The growth of economic science

Appendix B

§1. In the eighteenth century, political-economy (“economics” for short) emerged to study new ideas such as economic freedom and a prioritization of ends (happiness) over means (wealth).

It is true that modern economics had its origin in common with other sciences at the time when the study of classic writers was reviving. But an industrial system which was based on slavery, and a philosophy which regarded manufacture and commerce with contempt, had little that was congenial to the hardy burghers who were as proud of their handicrafts and their trade as they were of their share in governing the State (page 624).

§2. The (French) Physiocrats established the foundation of modern economics not so much for their interest in agriculture and physical goods but in their advocacy of “laisser faire, laisser passer”, i.e., allowing people to do what they want (free trade) and go where they want (free movement).

§3. Adam Smith is rightly credited as the founder of “modern” economics for his defence and advocacy of free trade, his discussion of the balance between individual freedom of action and government regulation, his exposition of the interaction between supply (cost) and demand (value), and his expositions — not always correct but “working his way towards the truth” — that others built on.

§4. Of those who followed Smith, Jeremy Bentham played an important role by advocating, with relentless logic, individual freedom and innovation over collective conservation, a perspective that fit Britain’s dominant economic and political role in the early eighteenth century.

§5. Economists improved and corrected on Smith’s ideas using inductive (from life) and deductive (from logic) methods for explaining choices and behaviors. They paid attention (and collected data) on the plight of the working classes. Marshall admires Ricardo’s work and perspective but finds his “Semitic genius for abstraction” difficult to follow at some times.

§6. But these economists tended to ignore or misunderstand the differences among countries and individuals. They assumed “economic man” to be like themselves: well-to-do,  intellectual “city men”, which blinded them to the perspectives and values of the working classes. (Indeed, they blamed the poor for their poverty when it resulted from lack of education and other constraints that were loosened by unionisation, education, public health, and so on.) Marx [not mentioned by Marshall] was not so blind.

§7. During the nineteenth century, economic thought became less rigid, uniform and logical as it integrated more human complexity into understanding choices. (Economics influenced Darwin as his Origin of Species influenced economists.)

§8. Marshall then gives “shout outs” to the French, Americans and especially the Germans, who had less faith in individual freedom and trade and a greater respect for national differences and competition. He ends the chapter by cautioning that the biological view of human interactions requires ever-greater analytical effort rather than a lazy appeal to imponderable differences.

This post is part of a series in the Marshall 2020 Project, i.e., an excuse for me to read Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890 first edition/1920 eighth edition), which dominated economic thinking until Van Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour (1944) and Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1946) pivoted economics from institutional induction to mathematical deduction.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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