In this post I briefly introduce five online courses in the area of philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) that give you a strong foundation to critically reflect on the morality of markets:
This post was last updated in January 2020, when a new course was added.
“What is economics for? What is it about? How should it be done? How can it be of use to us? How is it connected to morals and politics? These are the core questions economic historian Lord Robert Skidelsky will answer in this new lecture series for INET. Expanding an understanding of economics beyond mathematical models, Skidelsky covers topics essential to using economics to better understand the world, such as economics and history, the role of psychology and sociology in economics, and the role of methodology.”
The course How and How Not to Do Economics consists of lectures on the following topics:
- What is economics about?
- Unlimited wants, limited resources
- Economic growth
- Is economics a science?
- Models and laws
- Psychology and economics
- How can sociology help economics?
- Economics and power
- History of economic thought
- Economic history
- Ethics & economics
For each lecture, there is also a recording of a discussion with students on the topic. Furthermore, the History of Economic Thought Website has created a supporting page of resources for those who wish to dig deeper into the references made in the lectures.
How and How Not to Do Economics was created in September 2019 by the Institute for New Economic Thinking, an association of heterodox economists. The lectures are given by Robert Skidelsky, a professor at the department of economics of the University of Warwick who specializes in economic history. He is among others the author of the books Keynes: The Return of the Master (2009), How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life (2012) and Are Markets Moral? (2015).
If you have an interest in moral markets but no background at all in economics, this course – taught by lecturers from Duke University (USA) – is the perfect place to start. According to the course website it serves three distinct purposes:
- The course is an introduction to economics for non-majors. It is a self-contained and non-technical overview of the intellectual history of political economy.
- It introduces the notion of a political economy, emphasizing the moral and ethical problems that markets solve, and fail to solve.
- It is a bridge to more advanced courses in political philosophy, politics, and economics for the student who wants to sample these disciplines without committing to several semesters of coursework.“
After the introductory lecture by course coordinator prof. Michael Munger (to be found at the top of this post) the following topics are being discussed:
- exchange, specialization and institutions (lecture 2);
- property (lecture 3);
- production and division of labor (lecture 4);
- entrepreneurship (lectures 5 and 6);
- prices, just prices and opportunity costs (lecture 7);
- money and banks (lecture 8);
- bitcoins, cryptocurrency and the future of money (lecture 9);
- the problem of voluntary exchange & the origins of markets (lecture 10);
- the paradigm of public choice (lecture 11);
- the basics of political choice – preferences (lecture 12) and politics (lecture 13);
- political choice in multiple dimensions (lecture 14);
- the impossibility problem of political choice (lecture 15);
- market failure: information, monopoly and rent-seeking (lecture 16);
- the theory of the firm: pirates (lecture 17).
For each topic you get a video by a different lecturer, plus some suggested readings. It is a self-paced and free course, without assignments (but of course also without the opportunity to test your mastery and earn a certificate).
If after this first course you want to develop your economic knowledge and skills further, the course ‘Introduction to Economics Theories’ from Erasmus University Rotterdam (the Netherlands) is a good choice. It is an updated and renewed version of a course that was previously titled ‘Economics from a Pluralist Perspective’ – and that is still the angle taken. Economic pluralism means that a plurality of theoretical and methodological viewpoints is regarded as valuable in itself“, say the teachers of this course, “and is simply the best way in which economics can make progress in understanding the world.”
The dominant paradigm in the discipline is Neoclassical Economics, but according to the creators of this course that is only sufficient “for the special case of ideally functioning markets.” This course teaches you what the alternatives are, namely:
This pluralist approach “will provide you with policy alternatives to neoliberalist policies promoting free markets.” I would have preferred it if she referred to neoliberalism as promoting completely unregulated markets, as one can be against that without denying the moral and economic need for some form or degree of free markets. However, the relevance of the course – to both proponents and opponents of free and/or unregulated markets – is clear.
For whom is this course meant? To quote the course description again, for those people who:
- “are curious about their economy, who want to have a better understanding of markets, the economic roles of the state, and how communities create economic value.
