We are offering
three reading groups this Spring. As in the past, the groups will meet over dinner at a local restaurant (Gourmet Kingdom, in Carrboro). The books will be provided and the cost of dinner will be covered. Each group will meet eight times over the course of the semester, for approximately an hour and a half each meeting. Please keep in mind that, if you do join a reading group, attendance and participation at each meeting is expected. In addition, towards the end of the semester, we will ask you to provide an evaluation of your experience in the group. Below you will find descriptions of the three groups, along with a link (below the three) to a sign-up form with which you can request a space in whichever group(s) interest you. All the spaces are now filled.
Reading Groups for Spring 2017
Distributive Justice: Rawls and Nozick
Distributive justice obtains in a society when its political and economic institutions are set up so that social and economic benefits and burdens are fairly distributed. In this reading group, we consider two incredibly influential, but deeply different, theories of distributive justice. We begin with John Rawls’ defense of liberal egalitarianism espoused in his seminal work A Theory of Justice. We will then turn to Robert Nozick’s libertarian critique of Rawls’ theory and the pursuit of distributive patterns more generally, as defended in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Neither is the last word on distributive justice, but taken together they work to frame contemporary discussions of justice even among those who reject their views.
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
Why are there large differences in income levels, education levels and health outcomes across countries? What causes some countries to grow faster than others in the world? What determines prosperity or poverty? Why is Nogales, Arizona in the U.S. better than Nogales, Sonora in Mexico even though Nogales is a single city spread across two countries? North and South Korea are in the same geographical region and have homogenous populations but have vast differences in their income levels. Why? Similarly there are major differences in income levels among Sub-Saharan African countries. Botswana and Swaziland have grown rapidly in recent years when compared to some of the other countries such as Mali and Niger. “Why Nations Fail” is an attempt by two influential researchers, Acemoglu and Robinson, who have very carefully used historical evidence dating back to the Roman Empire, the Mayan City-states, the Soviet Union, the United States, and Africa, to try to define a new theory of political economy to explain the likely causes of differences across nations. You will find this influential book useful to answer the following questions:
- Why are some countries trapped in poverty?
- To what extent can political and economic institutions determine economic growth in the poorest countries?
- Will China’s economic growth make it a superpower overwhelming the West?
- Are America’s best days over? Is American creating a growth cycle that enriches and empowers a small minority thus increasing income inequality?
Impact: How Law Affects Behavior, by Lawrence Friedman
Does the law affect our decisions about how to live our lives? The answer is not as straightforward as it seems. Drawing from evidence provided by a variety of disciplines — sociology, psychology, economics, and political science, among others — Lawrence Friedman shows that law has a good many unexpected consequences. Our knowledge of the law, it turns out, is quite limited, and much of it is plain wrong, and consequently all kinds of people (e.g., doctors, taxpayers, drivers, drug dealers, murderers, government employees, filmmakers, investors, pregnant women, married persons, to name a few) respond in ways that are unintended by lawmakers. Even when we do follow the law, the reasons are often complicated; carrots and sticks can combine with social pressures and our own consciences to affect when and how the law guides are actions. This reading group will introduce you to a rich and fascinating set of research on the role of law in society.
Reading Groups for Fall 2016
John Stuart Mill’s Moral and Political Philosophy
In this reading group, we will read selections from three works by John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism, On Liberty, and The Subjection of Women. Mill is, by all accounts, one of the central figures in the history of moral and political philosophy. His work has had profound impacts not only on moral and political thinking, but also on economics and public policy. Utilitarianism is Mill’s classic defense of the moral theory of the same name. On Liberty is one of the great works of political philosophy and stands to this day as one of the best defenses of political liberalism ever written. The Subjection of Women is one of the first published defenses of the rights of women and remains one of the great works in feminist philosophy. One advantage of reading selections from each of these great works is that it gives us a chance to try to understand how Mill’s thought coheres. So not only will we study each work individually (a worthwhile endeavor in itself), but we will also try to understand better the unity of the thought of one of the great philosophers of all time.
Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is one of the finest books ever written about political life. The central task of the book is an investigation of why democracy flourished in America despite having faltered in numerous other nations (including de Tocqueville’s native France). What effects did America’s distinctive qualities have on its democracy, and what effects did America’s democracy have on its distinctive qualities? De Tocqueville offers profound insights into early nineteenth century American democracy––some of which vividly apply to early twenty-first century American democracy and some of which vividly fail to apply to early twenty-first century American democracy. Democracy in America would be well worth reading even if it were (as some classic texts are) a plodding and unpleasant read. Happily, de Tocqueville has a profoundly elegant command of language, and his work is a thoroughgoing pleasure. This reading group will meet on Monday evenings.
