Political Economy: To What End?
Essays Politics Toward a Just Political Economy

Political Economy: To What End?

Bradley Davis
Bradley Davis

Editor's Note: This is the introductory essay for our print symposium available here.

This collection of essays examines happiness and flourishing in individual and communal life. Such an endeavor requires understanding what these concepts are, how institutions develop them, and what goods are necessary to secure them. In short, to live a good life, one must create a healthy political economy—a market that allows for justice and does not produce injustice. In turn, such a development requires knowing what political economy is—or, rephrased, understanding what purpose it serves and how it achieves it.

As will be seen throughout this collection, there are as many ways to understand justice as there are means for attaining it. So, it is important to ground an understanding of how to approach questions such as: What do our lives aim for? What is the primary, and secondary, purpose of an economy? How can these purposes be reconciled with a plurality of ends or an ultimate end in human life?
For this, I think it will be fruitful to first turn to Aristotle.

If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate this process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what we should? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object (Nicomachean Ethics, 1094, Trans. Ross and Urmson).

Why a Just Political Economy?

In its own way, each essay in this collection interrogates the ends of social, political, and economic sciences. On the one hand, this seems obvious: to understand and evaluate a system is to examine its purpose and efficacy in fulfilling it. Yet this is an approach that rarely appears in discourse surrounding the economy. Perhaps this is because a (seemingly) natural answer exists for the purpose of economic activity—the economy serves to produce goods and develop wealth. A more refined formulation may be that a well-functioning economy produces growth, in turn providing greater opportunity for further economic activity. Both explanations beg the question, they mistake function for teleology. Production with an aim of infinite progress does not have an end in sight, it is a justification of existence based upon an assumption of necessity.

Of course, survival is predicated upon the consumption of certain goods, and trade makes possession of such goods much easier. Efficient trade lowers the cost of survival. To illustrate my point, let’s look at the nature and form of a market. In a certain type of primitive economy, the market is a physical space wherein farmers, ranchers, cobblers, haberdashers, and other producers gather to exchange goods. At some regular interval, people gather to purchase what they want and need while selling their surplus. This is a fundamentally communal activity that brings about all sorts of relationships and interactions—think of the cultural importance of the Athenian agora.

As communities grow wealthier and develop more advanced markets, or find more advanced markets imposed on them, the balance of wants-to-needs shifts and a greater complexity emerges as to which markets one seeks out for the best or cheapest goods. At some point, an economy develops sufficient complexity that one can shop the market for financial institutions to find the best credit card to use at Amazon, Best Buy, or some other electronics market to purchase a smartphone on which one can browse an app market to find some digital widget that very likely has its own market of micro-transactions. Clearly, we are no longer dealing with an economy primarily concerned with necessities for survival. Except, oftentimes a new computer, a car, or a suit are necessary for employment, sought for further opportunity to consume. We can no longer point to where the market actually exists—where its limits are or are not. Our world has so many different, integrated, overlapping, and divergent markets that it becomes difficult to determine what we are consuming let alone why we are consuming. At this point, the market seems to be a hypostatization of how companies are abstractly represented and traded based on their abstract production and trade, with middlemen at every point of transaction.

This need not be a bad thing and I trust that economics as a discipline has a much better idea of how to structure various markets than I do. Yet, I maintain that growth—or the sophistic abstraction of “economic prosperity”—cannot be an end, let alone a compelling one. Movement or change only serve to turn one state of being into another; perhaps trite, but growth is a means not an end.

When I first sought pitches for this collection, I was a little fearful that I set the scope of debate too narrow: the phrase “toward a just political economy” holds presuppositions that inherently characterizes any response. The first I have dodged in the brief discussion above. To discuss political economy is different than to discuss economics itself. This assumes, I think reasonably, that economic activity is inseparable from the political community in which it occurs. In a narrow sense of politics, governments set rules and levy taxes on exchange; in a broader sense, any exchange occurs within a complex web of human relations and norms. In American politics, discussion of industrial policy, tariffs, and the like represent the narrow perspective of political economy. Yet, as will be discussed in essays on milletism, labor unions, and more, the way we organize our communities impacts the type of economic activity that can occur. Further essays demonstrate how types of economic activity enhance or warp our communities—indeed, our individual identity and character. A more subtle assumption, that will be evinced throughout this collection, is that a healthy society subordinates economic activity to political community. A “good” economy is thereby one that seeks human flourishing as its end.

