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What is a Political Economy?

Jim B.
Jim B.

Political economy is loosely defined as the interrelationship between economic conditions and the people and government in a specific country or throughout the world. The term gained favor prior to the 20th century with the rise of economists like Adam Smith and philosophers like Karl Marx who attempted to explain the way human behavior shapes economic conditions. In the 20th century, political economy more often referred to the study of economic markets and the actions or stimuli that cause them to react. Although the term is fluid, political economy in all cases attempts to explain economic conditions so that they may be predicted in the future.

In its earliest incarnation, the study of political economy was limited to the relative role of money and physical goods in an economy. The term cropped in the 17th century and has been twisted and bent ever since then to be relevant to the economic situations prevalent at the time. As economic systems evolved in complexity, it became more common for people to attempt to understand how these systems affected the people within the society and vice versa.

Sculpture of Karl Marx (foreground) and Friedrich Engels.
Sculpture of Karl Marx (foreground) and Friedrich Engels.

This study was led by economists like Adam Smith, one of the first men to study the market system in terms of theories like supply and demand. Smith's studies led him to believe that capitalism was humanity's most advanced achievement and that the market system would self-correct to represent the needs of the society. Others who followed him argued that in some cases the market needs stimulation from the government, whether by means of taxes or business incentives, to fulfill the needs of the people.

Karl Marx revolutionized the theory of political economy by offering a critique on the class system. Studying the burgeoning Industrial Revolution in Europe in the 19th century, he theorized that although the common worker controlled the means of production, it was actually the owners of the business who profited the most, while the workers stayed in relative poverty. Based on Marx's work, many workers rose up to protest these conditions.

Such theories, while still studied and applied widely today, generally take a back seat in terms of the modern discussion of political economy. The term now more specifically applies to the role played by government in determining the economic conditions of a specific country. It also refers to how economic conditions play a role in the political arena in terms of elections or regime changes. As such, the concept is usually studied as an offshoot of modern political science.

Discussion Comments

@ZipLine-- As far as I understand, political economy is not about this. It's more about allocating resources. Resources are always limited and have to be allocated in the best way to make sure that society receives the most benefits. This is where politics come in. Politicians, who are elected by the people decide how these resources should be allocated.

There are different types of political economy and various subgroups in this field. We can talk about classic political economy, modern political economy, cultural political economy, political economy and sociology and so forth.


I don't agree that politics is not influential on the economy. These two are intertwined and they will always influence one another.

Even in the most developed, capitalist countries, fiscal policies are determined by the government administration and there is always intervention in the market to regulate competition, production etc.

Of course, the economy is important for politics as well. If a political leader does not make wise economic decisions and causes an economic crisis, he or she won't have much hope for re-election.


The condition of the economy is always important for politics, especially during election times. Every government regulates its economy to some extent, but the economy has more of an affect on politics than politics has on the economy in my opinion.

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    • Sculpture of Karl Marx (foreground) and Friedrich Engels.
      Sculpture of Karl Marx (foreground) and Friedrich Engels.