A Review of the Troops: Social Economics in the Twentieth Century

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In 1991 the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Association for Social Economics Valparaiso University Professor James Henderson was commissioned to look ahead to the next fifty years and to the next century. He was asked to edit the winter 1993 issue of the Review of Social Economy with the theme "the challenges facing social economists in the twenty-first century." I was greatly honored when he asked me to look back before he looked forward to review what social economists had accomplished in our century; that is, to do something in the format of Alfred Marshall's talk to the Cambridge Economics Club in 1886 when he hoped to give, some estimate of the preparation which has been made by the nineteenth century and the old generation of economists for the new generation of economists and the twentieth century (1925, p. 295).

To use the occasion of the turning of a century to appraise contributions to the development of social economics is a task as difficult as it is interesting, for there are no guiding criteria. Selection was reduced to picking the social economists who according to this writer best contributed to supplying the building blocks of a realistic and personalist economy. What follows then is a "review of the troops" -- a phrase borrowed from one of the social economists on the list, a truly great social economist of our century, Joseph A. Schumpeter (1950, part III, chap. 4) whose turn to be memorialized in the Review of Social Economy comes in the winter 1994 issue, one year after the "challenges" issue. Noticeably, many well-known economists are left off this list, as are some close colleagues; their work has not yet made as great an impact personally as the ones included or, however important, did not fit into this writer's personal overview of a workable and effective social economy.

Understandably, the effort is flawed by the space limitations imposed by a journal article. But even a book may not do justice to such a task. An implication from Jim Henderson's invitation is clear however: it is not enough to look ahead, the heritage of social economics is rich and calls out for continuous synthesis building from the work of the scholars who have gone before us.

1. John Maynard Keynes. "The ideas which are here expressed so laboriously are extremely simple and should be obvious. The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones...." (Keynes, 1936, p. viii). With such views Keynes helps in sorting out the building blocks of social economics by insisting that philosophical premises -- that is, underlying ideas -- are important to the science. He convinces some of us in the preface to the General Theory of the need to examine the philosophical platform upon which a body of science is built, for if the platform is not constructed soundly the rest of the structure will not be sound. What Keynes called "classical" economics, the tradition that dominates from the time of the predecessors of Ricardo through Marshall, Edgeworth and Pigou and to the present, describes an economy "so limited and special," that "its teaching is misleading and disastrous if we attempt to apply it to the facts of experience" (Keynes, 1936, p. 3). The classical base rests on one of those philosophical ideas "which more than vested interest are dangerous for good or evil" (Keynes, 1936, p. 383).

... the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. …