A Systems Approach to Economics

[This page explains the poster presented at Operations Research Society Conference, Bath, UK, Sep 2023]

In 2020 Mark Carney, ex-governor of the Bank of England, gave the Reith Lectures on Values in Economics. A group of us began discussing the lectures, and continued for over two years.

This Reith Lectures Discussion Group (RLDG) discussed many problems in economics and also a wide range of recent authors and ideas. The wide range of problems, some on the word-cloud on the poster (overleaf), arise from giving economics too much importance, e.g. governments open up fossil fuel exploration because they want "economic growth"; individuals choose cheap clothes made by slave labour. Results: climate change, slavery. An equally wide range of proposals have been made on what should be done; see "2. Plethora" on poster.

This is a very fragmented situation! How do we make sense of it all?

The RLDG realised that economics needs a radical rethink and reframing. So we set about it from five unusual perspectives (middle of poster overleaf), which revealed things that most seem to overlook, such as the importance of societal attitude and mindset, of faith, of unpaid household activity. As a conceptual tool with which to think holistically yet systematically, we employed Dooyeweerd's suite of fifteen aspects (Table in bottom half of the poster). For example, the plethora of proposals may be understood as each contributing ideas meaningful in various aspects (middle column of Table).

Reframing Economics

We focus on four main fundamental issues, and we employ Dooyeweerd's aspects to ensure a broad and deep consideration of them. The issues, summarised top-right on the poster, are linked by thin lines to columns of the table where examples meaningful in each aspect are given.

1. The Meaning, Mandate and Mindset of Economics - because (we believe) economics has lost its way. Meaning + Mandate: to most affluent governments, economic growth overwhelmingly determines policy; to many people earning becomes the overriding determiner of life. Mindset: economics isolated from other spheres of life. Recent ideas: Doughnut Economics, De-growth, Post-growth.

Our proposal: Economics should serve and work with all other spheres, all contributing to Overall Good, whether climate, biodiversity and food systems (physical, biotic aspects), psychological health, or the aesthetic, moral and pistic spheres (column 2 in Table). And that should shape economics theory and practice. See Chapter 4.

2. Multiple Kinds of Value - because economics must take all kinds into account, especially in measurements. GDP problem 1: it measures only monetary value. So unpaid household work, environmental and wellbeing issues long ignored. Recent ideas: Carney, Mazzucato, Wellbeing Economics, Environmental Economics, UNSD-SNA, GHI, HDI, Ecological Footprint.

Our proposal: Use Dooyeweerd's aspects to systematically understand, analyse and assess all kinds of value, to include them in all economics equations, models and decisions (column 3). See Chapter 5.

3. Properly Understand Economic Activity - because often only economic behaviour is recognised - labour, capital, money, etc. Thus biology, ecology, psychology, social functioning, justice, attitude, mindset are treated as amorphous externalities. Recent ideas: Dasgupta, Behavioral Economics.

Our proposal: Recognise functioning in every aspect, especially our hidden societal mindset and attitude. Reconceive money in terms of functioning in each aspect (column 5). See Chapter 6.

4. Separate Good, Harmful and Useless - because current economic practice and theory conflates them. GDP problem 2: GDP adds value of harmful economic activity to good, so there is incentive to increase harm. Governments and individuals ignore harm caused especially when long-term or indirect, e.g. climate change, when thinking economics. Useless = 'baubles' and 'Bullshit' jobs, which could be reduced without pain. Recent ideas: Mazzucato, Graeber, Shumacher but few others.

Our proposal: In economics theory and as a norm for practice, properly distinguish harmful, useless economic activity from good in each aspect. GDP should = Good minus Harm rather than Good plus Harm? See Chapter 7.

See also our foundational perspectives.


This reframing applies to both economic practice and theory. It embraces, critiques and enriches, both left and right, recent and conventional, orthodox and heterodox economics.

Can you help develop this approach? See Rethinking Economics with the help of Philosophical and Christian Perspectives.