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Knut Wicksell: Some Aspects of his Work

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 21st March 2010

This post is different from the others because it deals with the contributions of a single economist. Knut Wicksell was a Swedish economist who made significant contributions to capital theory, monetary economics and fiscal policy. Despite being grouped under the neoclassical or the Austrian school because of his affinities to ‘marginal’ analyst, Wicksell was a socialist and a radical. He advocated policies which involved the government in a big way. And owing to his varied interests in poetry, mathematics, feminism, mathematics, politics, etc he became a Professor of Economics and Fiscal Law at Lund University only when he was fifty. A few of his well known students are Erik Lindahl, Gunnar Myrdal and Bertil Ohlin. They are considered to be part of Stockholm or Swedish school of economic thought.

In the passages below, only a few of his contributions will be elaborated. He has also made lasting contributions to the theory of interest, revitalised quantity theory of money, introduced mechanisms linking the real and monetary sector, etc.

Wicksell demonstrated that problems could arise if capital is treated just like other ‘factors of production’ – land and labour. Cambridge capital controversies dealt with many of these problems. “Knut Wicksell (1851–1926) himself casts doubt on the specification of the value of capital, along with the physical quantities of labour and land, as part of the data of the system. ‘Capital’ is but a set of heterogeneous capital goods. Therefore, unlike labour and land, which ‘are measured each in terms of its own technical unit . . . capital . . . is reckoned . . . as a sum of exchange value’ (Wicksell, 1901, 1934, p. 49). But capital goods are themselves produced commodities and, as such, their ‘costs of production include capital and interest’; thus, ‘to derive the value of capital goods from their own cost of production or reproduction’ would imply ‘arguing in a circle’ (ibid., p. 149).” [Segura and Braun 2004]

Like other contemporaries of his, Wicksell did not write about unemployment. This was because the existence of unemployment was considered to be a paradox, an anomaly for neoclassical economists. As they could not comprehend why resources (here, labour) would be left idle! The central problem in (neoclassical) economics was not to provide or create uses for factors, but only to allocate the factors among various uses. As Bo Sandelin, editor of Wicksell’s papers and the author of A History of Swedish Economic Thought writes in the introduction that “the fundamental question in economics was how to manage an economy with scarce resources.” Strange indeed!

Wicksell was a strong proponent of the marginal productivity theory of distribution. A corollary of this theory is the the sum of all the marginal products of the factors should be equal to the total product, known as the product exhaustion theorem. However Wicksell demonstrated that the operation of this theory depends on the returns to the scale. That is, only under constant returns to scale will the marginal products exactly add up to the total product. And that for both decreasing returns and increasing returns, the product will not be completely exhausted.

The Swedish school made another important contribution to economic theory. They introduced the categories of ex ante and ex post. These categories, we know are used widely today and were the result of the School’s dissatisfaction with the equilibrium analysis. Apart from these ways of thinking, Myrdal has provided us with the concept of circular and cumulative causation as well. These categories provide us with alternative modes of conceptualising or thinking about economic problems.

Relying solely on textbooks reduces our extent of reach. We often fail to come across interesting and heterodox economists. But, history of economic thought provides us with ample personalities to look into. Wicksell is one among them. Also, some of their categories provide us with alternatives, which remain unfinished. For instance, after going through some of the secondary and primary works on/by Wicksell, he appears exceedingly interesting and aware of the implications of certain simplifying assumptions. He pointed out the ‘necessity’ of the constant returns to scale assumption, which economics faithfully aligned with for a considerable period. This was challenged within the mainstream only with the entry of the endogenous growth theories, which emphasised increasing returns.

References

Pressman, Steven (2004), Fifty Great Economists, Routledge: India.

Groenewegen, P and Vaggi, G (2006), A Concise History of Economic Thought: From Mercantilism to Monetarism, Palgrave Macmillan.

De Marchi, N and Blaug, M (1991), Appraising Economic Theories: Studies in the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, Edward Elgar.

Segura, J and Braun, C (2004), An Eponymous Dictionary of Economics: A Guide to Laws and Theorems Named After Economists, Edward Elgar.

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Posted in Capital Theory, Economic Philosophy, Economic Thought, Economics, Gunnar Myrdal, History of Economic Thought, Monetary Economics, Neoclassical Economics | 2 Comments »