A Case for Pluralism in ‘Microeconomics’

[My return to blogging is motivated by the extremely warm response I’ve received in person – in the last 6 months – from several people who have been readers of this blog. I’m also happy to announce the publication of my co-edited book on the history of economic thought.]

The subject matter of microeconomics is enshrined in the economics curriculum at all levels – school, undergraduate, postgraduate, and doctoral. The central objective of microeconomic theory is to provide a solution for equilibrium price and quantity in both the commodity (say, apples or coconuts) and factor (wage and ‘capital’) markets. Indeed, questions of what is the source of value and what is the exchange value of two commodities have been posed much earlier. You can find answers in Kautilya, Aquinas, Petty, and Cantillon – all of them writing prior to Adam Smith’s foundational treatise on political economy.


Kautilya’s Arthashastra contains discussions of a fair price. Aquinas, drawing inspiration from Aristotle and Christianity, tries to arrive at the notion of a just price. One of the founders of political economy, William Petty, derives the distinction between necessary price and political price and possesses a rudimentary labour theory of value. Following Petty, Cantillon distinguishes between ‘intrinsic value’ and ‘market price’ based on a land-cum-labour theory of value. The contributions of Smith, Ricardo, Marx, and Sraffa to value theory follow this tradition of objectively determining value.


The dominant theory of value in contemporary economics is not the objective theories of value found in Ricardo, Marx, or Sraffa but the subjective theories of value whose pioneers are Jeremy Bentham, William Stanley Jevons (whose son taught at Allahabad University), Alfred Marshall, AC Pigou, and Paul Samuelson. The value theory (or microeconomic theory, as it is now called more fashionably) found in the textbooks of Hal Varian or Gregory Mankiw take the following as data when solving for equilibrium prices and quantity: (i) preferences, (ii) technology, and (iii) endowments. On the other hand, Piero Sraffa’s value theory, found in his Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities (1960), takes the following as given when arriving at a solution for prices and one distributive variable: (i) size and composition of output, (ii) technology, (iii) the real wage or rate of profit.


How do you measure the data listed above’ While technology, endowments, and real wage can be measured in terms of the commodity-mix, the rate of profit is a pure number. However, how are preferences measured (or ordered)’ They are measured in a subjective manner. This is one of the core differences between the dominant marginalist theory of value and the Classical/Sraffian objective theory of value. Given this core difference, it is incorrect to treat the objective theory of value found in Ricardo or Marx as a precursor or rudimentary version of modern subjective theory of value. And therefore, it is important that students of economics learn about different value theories in microeconomics.


I shall end by drawing your attention to the practical implications of believing in the marginalist conception of the labour market vis-a-vis that of the classical economists (see an earlier post on wages). Under conditions of perfect competition, the equilibrium real wage is determined by the marginal product of labour. Any intervention, such as a minimum wage legislation or collective bargaining by the workers, results in imperfections and consequently leads to unemployment. However, in classical economics, real wage is exogenously determined though historical and social factors. If you believe in the marginalist conception, the logical policy recommendation is to eliminate any intervention/imperfection (such as minimum wage legislation or collective wage bargaining) whereas if you believe in the classical conception, you would treat collective wage bargaining and minimum legislation as legitimate ways of improving workers’ conditions.


This post argues that value theory matters for both contemporary politics and policy. And consequently, the teaching of microeconomics needs to become pluralistic. Moreover, as pointed out earlier, the politics of microeconomics ought to be made explicit. It is, as Keynes, said that we are the ‘usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”


A Foreword to Sraffa’s Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities

Piero Sraffa’s classic Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities (PCMC) was published in 1960. It runs into 87 pages of main text (inclusive of the content list), 6 pages of appendices, less than 3 pages of Preface and a 3-page index. As we pointed out in A Foreword to Keynes’s General Theory, by foreword, we mean the following: ‘The introduction to a literary work, usually stating its subject, purpose, scope, method, etc.’ (Oxford English Dictionary).

The book is subtitled ‘Prelude to a Critique of Political Economy’. This slim book is divided into 3 parts: (1) ‘single-product industries and circulating capital’; (2) ‘multi-product industries and fixed capital’; and an untitled third part containing a single chapter titled ‘Switch in Methods of Production’. In the Preface, Sraffa acknowledges Keynes, A. S. Besicovitch (‘for invaluable mathematical help’), Frank Ramsey and Alister Watson. Sraffa was friends with Gramsci and Wittgenstein. [Ramsey, a friend of Keynes, supervised the 40-year old Wittgenstein’s PhD thesis at the age of 26 (source).] Appendix D contains the ‘references to the literature’ wherein works by Quesnay, Smith, Ricardo, Torrens, Malthus and Marx are mentioned. As Sraffa writes in the appendix, ‘[t]he connection of this work with the theories of the old classical economists have been alluded to in the Preface. A few references to special points, the source of which may not be obvious, are added here’ (p. 93). The orthodox economists mentioned by Sraffa are Marshall and Wicksteed.

