Category Archives: Alfred Marshall

Alfred Marshall (1842 – 1924)

Alfred Marshall made lasting contributions to economics. No economist will question that. However, his precise contributions to economics are often forgotten. In a way, the microeconomics that we learn and apply today has strong Marshallian foundations. This post draws on Peter Groenewegen’s excellent (concise) biography of Alfred Marshall (2007) which has been published as part of the Great Thinkers in Economics Series published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Marshall is most famous for his Principles of Economics first published in 1890; the definitive eighth edition was published in 1920. In addition, he wrote Industry and Trade (1919), Money, Credit and Commerce (1923) and Economics of Industry (1879) which he wrote along with his wife, Mary Paley Marshall. Besides these, he also printed and privately circulated his work entitled The Pure Theory of Foreign Trade. The Pure Theory of Domestic Values (1879). Overall, he taught for more than forty years in Bristol, Oxford and Cambridge. The most notable among his students are John Maynard Keynes and Arthur Cecil Pigou.

He took German lessons in order to read Kant in the original. Hegel’s Philosophy of History had a strong influence on his thought. Marshall commenced his study about economics with a close reading of John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy. He also read the methodological works of Mill on logic and particularly criticised Mill’s conception of the individual as a ‘self-seeking, wealth-maximising homo economicus’. His other economics readings included Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Ricardo’s Principles and Marx’s Capital. Other important influences were Cournot’s Mathematical Investigations in the Theory of Wealth and von Thunen’s The Isolated State; they motivated Marshall’s use of diagrams.

For Marshall, ‘the proper work of economic science…was solving economic problems’. ‘The necessity of economic theory, the importance of facts and continual striving to keep economic analysis relevant and practical were all crucial parts of Marshall’s promise to devote his professional life to the improvement of economic science’ (p. 74). It is also quite well known now that, for Marshall, the ‘mecca of the Economist lies in Economic Biology rather than in Economic Dynamics’ (p. 106).

Groenewegen informs us that Marshall had a personal dislike of the use of textbooks in university teaching (p. 77). Not surprisingly, ‘[t]he Principles of Economics remained a leading textbook on the foundations of economics not only during the life of its author, that is, from 1890 to 1924, but for the next quarter century as well, that is, until the early 1950s’ (p. 111).

The use of mathematics in the Principles has garnered lot of attention since he ‘banished’ all equations to the appendix. In any case, Marshall considered economics as ‘form of reasoning’. Perhaps, given the use of mathematics during his time, his relegation of equations to the appendix might have been appropriate. I quote an interesting letter Marshall wrote to his student Bowley: ‘(1) Use mathematics as a shorthand language, rather than as an engine of inquiry. (2) Keep to them till you have done. (3) Translate into English. (4) Then illustrate by examples which are important in real life. (5) Burn the mathematics. (6) If you can’t succeed in 4, burn 3. This last I did often’ (p. 114).

Marshall identified time to play an important role in the theory of value. He developed the concepts of the short and long period. He paid particular attention to ‘elasticity’. Besides these, he laid the foundations for the theory of the firm, use of offer curves or reciprocal demand curves in international trade and distinguished internal and external economies.

This post has only very briefly touched upon the way Marshall viewed economics, especially his use of mathematics and his evolutionary notion. We have not detailed his precise contributions to economics. This post serves the purpose of being a very short introduction to Marshall. As students of (micro)economics, it will be fascinating to read Marshall’s works, especially his Principles.

On Economics and Ethics

Ever since political economy became economics, the role of ethics has continually diminished in the learning of economics. This is because economists want(ed) their discipline to be scientific. To serve this purpose, economics has been divided into normative economic and positive economics. Normative economics deals with questions such as “what ought to be the price configuration” whereas positive economics deals with questions such as “what is the configuration of process”. In other words, there is no room for debate in positive economics; at least, that is the impression one gets from reading the mainstream textbooks. Amartya Sen tried to remedy this situation by strengthening the area of welfare economics; however, methodologically, it still adopts a ‘positive economics’ framework. In any case, this development motivated economists to ask humane and ethical questions. This post raises some issues concerning the role of ethics in economics.

Adam Smith, the father of economics, did not only write Wealth of Nations; being a moral philosopher and an acute observer of society also published a book titled Theory of Moral Sentiments. This book talks of sympathy, passion, ambition, justice, duty, utility, custom, virtue, self-command, etc. Often, proponents who favour utility maximization cite Adam Smith as the first one to do so effectively. As much as one glance at the table of contents of Theory of Moral Sentiments will say otherwise.

