The Scope and Promising Future of Social Economics (1)

By Wisman, Jon D. | Review of Social Economy, December 2003 | Go to article overview

The Scope and Promising Future of Social Economics (1)


Wisman, Jon D., Review of Social Economy


Abstract This essay explores the future potential for Social Economics. Since the beginning of modern economics, the mainstream has been steered by what might be called a material progress vision, whereby the generally unacknowledged presumption is that economic growth will make the good life possible. Accordingly, such potential components of human welfare as more creative and fulfilling work, greater equality in the distribution of opportunity, wealth and income, and a greater degree of community can be more or less ignored for the present. Less guided by this vision, and unfettered by a pretense of value-neutrality, Social Economics does not view such components of welfare as subsidiary to economic growth. Instead, it is more focused upon the wholeness of social life, more concerned with the full requisites of the good and just society. By drawing upon recent work in psychology, sociology, and especially happiness research, Social Economics is found to offer a more promising orientation towards future economic concerns than does mainstream economics.

Keywords: Economic visions, happiness, work, community, justice

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... the Western World ... [is] capable of reducing the economic problem, which now absorbs our moral and material energies, to a position of secondary importance ... [T]he day is not far off when the Economic Problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and ... the arena of the heart and head will be occupied, or re-occupied, by our real problems, the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behaviour and religion.

(Keynes 1930: vii)

I bear good tidings for social economists. The future of social economics is promising. No, it can be stated more forcefully. The future of the science of economics belongs to Social Economics. This may seem a strange, if not outrageous thing to say, given that neoclassical economics dominates the profession as never before. Whereas our Association has slightly under 400 members, the American Economic Association numbers 18,000. Clearly, the promise of Social Economics is not yet widely recognized. But the future is not yet here. It's merely aborning.

But why so optimistic for the future of social economics? For two fundamental reasons: First, social economics is steered by a concern with the wholeness of social life, a concern with the good and just society. And this stance toward the project of economic science means that it will be pivotally relevant to the concerns of future social life. The mainstream of economics, in keeping with most of the history of modern economics--by contrast, is steered by what might be called a material progress vision. It does not focus upon the question of what constitutes the good life. Instead, its focus is on overcoming the problem of material scarcity. The presumption, although not generally acknowledged, much less mentioned, is that solving the material problem will make the good life possible.

This presumption is not, of course, entirely wrong. The problem is that there is no means within this framework of analysis, especially given the pretense of value neutrality, of examining whether the focus upon the material problem might misdirect attention from the end human goal of the good and just society, of human happiness.

The second reason for optimism is that the Enlightenment's confidence in the ever-evolving power of reason was not incorrect. Indeed, the history of humanity can be seen as a narrative of our ever-greater command of reason, of our ever-increasing self-consciousness, of our ability to make our history consciously. This suggests that people will become increasingly aware of the tradeoffs between the requisites of ever more material progress and those necessary for achieving the other fundamental components of the good life, such as the quality of work, the values of community, solidarity, justice, and beauty. And as I will demonstrate, there is substantial evidence that this change in consciousness is underway. …

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