No one can argue that political economy is dynamic. In The Political Economics of International Relations, Robert Gilpin notes that political economy is primarily the interaction of three fundamental forces: politics, economics and society. Plato in his Republic and Socrates in the works of Plato and other contemporaries discussed politics with a view of impact by society. Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations contrasted with Karl Marx in Das Capital on how economics impacted society. Every day we read about the impact politics has on the economy that affects society worldwide. In democracies, society is the final authority for this triumvirate, but disregard for either facet of this public intercourse increases chaos in a system trying to maintain a semblance of equilibrium.
On the surface, a natural ebb and flow of political activity, from laissez-faire to socialism, appears to balance the political economy. Public policy allows influence on economic issues to either government or the market. It can be argued therefore, that the political component is the controlling factor of political economic dynamics because it allows or regulates economic activity. But, what is society’s role?
A misalignment of the views of the people and the actions of the government towards them is indicative of a dysfunctional relationship in the context of democratic government. This does not necessarily spell poor government but the long-term stability of that government and its impact on the economy and society in general is a very real concern. In general, the government that listens and is answerable to its citizens is the most politically stable. But is society heard or manipulated?
A Voice for Society
The extent to which a people have voice in their own government depends on whether the government hears and listens. A government informed by polls and focus groups may be able to discern public opinion accurately and thereby, maintain the control of the dynamics of public intercourse.
Democracy is demonstrably the best long-term solution to date. A well-informed society that can participate in its own governance is the best governance solution. Former World Bank President James Wolfenson made this point in a 1999 Washington Post article “Voices of the Poor”. He emphasized that without public consensus you cannot bring about change. In reality, the citizenry does not always have the ability to analyze problems and provide informed opinion. This lessens the quality but not the impact of popular participation. On complicated issues like economics, there is a temptation for government to orchestrate public opinion and therefore, wrest the control of policy from the grip of the voters.
The ability of civil society organizations, lobbyists, and the media to focus on issues in a competent way is a partial solution to a popular information deficiency. These alternative perspectives take the monopoly of information and suggestion away from the government. In a democracy as large as the United States, communications determines the impact of the citizenry and becomes an important variable in the political economic equation.
Media Can Balance Political Economic Dynamics
The media advances to the fore as a potential balancing mechanism for the political economy. Civil society organizations focus on the special interests of society, usually on process not substance. They provide a voice for citizens. Lobbyists try to disproportionately influence political policy for small segments of the public. Media has no inherent bias, but that does not mean it can’t have one.
Pippa Norris detailed the importance of the media in Chapter 8 of his book Driving Democracy. The media has always been an agent of change. It informs and communicates. It is unbiased when it remains objective. This is its strength as a balancing mechanism. The great British politician Edmond Burke coined the term the fourth estate to emphasize the essential nature of the press in a democracy. The danger of the fourth estate is that it has a near monopoly on the distribution of public information. When the media is controlled by forces with an agenda, it becomes a fifth column. Its corruption has a ripple effect that impacts politics and economics and hence, society.
In the moment that agenda rather than objectivity controls the media, information becomes propaganda. Dialogue becomes monologue. Equilibrium becomes chaos. In this scenario, society has no voice – except in the next ballot box.
The Political Economy of Democracy
The strength of an economy can be measured in its impact on society. Does it provide for the welfare of the people? In a democracy, society, at least the voting part, determines political directions. Considering that citizens can influence the political system that in turn influences the economic outcomes that best suit the citizenry, it is clear that the political economy of a democracy is controlled by those who control the voters. The ultimate arbitrator and balancing mechanism in the political economy of a democracy are the citizens themselves.