History Of Economics Research Paper

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Economics emerged from the more venerable discipline of political economy during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The science of economics offers explanations of phenomena such as money, prices, and the production and exchange of goods. At its broadest sweep, it seeks the means to human happiness and prosperity.

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1. Historical Background

While insights on economic phenomena can be found in the works of Plato (c. 427–347 BC), Aristotle (384–322 BC), and the medieval commentaries their work spawned, it was only in the early modern period, coincident with the Scientific Revolution, that a full-fledged discourse emerged. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), Jean Bodin (1530–96), Thomas Mun (1571–1641), William Petty (1623–87), and John Locke (1632–1704) are some of the more prominent figures of the sixteenth and seventeenth century who wrote on the subjects of money and trade. Copernicus and Bodin articulated the quantity theory of money, that a growth in the money stock results in a rise in prices, a phenomenon observed in Europe since the influx of gold and silver from overseas. Mun, a leading mercantilist and advocate of net exports as the key to England’s prosperity, recognized that market forces transcend legal and institutional arrangements, and that genuine wealth comes from the growth of domestic production and the enrichment of the land. Petty was one of the first to devise quantitative measurements of economic phenomena, including per capita output. Locke refined the quantity theory of money, noting the velocity of money, and devised a labor theory of value. He also wedded the historic right to private property with the virtue of industry, and thus launched the liberal doctrine of political economy which subsequently played a profound role in the American constitution.

In the eighteenth century, the most distinguished treatises and essays on political economy were issued by Richard Cantillon (c. 1680–1734), David Hume (1711–76), Francois Quesnay (1694–1774), Ferdinando Galiani (1728–87), James Steuart (1712–80), and Adam Smith (1723–90), but there were hundreds of lesser known contributors to the subject. Hume and Quesnay were the most influential thinkers prior to Smith. Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40) argued that property claims were artificial and not natural, and thus had no deeper links to justice. Promise-keeping and contracts were privileged as the original steps in the formation of human society. In a series of Political Essays (1750), Hume made a number of brilliant insights on money, including his celebrated specie-flow mechanism whereby the gold supply and price level equilibrate via international trade. Hume also recognized that a sudden and unanticipated growth in the money stock can have real effects on output, at least in the interim between the influx of gold and the adjustment of prices. Hume also celebrated the advent of commerce as the means to bring peace and civility. Whereas Locke had highlighted the advent of money in prehistoric times as the critical moment when the accumulation of wealth became ethical, Hume pointed to the much more recent ubiquitous use of money, ‘where no hand is empty of it,’ as the more critical transition in human history.

Quesnay founded the first school of economics, known as Physiocracy, or the rule of nature. The Physiocrats or les economistes maintained that wealth only comes from the gifts of nature, from the fact that one plants one seed in the spring and obtains two in the fall. Wealth thus only truly grows in the agrarian sector, and so all policy measures should be taken to promote the cultivation of the land. All manufacturing activities were deemed sterile, merely transmuting materials but incapable of augmenting them. Quesnay devised one of the first models in economic theory, his celebrated tableau economique, which depicted the economy as a circular flow of money and goods between three sectors, the farmers, the artisans, and the landowners. The tableau adumbrated a nascent version of the multiplier via the ‘zig-zag’ transference of wealth from one sector to another over the course of a year. Physiocracy was widely influential, particularly on the work A. R. J. Turgot (1727–81) and Smith.

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) canvassed the entire field of economics, including the theories of value and distribution, trade and development, public finance, even economic history and the history of economics. Smith rightly is admired for his concept of the ‘invisible hand,’ that highlighted the unintended and beneficial consequences of self-interested behavior. The idea that private vices might have public benefits had already been articulated by Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733), in his parody of human society, the Fable of the Bees (1714). Smith explored at length the problem of virtuous action in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), which grounded human action in a natural capacity for sympathy and the desire for the approval of others. For all his emphasis on the pursuit of wealth, Smith saw it as a hollow dream, the futile pursuit of trinkets and baubles. But because we are deceived into thinking that wealth brings happiness, we work hard and thus keep the world going. Arguably no one has surpassed Smith in weaving such a penetrating and cynical view of human nature into such an expansive theory of material wellbeing.

