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.”