Danielle Allen’s Education and Equality
Should the primary purpose of education be providing students with the basic competencies needed to be good workers? Should education equalize economic opportunity? What role ought the humanities play in public education? Should education teach students political values? To investigate these questions, we will be reading Danielle Allen’s book Education and Equality. In her book, Allen draws on thinkers from Plato to Rawls to argue that education ought to reorient itself toward participatory readiness in democratic society rather than vocational preparation. Through our reading, we will critically engage with and respond to Allen’s arguments and the commentaries from contemporary theorists included in her book. We will also consider the implications of the arguments for policy and practice in education, including our own aims in pursuing higher education. This reading group will meet on Wednesday evenings.
The Federalist Papers
Maybe you’ve seen Hamilton or you’re obsessed with the soundtrack, or maybe you’re just curious what all the fuss is about. What better way to understand the man behind the musical than to read the Federalist Papers? These short essays–written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay–are essential to understanding the Constitution and its historical context. This semester, we’ll explore some of the most important questions the Federalist Papers raise–about democracy, the Constitution, and our rights as Americans–and discuss how the answers to those questions have changed over time, and how they’ve stayed the same. This reading group will meet on Tuesday evenings.
***PAST READING GROUPS***
Reading Groups for Spring 2016
Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee and Esther Duflo, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty
Roughly a billion people live on less than a dollar a day and another two billion people live on less than two dollars a day. What is the best way to help these people escape poverty? Some advocate massive investments in foreign aid, others argue that such aid is wasteful or otherwise problematic, still others advocate for various structural or institutional reforms. Why does economic development happen in some nations while others are still mired in poverty? In Poor Economics, Banerjee and Duflo discuss the empirical evidence (or lack thereof) for these and other theories in development economics, which should have implications for how we ought to respond to the pressing problem of global poverty. Along the way we will consider relevant ethical questions about economic development: Why is economic development a good thing? Do people in rich countries have a duty to aid the global poor? If you are interested in this group, please sign up HERE.
Emotions in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics: Selected Readings
What are emotions and what do they do? Are they opposed to reason? These questions undergird many foundational questions in philosophy, politics, and economics from moral theories grounded in sentiment to economic models that assume perfect rationality. In this group we will read and analyze two different views of emotion: Robert Frank’s Passions Within Reason: The Strategic Role of Emotions which uses ideas from economics to explore how emotions have helped humans survive and develop as well as parts of Martha Nussbaum’s Hiding From Humanity which discusses whether shame and disgust are legitimate bases for policies and legal judgments. Through the two books we will explore ways emotion informs, supports, or is part of what might be called rationality as well as ways emotion might obscure good reasoning. If you are interested in this group, please sign up HERE.
Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture
The Hebrew Scriptures are arguably the most influential texts in western literature and thought, having implications for a range of issues relevant to Philosophy, Politics and Economics including just war theory, distributive justice, the formation and purpose of the state. In this reading group, we will read Yoram Hazony’s recent book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, alongside passages from the Hebrew Bible that bear especially on questions of organizing a state and its economy. Following Harzony, in the reading group we will be focusing on the Hebrew texts not as “texts of revelation” but as “texts of reason” and engaging directly with the arguments they offer. Readings and discussion will all be in English, and no background in ancient history, theology, Jewish studies, or related fields will be presupposed. Sign up HERE.
Reading Groups for Fall 2015
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are divided by Politics and Religion
Sally Haslanger, Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique
Reading Groups for Spring 2015
Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century
What exactly is the relationship between capitalism and inequality? This was the topic of Karl Marx’s Capital in the 19th century, and it is the topic of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty’s book draws on many years of collaborative economic research, and a huge amount more data than Marx had available. Piketty argues that capitalism leads to greater inequality. He maintains that the period of increasing equality of opportunity in the middle of the 20th century was anomalous, explained by high tax rates and the nationalization of capital during the wars. These claims and arguments have been widely praised and widely condemned. This book is a rare example of scholarly work becoming a best seller amongst non-academics. Piketty writes elegantly and accessibly, and provides historical and academic context to his arguments, which makes his claims interesting to both those with and without a background in economics. In this reading group, we will work through Piketty’s book and survey one or two of the many responses to it.
Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority
Modern states deploy coercion in a wide variety of circumstances in which the resort to force would clearly be wrong for any private person. For example, most people believe that if I discovered my neighbor was ingesting dangerous drugs or selling her body for money it would be wrong for me to kidnap her and lock her up in my basement. Yet many people believe that when governments do this they should be commended rather than condemned. What entitles the state to behave in this way, and why should citizens obey its commands? Do the dictates of governments have any independent moral force? And what would happen if widespread belief in political authority were undermined? We will examine these and related questions raised by Michael Huemer in his new book, The Problem of Political Authority. This reading group will be led by Jonathan Anomaly.
