(I had first written this essay to study Political Economy as a doctoral student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (KSG) and at other Ivy League universities including Princeton and Columbia.)
The study of political economy came to me as a combination of common sense and experience. I studied engineering as an undergraduate and politics and engineering as a graduate student. Between then and now I had opportunities to travel as a student, professional and private person and observe life through most of the developed world.
While contrasting my subconscious as an Indian by birth with my observations of the predominant paradigm of civilization in the contemporary world, what struck me repeatedly was the common yearning for order and desire to determine one’s own destiny both as individual human beings and as societies. It made me think not as much about the nature and distribution of power and wealth, as the study of politics and economics generally tend to do, but about the purposes of power and wealth and the principles that guide how they are wielded.
America is a country with a culture, built brick by brick, of ideals rooted in freedom and human dignity, which resonates equally with all cultures. The cement that binds the bricks together is civility. “In God We Trust” does not mean that Americans do not or should not trust in fellow human beings. The invisible hand of self-interest does not mean negligent inaction when a neighbor’s (however despicable) house is burning but enlightened self-interest to live and let live in freedom and dignity.
Competition does not mean innovating in the gamesmanship of block-and-tackle but cooperating on the principle of mutual betterment, not breeding mediocrity but fostering excellence; competition is generosity in victory and grace in defeat. Bottom lines do not mean that the people contributing to them are brushed aside when faced with an inconvenient statistic and profits are pursued at the cost of principle.
Presumed innocent does not mean being enveloped in suspicion until established guilty by whatever means. Truth is not a convenience but an imperative. The law is neither a weapon in the political arsenal nor a rulebook but a guidebook, the guide being a pointer to our natural common sense, conscience and compassion. The political debates that shape the law are not about personal peccadilloes and tit-for-tat tactics, and the tone, not of meanness, but about issues that affect the lives of Americans in a tone that seeks the wisest course of action in a collegial manner. Without these bedrock principles governing American lives, The United States would not have survived for over (226) 234 years as a nation and a Republic.
The United States is still wondering as a nation and as a people why September 11th happened. The suspension of disbelief has not been easy. Three precise geometric shapes, the first two, exalted odes to freedom and the third, their guardian, billowed smoke and spewed flames cremating unsuspecting innocent bodies in jet fuel. It felt as though the order of modernity was assaulted by postmodern angst and chaos arising, perhaps, from a perception of betrayal of implicit promises and hopes like mirages in endless desert sands. America could not be in the cross hairs, or so it thought but it continues to be.
America’s goodness lies above its wealth and perhaps was even its wellspring. Americans believe that they are good not because they are better but because they are free. They believe that freedom and goodness beget each other in a self-reinforcing cycle like one hand sketching the other in an Escher painting. Convinced of it they had set out to change the world. What went wrong ?
If freedom can be defined as the social environment within which a citizen of a nation can make informed choices about factors affecting his/her life, without fear or favor, while bearing social responsibility for his/her actions, it can be argued that both political freedom and economic freedom are like inseparable twins born of ideals that enable the creation of an institutional structure that engenders and nourishes such an environment.
A standard definition of economics as the study of allocation of scarce resources, though possessing in it rich theoretical and practical significance, seemed to be particularly sterilized without comprehensively considering the social and behavioral realities of why resources are scarce and who plays what roles in allocating them and why and how the processes of allocation are affected by how these questions are answered? Further, the study of the phenomenon of scarcity and the processes of allocation in economics assumes, for most part, a free society but does not necessarily delve into the processes of transition to a free society. Constrained freedom is the reality of the world, only varying in the degree of autocracy, whether that is the United States, United Kingdom, Russia or China.
Political and economic influences that political entities exert on each other have historical roots around the world. In this regard, today’s post-colonial post-cold war world is different only in the sense that the degree and the rate of these influences are significantly higher because of rapid advances in technology. In such a world the line between national interest and global interest and between national security and global security is fuzzy at best.
Though the end of colonialism and cold war has ended the ideological polarization of the world, it has, nevertheless, exposed the steep gradient of experience in the conduct of a free society. It has uncovered a large part of the world, spanning generations, psychologically haunted by colonial and cold war ghosts, that wants to be free but does not yet fully know how while vicariously experiencing the products of freedom.
Such a world raises serious concerns while presenting great opportunities and the challenge lies therein: how should the concerns be addressed to the satisfaction of all the stakeholders to reap the resulting benefits wisely by leveraging the opportunities? This, I believe, is also the central problem in the study of political economy in a global society.