Political economy: Back to the Future

Some of you may be wondering about the name of my department at the College of Idaho. We do not have a political science department like most schools. Our decision to teach political economy is based upon the history of the discipline and how best to study the social phenomena of our world. We believe our approach is the best method to help our students understand how individuals relate to each other in the public realm.

Our department is not merely two majors, political science and economics, administratively combined in one department. We have tried to return to how society was studied more than two centuries ago. Modern thinkers like Adam Smith and John Locke were referred to as political economists: individuals who understood the intricate relationship between economics and politics. This view of the discipline extended through the 19th Century with Marx, Mill and Tocqueville until the advent of the modern American university system. This system, beginning in the early 20th century, included a push for specialization that led to a separation of the study of political economy into two distinct disciplines. This artificial separation is illogical and contrary to the interests of students.

After much discussion and soul searching, the members of the department arrived at the following definition of political economy:

Political economy is a social science that analyzes political and economic policies and processes, their interrelations, and their influence. Political economy recognizes the importance of norms, values, and policies in shaping the behavior of individuals, groups, and social institutions. Political economy includes the analysis of actual policies as determined by political-economic mechanisms and how these mechanisms reflect the relative distribution of power in society.

In general, we try to show students how the market affects the workings of governmental institutions and how that government, in turn, influences decisions made by individuals, groups and corporations in the market.

The bottom line is that one cannot understand a political system without an understanding of the economy within which it operates and, conversely, one cannot understand the economic system of a society without understanding the political system. The analogy I like to use is of a telephone conversation. Studying just politics or just economics is like listening to one side of a phone conversation. You will probably figure out roughly the overall tone of the discussion but you will not know the nuances of what is being said. Studying political economy is hearing the whole conversation of how a society works.

Young people I have encountered wish to understand the social system in which they live. An artificial demarcation does not suit their desires for learning or a career. We have found that majors that concentrate more on domestic versus international systems, though still rather arbitrary, are more in line with what will best serve our students.

The College of Idaho’s Department of Political Economy is unique in its approach to the study of political and economic phenomenon, especially at the undergraduate level. Our approach is not new; it is merely going “Back to the Future.”

Go Yotes.

Dr. Jasper M. LiCalzi
Department of Political Economy
The College of Idaho

Political Economy

This kinda brings up the question that I'm sure all liberal arts colleges deal with in various ways: to what extent should extra-topical classes be required for any given major? I mean, we have GGRs and classes that are required for graduation, but I wonder if that's enough. I'm of the opinion that at least one sociology class should be required for any Political Economy major, because it is integral to having a greater understanding of politics. Perhaps an anthropology class should be required for History majors. There are all kinds of options. But then, there is the problem that that may be too restrictive. What is a major for if not specialization?