals and groups with widely differing views will find common intellectual and pratical political cause. In the political world, the fulcrum is on the ownership of capital surplus and production.

In the context of political economy, capitalism takes on a very broad meaning: the focus of the state on the maintaining and creating of capital and the means of its utilization. Many paradigms use the word in a much narrower context to mean private ownership and the self-justifying results of market operation, and deny that any other use of the word is appropriate, see Libertarianism. However, the vast majority of governing and major opposition parties in the industrialized world see the maintaining of capital capability as an area for legitimate state interest, and therefore maintain that government intervention the market to prevent its disintegration, and even to promote certain aspects of its advancement is a proper use of state power.

Socialism, viewed as a system of political economy, states that the forms of production on which labor is dependent to sell to should be maintained, or overseen, by political power, and generally state power. This brings socialism into conflict with many liberal ideologies, which believe that production for capital profit is best left in private hands. See Labour Party for further details of hybrids of market-socialism.

Communism sees the necessity control of all surplus generating activity. Communist parties have existed in most industrialized nations, and communist revolutionary movements are still seen in some nations today. Within the paradigm of communism there are a host of particular theories. Not all Marxian theories are communist, and not all communists are necessarily Marxian in their orientation.

Current uses of the term political economy

Today, the term political economy is used in various ways. It is most commonly used to refer to interdisciplinary studies that draw on economics, law, and political science in order to understand how political institutions and the political environment influence market behavior. Within political science, the term refers to liberal, realist, and Marxian theories concerning the relationship between economic and political power among states. This is also of concern to students of economic history and institutional economics; nevertheless, within economics the term is more closely associated with Game theory.

"International political economy" is a discipline that is concerned with international trade and finance, and state policies that affect international trade such as monetary and fiscal policy. Others, especially anthropologists, sociologists, and geographers, use "political economy" to refer to neo-Marxian approaches to development and underdevelopment set forth by Andre Gundar Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein.

One of the most studied areas in contemporary political economy is the question of globalization and its effects on nation-states, economies and societies.

See also: Honda Toshiaki

External links

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