Smith’s ideas were extended and refined by, most notably, Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834), JeanBaptiste Say (1767–1832), David Ricardo (1772–1823), and John Stuart Mill (1806–73), a tradition now known as the Classical school of political economy. The Classical economists emphasized a cost-of-production (labor) theory of value and the competing claims of the three economic classes (laborers, landowners and capitalists) over the annual product, most aptly depicted as the fall harvest of corn (wheat). Landowners and their servants were engaged in unproductive labor insofar as they did not produce tangible goods for consumption or investment. Malthus advanced a theory of population growth that reinforced the view that capital accumulation would reach a plateau in the not too distant future. Say popularized many of Smith’s principles and also argued against the possibility of gluts in production.

Ricardo devised a novel theory of rent, as a return to the original and indestructible powers of the soil. Rent was a pure residual, and did not enter into the formation of prices. Ricardo highlighted the inverse tendencies of wages and profits, and recognized the importance of transfers of capital between different sectors of the economy. He also worked out the principle of comparative advantage in trade, predicated on the international immobility of capital. Mill extended the analysis by introducing nation-specific patterns of demand and rigidities in foreign exchange rates.

For the Classical economists, pricing came about after distribution, which was in turn determined by natural laws, for example, Malthusian laws governing the growth of population and the diminishing returns of the soil. Because of this emphasis on the natural order, the Classical economists tended to view their laws as inexorable, the result of forces deeper then any human action or process of deliberation. Even money was seen as having a motion of its own that transcended human agency. Scarcity, doom, and gloom were prevalent motifs to that set of writings, notwithstanding the remarkable growth rate of the European economy throughout the nineteenth century. Economists worried about the onset of the stationary state, whereby the profit rate fell and capital accumulation came to a halt; overpopulation resulted in a world of ‘standing room only.’ It is now apparent that they underestimated the potential for technological invention and innovation, both in the form of labor-saving and capital-saving procedures. Even if they did not comprehend the full ramifications of the industrial revolution of the late eighteenth century, there had already been many indicators in the agrarian sector that new techniques of plant breeding, crop rotation, and fertilization could have dramatic consequences for the accumulation of wealth. The reasons for their pessimism are still not fully understood.

2. Neoclassical Economics

Despite numerous appreciations by the Classical economists of the importance of utility or use-value in the determination of prices, it was only in the 1870s that economic theorists supplanted the labor theory of value with that of utility. Inspiration came from Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), who believed that utility could be quantified and all actions reduced to a calculus of pleasure and pain. This was accompanied by a recognition that economic phenomena stemmed from the deliberations of the mind, and thus the locus of economic agency shifted from that of classes to individuals. Insofar as all labor created utility, the Classical distinction between productive and unproductive labor no longer obtained. Herein lay the germ of the more optimistic tenor that characterizes the Neoclassical period. Wealth is nothing more than the maximization of utility; it is mental not material and thus knows no bounds. The Classical preoccupation with scarcity and the stationary state were thus swept aside.

The leading instigators of this so-called ‘Marginal Revolution’ were, in Britain, W. S. Jevons (1835–82), F. Y. Edgeworth (1845–1926) and Alfred Marshall (1842–1924) and, in Europe, Leon Walras (1834–1910) and Carl Menger (1840–1921). In the United States, the banner was carried by John Bates Clark (1847– 1938) and Irving Fisher (1867–1947). The British group explicitly dropped the adjective ‘political’ from the name of the discipline, and sought significant ways to enhance its professional standing, through the formation of the British Economic Society and the Economic Journal in 1891, and by expanding and upgrading the study of economics in the university curriculum. Economics already had a much greater standing in France, due to its close links with the study of engineering and law, but there too efforts were taken by Charles Gide (1847–1932) and others to consolidate its standing as a full-fledged science. In 1878, every French university established a chair in economics and, in 1887, the Revue d’economie politique was founded. In Vienna, Menger attracted a number of students, giving rise to a full-fledged ‘Austrian School’ that survived until the Second World War. American economists garnered recognition with the founding of the American Economic Association in 1885, and the creation of three journals, the Quarterly Journal of Economics (1887), the Journal of Political Economy (1892) the American Economic Review (1891).