With respect to method, Sraffa adopts the standpoint of the old classical economists ‘ the surplus approach to value and distribution. This is contrast to the orthodox marginalist scarcity approach to value and distribution. In the surplus approach, one distributive variable is exogenously determined. This is in fact a realistic assumption because the rate of interest is set by monetary authorities and the rate of profit can be conceptualised as a sum of the riskless rate of interest (on government securities) and a pure rate of return on capital.

The conception of the ‘system of production and consumption as a circular process’, Sraffa notes in Appendix D, is to be found in Quesnay which ‘stands in striking contrast to the view presented by modern theory [marginalist], of a one-way avenue that leads from ‘Factors of production’ to ‘Consumption goods” (p. 93) [cf. Kurz & Salvadori 2005]. The subject matter of PCMC is the theory of value and distribution ‘ how are relative prices and distributive variables determined’ More specifically, in an economy where the production of commodities is undertaken by means of commodities, how are prices and distributive variables determined’ Sraffa’s correct solution is that ‘the distribution of the surplus must be determined through the same mechanism and at the same time as are the prices of commodities’ (p. 6). What are the data or givens’ (1) size and composition of output; (2) methods of production; and (3) one distributive variable (either the wage rate or profit rate). The first two givens are mentioned in the Preface when Sraffa writes that his ‘investigation is concerned exclusively with such properties of an economic system as do not depend on changes in the scale of production or in the proportions of ‘factors” (p. v). The rationale for the third given is as follows: ”the practice, followed from outset, of treating the wage rather than the rate of profits as the independent variable or ‘given’ quantity’ has been reversed because the ‘rate of profits, as a ratio, has a significance which is independent of any prices, and can well be ‘given’ before the prices are fixed ‘ in particular by the level of the money rates of interest’ (p. 33).

While the scope of PCMC is limited to the subject matter, its implications on general economic theory are far reaching; for instance, his work has implications for the theory of value and distribution (capital theory forms an important part of this). Therefore, his work has positively contributed to the theorising of economic growth and environmental economics. Also, Sraffa’s work is to be a ‘basis for a critique of’ ‘the marginal theory of value and distribution’ (p. vi). Sraffa’s work is a coherent articulation of the theory of value and distribution the classical economists attempted to solve. At the same time, it also forms the basis for a critique of the marginalist theory of value and distribution by underscoring the logical fallacy in treating capital as a quantity independent of prices.

In a sense, the purpose of Sraffa’s work depends on the use that is made of it and there is a growing body of literature emanating from PCMC (a useful survey is Aspromourgos’s 2004 paper titled ‘Sraffian Research Programmes and Unorthodox Economics’). The classical approach to economics has been made more articulate and coherent. By marrying the classical or ‘surplus’ approach to value and distribution with the principle of effective demand, an alternative explanation for the determination of activity levels and economic growth has been developed. Work is also going on in the areas of environmental economics, public debt, monetary economics and history of economic thought, all of which draws upon and/or are inspired by Sraffa’s work.

The Indian readers would be interested to know that an Indian edition of PCMC was published by Vora & Co. Publishers, Bombay (available online). ‘However, PCMC is out of print since 1996 according to Cambridge University Press.

Those of us who are dissatisfied with mainstream neoclassical economics will find valuable insights and an economically superior but modest basis in Sraffa’s work to develop a coherent alternative to the mainstream approach to economic thinking. Particularly fruitful is this research programme when combined with the rich insights of the classical economists and Marx as well as the principle of effective demand of Kalecki and Keynes.

A Very Brief Introduction to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations

The Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (WoN hereafter) was published on 9th March, 1776. It was advertised in the concluding paragraph of Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). This blog post is a very brief introduction to Adam Smith’s theory of political economy as presented in the WoN. According to John Rae, the biographer of Smith, the WoN ‘took twelve years to write, and was in contemplation for probably twelve years before that.’ Smith never engaged in any commercial activity unlike his predecessor, Richard Cantillon or his successor, David Ricardo, yet his insights into the working of the competitive economy is intellectually deep and of enduring relevance. His intellectual acquaintances include David Hume, Francois Quesnay, Jacques Turgot and Voltaire.

WoN is divided into 5 books: Book I presents a detailed examination of how labour becomes productive, and contains a theory of supply (of output). On what factors does the annual supply of commodities depend’ Book II builds on this and contains a theory of accumulation (of capital stock). The growth policies undertaken by various nations form the content of Book III. The existing theories of political economy are critically appraised in Book IV; this book also includes the policy effects of these theories. Finally, in Book V, a theory of public finance ‘ the theory of the revenue, expenditure and borrowing of the government ‘ is outlined. Given the recurring themes of economic growth and development in this blog, the title of books I and II deserve to be quoted in full.

Book I: Of the Causes of Improvement in the productive Powers of Labour, and of the Order according to which its Produce is naturally distributed among the different Ranks of the People

Book II: Of the Nature, Accumulation, and Employment of Stock

In other words, the first book contains a theory of income distribution and the second contains a theory of economic growth. Recent research has noted the similarities between Smith’s theory of economic growth and neoclassical ‘new economic growth theory’ of Romer; in fact, Smith’s theory clearly emerges as a superior one.

