In the context of an enduring economic crisis where social, environmental and political issues are globalized, considering the future of economics and studying the ways of building a good or better society should be the main foci of scholars. However, these topics are not (or not enough) at the core of the current scientific agenda, mostly centred on “normal science”, in the sense of Kuhn (1962). Heterodox thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries however provided clues on the methods and questions to be asked to consider economics as a whole system of thought and to be able to understand and perhaps modify the various facets of the economic reality. This article builds on the review of three books by authors offering such alternative economic views: John Kenneth Galbraith, written by James Ronald Stanfield and Jacqueline Bloom Stanfield and published in the series “Great thinkers in economics” of Palgrave Macmillan in 2011; Alternatives Perspectives of a Good Society, edited by John Marangos and published in the series “Perspectives from Social Economics” of Palgrave Macmillan in 2012 and Interdisciplinary Economics. Kenneth E. Boulding’s Engagement in the Sciences, edited by Wilfred Dolfsma and Stefan Kesting in 2013 and part of the series “Routledge Studies in the History of Economics” of Routledge.
The book of J. R. Stanfield and J. B. Stanfield (2011) is a “portrait of the life and work of a great intellectual and heterodox political economist” (Preface, p. x). It is organized in 8 chapters which examine chronologically the main contributions and subjects studied by John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) along his “multiple” life (where economics and politics were always combined). The book edited by J. Marangos presents “alternative views on societies, methodologies and policies and assessment of the current and future elements of society” (Marangos, 2012, pp. 1-2) with the aim to reach a “good” or a “better” society. It includes 10 chapters which are the result of a joint session of AFEE (Association for Evolutionary Economics) and ASE (Association for Social Economics) at the 2010 ASSA (Allied Social Science Association) meeting in Atlanta. The book edited by W. Dolfsma and S. Kesting comes back to the works of Kenneth E. Boulding (1910-1993) with the aim “to address interdisciplinary research in the social sciences in general and in economics in particular” (Dolfma, Kesting, 2013, p. 4). It gathers, in 14 parts, key texts written by K. E. Boulding on the various topics he studied (systems theory, unity of social sciences, economics and morality, communication/persuasion, power theory, evolutionary economics, institutions/institutional economics, ecological economics, cultural economics, grants economics, conflict resolution & peace, teaching, the future of economics). Each part is also illustrated with poems and drawings of this eclectic intellectual and his key texts are discussed by several authors.
What does a “good society” mean?
For all the authors of this volume, the conception of a good or a better society is firmly based on the criticism of mainstream economics, that is to say on the neoclassical conception of what a good society represents.
As recalled by Marangos and Astroulakis (2012, p. 83), a good society according to mainstream economics, is perceived as “the end state of development”, which is determined by the amount of saving that leads to investment and to the growth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), by the increase of material consumption in terms of economic well-being and by the maximization of individual utility. In a nutshell, according to the authors, mainstream economics perceives the good society as the Western affluent society, which as such, is colored by economic imperialism.
This willingness to demonstrate that higher income and consumption are not the ultimate goals of societies is of course shared by more reformist economists, even if they do not comply with the Marxist conception of imperialism. In all his intellectual life, and more specifically in one of his most important book The Affluent Society (1956), J. K. Galbraith aimed to challenge the “creed that made increased production the ultimate test of social achievement” (Stanfield, Stanfield, 2011, p. 96). This focus on production and higher income were for him the result of a “conventional wisdom”, that is “a framework for interpreting observed events within the canon of traditional thought” (ibid). It originated in a context of scarcity and produced “a tradition of despair” which did not anymore correspond to the economic and social context of the 20th century.
On this grounds, the three books offer alternative views about the “nature and prospects for a good (or better) institutional ordering of our society” (Mutari, 2012, p. 191)  If E. Mutari refers to the chapters included in J..... It is worth noting that whereas the authors examined in this review do not all share the same theoretical system of thinking and the same political vision, all consider that change or evolution characterize the economic system. As a consequence, a good society would not be the “best” or “perfect” society, due to the contradictions that result from any change process or from the imperfection of reforms. They also have in common the idea according to which a democratic process is central in building a shared vision of what a future society should be. Their main point of divergence regards their willingness – or not – to maintain the capitalist foundations of the economic system.