How is this to be achieved, or how can an economy develop a “good” political community? The criterion I set forth to our contributors is a misleadingly complex one: the union of political economy ought to be, and produce, justice. This proved a good challenge for the contributors to this collection, as each, coming from different faith traditions, ideological perspectives, and other frames of reference, seems to hold a radically different concept of what justice looks like. When asked on a couple of occasions what I meant by a just political economy, I demurred. Certainly, there is a cultural zeitgeist that concerns itself with justice; justice seems to be a building block of healthy community; and—like “market”—justice is sufficiently ambiguous to provide ample room for disagreement in an essay collection. Still, in all its forms, justice is concerned with how interpersonal relationships can be mutually beneficial. This is as good a first step as any in trying to understand how one ought to exchange. But this is an unsatisfactory answer.

Is Justice Profitable?

For any reader who demands I explain “What is justice?” and “Why does it serve to profit an individual or community?,” I again demur. Instead of providing my own definition, I encourage you to consult the authoritative text on avoiding an answer to these questions: Plato’s Republic. Whether one holds that justice is giving to each what they’re owed, helping friends and harming enemies, or advantaging the stronger (sophist or philosopher), it is generally agreeable that injustice corrupts the individual and political community. What Socrates does demonstrate, however, is twofold. First, we can only come to know justice through its discussion, seeing what amplifies or distorts it and laying competing conceptions out to develop a clearer image of what a just political economy may be. Secondly, Socrates points to the root of injustice as the desire to grow wealth for its own sake.
To explore justice, Socrates lays out the best vision he can of an ideal, healthy, true city (discussion tracks Republic 369 and following). The foundation of this city, indeed any, comes about because man is not self-sufficient but is in need of much—thus, any settlement is a cooperation of partners with mutual interests. With this city-in-speech, Socrates lays out a clear division of labor with every citizen producing a good for their own sake and for others. Exchange of goods is the city’s foundation and raison d’ėtre, so efficiency is encouraged for the sake of wellbeing. For a brief homeostatic moment, the city is healthy as needs are met and citizens can thrive. But, no community will have all of the goods or resources it needs: there is only so much wood, oil, or fecund soil in any locale. As such, trade is necessary between cities and, as a matter of prudence and efficiency, a merchant is necessary to facilitate the exchange. This role is odd, as it is perhaps the most important in any city—survival, let alone flourishing, is limited by access to external resources—but is wholly dependent on the community. An intermediary, by nature, does not himself produce anything. As this humble economy grows, currency quickly becomes important as a means to facilitate import/export. Thus, we have the first abstraction of both production and commodity.

Thus, we see the following context and economic roles emerge in discussion between Socrates and Glaucon:

“If the farmer or any other craftsman brings what he has produced to the market, and he doesn’t arrive at the same time as those who need what he has to exchange, will he sit in the market idle, his craft unattended?”
“Not at all,” [Glaucon] said. “There are men who see this situation and set themselves to this service; in rightly governed cities they are usually those whose bodies are weakest and are useless for doing any other job. They must stay there in the market and exchange things for money with those who need to sell something and exchange, for money again, with all those who need to buy something.”
“This need, then, produces tradesmen in our city,” I said. “Don’t we call tradesmen those men who are set up in the market to serve in buying and selling, and merchants those who wander among the cities?”
“Most certainly.”
“There are, I suppose, still some other servants who, in terms of their minds, wouldn’t be quite up to the level of partnership, but whose bodies are strong enough for labor. They sell the use of their strength and, because they call their price a wage, they are, I suppose, called wage earners, aren’t they?. . . So the wage earners too, as it seems, go to fill out the city.”
(371, trans. Bloom)

At this point, the city-in-speech has a fairly well-developed economy that fulfills all of the needs of its citizens. But, it is a boring society insofar as it does not have luxuries to enjoy. It is through this initial consumptive desire that feverish injustice enters into the city by way of salt and sofas. There is plenty of scholarship, Platonic and sociological, examining the nature of this encroaching fever. But, careful reading shows that the appetite was produced in the scene above where the producers, merchants, and servants offer their labor to the city. The tradesmen offer an abstracted resource, access to trade for real resources. This access and the exchange between tradesmen leads to a commensurate increase in profit—a benefit extends to all wage owners who offer valuable services. This abstract wealth, which does not require an intermediary to acquire necessities or luxuries, is inherently more valuable than the real goods it abstracts.