Reading Groups for Fall 2014
Ridley’s The Rational Optimist
Ever since Thomas Malthus predicted that population growth would inevitably lead to war, famine and resource depletion, economics has been called “the dismal science.” But in his recent book, The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley challenges the pessimistic predictions of Malthusians and argues that market exchange has produced so much wealth and innovation that we have become “the only species that grows more prosperous as it grows more populous.” Ridley weaves together insights from Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Friedrich Hayek to argue, among other things, that the prosperity markets make possible diminishes the incentives for slavery and war, and increases both food production and natural resource conservation. This reading group will discuss and critically assess Ridley’s core arguments and evidence. This reading group will be led by Jonathan Anomaly.
The Sign-up Form can be found HERE.
Feminist Arguments For and Against the Market
Feminism has been among the most important reformist movements in the past century, focused on the promotion of gender equality and to the freedom of all. It has had a complex—sometimes even contentious—relationship with the free market. Many feminists have seen institutions protecting private property and the right to free trade as essential to the feminist project; others have argued that the free market—at least in the context of a sexist society—inevitably contributes further to women’s oppression. In this reading group, we will survey a eight styles of feminist arguments for and agains the market, locating these arguments within the various forms of feminism that give them context. Readings will include classical liberals, Rawlsians, anarchist feminists, Marxist feminists, feminists who argue for an ethic of care, and radical feminists who reject the formal equality of the market. This reading group will be led by John Lawless.
The Sign-up Form can be found HERE.
Justice — Rawls and Nozick
John Rawls and Robert Nozick produced what are arguably the two most influential books in political philosophy in the 20th century. In this reading group, we will read key passages from both Rawls and Nozick side by side. In so doing, we will compare and contrast Rawls’ liberalism and Nozick’s libertarianism as they are applied to a variety of problems. Hence, our discussions will be as wide-ranging as theirs, covering theories of rights, entitlement, the role of the state, property, the nature of justice, utopian ideals, reflective equilibrium, and much else. This reading group will be led by Joshua Blanchard.
The Sign-up Form can be found HERE.
Reading Groups for Spring 2014
de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
Democracy in America has been called both the best book ever written about democracy and the best book ever written about America. Published in two parts, one in 1835 and the second in 1840, its insights about democracy and the American character have led both liberals and conservatives, including every President since Eisenhower, to claim de Tocqueville as their own, but his work is more often cited than understood. In the Fall we discussed Tocqueville treatment of the influence of democracy on political institutions, and this Spring we will examine Tocqueville’s provocative ideas and arguments regarding the nature of democratic society, discussing his analysis of the influence of democracy on intellectual currents, popular sentiments, social customs, and political society broadly. This semester’s reading group does not presuppose that students have already read anything by Tocqueville and is open to both newcomers and those who were enrolled in last Fall’s reading group.
Karl Marx’s political and economic thought left vivid marks on the twentieth century, and he remains one of the most influential and systematic critics of classical liberalism and capitalism. At the heart of much of his work are a host of compelling but deeply controversial ideas: that persons are set apart from nature through their labor; that it is our labor—and in particular, our productive relations with those around us—that give shape to our art and culture and drive history forward; and that these productive relations under capitalism leave us alienated, render our lives meaningless and make us inhuman. For Marx, these ideas justify a hope for a communist society in which capitalist relations will be undone and, for the first time, all persons will be truly free. In this reading group, we’ll be examining Marx’s concepts of the human being, of labor, and of alienation, and come to grips with his philosophy of history before turning to important liberal critiques of Marx’s system.
Reading Groups from Fall 2013
Economics in Literature
Economic concerns infuse almost every aspect of our lives. Many of the fundamental oppositions that structure human experience— independence and confinement, opportunity and disappointment, identity and difference—hinge on economic institutions, policies, and innovations. It should come as no surprise, then, that some of the world’s most talented literary authors have found fertile subject matter in economics. In this reading group, we will read and discuss a selection of important works of economically-oriented literature with a view to appreciating how economic commitments and concerns spanning the entire political spectrum have come alive in literary classics. The reading list will include the following: George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London; Ayn Rand, Anthem; Upton Sinclair, The Jungle; Virginia Wolf, A Room of One’s Own.
Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments
Adam Smith was one of the most influential theorists of the 18th century. Economists know him mainly for his groundbreaking text The Wealth of Nations, but it is in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that Smith develops his accounts of human psychology, value, and rights. Like most important thinkers, Smith was a powerfully systematic thinker; in this reading group, we will be reading all of The Theory of Moral Sentiments both in order to make sense of it as a work, and to develop a sense of the ways in which it might relate to Smith’s broader economic and political theories. We will focus heavily on the primary text, but secondary readings and selections from elsewhere in Smith’s corpus will be added to provide further insight and context.