According to Marx and Engels, as explained by A. Campbell (2012), the building of a better society is an unending process, resolving some present contradiction and creating new ones. A good or a better society – relative to the present – would be a post-capitalist one, which goal would be “that humanity be allowed and socially supported in authentic self-development” (p. 13).
The idea of creating a collective shared vision is central in the ethical thinking about economics. For K. E. Boulding, as recalled by W. Waller, “human betterment, the improvement in well-being broadly defined to include care and maintenance of the biosphere in which human beings exist, was a constant theme in Boulding’s scholarly career” (Waller, 2013, p. 262). To change the image of the future  It is worth noting with Waller, that “Boulding abandons..., Boulding puts his faith in the power of message and communication in the alteration of the image. Communication and integrative power contribute to the construction of an individual’s image that allows groups of people to work together for the common good as they collectively perceive it. Precisely, J. Marangos and N. Atroulakis (2012) propose an ethical framework for a good society that also shares this idea of a collective creation of a shared vision of the future. They recall that development ethics is a relatively new discipline represented by direct forerunners such as Gandhi, Myrdal or Lebret in the 19th and 20th century, even if its origin can be traced to Ancient Greek philosophy (Aristotle). These authors argue that beyond prosperity, namely economic growth, there are other elements that determine the concept of good life and good society and there is not a unique manner of perceiving a good society. As a consequence for development ethicists, a good society is a self-oriented procedure that each society or nation should evaluate under the prism that everyone needs life sustaining goods, freedom and dignity.
For J. K. Galbraith, a good society would be a society where the shortcomings of the affluent society would be corrected. More precisely, as stated by Stanfield and Stanfield (2011, p. 104), “Galbraith’s ‘ultimate purpose’ was to clear the way for recognition of the opportunities that would emerge were the more-is-better mentality put aside, allowing democratic capitalist societies to put their enormous power to saner and more humane use”. The drawbacks of the affluent society are linked to the obdurate concern for economic growth, which blurs the ‘dependence effect’ observed in the process of want creation (we shall come back on this later). One of the most damaging consequences of this ideology of growth is according to Galbraith the “social imbalance” between public and private sector output. According to the author, “the preoccupation with expanding production and the process of consumer want creation that sustains it tend to generate relative penury in the public sector” (Stanfield, Stanfield, 2011, p. 106). Another linked consequence is that the questions of inequality and economic insecurity had been neglected by economics or subsumed under the overriding objective of raising production.
While not central in the œuvre of Galbraith, The Good Society (1996) stands as “a missive to the socially concerned” that sums “the principles and judgments that guided the lengthy life of a paragon of progressive modern liberalism” (Stanfield, Stanfield, 2011, p. 188). According to Galbraith, a good society, while characterized by a necessary strong and stable economic growth, should be based on “universal inclusion” and not on inequality and discrimination. In such a society, the market economy should be structured by a political – legal and ethical framework and sustained by education. In this ‘amendatory and not revolutionary’  This is the way Galbraith defined Post Keynesian economics... vision, policy reform is needed to accommodate to the constant evolution of the industrial society.
Quite similarly, N. Karagiannis and Z. Madj-Sadjadi define a good society as “a sustainable society with a high level of development and low levels of inequalities and social ills” (Karagiannis, Madjd-Sadjadi, 2012, p. 148). Such a vision of a good society leads to a discussion about the pivotal role of governments in its building. And, according to the Feminist perspective, the debate on the nature of a good society should also include gender, and more particularly the process whereby households convert formal production into consumable goods and services to provide the needs of societies (see Shönpflug, 2012 and Duggan and Hopkins, 2012).
Barriers and possible steps towards the building of a good society
The barriers to the building of a good society may be found in the foundations and/or on the behaviors of actors within the economic system.
