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.”


On Prices/Values

Economics, rather Political Economy attempted at providing a coherent theory of value. Economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, etc are associated with a ‘theory of value’. Currently, in economics, ‘value’ is not discussed in courses of relevance. However, students are exposed to value theories such as labour commanded, labour embodied and so on.

This post is the second in the series of posts ‘On Prices’. This posts attempts at clarifying concepts such as values, prices and costs of production. Note that all prices which are mentioned in economics textbooks (microeconomics, introductory economics, principles of economics, etc) pertain to relative prices or long-run prices. That is, they do not talk about market prices. The reason for this is because it is assumed/believed that market prices tend to fluctuate or hover around these relative prices. In other words, given a particular technology, these relative prices, in some sense, reflect the interrelationships in the economy. Hence, these natural/normal proces are studied in order to understand the workings of a capitalist economy.

Let me start with what is usually taught in various economics and management institutes across the world and even in higher secondary schools. Prices are determined by the interaction of supply and demand. This implies that an excess dmand leads to a price hike. Let us look at an example: Suppose I go to a toy shop and ask for a Meccano set and immediately, another customer asks for the same set. But, the shop has only one Meccano set. Will the price of the Meccano set increase’ Is such an explanation intuitive or common sensical’ This example talks of an isolated case.

Economics is interested in the formation of a spectrum of prices at the level of the economy. Interestingly, macroeconomics has nothing to offer on price formation. Often, or rather everywhere in the world, economics is taught as microeconomics and macroeconomics. The interdependence and interrelationship present in any economy is inadequately addressed. The closest one comes is probably through the ‘circular flow’ diagram which highlights the role of the firm as well as the households. In this diagram, the complex and strutural interdependence is oversimplified to that of a 2-way interaction between the firm and household via labour market, capital market, etc and the state is shown to play the role of a facilitator. The interrelated production structures goes unnoticed or is seldom mentioned. Why is this important’

How can prices be determined’ (The dominant factor will be mentioned.)

1) Demand & Supply – The prices which are determined in this way are the prices of vegetables and fish, prices of shares in the stock markets, price of real estate, etc. In some sense, these prices can be said to be supply determined. For, these commodities are more often subject to variations in supply than in demand.

2)Costs of Production – An alternative view which is present in the literature is that the prices of commodities are prices according to the prices paid to the means of production as well as adding a certain percentage as profit. According to Kalecki, the percentage depends on the monopoly power of the firm. What if the firm’s final product is an input for another firm’ Will this affect the price of the product’ This aspect is often forgotten in economics.

This forgetfulness is strongly associated to the lack of importance mainstream and even some heterodox economic theories gives to interrelationships in the production structures in an economy. To have a glimpse into this, one needs only to look at an Input-Output table.

If we assume (correctly) that production structures in a capitalist economy are interrelated then we can conceptually distinguish goods/services into – Basics and Non-Basics. [Sraffa 1960] Basic goods are those goods which directly or indirectly enter into the production of every commodity in the economy including its own. An obvious example would be foodgrains because they are needed for labourers and labour is required in all activities. And a tax on a basic good will have cascading effects on the prices of all the goods in the economy.

I shall quote Sraffa to point out the significance of accepting and studying interdependence.

The exchange-ratio (or relative prices) of non-basics is “merely a reflection of what must be paid for means of production, labour and profits in order to produce them – there is no mutual dependence.” [p 8, Sraffa 1960]

“But for a basic product there is another aspect to be considered. Its exchange-ratio depends as much on the use that is made of it ….” [pp 8-9, Sraffa 1960]

It is because of these issues that Sraffa uses values/prices than costs. Also, Sraffa knew that in an economy, “costs of production cannot be measured independently of, and prior to, the determination of the prices of products.” [p 9, Sraffa 1960] To conclude, dan we therefore think that Sraffa’s analysis is similar to the neoclassical analysis of price using demand and supply’

In brackets, Sraffa writes “one might be tempted, but it would be misleading, to say that ‘it depends as much on the Deamnd side as on the Supply side.'” [p 9, Sraffa 1960]


1) Kalecki, Michal (1971), Costs and Prices, in Selected Essays on the Dynamics of the Capitalist Economy 1933-1970, Cambridge University Press, pp. 43-61.
2) Sraffa, Piero (1960), Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities, Cambridge University Press.