If an economic system is being designed in a top-down manner, coming up with one or more top-level goals is the place to start. Current economic systems have many goals, and the problem with that is that they sometimes compete, not in the sense of being opposite, but in the sense of giving contradictory guidance in certain situations. It is better to have fewer goals than many. Often goals for an economic system which are set up early in the history of the system are added to or modified in later eras. So, in designing an economic system, it is important to choose few goals, but also to choose them in a way which makes they less liable to change as time goes on. Societies change as technology changes, so this factor is one which should assist in the choice of goals.
In early eras, there was a clear goal. It was to benefit the upper echelon of society. Ever since there was a top leader, it has been the leader and his court or companions which have been the recipients of most of the benefits of the society. This group may represent one percent of the total population, or twice that or half that, but in any economy, the beneficiaries of the economy are a small fraction, and they are those who command the economy. In different places it has been military leaders, and in others the descendants of military leaders. In later eras, the benefits flowed to a top layer of individuals who had ownership rights on much of the land in their vicinity. Even later, it was a group of owners of businesses who prospered far more than anyone else. Later than that, it was the owners of financial establishments who received the lion’s share of the benefits of the society. In other societies, it was the higher castes which benefited the most, in the sense of having a higher living standard, or more freedom from want.
Only in very recent times has there been much discussion of a wider distribution of benefits. There was never any discussion about whether it makes much sense to have such a wide distribution of benefits. In one aspect, it is a question of the division between the use of the products of society for infrastructure and common defense and other society-wide tasks and for direct consumption. The direction of a large share of the benefits of society to a small top-level percentage of the population means that this group’s consumption uses will not use up the whole amount of benefits allocated to them, and therefore there will be an amount available, usable for any benefit to the whole of society. Traditionally, the control of the allocation process has been in the hands of a such a small percentage of population, and this has resulted in the provision of things that the society needs to gradually improve. Over periods of time, this allocation pattern has resulted in the economic growth of societies.
There are some quantitative measures that might be discussed. Society needs a balance between these different allocation factors, and the fractions allocated to lower class consumption, to upper class luxury consumption, to various societal needs, to supporting economic growth, to supporting technology development and deployment, and other ones that might be critical to the improvement of a society. The wrong set of values for these fractions might lead to social collapse, or revolution, or loss of defense capability, or simply stagnation or negative growth.
If there is one goal for society that seems to transcend others, it is self-preservation. If there is something in a socio-economic system which causes the society to split in two, or to descend into turmoil, or to lead to invasion, or to give rise to waves of criminality, or some other ill, then this is perhaps the strongest indication that this particular socio-economic system is flawed and not to be recommended. It is not that there is some unique lack in a bad socio-economic system, but instead a departure from a range of values which worked. If too much allocation goes to upper class luxury or to the process of altering the allocation fractions via financial manipulations or corruption of the political tax-levying process,then the socio-economic system may get into trouble.
There are feedback loops which definitely change the allocation of benefits, and if these are allowed to control it, instead of themselves being monitored and controlled, the system may depart from the range where the society is successful and may move into a danger zone, where one or more of the pitfalls of a system can arise. Some strong controls would be necessary in order to thwart these feedback loops.
Perhaps the strongest feedback loop is the one where wealth is used to concentrate wealth further. Because of the diversity of mechanisms by which this can happen, only direct controls on the accumulation of wealth can control it. Controls on income alone might be bypassed, if there are ways that, covertly or overtly, can add to the wealth of particular individuals. Wealth controls can be done by different formulas, and can be thought of as some type of property taxes. There are few historical instances of progressive property taxes, where it is not the value of property itself which is used but the concentration of property ownership which is the important variable. However, this seems to be the only taxation method which will control corruption and excess allocation to the leadership cohort.
Why not give gigantic amounts of benefits to the leadership cohort? There needs to be capital amassed for many purposes in a society, and the old method of having the leadership cohort take it and use it for socially beneficial purposes did bring society this far. There are three reasons for looking for a better way of allocating benefits. One is that the allocation of great wealth to a small minority works for some range of allocation, but because of the feedback effects of wealth concentration, it always increases until there is a breakdown in society. The second is that the provision of social benefits is voluntary on the part of the extremely wealthy, and may be very distorted in the choices of what is to be supported, with vital needs being shortchanged while frivolous expenses increase. The third is that as society becomes more aware of economics, unearned income, solely for the purposes of capital accumulation for valuable purposes of the society will appear and be appreciated as a wrong solution.
All three of these reasons can be collected under the goal of having a society which continues, instead of breaking down in one of the many ways that societies can suffer or even collapse. It is curious that this goal, the preservation or survival of the society is analogous to the first goal of any living organism. Survival is built in to the genetic programming of all organic creatures, and it makes sense to also attribute it to social arrangements. Once primates, and subsequently humanoids, divided themselves into clans or small groups who cooperated rather than competed, the concept of clan or group preservation made sense. So not only does this primary goal of living organisms match that of the proposed goal of the socio-economic system which we are trying to design, the same goal is present in the organization of humans and earlier, humanoids, into cooperating groups. It is almost a tautology that a group which does not concentrate on self-survival will disappear and be replaced by a group which does concentrate on self-survival. Thus, there should be little reason to dispute this goal as being the most elemental one for a socio-economic system.
What about other goals? There are an uncountable number of possibilities, all of which arise from some emotional connection between a person and a concept. Take justice. Each person can define what justice is, and there will be some discrepancies between one person’s take on this and another’s. The same goes for all of these emotionally derived goals for a socio-economic system. There may be some core to some or all of these concepts, but which of them might be taken as preeminent enough to be used to define the structures, organization and procedures of a society attempting to live under a new socio-economic system. Self-preservation does not have much of the heightened enthusiasm associated with it as a fair society, a just society, or other similar concepts, but as discussed above, it is much more fundamental.
Are any further goals other than self-preservation needed to define how a socio-economic system should be structured? Do the mechanisms of a society help to define how it might be defined? In order to fully utilize the goal of self-preservation can be used to define the whole structure of society, there has to be a model of how human beings behave. Only by understanding, well and in detail, how humans would act within a society can this goal be fully utilized.