The Classical theory of Smith and David Ricardo had looked more to long-run ‘natural’ prices than to those that fluctuate daily in the market place. With the new emphasis on utility and demand, economists such as Jevons, Walras, and Menger maintained that every observed price was the manifestation of individual mental deliberations. There was no underlying more fundamental price to discern over the long run. The price of a good was determined at the margin, at the point where a given economic agent chose to forgo an additional unit of one specific good, and spend her money on other goods. Similar tradeoffs were construed for labor and leisure, for investments and savings, and thus the wage and profit rates were equally seen to be the effects of deliberations at the margin.

Jevons’s grounding of the theory of prices in a concept of utility paved the way for the mathematization of economics. Market purchases were conceived as continuous functions of the utility that accrued to each additional infinitesimal unit of a good. Price ratios were posited to be commensurate to the last additional increments of utility that would be gained by additional purchases of two different goods. Insofar as each individual achieved this level of satisfaction, subject to budgetary constraints, their income would be perfectly distributed. Edgeworth found the means to incorporate Lagrangian techniques, thereby bringing added rigor to the concept of maximization. He also devised the indifference curve and contract curve, thus enabling a clearer representation of the links between individual deliberations and market maneuvers.

Marshall enriched the analysis of the demand curve, with rigorous definitions of elasticity and consumer surplus. He preferred to focus on the case of partial equilibrium, thus invoking numerous ceteris paribus conditions so as to isolate cases of comparative statics. Money income, for example, was held constant, as were the prices of all other commodities. Such simplifications, while unrealistic, were nonetheless insightful. To Marshall’s credit, he struggled throughout his life with the trade-off between theory and empirical veracity, and left numerous accounts of these inquiries.

Walras went further in that he posited an economy in general equilibrium, whereby a silent auctioneer would establish those prices which would clear all markets simultaneously. By depicting the economy as a series of equations, Walras was able to demonstrate that there was an equal number of unknown variables. Hence, an algebraic solution could in principle be found. More specifically, given n productive services (land, labor, and capital) producing m finished goods, individuals with specific endowments, budget constraints, and a given set of prices, would achieve the point where supply equals demand across the entire economy. Walras made a number of simplifying assumptions, for example, that input coefficients for production were fixed, and that prices could be defined in terms of a single good, serving as the numeraire. However, he was unable to demonstrate rigorously that there was such a general equilibrium. Important refinements of this theory were undertaken by numerous others, notably Eugen Slutsky (1880–1948), Gustav Cassel (1866–1945), Abraham Wald (1902–50), John Hicks (1904–89), Oskar Lange (1904–65), and Paul Samuelson. In the late 1950s Kenneth Arrow and Gerard Debreu provided the capstone for the theory of general equilibrium.

The most salient feature of economic theory since the 1870s is its systematic use of mathematics, particularly the calculus. Much of the original momentum to transform literary political economy into a mathematical discipline was drawn from the wish to emulate physics. Even in the eighteenth century, Adam Smith among others found ways to inject mechanistic imagery into economic theory, the tendency of prices, for example, to gravitate to their natural price. John Stuart Mill, in his System of Logic (1843), developed the first extensive argument for viewing political economy as a science much like Newtonian mechanics. Both sciences were primarily axiomatic and deductive, and nonexperimental. Verification came after one had derived the central principles from commonplace assumptions about the behavior of bodies, both human and physical. But political economy, Mill argued, could not make predictions with the kind of numerical precision of astronomy, and hence was deemed an inexact science.

