Where Duke and UNC Happily Collaborate

Mention Duke and UNC in the same breath and almost everyone thinks about intense rivalry. While that’s true in sports, it is not true in academics. In fact, there is one program in particular where the two schools collaborate closely: Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE).

PPE is an interdisciplinary degree program that began at Oxford in 1924, and 90 years later it has spread to over 100 universities around the world as either a major or minor area of study.  The original idea was, in part, to provide future civil servants in the United Kingdom with an opportunity to become generalists by exploring public policy through the different lenses of complementary disciplines.

Over the past few decades in the United States, the curriculum and tools of analysis have changed considerably, and the Duke/UNC PPE program is now at the forefront of shaping the agenda.

Ten years ago, Duke University provost Peter Lange invited the Australian economist Geoffrey Brennan to spearhead the Duke/UNC PPE program, which remains the only bi-campus program at the two universities. Professor Brennan is in some ways a traditional economist, interested in issues like trade and tax policy. He has, however, also written extensively about the relationship between markets and morality, and was a central figure in the emergence of public choice theory, which uses economic tools to explain political processes.

Long before coming to Duke, Professor Brennan was invited to Virginia Tech by James Buchanan, an American economist and eventual Nobel laureate, to collaborate on a number of projects in public choice theory.

Public choice arose when economists began to approach political theory with the simple assumption that politicians are no different from other people–each of them has his or her own parochial interests and information, and none of them can be trusted with extensive power to make decisions on behalf of other people.

Buchanan later emphasized that public choice theory is little more than the rediscovery by economists of the wisdom of the American founders, after a century of failed flirtations with socialism:

The essential wisdom of the 18th century, of Adam Smith and classical political economy and of the American Founders, was lost through two centuries of intellectual folly. Public choice does little more than incorporate a rediscovery of this wisdom and its implications into economic analyses of modern politics.

Public choice theory remains a significant component of Brennan’s research and the PPE agenda, but there is much more to it.

Generally, the PPE curriculum focuses on how markets work, how private property can help preserve scarce resources and promote innovation, and how – when markets fail to allocate resources fairly or efficiently – government intervention might improve the outcome, or make it worse. The tools students learn to deploy when thinking about these questions include game theory (which models interdependent choices), distributive justice (which involves moral reasoning about how resources ought to be allocated), and behavioral economics (which studies how people respond to incentives, and how different environments impact our choices).

Faculty trained in one of the three disciplines that comprise PPE often approach the same question from different perspectives. PPE students learn to think about when the competing approaches can be brought together as part of a deeper worldview, and when they conflict in ways that cannot be reconciled.

For example, economists are interested in markets because free exchange promotes “efficient” outcomes in which resources are put to their highest valued use. But philosophers who think in more explicitly ethical terms are often interested in whether markets protect autonomy, promote our rights to pursue our own ends, or influence our character, regardless of their efficiency properties.

Both perspectives are important here, since we can’t answer questions about whether markets promote welfare or protect rights or make us better people without learning economics, and we cannot use economics to guide public policy without moral reflection on the value judgments economists make when they deploy cost-benefit analysis.

Efficiency matters, of course, but it is not the only thing we care about. Responsibility, fairness, benevolence, rights, and many other moral concepts feed into our assessment of any particular public policy.

Last year, the PPE clubs at Duke and UNC won a Kenan-Biddle grant to invite a speaker who was chosen by students in consultation with faculty. The purpose of the Kenan-Biddle grant is to promote intellectual exchange between the two campuses, and our speaker, Herbert Gintis, perfectly exemplified the spirt of our program.

Professor Gintis gave a talk about the evolutionary origins of human political societies, and then had lunch and dinner with faculty and students from both campuses. Gintis is especially interesting because he began his illustrious career in economics as a radical Marxist, but changed his views considerably after observing (in a series of experiments, some of which he helped design) that market exchange actually tends to increase trust and generosity, rather than promote exploitation, as traditional Marxists believe.

Before his talk, Gintis implored students to ignore disciplinary boundaries and to have the courage to revise their views when new evidence and arguments indicate that they are wrong.

Professor Gintis provided a wonderful example of this during conversation at lunch. Along with Samuel Bowles, he co-authored a Marxist critique of the American education system in 1976 called Schooling in Capitalist America, but twenty years later Gintis embraced school choice as a better alternative, and dismissed the current public school system as “hopeless.”

Gintis is no conservative (he’s relatively non-ideological at this stage in his career), and we do not steer our students in any particular political direction. Our classes, however, give students the tools they need to engage in rational debate about important public policy issues. We challenge them to question conventional wisdom and reject popular nostrums in favor of a more disciplined approach.

PPE is a minor at UNC and an interdisciplinary certificate at Duke, although there is some discussion of expanding it to a major.

Students at Duke and UNC take their first and last PPE classes together, most using the Robertson Scholars bus to commute between the campuses. For many students this is a chance to leave their comfort zone and expand their network of faculty and friends. It is an opportunity to get a rigorous liberal arts education while still majoring in a field like engineering or computer science. For those who plan to attend law school or pursue a PhD in economics or philosophy or political science, PPE complements their major and allows them to ask bigger questions than those typically addressed in a single discipline.

Enrollment in PPE is expanding rapidly at both campuses, and is limited only by the number of faculty we can hire to staff our classes. About 400 students at Duke and UNC students took the PPE Gateway course last year, and some incoming freshman have cited the PPE program as a primary reason for coming to Durham or Chapel Hill.

Our reputation has been expanding along with our numbers. In 2015, Oxford University Press, will release a book anthology co-edited by Jonathan Anomaly, Geoffrey Brennan, Michael Munger (Director of PPE at Duke), and Geoff Sayre-McCord (Director of PPE at UNC). The book is a collection of classic and contemporary readings in PPE, aimed mainly at students and scholars. We expect it to set the agenda for PPE programs around the world.