Malthus: The Scope of Political Economy

In these difficult times we live in, what economics needs is perhaps, depth and not breadth. Unemployment, poverty, inflation, food insecurity, financial fragility, debt crisis, etc can be better understood and tackled by diverting increased resources (time and financial) in understanding the production, distribution, exchange and consumption of wealth. This blog post very briefly examines Thomas Malthus’s (1766-1834) view of political economy – its method, scope, uses and limitations.  For this purpose, I have used John Pullen’s definitive variorum edition of Malthus’s Principles of Political Economy published as 2 volumes by Cambridge University Press in 1990.

According to the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary, ‘scope’ is defined as the ‘range of subjects covered’. In the context of political economy, scope refers to the range of subjects it covers. That is, the scope of political economy informs us about the sphere of analysis, the boundaries or limits, the kind of situations it describes and its applicability in the real world or, its relevance. Keeping in mind that mathematics played only a small role in political economy during Malthus’s time, let us see what his view of political economy is: ‘the science of political economy bears a nearer resemblance to the science of morals and politics that to that of mathematics’ (p. 2). Undoubtedly, morals played and still play an important role for interventions in the economy based on what we consider to be a ‘good society or economy’. And politics, distributional conflicts over income, land, natural resources and employment are integral part of any economy. Thus, it is important that political economy (and economics) takes into account these distributional conflicts when theorising or modelling an economy. However, for purposes of theory, these conflicts can be taken as given from outside economics (exogenous) or can be determined within economics, in the manner of behavioural economics.

It would not have mattered if political economy was/is not a very important branch of knowledge. Reminiscent of Keynes’s words, Malthus writes: ‘The science of political economy is essentially practical and applicable to the common business of human life. There are few branches of human knowledge where false views may do more harm, or just views more good’ (p. 12). But, Malthus wrote it more than a century earlier. (See also Sismondi’s words of a similar nature). Since Malthus viewed political economy to have significant practical applications, the complete title of his book reads ‘Principles of Political Economy Considered with a View to their Practical Application’. The editor, Pullen, gives us a bit more information on this matter. ‘This was apparently a lifelong concern. As a student at Cambridge in 1786 Malthus wrote to his father: ‘I am by no means, however, inclined to get forward without wishing to see the use and application of what I read. On the contrary I am rather remarked in college for talking of what actually exists in nature, or may be put to real practical use’’ (p. 291, Vol II; all other page numbers excepting this refer to Vol I).

Malthus understands that ‘To trace distinctly the operations of that circle of causes and effects in political economy which are acting and re-acting on each other, so as to foresee their results, and lay down general rules accordingly, is, in many cases, a task of very great difficulty’ (p. 12). Economic processes are caused by a multiplicity of causes and often not by a single one. Owing to this and because of his view of economics as a practical science, he maintained that ‘[t]o know what can be done, and how to do it, is, beyond a doubt, the most valuable species of information. The next to it is, to know what cannot be done, and why we cannot do it’ (p. 17). In other words, we must be very aware of the ‘scope’ of our knowledge.

Furthermore, if our objective is to understand the problems of unemployment and poverty, we must perhaps, as mentioned in the introduction, study in-depth the process of generation and distribution of wealth. I conclude with a statement by Malthus: ‘If we wish to attain anything like precision in our inquiries, when we treat of wealth, we must narrow the field of inquiry, and draw some line, which will leave us only those objects, the increase or decrease of which is capable of being estimated with more accuracy’ (pp. 27-8).

For ‘Social’ Economists

Over the past years, I have come across many students of economics who complain about the irrelevance of economics to understand practical issues. Among them, some go on to choose sociology, which is considered to be more practical and realistic. This post is for those who think that the dominant practice of economics is not done the right way. It is certainly possible to be a ‘social’ economist. In fact, this post is about ‘social’ economists and not about social economics, a distinct field in economics, which comprises economists who think ethics, values, philosophy, culture, etc are important.

Social economics/socio-economics/new social economics are emerging fields within economics whose central premise is that one cannot study an economy meaningfully without paying attention to social institutions, culture, beliefs, etc. It is disturbing to know that the practitioners of social economics, socio-economics and new social economics distinguish their work among themselves. This trend is largely because of the urge to be ‘pioneers’ in ‘emerging’ areas in economics. The following extracts from The Elgar Companion to Social Economics shows this clash of identity:

“The association that promotes socio-economics, the Society for  the Advancement of Socio-economics (SASE) advertises itself rightly as  an interdisciplinary organization. In recent years, socio-economists have  increasingly used insights from biology, in addition to psychology and sociology.”