What motivated the early marginalists to develop a mathematical theory was the realization that the phenomena themselves were quantitative, and that the mind deliberated in quantitative terms. They drew inspiration from new developments in logic and psychology, notably the work of George Boole (1815–64), Alexander Bain (1818–1903), and Theodore Fechner (1801–87). Strong analogies to the science of physics, notably mechanics and thermodynamics, also motivated the recasting of economics into mathematical form. Jevons, Walras, Edgeworth, Clark, Fisher, and Marshall each independently arrived at mathematical renditions of the theory of value and distribution. They found ways to apply geometry, algebra, probability theory, and the calculus. Economists have since adopted other mathematical techniques, such as topology, set theory, and have even linear programming trants to Wassily Leontie (1960–99).

In the period 1870 to 1930, many economists began to undertake the collection of large quantities of data and to estimate key economic variables or arrive at patterns such as business cycles. Efforts to measure and estimate key variables reach back to Petty, and statistical societies and investigations were commonplace by the mid-nineteenth century. But the systematic application of statistical methods and probability theory—what has come to be known as econometrics—only got underway by the Neoclassical period. Jevons, Henry Moore (1869–1958), and W. C. Mitchell (1874–1948) all attempted to discern business cycles by the regression of price data. Other important contributors to econometrics before the Second World War were Slutsky, Udny Yule (1871–1951), and Ragnar Frisch (1895–1973). Efforts to manage and plan the economy after the Great Crash of 1929 gave a significant boost to econometric research in Europe under the aegis of Jan Tinbergen (1903–94) and Trygve Haavelmo (1911–99) and in the United States in the form of the Cowles Commission. But while the Econometric Society was formed in 1930 and, in 1933, launched its own journal, Econometrica, the field only achieved full academic standing in the post-war period, and has obviously been much assisted with the advent of electronic computers.

3. Applied Economics

The Classical economists frequently engaged in public debates on such subjects as taxation, unionization, and foreign trade, but they nonetheless viewed their theoretical claims as in a separate sphere from their more practical ones. The art of political economy, the application of economic principles, was grounded in theoretical reflection, but also drew upon other bodies of knowledge, such as history, legal theory, and moral philosophy.

With the early Neoclassical economists, theory and policy became more closely linked, even though, paradoxically, the theory depicted an ideal world that was ahistorical and apolitical. The bridge principles which would link the world of Walrasian general equilibrium to the world as we know it have yet to be fully spelled out. Nevertheless, the tools of marginal utility were incorporated by Edgeworth and A. C. Pigou (1877–1959) quite readily into a branch called welfare economics, which addressed among other topics the age-old questions of distributive justice. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923) devised some important tools for the ranking of alternative allocations of resources. A given allocation was deemed to be a Pareto optimum if no alternative arrangement could make at least one person better off without worsening the state of another. A Pareto improvement is a step toward such an optimum.

Social welfare functions took utility to be additive and measurable, even though the early Neoclassists had cautioned against such assumptions. There is, as yet, no measurable unit of utility, a ‘util,’ and economists generally have abandoned such a search, despite the implicit use of cardinal measures in some areas of analysis. Furthermore, although appeals to utility attempt to locate judgments of the ‘good’ in the hands of individuals, welfare economics necessarily incorporates some ethical judgments, both in determining what is socially desirable and in making policy recommendations in a world of scarcity. The general stance, however, is one of ethical neutrality. As Pigou decreed, economic welfare is synonymous to the good.

Another important field in applied economics is money and banking. Here, the school in Sweden, notably Cassel and Knut Wicksell (1851–1926) stands out. Irving Fisher was instrumental in formulating in algebraic terms what came to be known as the quantity equation, and also undertook steps to measure the average velocity of money, the rate at which a monetary instrument passes from one hand to another in the course of a year. But the person to transform most fully our understanding of money and reluctance to spend was John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946), who unpacked the underlying motives for the demand for money in terms of precautionary, transactionary, and speculatory needs. Keynes revived the seventeenth-century concern for hoarding money as a primary cause of economic slumps, whereby interest and profit rates are so low as to deter any investment. To escape the ‘liquidity trap,’ Keynes recommended government intervention in the form of fiscal and monetary stimuli. He placed considerable faith in fiscal policy as the means to redistribute wealth, alleviate unemployment, and eventually liberate humankind from its passion for money. Keynes envisioned a world of developed economies run by decentralized institutions, whereby individuals would no longer be confined by economic necessity and could thereby transcend the cupidity that characterized the system of capitalism.

