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Rethinking Economics as Social Theory

January 25, 2023

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By Richard Wagner, Emeritus Professor of Economics, George Mason University, US

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Richard Wagner discusses his innovative look at the origins of economics in his new book Rethinking Economics as Social Theory

What is the object at which economists direct their analytical energies, concepts, and imaginations? By far the most popular answer these days is that economics is a science that addresses efficiency in resource administration. This answer places economics as an administrative science whose primary analytical tools are mathematics, statistics, and accounting in conjunction with formal modeling. Rethinking Economics as Social Theory explains how this administrative vision renders economics deeply incoherent because it assigns to economics analytical tasks that the discipline cannot truly address.

Sure, there are many situations that call for an administrative style of thinking for which ordinary principles of economizing action are suitable. The entire world of commerce provides a limitless menu of cases for which the marginal calculus and optimization more generally represents the epitome of reasoned action. One of the most charming of all economists, Philip Wicksteed (1844-1927) in his 1910 Commonsense of Political Economy explained how a mother could use knowledge of marginal productivity theory to distribute a bowl of mashed potatoes among her children. Without doubt, economic principles can be helpful to someone seeking to maximize the difference between the value someone expects an action to yield and the cost of the inputs that must be assembled to conduct that action. All the same, it must be recognized that a formal model alone cannot answer substantive questions, for answers can’t be supplied  without importing other presuppositions into the model.

Economics goes astray when its formal framework is used to address substantive questions that have political character. There is all the difference in the world in this regard between an administrative science and a science of society. An administrative science pertains to organizations that are organized and operated through the offices of private law. They are organizations for which all participation is voluntary. Conflict there can be among organizations, as befits the idea of competition. But the internal operation of privately ordered organizations is consensual, which means in turn that for such organizations there is general agreement about the boundary between efficient and inefficient actions.

 It is a huge category mistake to apply principles and concepts of optimization to political organizations. For commercial organizations, the magic number is two. This means that even the most complex of commercial organizations and transactions can be meaningfully illustrated by simple models of exchange between buyers and sellers. In contrast, for democratic polities the magic number is three. Where Carl Schmitt (1932) asserted that political action turned on the friend-enemy distinction, William Riker (1962) asserted all democratic action has coalitional character. With either of these schemes of thought, democratic competition, in contrast to commercial competition, turns on forming and supporting winning coalitions, an accounting of which shows that those winnings are financed by imposing loses on the rest of society.

Prior to the emergence of neoclassical economics late in the 19th century, economics under the influence of Adam Smith and the theorists of the Scottish Enlightenment had as its analytical object society itself, and not the administrative problems of some members of society. Smith and his compatriots observed that societies worked in that people were able to feed, clothe, and house themselves even though there was no person or administrative office whose responsibility was to ensure those outcomes. Those outcomes just happened even though no one had the duty to ensure them.

Smith and the other Scottish theorists realized that societies resembled icebergs in that what you saw on the surface was but a small part of the entire object. A theorist whose vision was limited to connecting points of observation would misunderstand a good deal of the sources of social orderliness. Smith’s two most notable books, Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and Wealth of Nations (1776) form a complementary pair in the process of rendering a theory of society as based on recognition that people invariably seek to be successful in what they attempt. Each person in society has a domain over which he or she exercises administrative responsibility. Society, however, is not just another such domain, but is a container that holds the domains that constitutes a society.

While Adam Smith initiated the study of society centered on recognition that people were actuated by their desires to be effective in their chosen actions, that classical scheme of economics gave way a century later to the neoclassical focus on resource administration. Again, there is nothing illogical about constructing a science of administration. It’s just that such a science will necessarily be inadequate as a theory of society whose primary object are the properties of people living together in close geographical proximity, which in turn brings into the analytical foreground both the potential gains from cooperative action and the potential animosities that might be unleased through the never-ending search after position and status that are alive in societies.

Rethinking Economics as Social Theory seeks to carry forward the social-theoretic vision of the Scottish Enlightenment. It seeks to do this, however, not through some act of restoring the Scottish scheme of thought but by importing such modern modes of theorizing as systems theory, complexity theory, evolutionary theory, emergent phenomena, and agent-based computational modeling. It is surely plausible to assert that the Scottish thinkers attempted to address questions that are more complex than their methods and techniques allowed them to address, and to recognize that modern analytical developments supply instruments through which we can make progress on their concerns about the qualities of societies. As thinkers, we should always realize that our ability to develop our intuitions depends on the analytical techniques at our disposal. Recent development in computer and related technology over the past half-century has multiplied our ability to think about societies as ever evolving entities whose direction of evolution is no matter of policy choice but rather is an exceedingly complex matter about which there exists no obvious one best way but for which that evolution is of intense significance for our ways of life all the same.


Rethinking Economics as Social Theory, by Richard E. Wagner, George Mason University, US is out now.

Read the introduction and other free chapters on Elgaronline

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Hyman Minsky’s Enduring Relevance to Economic Theory and Policy

September 2, 2022

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Written by Charles J. Whalen, Research Fellow, Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy, University at Buffalo, USA

On October 19, 1987, the US stock market lost nearly 25 percent of its value—the largest single-day drop in history. As market distress reverberated worldwide, values on global stock exchanges plummeted, resulting in “Black Monday”—the first contemporary global financial crisis. In the aftermath of that crash, American economists held their annual meeting in Chicago, and Hyman Minsky was the speaker it seemed everyone wanted to hear.