Injustice emerges from our humble city twofold: by currency and by the cutting of communal ties. Currency causes problems insofar as it is more disposed than necessary goods toward trade for luxury goods. That is, a tradesman can more easily acquire luxury through money than a farmer can with wheat—on average, there are fewer exchanges necessary bringing subsequent cost savings with currency and it is easier to transport for exchange. As such, payment through currency is generally more desirable than through exchange of goods. More importantly, wage earners are no longer dependent on the political community for survival. They can trade among themselves or in any other community they desire. The relationship between wage earner and the healthy city turns from symbiotic to parasitic; they are no longer partners. From this severance draws conflict within each city, war between cities, and numerous gluttonies.

Emphatically, tradesmen and service workers are essential for the wellbeing of a political community. But injustice emerges in the moment when they stop being partners to the city or tied to the political community. It would be senseless and harmful to destroy the broader financial industry or any of the countless servile-managerial roles—contemporary and complicated analogues—in our economy. These sectors exist necessarily and will reemerge. The challenge is reconnecting their end to the city’s, making political-economic justice their purpose, not a ceaseless accumulation of wealth and luxury.

Where Do We Turn?

This collection is a humble attempt to reorient the economic to the political, reexamining our relationships that they might more closely correspond with justice and human flourishing. A significant, though not exclusive, majority considers this reorientation from a theological or religious perspective. This approach has some novelty in contemporary discourse and may seem strange, but comes from two concrete requirements for political-economic revitalization: there must be values to act in accordance with and there must be individuals willing to act in accordance with values. As has been discussed, economic machinery does not have a telos and, as such, does not have values that can stand outside of the economy. Growth and consumption only make sense as an imperative in the midst of economic activity.

A consequence of the economic sphere’s outsized influence on the contemporary socio-political sphere is that values countries and communities once held dear have eroded and been replaced with an ethical façade that obscures the more egregious elements of commercial-materialistic culture. It is not by coincidence that the more pernicious corporations seek to dominate electoral politics and policymaking or promote their brands under the auspices of a shallow appreciation for social justice or moral awareness. Instead, contrary values must be found beyond looming political-economic concerns. Religion most clearly offers moral frameworks of a sort that hold truth to be eternal and justice to be imperative. The perspective religion offers, looking from outside—and from above—the city will help in understanding how to better political-economic life within the city.

It may also come as a surprise to unfamiliar readers that each religious tradition examined in this collection has a thorough and extensive literature examining the role of economics in human life. In an insightful harmony, there is a great deal of agreement—particularly among the Abrahamic faiths—as to how trade and wealth can be directed toward the common good. One of my greatest hopes for this collection is to rekindle interest in the fruits of historic inter-religious thought, particularly the under appreciated treasures of the medieval period.

The other reason for such an emphasis on faith communities in this collection is that they are especially robust, having maintained traditions, values, and shared community for millenia. Having maintained more rigorous concepts of justice, and working to promote such values, religious communities are already disposed to promote the type of political-economic change necessary. Sowing the seeds of change in the microscopic, we hope that the fruits of our labor may be borne for the macroscopic: encouraging a movement toward just political economy in society-at-large. The subsequent essay, which helped demonstrate the need for this collection, builds on this theme at length.


This endeavor is a quixotic attempt to better our communities, and it is an insufficient one. There is much more to be written on the subject, many more books to read, and many more political-economic concerns and instances of injustice to interrogate. But I believe it is of the utmost importance to speak for justice whenever possible, by whatever limited means possible. I am under no illusion that we have solved the problems at hand or that our ideas will quickly be implemented as policy. But we are earnestly working toward a just political economy—the realization of which I pray comes someday soon.

For those intent to listen and read, this is just the beginning of a dialogue that must continue—one that will necessarily continue so long as humanity interacts and exchanges with one another, yearning for the Good.

Featured image: Slovenščina: Sokrat z učencem in Diotimo painting (1818) by Franz Caucig via Wikimedia Commons.

Bradley M. Davis is Editor-in-Chief of Athwart.