Ronald Coase won a Nobel prize in economics for inventing the idea of transaction costs in his famous paper “The nature of the firm” (1937). He has just announced his desire, with Ning Wang, to found a new journal called “Man and the economy”. Their manifesto, “Saving economics from the economists”, was published in the Harvard Business Review for December 2012. Coase argues there that “The degree to which economics is isolated from the ordinary business of life is extraordinary and unfortunate…In the 20th century, economists could afford to write exclusively for one another. At the same time, the field experienced a paradigm shift, gradually identifying itself as a theoretical approach of economization and giving up the real-world economy as its subject matter. This separation of economics from the working economy has severely damaged both the business community and the academic discipline. “.
He continues, “Economics thus becomes a convenient instrument the state uses to manage the economy, rather than a tool the public turns to for enlightenment about how the economy operates. But because it is no longer firmly grounded in systematic empirical investigation of the working of the economy, it is hardly up to the task….The reduction of economics to price theory is troubling enough. It is suicidal for the field to slide into a hard science of choice, ignoring the influences of society, history, culture, and politics on the working of the economy. It is time to reengage the severely impoverished field of economics with the economy. Market economies springing up in China, India, Africa, and elsewhere herald unprecedented opportunities for economists to study how the market economy gains its resilience in societies with cultural, institutional, and organizational diversities (sic). But knowledge will come only if economics can be reoriented to the study of man as he is and the economic system as it actually exists.”
This plea echoes a movement of economics students a decade ago, calling itself “post-autistic economics”, which later took the form of the real-world economics review. In addition, the legions of heterodox economists multiply and an interdisciplinary World Economics Association, formed in 2011, soon acquired over 10,000 members. So there is plenty of resistance within the profession to an economics whose dominant model is one of rational choice in “free” markets. From Coase’s summary and these other developments we may infer several priorities: to reconnect the study of the economy to the real world; to make its findings more accessible to the public; and to place economic analysis within a framework that embraces humanity as a whole, the world we live in. A century ago, Alfred Marshall defined economics as “both a study of wealth and a branch of the study of man” in his synthesis of the marginalist revolution, Principles of Economics (1890). Marshall was Keynes’ teacher at Cambridge, a cooperative socialist who also developed a Hegelian theory of the welfare state.
The “human economy” approach shares all these priorities. Our focus definitely draws inspiration from and seeks to contribute to the tradition of economic thought, but, more explicitly than the currents within economics described above, we are open to other traditions in the humanities and social sciences, notably anthropology, history and development studies. The Human Economy Program at the University of Pretoria has been shaped more directly by another movement of the last decade which now goes by the name of “alter-globalization”. It is the third phase of an international project that originated in the first World Social Forum held in Porto Alegre in 2001. The first phase (2002-2009) was a series of volumes in several languages, produced by a network of researchers and activists in Latin America and France, which aimed to introduce a wide audience to the core themes that might organize alternative approaches to the economy. These books, called Dictionary of the Other Economy, brought together short essays on the history of debate on particular topics and offered some practical applications of concepts relevant to building economic democracy. Taken together they pointed to a new language for addressing common problems of development. Continue reading ‘Manifesto for a human economy’ »