Minsky, then a professor on the verge of retirement at Washington University in St. Louis, was thrust into the limelight by the 1987 crash. That’s because many regarded him as the most prominent opponent of the economics profession’s insistence that financial crises and business cycles no longer represented important real-world problems. While other economists were either ignoring crises and cycles or dismissing them with general-equilibrium analyses, Minsky was developing a “financial instability hypothesis”—that explained booms and crashes as an inherent part of a modern economy—and patiently applying his theory to analyze a series of such episodes that occurred in the decades before and after World War II.

Minsky understood that achieving serious public-policy reform—aimed at reaching and sustaining full employment and better addressing financial instability and other real-world problems—requires also reconstructing economics. In fact, that was the explicit aim of a workshop he convened in 1991, when he served as a senior scholar at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College. Minsky stressed a reconstruction grounded in an appreciation of the following: constant economic change, the need for economic decision-making in the face of uncertainty, and the role of socioeconomic institutions and public policy as key determinants of economic processes and outcomes. He was an eclectic economist, who learned from a diverse group of professors at the University of Chicago and Harvard University (including Henry Simons, Oscar Lange, and Joseph Schumpeter), but in the last few decades of his life he was most at home among economists calling themselves post-Keynesians and institutionalists.

When the severe global financial crisis of 2007–2009 blindsided economists and policymakers alike, Minsky and his ideas were back in the headlines. For example, he was featured in a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal, and The Nation published an essay with the title “We’re all Minksyites Now.” However, by then Minsky had been dead for a decade, so the task of applying his insight to that crisis fell upon his intrepid followers, many of whom who have come to embrace the term “post-Keynesian institutionalism” to describe their approach to economic theory and policy.

Two new books by Edward Elgar Publishing look at the global financial crisis and several new and continuing economic challenges by drawing heavily on Minsky’s insight and analyses. The books also seek to trace the development and contours of post-Keynesian institutionalism, and to advance that approach by taking the ideas of Minsky and other pioneering contributors—including John R. Commons, Joan Robinson, and John Kenneth Galbraith—in new directions.

In Reforming Capitalism for the Common Good: Essays in Institutional and Post-Keynesian Economics, 25 essays (written over three decades) build on the work of Minsky and institutionalist John R. Commons to address the causes and consequences of US macroeconomic instability, job offshoring, community economic dislocation, financialization, income inequality, and rising worker insecurity. The result is a compelling case for reforming capitalism by addressing workers’ interests as an integral part of the common good, and for reconstructing economics in the direction of post-Keynesian institutionalism. Scholars and students of economics and labor studies will appreciate the incisive analyses and real-world focus, while policy analysts and concerned citizens will welcome the book’s optimistic vision for our economic future.

In A Modern Guide to Post-Keynesian Institutional Economics, an international team of more than a dozen scholars breaks new ground by extending recent analyses of today’s investor-driven (“money manager”) capitalism, with special attention to financialization and economic insecurity. It also sharpens concepts and methods (such as social capital and stock-flow consistent modeling, respectively), sketches new theories on labor and financial markets, and infuses post-Keynesian institutionalism with insight from other research traditions including feminist and environmental economics. The book serves as both a valuable reference volume and a source of material suitable for course adoption at either the undergraduate or graduate levels.

Both books make it clear that post-Keynesian institutionalism does not rest upon Minsky alone. But they underscore the continuing importance of Minsky’s contributions for those interested in a historically and institutionally grounded reconstruction of economics. They also highlight the enduring relevance of his focus on ongoing economic evolution, support for the goal of full employment, and commitment to a democratic and humane economy.

Minsky pointed us in the right direction. Earlier this year, a team of foundations announced a commitment to allocate more than $40 million to economic and policy research focused on alternatives, with special attention to inequality and the economic challenges faced by workers. Inspired by Minsky, post-Keynesian institutionalists have been studying these problems for decades. Minsky may be gone, but we can still stand on his shoulders to better understand the real world and craft a more constructive body of economic theory and policy.


Reforming Capitalism for the Common Good
is available to purchase now.

Charles J. Whalen, Research Fellow, The Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY, US

Read a sample chapter on Elgaronline.

A Modern Guide to Post-Keynesian Institutional Economics
is also available to purchase now.

Charles J. Whalen, Research Fellow, The Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY, US

Read a sample chapter on Elgaronline.

This is also part of the Elgar Modern Guides Series

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Compiling the Handbook of Alternative Theories of Political Economy

June 10, 2022

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Frank Stilwell, David Primrose and Tim Thornton give an insight to their latest publication
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Dementia and Cost-Benefit Analysis

May 20, 2022

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Robert J. Brent, Professor of Economics. Fordham University, New York, USA

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The collateral damage of lockdowns and the cognitive biases that explain support for them

April 26, 2022

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Ananish Chaudhuri

Ananish Chaudhuri is the author of “Nudged into lockdown? Behavioral Economics, Uncertainty and Covid-19” published by Edward Elgar Publishing.

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