This brings us to the following pertinent, yet very difficult questions. What is the objective of economic policies or economic engineering? What role does economic theory play in policy making? Does economic theory provide tools, methods and concepts that aid policy formulation? The final objectives of economic policy invariably happen to be poverty elimination, reduction of unemployment, inflation control and provision of a good standard of living to all the inhabitants. Hence, various kinds of policies are undertaken to achieve these broad objectives. Very often, economic theory aids such policy making exercise in a significant manner. Now, we come to a very startling observation. Economic theory (which is positive in nature) has no room for conflicts, ethics or values. Instead, the major criterion which dominates most economic theorization is that of economic efficiency – free markets achieve efficiency. So what? The goals of economic policies are not to make markets efficient or free; instead, it is to provide the inhabitants with a good standard of living. In India, how can markets take care of the diversity in caste, language, region, income, etc? Economists must do away with their arrogance and admit that policy making is a serious and complex matter, which cannot be solely guided by macroeconomic models of the general equilibrium variety!

For instance, the variables which the government tries to engineer affect people in different and often opposite ways. Alterations in interest rates affect lenders and borrowers differently. Also, movements in exchange rates affect exporters and importers in exactly opposite ways. More importantly, changes in prices of goods and services affect those who cannot afford it very adversely. Given such differential effects of policy variables, economics must incorporate ethical discussions into its fold. Perhaps, a reading of Theory of Moral Sentiments will be of great help!


Sraffa: Production as a Circular Process

This is the second in the series of posts on Sraffa. The objective of this post is to clarify the assumption of scarce resources made frequently in neoclassical economics. This is then contrasted with the notion of mass-production in capitalist economies. This facet of capitalism is understood by concepts such as ‘circular production’ and ‘production of commodities by means of commodities’ in Classical Economics.

A brief look at the history of micro and macroeconomics becomes essential. Elements of Marshall and Walras are found in modern microeconomics. Specifically, partial equilibrium analysis comes from Marshall; whereas, Walras contributed ‘general equilibrium analysis’ to economics. Usually, emergence of macroeconomics is considered to have originated with the work of Keynes. This has been contested and it has been shown with considerable evidence that William Petty (1623-1687) was the first macroeconomist. [See Murphy 2009] And that economists like Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx were talking about macroeconomics when they discussed production, distribution and accumulation. Neoclassical macroeconomics can be loosely said to comprise New Classical Economics, Neo-Keynesian Economics, variants of Computable General Equilibrium Models (CGE), etc. One of the unifying features of the above mentioned neoclassical schools/models is the assumption of ‘scarce factors’. It is owing to the assumption that factors are scare, that optimization is carried out.

Lionel Robbins defined economics as “the science which studies human behaviour as the relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.” Here, scarce means refers to scarce factors of production – land, labour and capital. Yes, land can be considered scarce in an economy where the pressure of population is high (or for environmental reasons). But, wouldn’t labour be scarce in some countries and abundant in others? Now for the tricky ‘capital’. Capital is understood as produced means of production. That is, tools, machinery, plants, conveyor belts, electrical appliances, tractors, etc are ‘capital goods’. Are they scarce? They would be scarce if nobody produced them. Usually, in a capitalist or quasi-capitalist economy, capital goods are produced by the private sector, the government and often, imported from abroad. Therefore, a priori, we have no reason to maintain that capital is a scarce factor. Or for that matter, even labour.

Marshall provided a theoretical partition through which one could say that factors are scarce. He introduced the concept of ‘short period analysis’. Till Marshall, the early classicals and neoclassicals analysed economies using the ‘long period method’. Through the short period, Marshall introduced an imaginary period wherein one factor is fixed (usually, capital) and the other factor (labour) is variable. In this period, it is as if one factor is scarce. In a later post, it will be shown that this sort of analysis is an improper generalisation of Ricardo’s theory of rent.

Sraffa’s Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities deals with ‘value and distribution’. That is, he focuses on the relationship between relative prices, wages/profits and technique of production. Throughout the whole analysis, output/quantity is treated as given. This is in tune with the ‘sequential analysis’ of classical economics. Value & distribution is one level of analysis or the ‘core’, as was popularised by Garegnani. Once, the foundation is well-established, the next level is growth & accumulation. In the first level, quantities are treated as given and in the second level, prices are assumed to be given. This is done keeping in view the complexity of the economic processes. Whereas, as we know, in neoclassical theory of general equilibrium, there is a simultaneous determination of quantity, price, wage rate, employment, rate of interest and quantity of capital. That is, all kinds of prices and quantities are simultaneously determined.

