Economic inequality is a topic that dominates contemporary political debate. Yet long before Bernie Sanders opined about the moral injustice of economic inequality theorists in the eighteenth and nineteenth century grappled with the political and moral meaning of rapid shifts in production, the distribution of wealth, and education. For some, these shifts held enormous promise for improving the material and psychological well-being of all and especially of the least well-off, while others were wary of the moral and political consequences associated with commercial development. Economic inequality in particular seemed inextricably linked to commercial progress, and that inequality often (or always) had pernicious psychological, moral, and political consequences according to some.
The purpose of this seminar is to explore the arguments made for and against commercial society in spite of (or sometimes as a result of) the economic inequality it fosters. Is economic inequality necessarily unjust, or do certain conditions need to hold for it to violate principles of justice or legitimacy? Does economic inequality lead to political instability or personal unhappiness? Does it lead to political inequality? Should we treat all economic inequality equally? We will address these as well as related questions by reading and analyzing primary texts in modern political theory and the history of economic thought. As this class contains a number of non-specialists, however, we will often pair these historical analyses with contemporary issues. My hope is that doing so will also allow us to explore the contemporary relevance of these thinkers and the historical nature of the question we are addressing.