Course level: Undergraduate

Spring 2020
American University of Paris

This course serves as a capstone for the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Major by showing how the three disciplines interact in the analysis of common topics. For this semester’s version of the course, we have chosen to concentrate on the large themes of property, socio-economic systems, and distributional outcomes. Each professor will cover a session on each theme, followed by a team-taught session that ties this material to contemporary concerns.

The course starts by highlighting different perspectives of philosophers, economists, and political scientists in contemporary disputes over property, public utilities versus the free market, and the rise of inequality in distributive outcomes.

Once we have all understood the disciplinary perspectives to be employed, the substantive questions begin. The first part of the course focuses on property. Philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau have argued that the establishment of property constitutes the origin of civil society. We will engage with Rousseau’s provocative claims that the institutionalization of property is based on an unfair social contract and engenders unauthentic forms of life. From the economic point of view, we need to be able to trace the property of an individual to its possible origins. We need to be able to explain the socio-economic relations which could give rise to the possession and acquisition of the property they hold. Is property a legal, political, social, or economic reality?. Then we will study how the corporation, as the key institution of capitalism, fits into liberal theories of the economy and politics—or rather, why it does not fit very well, and what the implications are. The discussion of property concludes with a collective discussion of Hernando De Soto’s influential The Mystery of Capital

In the second part of the course, we look at how particular forms of property correspond to particular socio-economic systems. Through a reading of John Rawls we will examine his structural conception of justice as fairness, which conceives modern society as a fair system of cooperation and is derived from a hypothetical social contract among free and equal citizens. We will pay special attention to Rawls’ argumentation that the welfare state could not realize his liberal-egalitarian principles of justice, whereas the socio-economic system which James Meade called “property-owning democracy” could. We will then look at Marx’s theory of the functioning of the capitalist system and of its impending doom, then examine how Keynes, in the 20th century, sought to salvage capitalism by giving an augmented regulatory and balancing role within it to the government. Reviewing recent scholarship on the rise and decline of states, we will try to link socio-economic systems to political variables and how these affect the emergence and the functioning of different forms of political economy. In the team-taught session, we use Wolfgang Streeck’s How will capitalism end? to assess the nature of capitalism today.

In the third part of the course, we will examine how the relationship between property and socio-economic systems determines the nature of distributional outcomes in the contemporary world. The question is one of accounting for national and international inequalities, and analyzing their origins and consequences. This involves trying to identify the economic and political factors that shape inequalities, as well as a normative discussion of the distributional outcomes. We’ll look at Martha Nussbaum’s critique of procedural understandings of justice that view distributive outcomes as just if they reflect individuals’ contributions to social cooperation as well as engage with her purely outcome-oriented conception of justice that is concerned about those who may not be able to contribute economically. We will then examine Malthus’ very influential justification of inequality contained in hisEssay on the Principle of Population. In the final collective session of the course, we use the arguments and material we have developed to help us judge the contemporary debate over inequality, reading excerpts from Branko Milanovic’s recent survey, Global Inequality.

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