“The association that promotes social economics, the  Association for Social Economics (ASE), presents itself as a pluralistic  organization that emphasizes the role of social values and social relationships in economics. Social economists have a variety of additional orientations, including institutionalism, Marxism, feminism, post-Keynesian,  Kantianism, solidarism, neo-Schumpeterian, environmentalism and  cooperativism. ”

“There is also a quite recent literature termed the ‘new social economics’,  which begins with market relationships, and then seeks to add ‘non-economic’ social content to their analysis. That is, rather than embed the  economy in social relationships, these more recent contributions seek to  embed social relationships in the market. ”

In any case, these emergent fields indicate a dissatisfaction with the dominant economics profession. However, in their haste to carve out a separate field, the essentials are often lost. The adjective social prefixed to economics indicates the existence of an economy which cannot be clearly demarcated from the society in any clear fashion. Moreover, this usage also emphasises the role of how society is organised. The following are some questions pertaining to the economic aspects: Are the people motivated by reason? To what extent does profits motivate entrepreneurs? On what basis are people employed – caste, gender, religion, academic qualification, political connections, bribes, region? Can we visualise distinct social classes in the economy based on their ownership of land? What are the sort of interactions which take place between agricultural, manufacturing and service sectors? How is finance organised in the country? How important are informal sources of finance? Does labour laws apply to all sorts of employment? How does the government intervene in domestic production and consumption of commodities are services? What sorts of price and quantity controls exist? These are some of the questions which aid in understanding how the economic aspects of a society are organised.

Today, economists are asked for their opinion/advice on matters pertaining to financial crises, foreign exchange constraints, poverty, unemployment, inflation, rural development, etc. Only an economist who is reasonably aware of how the society is actually organised will be able to devise strategies and chart plans which can effectively tackle these economic issues. A ‘social’ economist is one who understands the complexity of social studies in general and of economics in particular. In addition, she will always resist the temptation to think in atomistic terms and will resist universal solutions. She will also be aware of the significance of non-market transactions.

Even if the dominant form of economics teaching and research is asocial, the academic enterprise of economics does give space to alternative approaches. However, one must be careful because some of these approaches appear ‘social’ but are in fact static and atomistic. A reading of Adam Smith, the father of economics, easily points to the role and significance of social values and institutions. It is for this reason that we need to return to classical economics, where, as one of the earlier posts argued, economics is  the study of commodities; but their economic analysis can easily incorporate social values and institutions as well.

Economics: The Study of Commodities

The study of commodities has been central to economic theory. Mercantilists considered gold, a commodity to be wealth. Later economists argued that an increase in commodities, both agricultural and manufactured, implied an increase in wealth. The increase in the production of commodities is still the most widely used indicator of economic growth/progress. This indicator is none other than the real GDP. In 1985, Amartya Sen published a book titled Commodities and Capabilities. In this work, Sen challenges the dominant view in economics regarding the role of commodities, i.e. he maintained that an increase in commodities cannot be taken as the sole factor in assessing economic development. Sen emphasised the importance of examining capabilities, which subsequently led to the creating of the Human Development Index (HDI). This post discusses the rationale behind economists’ obsession with commodities. It also examines Sen’s critique of commodities and how his (Aristotelian) concept of capabilities differs from it. This post concludes by arguing for a strengthening of classical economics, which studies the production, distribution, exchange and consumption of commodities, for the considerations of ethics can be easily integrated into this approach.

Economics as a distinct form of inquiry begins with the works of Sir William Petty in the 17th century. Petty was interested in assessing the comparative wealth of England and Ireland. Some of the indicators he chose were the number of houses and population. The idea behind this being that a surplus of food results in more population and therefore more houses. Having a large population was considered to be beneficial to the state. His successor, Richard Cantillon, an economist par excellence, pointed out that wealth of a state is reflected in the quantity and nature of commodities it produces – necessities, comforts and luxuries. This brief historical excursus is to point out the nature of economic inquiry, which is essentially an analysis of quantities and prices. Examples of quantities are employment, income, exports, investment, money supply, etc. Examples of prices are WPI, interest rates, foreign exchange rate, commodity prices, share prices, etc. That is, an analysis of commodities is an examination of quantity and price at the same time. Therefore, an analysis of commodities subsumes an examination of their production, distribution, exchange and consumption. Production includes the structure and relations of production; distribution pertains to the process and mechanism through which the incomes/surplus from production is divided among its participants; exchange refers to the mode and institution through which commodities are sold; finally, consumption illuminates the channels through which consumption of commodities aid production in the next period and how production in the current period aids current consumption. Thus, classical economists such as Petty, Cantillon, Quesnay, Smith and Ricardo were interested in the theory of production, distribution and exchange of commodities. Their interest was motivated by the need to find out ways of improving the general well-being of their respective societies.