For Marxist economists, the barriers to the building of a good or better society are to be found in the very foundations of the economic system: the private property of production means and the inclusion of all social function and of all natural, physical and intellectual resource in the capitalist accumulation process. Studying the place of finance in capitalism D. P. Sotiropoulos, J. Milios and S. Lapatsioras (2012) for example go against the current ideas according to which financialization is the result of excessive behaviours that lead to the growth of the financial sphere and to its separation from the real one. Rather, they put forward finance as a ‘technology of power’ which organizes capitalist power relations. They thus show how money and finance were absorbed in the capitalist accumulation institutional framework. However as Marx explained, the economic and social system contains its own contradictions which necessarily lead to its questioning. In the view of Marx and Engels, the conception of a good or better society necessitates the negation of the barriers to the development of the human potential posed by capitalism (A. Campbell, 2012, p. 20). This needs the transformation of institutions but also of humans.
For Galbraith and for social liberal economists, the barriers to the building of a good society are more to be found in behaviours than in the foundations of the economic system. The power exercised by the large corporation was extensively studied by Galbraith in one of his most famous book The New Industrial State (1967). Galbraith recognized the usefulness of the large corporation to ensure investments required by the technological progress of the 20th century and to face the growing uncertainty of markets, which explained the growing power of the technostructure. But he not only emphasized the internal impacts of such power (the power exercised by the managers over the shareholders in the governance of big companies) but also the external power of such an organization which notably leads to the “revised sequence”, referring to the great corporations’ influence on consumer and political culture.
The creation of wants relies on a demonstration effect (where wants rely or depend upon what ones sees others consuming). For Galbraith, as for Boulding, tastes are not given  Boulding notably criticized the “Immaculate Conception..., but are more ensuing from “processes by which cultures are created and by which preferences are learned” (Boulding, 1968, in Dolfsma and Kesting, 2013, p. 114). For Galbraith, this emphasis on growth and consumption as well as the process of want creation all relied upon strong “vested interests”, a growth lobby made of “business executives and technical professionals who ran the social machinery of production, wealthy people who had accumulated purchasing power, politicians whose platforms and constituencies were based on government fostering of growth, and academic economists whose central ideas were concerned with scarcity and growth all had varying degrees of vested interests in the continuing obsession with expanding production” (Stanfield, Standield, 2011, p. 100).
To overcome the barriers, the visions of the studied economists diverge with some considering that the whole system has to change and those who advocate that the behaviours, and thus the system, may be corrected, through the emergence of countervailing powers.
As recalled by A. Campbell (2012), Marx and Engels opposed the sort of detailed prescription for a better society that they attack in the work of Saint Simon or Fourier. They prefer to give indications regarding the characteristics of what would be a good society. A. Campbell lists 13 of these characteristics of a socialist economy mainly found or deduced from the Critique of the Gotha Programme. Among them, we find a collective society, a democratic decision making, a common ownership of the means of production, only the means of consumption can be individually owned, absence of money and of production of value, absence of exchange of products among producers, no capitalist markets, a same wage for all individuals, the exchange of equivalents. Also, the transition towards communism would need a change in the nature of work (compared to the socialist period and notably with the elimination of the distinction between work and non work) and of the concepts of right and justice with the adoption of a principle of rights based on needs. In the aim of building a society where democratic decision making is widely spread out to as many social domains as possible, D. P. Sotiropoulos, J. Milios and S. Lapatsioras (2012) put forward the necessary revival of social movements, associated with the production by radical thinking of a critique to the dominant ideology of the ruling classes. This could contribute to analyze finance and money as collective goods and import this idea to the social movements in order to promote political actions leading to the restriction of the logic of capitalism. This would be an important step to the building of a good society.