The ‘necessaries and conveniences of life’, according to Smith, are produced by labour. That is, labour produces the annual aggregate supply of commodities and services. The nation is considered better supplied if the proportion between the annual aggregate supply and annual population is high. To expand this definition and adopting modern terminology, we can say that this idea of Smith corresponds to that of output per capita (for example, a high GDP per capita is favoured over a low GDP per capita). Further, Smith asks: what determines the output per capita’ According to Smith, there are two factors which determine this proportion. (1) The productivity of labour, and (2) the ratio of workers employed in physical and human capital generation to other workers. Smith uses a different terminology: the ratio of productive to unproductive labour. The number of workers employed in physical and human capital formation is necessarily in proportion to the capital advanced in these sectors. And, labour productivity depends on the capital advanced. But, what is there in Smith’s theory of economic growth which ensures that the growth in aggregate supply is validated by an equivalent growth in aggregate demand’

Smith’s WoN, particularly the first 2 books, is of much contemporary relevance in understanding the socio-cultural idea of ‘subsistence wage’. Also, it contains a rich exposition of productivity unlike the ‘blackbox’ of productivity commonly found in the Solow-type growth theory. Smith’s WoN contains both logical rigour as well as rich prose, and together they vastly enrich our understanding of economic phenomena.

On Competition in Economic Theory

The assumption of ‘perfect competition’ is central to marginalist (neoclassical) economics. In classical economics, a strand of non-orthodox economics, a seemingly similar but fundamentally different assumption of ‘free competition’ is made. This blog post is about the differences between classical and marginalist economics with respect to their definitions of competition. A further comment relating to the method of economics is also made in connection with this matter in the concluding paragraph.

In marginalist economics, under conditions of ‘perfect competition’, the demand and supplies of commodities and all factors of production are in equilibrium. There is no unemployment of labour or any underutilization of capacity (‘capital’). What are these conditions of ‘perfect competition” A large number of firms is assumed to exist, each too small to be able to set the price. That is, all firms are price takers and they attempt to maximize their profits. There are no barriers to entry or exit. Further, it is assumed that whatever the firms supply, there always exists sufficient demand. One wonders whether there is any real agency to these price-taking firms and entrepreneurs. When questions are posed in classrooms about their correspondence with reality, the response provided is that such conditions do not actually exist but are a first and a necessary abstraction so as to examine conditions of oligopoly or monopolistic competition. So, what is profit in marginalist economics under ‘perfect competition” It is the marginal product of ‘capital’, which is zero entailing that profits just cover the interest costs; that is, are no returns to entrepreneurs undertaking risk and uncertainty’ Ignoring the capital theoretic problems faced by marginalist economics, underlying this conception is the view that capitalists and workers are (‘justly’) rewarded for their contribution to production.

On the other hand, classical economists, from Adam Smith to Karl Marx, and contemporary economists following the classical tradition, after its revival by Piero Sraffa in 1960, assume ‘free competition’. There is free mobility of labour and ‘capital’. Firms and entrepreneurs are profit maximizers as in marginalist economics. No restrictions are imposed on the number of firms or their ability to set prices. The process of competition ‘ profit-maximizing behaviour plus mobility of factors ‘ tends to make the market prices gravitate towards long-period normal prices and a uniform rate of profit is obtained on the capital advanced. Note that the rate of profit is not zero as in marginalist economics. Alterations in demand and supply affect the market prices. If market prices fall below normal prices, production is not profitable and depending on their permanence the affected firms might exit the industry. Alternatively, production may be cut down because of the lack of adequate demand. Moreover, real wages are determined by wider social and political forces. If real wages are given (and given technology), the rate of profit and the configuration of normal prices are determined. Or, if the rate of profit is determined via the rate of interest set by monetary authorities, the real wage and the set of normal prices are determined. That is, distributive variables are capable of being determined exogenously. This is in stark contrast with the marginalist theory ‘ the marginal productivity theory of distribution, as it is called. Classical economics in contrast to marginalist economics has a logically consistent theory of value and distribution embedded in a framework of competition with realistic conditions. Also, classical economics is able to accommodate institutions, be it collective bargaining or monetary policy, within its framework without any difficulties.

To conclude, besides other logical problems marginalist economics faces, it also possesses a rather restrictive notion of competition. But, does economic theorizing require such an assumption’ My answer is in the affirmative. To identify casual chains, however short they might be, an environment of ‘free competition’ must be assumed. With free mobility of labour and ‘capital’ ‘ a genuine conception of a competitive economy, a uniform rate of profit is obtained. But, note that a classical competitive equilibrium does not entail full employment. [Non-competitive elements will generate differential profit rates.] So, should we abandon the study of economic phenomena under ‘free competition” No, because it conveys to us tendencies in a competitive economy and non-competitive processes are conceptualised as a departure from competitive ones.