4. Heterodox Economics

Although the Neoclassical theory became the dominant position by the 1930s, there were many alternative streams of thought, some of which still survive to this day. In Germany, for example, such thinkers as Friedrich List (1789–1846), Gustav Schmoller (1838–1917), Werner Sombart (1863–1941), and Max Weber (1864–1920) were adamantly historical and sociological in their approach to the study of economic phenomena. They saw the Neoclassical commitment to rationality and mathematical methods as misguided. Others, such as Karl Kautsky (1854–1938) and Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919), followed in the footsteps of Karl Marx (1818–83), who had emphasized strife between economic classes and upheld the labor theory of value. Marxist economics had its longest lineage in Eastern Europe, in the works of Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), Nikolai Bukharin (1888–1938), Oskar Lange (1904–1965), and Michal Kalecki (1899–1970). Nikolai Kondratieff (1892–1931), while working under the Soviet system, made insights on the long waves of capitalism that were seen to be antithetical to Marxism.

In late-Victorian and Edwardian England, new schools of thought were founded that were either historical or socialist in orientation. Under the inspiration of Thorold Rogers (1823–90) and Arnold Toynbee (1852–83), economic history secured a firm toehold in the university curriculum, where subsequently it has flourished in the hands of William Ashley (1860–1927), G. D. H. Cole (1889–1959) and Phyllis Deane. The Fabians—George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), Sidney Webb (1859–1947), and Beatrice Webb (1858–1943)—were instrumental in founding the London School of Economics (1895), which soon abandoned its socialist roots. Built up by such eminent economists as Edwin Cannan (1861–1935), Lionel Robbins (1898–1984), and Friedrich Hayek (1899– 1992), the LSE became a leading institution for economic research and education. Sir John Hicks was the dominant figure at Oxford in the mid-twentieth century. At Cambridge University, two students of Keynes’s, Piero Sraffa (1898–1983) and Joan Robinson (1903–83), cultivated neo-Ricardian theories which drew attention to capital rigidities and imperfect competition. The contributions of Dennis Robertson (1890–1963), Richard Kahn (1905–89), and Nicholas Kaldor (1908–86), however, insured that Cambridge to this day is primarily aligned with Neoclassical thinking.

Yet another group drew inspiration from Carl Menger (1840–1921), whose Principles of Economics appeared in 1871, the same year as Jevons’s most important economic treatise. In one respect, these works bore a strong similarity in that they both treated prices in terms of the utility theory of value. But Menger was steeped in the tradition of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and G. F. Hegel (1770–1831), and was most sharply opposed to the German historical school of the mid-nineteenth century. He did not appreciate utilitarianism, nor the turn toward mathematical techniques. Together with his pupils, Friedrich von Weiser (1851–1926) and Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk (1851–1914), the Austrian school made strong commitments to methodological individualism, to the heroic efforts of the entrepreneur, and to the efficacy of market mechanisms. Introspection and a priori reasoning were the main methods of inquiry, insofar as economic phenomena were the products of a logic of choice. The Austrians also drew attention to the role of information, the scarcity of time, and the importance of defining economic needs and wants.

Both Joseph A. Schumpeter (1883–1950) and Hayek harked from Vienna, but moved considerably past the teachings of Menger. Both also emigrated to America before the Second World War and, in Hayek’s case, settled in England, so that their respective doctrines came to evince an interesting blend of Austrian rationalism and Anglo-American empiricism. Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942) and Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (1944) are two of the most popular nontechnical works of the twentieth century. Like Keynes, they attempted to predict the fate of capitalism as an economic system and speculate on the political measures required to sustain the status quo.