To face the shortcomings of our society and the growing power of some actors (like the large corporation), Galbraith stressed the role of the state which is to act as a countervailing power through regulations, education and information. “Countervailing power” was his term for constraint on the exercise of power that emerged from the opposite side of market. Notwithstanding the fact that countervailing power could emerge from the demand side of the market, “the state is the only social entity that conceivably could exercise sufficient countervailing power to the great corporation oligarchy to achieve reform of the governance regime” (Stanfield, Stanfield, 2011, p. 153.). For K. E. Boulding, countervailing powers could be “remedies for the pathologies of persuasion”, where persuasion is an attempt to change the mind of another favourably to the first: “There are undoubtedly countervailing powers to pathologies of persuasion. We see this, for instance, in the tremendous development of citizen initiatives, the development of the environmental movement, the consumer movement, innumerable private organizations to check on the sins both of corporate business and of government” (Boulding, 1989, in Dolfsma, Kesting, 2013, p. 182). Boulding also considered that information technology, generating an enormous spread of person-to-person communication could also provide a countervailing power.
For A. De Ruyter, A. Singh, T. Warnecke and A. Zammit (2012), governments have indeed a pivotal role in the building of a good society. Their paper draws upon the debate around labour standards and examines the evolution of work, in the era of the Washington consensus, particularly in less-developed countries. They show how this consensus based on liberalization, privatization and deregulation intensified the push for labour flexibility and the extension of vulnerable employment, mostly informal. As a consequence core labour standards (the ones’ of the international labour organization) are not sufficient and difficult to implement in the informal sector and should be supplemented with noncore standards implemented by governments with the aim of facilitating the growth of waged, decent employment. They highlight the pivotal role of government which should act as an “employer of last resort” and can create the legislative and macro-economic framework necessary to facilitate the extension of decent work, promote gender equity, and thereby enable the shift to a good society.
Even more strongly, according to N. Karagiannis and Z. Madjd-Sadjadi (2012), the recent shift to “less state” does not work: “The state is not only central to economic and social development as a partner, catalyst and facilitator but perhaps the most important institution of a good society” (Karagiannis, Madjd-Sadjadi, p. 151). Reassessing the developmental state argument through the example of various countries, the authors argue that to promote a good society, a modern developmental state should be implemented. This implies strong policy instruments that will enable the States to plan and finance their strategic goals such as job creation, higher mass living standards, R&D, competency, environmental protection.
Whatever their position, all the studied authors invite the reader to reassess the way economics is considered, studied and taught. One of the main contributions of all the authors is thus to pave the way towards an “open” economics. We could define an open economics as a discipline (namely economics) which promotes a dialogue and a cooperation with other disciplines (notably history, sociology, environmental sciences, and so forth) in order to be able to study an economic problem in its concrete reality and not only according to hypotheses rigidly defined by a theoretical corpus.
Towards an open economics
In the aim of building a good or a better society, all the authors reviewed here did not stay entangled in the boundaries of their narrow disciplines but tried to include new questions, new methods and new answers and to find new path towards the creation of a good or a better society. Whatever research topic, which are recalled or given as examples below, they all provide stimulus to think and conduct research differently (from mainstream economics), in a more integrative than exclusive way.
S. Pressman (2012) shows for example the inadequacies of the standard neoclassical methodology and policy prescription to study and to face current economic and social problems. He takes the example of obesity and describes its recent rise in the US. The “fat tax”, ensuing from the mainstream analysis is meant to counter any externalities that result from people’s preferences to eat sweet and fatty foods and become obese but it is notably contradicted by the willingness of many American people to lose weight. According to the author, the problem of obesity would be better understood in replacing it (in an evolutionary psychology perspective) with the long history of human race (the tastes for sweet and fatty foods developed for reasons of survival) and within the strategy of large food companies which largely contributed to the human addiction to this kind of food. This analysis highlights the difficulties for economics to give clear explanations of current problems and to propose adequate policies to face them. This is for example the case with the global crisis of 2008. According to R. Boyer (2012), the inability of the discipline to anticipate the crisis but also to explain it ex post is particularly due to its fractionation in quasi-autonomous sub-disciplines which, taken as a whole, may prove to be contradictory: “It is one of the explanations of the current state of ‘economics’: the anomie of the division of labour within it has destroyed as much the coherence of the discipline as its capacity to account for the major transformations of contemporary economies” (our translation, Boyer, 2012, p. 165).
