George Washington Forum News and Events

GWF Events

Capitalism and Informality

Friday-Saturday, 14-15 April 2023

8:00 AM-5:00 PM | Baker University Center

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This conference and subsequent special journal issue will examine capitalism and informality. More than a half-century of developmental discourse has portrayed informality as a signal of economic “backwardness”. From the writings of Max Weber to those of Clifford Geertz, Keith Hart, and Alfred Chandler, social scientific theories have suggested that as economies modernize, hierarchical and rationalized forms of economic organization will displace the “unorganized, unincorporated enterprises” and anomic agents of the informal economy. However, contrary to such predictions, informality remains the global norm. The informal economy continues to comprise at least half of all enterprises, a sizable majority of all jobs, and as much as 20 percent of gross domestic product in developed economies and 60 percent in emerging markets.

A recent generation of scholarship has begun to challenge the idea of the informal economy as a “little people’s alternative” — a static realm of simple, disorganized activity that exists outside of history. Studies have shown that, across different societal contexts, participation in the informal economy is driven by opportunity as well as by necessity, informal organizations can also structured and hierarchical, and informal entrepreneurship can play a powerful role in the reshaping of institutions. Scholars have also highlighted the interdependency of formal and informal economies. Informal enterprises and workers continue to supply critical labor, goods, and services that are used across the formal economy and most are intrinsically linked to formal firms. The informal economy is even facilitating the rise of new industries and new economic forms: artificial intelligence systems depend on “ghost laborers” to code the big data from which AI learns; offshore financial centers rely upon informal networks to arrive at understandings of acceptable practices; and sharing economies operate efficiently because of the services of informal middlemen. The informal thus remains inextricably interwoven with even the most modern elements of economies.

This conference will examine the persistence of informal economies and their relationship with economic transformation. It will explore how informal economies have developed complex organizational structures, have co-evolved in tandem with new industries and modes of production, and have shaped the broader economic and social contexts in which they are embedded.

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Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Death of Nations

Thursday, 20 April 2023

7:30 PM | Glidden Recital Hall

Image of Ryan Patrick Hanley (Boston College)

Ryan Patrick Hanley (Boston College)

1776 witnessed the publication of two of the great texts of the Enlightenment: Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.  But what relation might these two landmark texts have to each other?  To now scholars have tended to answer this question by looking to the ways in which Gibbon adopted economic concepts taken from Smith.  Prof. Hanley’s talk looks in the opposite causal direction, and asks what political concerns Smith shared with Gibbon.  In particular, it focuses on Smith’s extensive engagement with Gibbon’s main political concern: diagnosing the causes behind the decline and fall of once-great political powers.  To this end it specifically focuses on three of Smith’s diagnostic case studies – his diagnosis of the causes of the fall of Rome at the hands of the Scythians and Germans, his diagnosis of the fall of the Chinese Ming Dynasty at the hands of the Tartars, and his analysis of the threats posed by both the Scottish Highlanders and the American colonists to the integrity of the British Empire – to present his theory of the fundamental economic and moral causes of national collapse, and to show why indeed Adam Smith, the father of economics, himself believed that “defense is much more important than opulence.”

Ryan Hanley is Professor of Political Science at Boston College. Before that he taught at Marquette University and has held fellowships at Yale, Harvard and the University of Chicago. He is the author of Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue (Cambridge, 2009); Love’s Enlightenment: Rethinking Charity in Modernity (Cambridge, 2017); and Our Great Purpose: Adam Smith on Living a Better Life (Princeton, 2019). His most recent book is The Political Philosophy of Fénelon (Oxford, 2020).

Two (of the Seven) Deadly Economic Sins

Tuesday, 7 March 2023

7:30 PM | *CHANGE TO VENUE!* Bentley Hall, 124
Image of James Otteson (University of Notre Dame)

James Otteson (University of Notre Dame)

James Otteson is the John T. Ryan Professor of Business Ethics, Rex and Alice A. Martin Faculty Director of the Notre Dame/Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. His books include Adam Smith’s Marketplace of Life (2002), Actual Ethics (2006), Adam Smith (2013), The End of Socialism (2014), The Essential Adam Smith (2018), and Honorable Business: A Framework for Business in a Just and Humane Society (2019). His most recent book is Seven Deadly Economic Sins (Cambridge, 2021). His forthcoming book is Reexamining the Ethics of Wealth Redistribution (with Steven McMullen; Routledge, forthcoming in 2022).

America’s Rivalry with China and Why It’s Vital to Confront Beijing

Wednesday, 22 February 2023

8:00 PM | Galbreath Chapel (College Green)

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Elbridge Colby

Elbridge Colby is co-founder and principal of The Marathon Initiative, a policy initiative focused on developing strategies to prepare the United States for an era of sustained great power competition. Previously, Colby was from 2018-2019 the Director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security, where he led the Center’s work on defense issues.Before that, he served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development from 2017-2018. In that role, he served as the lead official in the development and rollout of the Department’s preeminent strategic planning guidance, the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS). His most recent book is The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict (2021).

Is Capitalism Sustainable in a Democracy?

Thursday, 9 February 2023

7:30 PM | Baker Center Theater (2nd Floor Baker Center)

Image of Michael Munger (Duke University)

Michael Munger (Duke University)

Michael Munger is Professor of Political Science, and Director of the PPE Certificate Program at Duke University. His primary research focus is on the functioning of markets, regulation, and government institutions. He has taught at Dartmouth College, University of Texas, and University of North Carolina (where he was Director of the Master of Public Administration Program), as well as working as a staff economist at the Federal Trade Commission during the Reagan Administration. He is a past President of the Public Choice Society, an international academic society of political scientists and economists with members in 16 countries. He now co-edits The Independent Review. 

How Not to Defend Western Civilization

Thursday, 3 November 2022

7:30 PM | Galbreath Chapel (College Green)

Image of James Hankins (Harvard University)

James Hankins (Harvard University)

James Hankins is Professor of History at Harvard University. He is the founder and general editor of the I Tatti Renaissance Library and works on Renaissance Italian history and thought. He has given the Carlyle Lectures in the History of Political Thought at the University of Oxford and is a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. His most recent book is Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy (2019).

The Culture Wars: A Discussion

Thursday, 20 October 2022

7:30 PM | Galbreath Chapel (College Green)

Image of James Davison Hunter (Virginia) and Wesley YangImage of James Davison Hunter (Virginia) and Wesley Yang

James Davison Hunter (Virginia) and Wesley Yang

James Davison Hunter is LaBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia and is the Executive Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He also served National Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is the author of nine dozen books, including Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality (2018), The Death of Character: Moral Character in an Age without Good or Evil (2000) and, with Alan Wolfe, Is There a Culture War? A Dialogue on Values and American Public Life (2006). In 1992, he published, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times book award.


Wesley Yang is an essayist and cultural critic, who writes a regular colum for Tablet magazine and is a contributor editor to Esquire. His most recent book is The Souls of Yellow Folk (2018). He has written extensively about identity politics and the ‘successor ideology’.