In America, under the inspiration of evolutionary biology and Social Darwinism, a school that came to be known as Institutionalism took shape with the work of, most notably, Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929), John R. Commons (1862–1945), and Wesley Clair Mitchell (1874–1948). They viewed economic phenomena in evolutionary terms; for example, human rationality was but one step from animal instinct. Human institutions were replete with contradiction; human striving was in many respects futile. Economic phenomena were treated in broader sociological terms, as part of the government and legal system. Although the Institutionalists failed to generate a large following, they were a viable force in the economics profession right through the 1940s and, more recently, have made a second coming in the form of New Institutionalism, as expounded by Douglass North most notably. Here, the salient concepts are transaction costs and institutions, which are defined as rule-setting bodies that serve to minimize such costs. From a different standpoint, Ronald Coase’s theorem shows that there are no externalities given zero transaction costs and well-defined property rights.

5. Postwar Developments

Since World War Two, Neoclassical economics, particularly in the United States, has become a formidable edifice. American economists garner the majority of the Nobel prizes in economics, and many non-American economists find it essential to spend some period of their career studying or teaching in the United States. Paul Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1947) provided the first mathematical exposition of price dynamics; Milton Friedman restored the monetarist doctrines of the pre-Keynesians and, more recently, John Muth, Thomas Sargent, and Robert Lucas have inspired a train of thinking known as the New Classicism. The efforts of Frank Knight (1885–1972) and Jacob Viner (1892–1970) made the University of Chicago the most prominent center for the study and dissemination of economic theory. More Nobel Laureates in economics have had an affiliation with that university than with any other.

Undoubtedly the most original and influential subfield to develop since the war has been game theory, which had antecedents in previous work, such as that of Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) and Augustin Cournot (1801–77), but which truly came into its own with the publication of John von Neumann (1903–57) and Oscar Morgenstern’s (1902–77) Theory of Games and Economic Beha ior (1944). Game theory has underscored the importance of uncertainty, of suboptimal outcomes, and of strategizing. It has also drawn attention to the significance of information as an economic resource. Similar kinds of analysis can be found in decision theory and rational choice theory, such as Arrow’s impossibility theorem.

Economists tend to specialize in one branch, some of which have longstanding roots, for example, labor economics or public finance. Other significant postwar developments are cliometrics (Robert Fogel), experimental economics (Vernon Smith), and household economics (Gary Becker). As with all of the aforementioned, the predominate aim is model building driven by mathematical tractability. Economists rarely seek laws of a general nature. In contrast to the economists of the Classical era, which might even be characterized as the glorious age of universal principles—the law of diminishing returns, of the falling rate of profit, and Say’s law, Neoclassical economists prescribe more limited generalizations, such as the Phillips curve or the Heckscher–Ohlin conditions for trade. The search for general laws seems like a task long forgotten. Nevertheless, the Neoclassical theory is assumed to be universal in scope, to apply not only to fully developed nations but to all human societies, past and present. The model of rationality that lies at its conceptual foundations is purported to capture human agency at its most fundamental.

Notwithstanding all of the mathematical refinement that has transpired in the past century or so, there remains a vociferous minority who point to severe limitations of the Neoclassical paradigm and call for more public ownership or social controls. Herbert Simon and, more recently, Amartya Sen have called into question the model of human rationality to which most Neoclassicists subscribe. Other prominent critics since the 1950s are Joan Robinson, Gunnar Myrdal (1898–1987), Kenneth Boulding (1910–93), Robert Heilbroner, and John Kenneth Galbraith. They desist from singing the praises of capitalism, but do not view socialism as a viable alternative. Criticism is done with full knowledge and understanding of the mainstream theory, and for that reason these economists, and several more, have won large audiences for their writings. The Neoclassical theory has been remarkably robust in the face of such criticism, but its longevity is by no means guaranteed.


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