In the three books discussed in this review, the authors also put forward the importance of methodology and of opening research to other disciplines. To illustrate the role of methodology for research in the thinking of how to create a better economic system, L. S. Duggan and B. E. Hopkins (2012) concentrate on the field of Comparative Economy Systems, which aim is to examine and compare “the workings of different sets of economic institutions and the ways in which institutions may be combined to achieve various goals, such as growth, efficiency and equity” (Duggan, Hopkins, 2012, p. 58) and which was historically applied to all economic systems. They explain the evolution of research methodology in this field, from case study to models in the recent period, and point out the absence of gender analysis in both methodologies. They advocate for the creation of a Comparative Gendered Economic Systems which would improve the analysis of economic systems as well as the debate about the nature of a good economic system, since it would bring a richer understanding of the gendering of institutions and economic systems. According to the authors, three necessary steps have to be achieved: the first one involves replacing the traditional CES emphasis on state versus private ownership with a focus on how economic structures impact men and women differently. A second step would be to focus the analysis on households (which can be considered as institutions) and to assign such analysis a higher priority than firms and labour markets. And a third one would be to emphasize equity as the primary outcome used to evaluate any economic system. Interdisciplinarity is also a way to better understand the shortcomings of our society notably discrimination and inequalities, which are studied by K. Schönpflug (2012) through the care paradox that is embedded in an arrangement of gendered separate spheres. The author puts forward the necessity, in order to build a good society to undo gender and other cultural norms on symbolic, institutional and personal levels. She also advocates interdisciplinary research including a feminist perspective.
Interdisciplinary Research was indeed the main claim of K. E. Boulding. In his General systems theory, he considered that “the more science breaks into sub-groups, and the less communication is possible among the disciplines, however, the greater chance there is that the total growth of knowledge is being slowed down by the loss of relevant communications” (K. E. Boulding, 1956, in Dolfsma and Kesting, 2013, p. 22). He thus advocated the importance of interdisciplinary research. His transdisciplinary general systems theory means that “all domains of life are interconnected through sets of relationships that exhibit common patterns and properties that can be addressed across the different sciences” (Davis, 1989, in Dolfsma and Kesting, 2013, p. 155). Moreover, he considered economics, as well as all social sciences as value laden, which means that “no sciences of any kind can be divorced from ethical considerations” (Boulding, 1968, p. 114). Economics cannot only be represented by the system of exchange, but is connected to two other systems (in Boulding’s terminology): the threat/fear system and integrative/love system. This, according to him, makes economics a “moral science”.
In the same perspective, development ethics, as defined by J. Marangos and N. Astroulakis, is interdisciplinary. It “bridges the social sciences, philosophy and humanities, taking under consideration the economic, political cultural, institutional, ideological and ethical aspects of individuals and societies” (Marangos, Astouliakis, 2012, p. 80). To meet the main ethical goals “life-sustenance, esteem and freedom” that should be the ones of a good society, three main strategies are proposed by development ethics: Abundance of goods (or enough goods that lead to the satisfaction of the biological needs), Universal solidarity in societies and among individuals and Participation of all people in decision making.
Perhaps more important than interdisciplinary research, for J. K. Galbraith, is the need for – or a come-back to – a true “political economy”. According to him, (1991, pp. 44-45, quoted by Stanfield, Stanfield, 2011, p. 24), “no clear line separates economics from political interest… I do not wish to see economics indifferent to larger political and social concerns. Economics, as I have urged, should not be a soulless abstraction; it is in the service of the larger social good”.
Being an open-minded intellectual also means trying to open innovative paths, which necessitate both to build “on the shoulder of giants” but also to take account of the limits of their analysis and/or prescriptions. Whereas the ‘conventional wisdom’ considers that any radical attempt to change the society ends in unescapable failures, the current globalized economic, social and political problems likewise demonstrate day by day the limits of reformist perspectives. This means that something new has to be thought, taught and tried: thanks to the reading of these three books, minds and doors can now be open.