- “look for solid arguments for economic policy alternatives to free market-oriented policies”
- “are dissatisfied with their standard training in economics and would like to learn about different economic theories than the dominant one, called neoclassical economics.”
For this course you can, if you pay a small fee and successfully complete the assignments, earn a Coursera certificate. There is no introductory video, but this is the main lecturer giving a talk on the topic:
Once the previous two courses have given you a firm basis in economics, you might be interested to learn more about the connection of economic theory to politics through this third course, created by the University of Nottingham (UK). “How does economics impact on politicians? And how do politicians impact on economics?“, the course website asks, and promises to “explore these links by looking at the work of major political figures and the key economic ideas they adopted.” After discussing the scope and methods of economics, the following politicians are said to be discussed:
- Alexander Hamilton (USA) and the role of state in the economy
- Sir Robert Peel (UK) and free trade
- The Meiji Emperor (Japan) and industrialisation
- Franklin D. Roosevelt (USA) and demand management
- Ludwig Erhard (Germany) and supply side economics
- Margaret Thatcher (UK), monetarism and rolling back the state
- Deng Xiaoping (China), growth, development and convergence
“The economic policies and practices of these former leaders are still having an impact on our world today“, says the course description. The view that they had on the shape and role of markets, ranging from neo-liberalism (Margaret Thatcher) to a social market ideology (Deng Xiaoping) is also still of interest.
What will you do and achieve during this course? Among others the following, according to its creators:
- Investigate policy making in an historical context
Too bad that it is not clear when the course will start again. Here is the promotion video for this course:
When we think about the role and shape that the market should have, immediately questions about the role and shape of the state also arise. The politicians discussed in the third course have of course not only been influenced by economic theories, but also by philosophical ideas – including ideas about government and the state. These ideas and questions are central to this introductory course in political philosophy (see the course website):
- “What is the purpose of government?
- Why should we have a State?
- What kind of State should we have?”
In discussing these questions, this course pays attention to a range of influential thinkers / philosophers, such as “Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Mary Wollstonecraft, and John Stuart Mill; and more contemporary theorists such as Elizabeth Anderson, Isaiah Berlin, Thomas Christiano, Frantz Fanon, Amy Gutmann, Friedrich Hayek, Robert Nozick, Martha Nussbaum, Julius Nyerere, Ayn Rand, John Rawls, Peter Singer, and Kok-Chor Tan.” Each course week one of the values of utility, justice, equality and freedom is put central. While the course title speaks of utility, the course material refers to ‘happiness’ – indicating that it is not or not only the narrow economic conception of utility that is being discussed, but rather happiness more generally.
There is a follow-up course that is less relevant if you are interested in markets and morality, as it focuses on “borders, elections, constitutions and prisons.” The video below introduces a shortened, combined version of both these courses. Instead, you can also watch the first, introductory video on “utility, justice, equality and freedom” on the Coursera platform where the separate, extended courses are hosted. Both courses are taught by Alexander Guerrero, who is currently affiliated with Rutgers University (USA). If you pay $41 and get a sufficient grade for a number of assignments, you can earn a certificate.
The central question in this course on the ‘moral foundations of politics’: “When do governments deserve our allegiance, and when should they be denied it?” The course consists of three parts:
- “A survey of the major political theories of the Enlightenment: Utilitarianism, Marxism, and the social contract tradition. In each case we begin with a look of classical formulations, locating them in historical context, but then shift to the contemporary debates as they relate to politics today.
- The rejection of Enlightenment political thinking, again exploring both classical and contemporary formulations.
- The nature of, and justifications for, democratic politics, and their relations to Enlightenment and Anti-Enlightenment political thinking. In addition to exploring theoretical differences among the various authors discussed, considerable attention is devoted to the practical implications of their competing arguments. To this end, we discuss a variety of concrete problems, including debates about economic inequality, affirmative action and the distribution of health care, the limits of state power in the regulation of speech and religion, and difficulties raised by the emerging threat of global environmental decay.“
The course, on Yale’s own open course site, is taught by Ian Shapiro, a well-known political scientist from Yale University (USA).