According to Sen, the kind of analysis posited above looks at opulence as the sole indicator of economic development. A shift in economic analysis came about in the 1870s with the emergence of marginal analysis, independently developed by Jevons, Walras and Menger. Terms such as utility, choice, scarcity, margins, etc made inroads into economics. In fact, standard microeconomics texts are nothing but a combination of Walrasian and Marshallian economics. In any case, the maximization of utility began to be seen as the objective of individuals, for attaining economic progress. The internal justice of free markets was imbued to this form of economic analysis. Based on utilitarian principles, the maximization of utility by individuals was seen as a way to improve human well-being and welfare. This conception of development, according to Sen, emphasised the role of utility.

Both the above mentioned analyses, according to Sen, deal with “the relation between commodities and people” (p. 1). The former approach argues for more commodities which leads to more production, which raises the incomes of the people and hence their consumption. The latter analysis points out that “more is better” and hence availability of more commodities imply more utility. The idea of “more is better” is intricately connected with their idea of economics, as a science of choice. Economics, for marginal/neoclassical economists, refers to the allocation of scarce resources amongst alternative uses, as Lionel Robbins points out. For Sen, both these analyses are limited, since they do not address the heterogeneity in the capabilities of different people, which leads to “a confounding of the state of a person with the extent of his or her possessions” (p. 16). It is precisely this argument of Sen developed in his 1985 book which widened the scope of mainstream economics. I write mainstream economics because for classical economists, economics or political economy formed only one way of looking at growth/progress/development. For classical economists, as pointed out earlier, an analysis of production included the state or condition of the producer. The best example of this form of theorising can be found in Marx, the last of the early classical economists. However, with the advent of marginal analysis, the analyses of the structure of production took a backseat. The sphere of exchange came to the forefront and along with it the explanation of the formation of all kinds of prices and quantities through the apparatus of demand & supply.

It is interesting to note that the idea of capabilities has been intrinsic to classical economics. As mentioned earlier, an increase in the production of commodities translates into an increase in income generated. In contrast with neoclassical economics, the economic processes is visualised in a circular way as opposed to a one-way street. One needs to look into the structure of production to find out to whom (which class) this increase in income accrues (theory of distribution). However, the manner in which Sen develops his capabilities approach is rooted in mainstream/neoclassical economics – via the sub-domain of welfare economics (See Benicourt 2002 and Omkarnath 2007). Although, Sen deserves credit for bringing back humanitarian concerns into the discourse of neoclassical economics. Omkarnath further points out that the capabilities approach rooted in the Walrasian tradition is static in nature, for it mainly concentrates on the formation of capabilities. Whereas, classical economics has numerous insights on the relation between capabilities and commodities. This sort of analysis calls for a careful examination of the structure of production, distribution and exchange present in various economies in the classical political economy tradition, which has more scope for including social, cultural and political factors as well as ethical concerns.


Benicourt, E (2002), “Is Amartya Sen a Post-Autistic Economist?”, post-autistic economics review, issue no. 15, September 4, 2002, article 4.

Omkarnath, G (2007), “The Formation of Capabilities”, Indian Journal of Human Development, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 389-399.

Sen, Amartya (1985) [1999], Commodities and Capabilities, Oxford University Press: New Delhi.

Krishna Bharadwaj: The Ideal Economist

Krishna Bharadwaj is an economist who made lasting contributions to economic theory. She is especially known for her understanding of the classical theories of value and distribution. In particular, she has successfully traced out the history of classical as well as neoclassical economics. This kind of conceptual history writing is important, especially for the economist who wants to apply these theories in understanding the socio-economic reality. And because of her firm grasp of various theoretical approaches in economics, she was able to judiciously analyse problems of the Indian economy. She was, in fact, the first economist to point out the exploitative nature of inter-linked markets which are prevalent in Indian agriculture. She also placed emphasis on the power relations which dominated the production structure of agriculture in India.