A set of equations from classical and neoclassical production theory is given below. This is so as to bring out the differences in a clear way.

Production function: Ya = f(La, Ka)

Sraffa’s equations:
(AaPa + BaPb + … + KaPk) (1 + r) + LaW = APa
(AbPa + BbPb + … + KbPk) (1 + r) + LbW = BPb
. . . . . .
(AkPa + BkPb + … + KkPk) (1 + r) + LkW = KPk

where A, B …. K are the output produced in various industries, L is the labour employed in each industry, Pa refers to price/value of output A and Pk refers to value of output K, r is the rate of profit. [As these are for purposes of illustration alone, some conditions have not been mentioned]

In the first case, it represents the transformation of inputs – labour and capital into an output Y. Let me reproduce what Sraffa writes about his particular conception of production: “It is of course in Quesnay’s Tableau Economique that is found the original picture of the system of production and consumption as a circular process, and it stands in striking contrast to the view presented by modern theory, of a one-way avenue that leads for ‘Factors of production’ to ‘Consumption goods’.” [Sraffa 1960, 93]

The concept of circular production also brings to the fore the web of connections between different production structures. Both classical and neoclassical economics attempts at reducing the complexity of economic phenomena. Neoclassical economics, at the outset abstracts away from interrelated production structures through the concept of ‘representative firm’ in microeconomics. In a similar way, in the area of consumption, man as a social being is reduced to man as an individual whose utility does not depend on that of others. Classical economics carries out its analysis by taking prices as given so as to analyse interrelated production structures.


Sraffa, P (1960), Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Murphy, A (2009), The Genesis of Macroeconomics: New Ideas from Sir William Petty to Henry Thornton, New York: Oxford University Press.

Piero Sraffa: An Introduction

In the first half of 20th century, Marshallian economics dominated economic theory and policy. Keynes in his 1936 book (The General Theory) tries to break away from the orthodoxy by challenging its concepts such as full employment and equality of savings and investment. In 1960, Sraffa mounted a strong critique through his book Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities.

Concepts such as utility, capital, prices, marginal product, marginal cost, etc were questioned by Sraffa. In fact, not only were they challenged, but they were also shown to be problematic. The following paragraphs will show how Sraffa pointed out the inadequacies with the above mentioned neoclassical conceptions of the economy.

Traditional theory lists land, labour and capital as ‘factors of production’. This means that production is carried out using some combination of the above factors. However, the process of production is seen as a one-way avenue from factors of production to production of final goods for consumption. Sraffa, in the tradition of classical economists argued that production is a circular process, or to use Myrdal’s phrase- production is a circular and cumulative process. This was in the tradition of the Classical economists who visualised the economy as an interdependent entity- Francois Quesnay was the first to provide a systematic account of interdependence in his Tableau Economique.

As we know, neoclassical theory of equilibrium prices (value) is built on the twin pillars of production and consumption. It is the production side that provides the supply function; and the consumption side provides the demand function. Through the interaction of demand and supply, equilibrium prices or value is created. This seems plausible and true, at the very outset. Why? When we think of the production of, say, a car, we presume that both the buyer and the seller has some role in price fixing. Yes, this would be the case if we viewed production (of cars) as an independent activity. Whereas, in reality, production is a social activity and so is consumption. Marshall’s partial equilibrium analysis sought to understand equilibrium price and quantity formation in isolated firms/industries. Sraffa’s 1960 book provides a framework for understanding values (or in neoclassical terms, equilibrium prices) in an economy where production is a social activity and where the nature of production is circular. Hence the title of his book: production of commodities by means of commodities. This highlights the interdependent production structure, which is the case in today’s economies.

In the preface of his 1960 book, Sraffa points out the obvious problems of the ‘marginal method’. To have marginal cost, one needs to pay attention on change. To illustrate, suppose Hero Cycles produce 100 cycles a day using 10 machines and 10 labourers. And production is carried out in this way. How does one calculate marginal cost? Do we add a machine and see how much extra output is produced? Or do we ask one worker to work in Hero Cycles for a day?

The above paragraphs are only meant to introduce a reader to Sraffa. To me, Sraffa’s work has brought about a change in how I visualise the economy. Earlier, the linkages between various macroeconomic variables and their micro counterparts were vague. In the following posts, the above mentioned concepts will be explained in more detail. And, concepts such as increasing/diminishing returns, scarcity and prices, joint production, surplus approach, capital theoretic problems, etc will be tackled in the following posts.