Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

The Normative Foundations of Social Theory: An Essay on the Criteria Defining Social Economics *

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

The Normative Foundations of Social Theory: An Essay on the Criteria Defining Social Economics *

Article excerpt

Two views of human nature underlie economic theory and any theory incorporating either view is not social economics. The first view sees human nature as metaphysically or genetically given. This view has difficulty giving differences in the structure and functioning of different societies any importance. The other view asserts that humans are entirely "created" by society. In this view, humans are merely malleable "stuff" which a society molds into "building blocs" appropriate to that society. Hunt argues that social economics lies mid-way between these extremes. Humans are "molded" by the social system of which they are a part, but that socialization is never total because humans are not "malleable stuff." There is a human nature that sometimes resists and occasionally negates socialization.

Human nature is a complex set of innate needs and potentialities. Socialization creates "wants" the satisfaction of which may contribute to the satisfaction of the underlying needs, and leads to activities that develop to a certain degree the underlying potentialities. It is the task of social economics to identify those needs and potentialities and to formulate a "vision" of the fully developed human being. Hunt concludes that neoclassical economic theory is not social economics while the theories of Veblen and Marx are social economics.

Keywords: social economics, neoclassical economics, human nature, socialization, Veblen, Marx


All economic theorists believe their theories to be oriented toward explanations of human economic behavior. And since human beings are always and everywhere found only in social groups, all economic theorists use the words "social" and "society" in their theories. Therefore, on the most superficial, empirical level, it would seem that all economic theory is social economics.

If a distinction is to be made between social economics and non-social (or asocial, or antisocial) economics--and I believe that such a distinction is both useful and important--then the criteria for judging what constitutes social economics must be made explicit. In this essay I shall briefly state what criteria seem most useful to me. On the basis of these criteria, I shall argue that utilitarian economics, as represented in contemporary economics by the neoclassical school, cannot be called social economics, while the theories of Veblen and Marx can properly be labeled as social economics.


A general conception of the relationship between the individual and society underlies all theories of human behavior, whether or not the conception is explicitly stated. Differences of opinion about this relationship can generally be reduced to differences of opinion about what constitutes "human nature." At one extreme is the opinion of those theorists who believe that the essential features of human nature are either metaphysically or genetically given and fixed. Such theorists generally assume (either explicitly or implicitly) that these essential features are empirically observable in all societies, in all places, and in all times. In their theories economic behavior can be studied equally efficaciously, and will yield identical conclusions, whether one studies such behavior in ancient Greece, Medieval Europe, nineteenth century tribal economies which were untouched by North Atlantic culture, contemporary American capitalism, or that of an isolated, mythical Robinson Crusoe not living in any society at all. Obviously, in such theories differences in social structures are of little if any importance in understanding human behavior. These theories cannot, in my opinion, be called social theories. They are theories of the behavior of every individual in every society. Such behavior is presumed to conform to certain principles independently of social institutions or social forces.

At the other extreme is the opinion of those theorists who believe that there is no human nature. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.