Apart from struggling to show the distinct and superior nature of classical economics over neoclassical economics, Bharadwaj also relentlessly worked on Indian economic issues. In particular, Bharadwaj analysed the structural linkages between agriculture and industry in India and also examined the production conditions which characterise Indian agriculture. In her latter study, she pointed out the inadequacies of neoclassical economics in understanding Indian agriculture. She particularly criticised the application of production functions. In addition, Bharadwaj explained the origin of neoclassical economics and how it suffers from various logical as well as other methodological issues.

For Bharadwaj, theory was only a tool to understand the questions and problems which arose from the social reality. This is why, she promoted the teaching of different economic approaches in Centre for Economic Studies and Planning (CESP) at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), such as classical, Marxian, Keynesian as well as Walrasian. As Prabhat Patnaik writes in a foreword of The Krishna Bharadwaj Memorial Lecture, “according to her [Bharadwaj]…we had to evolve a research-cum-teaching agenda of our own. No centre in India could flourish, by international standrads, merely by mimicking what was happening abroad, merely by showing proficiency in solving problems which were posed abroad. The problems has to be rooted in the social reality of our own country, and the effort to grapple with them had to be, very consciously, located within the intellectual endeavour of our country…[However] Her emphasis on taking up problems rooted in the Indian social reality was not a plea for turning one’s back upon theory or theoretical struggles. On the contrary, her plea for investigating our real problems, was simultaneously a plea for a richer theory, a theory with a body to it, one which is all the more powerful because it has been used for investigating real problems facing economies like ours.”

From her work on economic theory and its applications to the Indian economy, what becomes clear is her philosophy that economic theory should be based on concepts which can be observed and be amenable to measurement in reality. This is one of the reasons why she criticised the demand and supply theories; for, values were determined by subjective utilities. Another quality worth mentioning is her firm belief that economic theories are not mere intellectual constructs; rather, they arise out of a particular socio-historical situation, often to promote a certain ideology. In her R C Dutt Lecture, which was later published as a book in 1986, she makes it clear that the emergence of demand and supply theories were primarily a reaction against Ricardo and Marx. For, in both Ricardo and Marx, a conflict of interest is visible between social classes. In order to promote the ‘idea’ of a just and harmonius system, the theories (especially the labour theory of value) of Ricardo and Marx were criticised as being limited, and an alternative was proposed. This new theory completely did away with social classes. Individuals were chosen as the primary unit of analysis. Social classes, actually was modified into ‘factors of production’. A very interesting and important methodological shift, with powerful political implications! All the factors of production were assigned equal importance, and it was also shown how both labour and capital recieved incomes according to their contribution to the production process. That is, a capitalist system, with free mobility of labour and capital and with clear property rights (contracts), is essentially a just and stable system.

To conclude, the following are the reasons why Krishna Bharadwaj is an ideal economist. (1) She had an in-depth understanding of the various theoretical approaches in economics, be it, Marxian, Classical, Neoclassical, Austrian or Keynesian. (2) She did not blindly apply these theories (mainly Classical and Marxian) to understand the Indian economy; instead, her inquiry was based on extensive empirical observations, which made the theory richer. (3) She considered it very necessary to understand the history of economic theory, especially because of the historical specificity of all theories. Also because, most theories are responses to certain socio-political events or interests. (4) Lastly, she applied all her experience in setting up a new centre, which paid close attention to both economic theory and its application to the Indian economy, in close connection with other disciplines.


Bhaduri, Amit (1992), Krishna Bharadwaj, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 27, No. 10/11 (Mar. 7-14, 1992), p. 490.

Bharadwaj, Krishna (1963), ‘Value Through Exogenous Distribution’, The Economic Weekly, August 1964.

Bharadwaj, Krishna (1986), Classical Political Economy and the Rise to Dominance of Supply and Demand Theories, Calcutta: Universities Press.

Harcourt, G C (1993-94), ‘Krishna Bharadwaj, August 21, 1935 – March 8, 1992: A Memoir’, Journal of Post Keynesian Economics, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Winter, 1993-1994), pp. 299-311.

Patnaik, Utsa (1991), ‘Krishna Bharadwaj: 21 August 1935 – 8 March 1992,’ Social Scientist, Vol. 19, No. 12. (Dec., 1991), pp. 63-67.

Patnaik, Prabhat (1996), Foreword, in Time as a Metaphor of History: Early India, by Romila Thapar, The Krishna Bharadwaj Memorial Lecture, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Roncaglia, Alessandro (1993), ‘Krishna Bharadwaj, 1935-1992. In Memoriam’, Metroeconomica, Vol. 44, No. 3, pp. 187-194.