Economic writings date from earlier Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, Indian subcontinent, Chinese, Persian, and Arab civilizations. Notable writers from antiquity through to the 14th century include Aristotle, Xenophon, Chanakya (also known as Kautilya), Qin Shi Huang, Thomas Aquinas, and Ibn Khaldun. The works of Aristotle had a profound influence on Aquinas, who in turn influenced the late scholastics of the 14th to 17th centuries.
Two groups, later called 'mercantilists' and 'physiocrats', more directly influenced the subsequent development of the subject. Both groups were associated with the rise of economic nationalism and modern capitalism in Europe. Mercantilism was an economic doctrine that flourished from the 16th to 18th century. It held that a nation's wealth depended on its accumulation of gold and silver. Nations without access to mines could obtain gold and silver from trade only by selling goods abroad and restricting imports other than of gold and silver. The doctrine called for importing cheap raw materials to be used in manufacturing goods, which could be exported, and for state regulation to impose protective tariffs on foreign manufactured goods and prohibit manufacturing in the colonies.
Physiocrats, a group of 18th century French thinkers and writers, developed the idea of the economy as a circular flow of income and output. Physiocrats believed that only agricultural production generated a clear surplus over cost, so that agriculture was the basis of all wealth. Thus, they opposed the mercantilist policy of promoting manufacturing and trade at the expense of agriculture, including import tariffs. Physiocrats advocated replacing administratively costly tax collections with a single tax on income of land owners. In reaction against various mercantilist trade regulations, the physiocrats advocated a policy of laissez-faire, which called for minimal government intervention in the economy.
Modern economic analysis is customarily said to have begun with Adam Smith (1723–1790).Smith was harshly critical of the mercantilists but described the physiocratic system "with all its imperfections" as "perhaps the purest approximation to the truth that has yet been published" on the subject.
Publication of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations in 1776 has been described as "the effective birth of economics as a separate discipline." The book identified land, labor, and capital as the three factors of production and the major contributors to a nation's wealth, as distinct from the Physiocratic idea that only agriculture was productive.
Smith discusses potential benefits of specialization by division of labour, including increased labor productivity and gains from trade, whether between town and country or across countries. His "theorem" that "the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market" has been described as the "core of a theory of the functions of firm and industry" and a "fundamental principle of economic organization. According to Smith "the most important substantive proposition in all of economics" and foundation of resource-allocation theory – that, under competition, resource owners (of labor, land, and capital) seek their most profitable uses, resulting in an equal rate of return for all uses in equilibrium.
In an argument that includes "one of the most famous passages in all economics," Smith represents every individual as trying to employ any capital they might command for their own advantage, not that of the society, and for the sake of profit, which is necessary at some level for employing capital in domestic industry, and positively related to the value of produce.
He embeds the 'invisible hand' in a framework that includes limiting restrictions on competition and foreign trade by government and industry in the same chapter and elsewhere regulation of banking and the interest rate, provision of a "natural system of liberty" — national defence, an egalitarian justice and legal system, and certain institutions and public works with general benefits to the whole society that might otherwise be unprofitable to produce, such as education and roads, canals, and the like. An influential introductory textbook includes parallel discussion and this assessment: "Above all, it is Adam Smith's vision of a self-regulating invisible hand that is his enduring contribution to modern economics."
Well known scholar, economist Thomas Robert Malthus (1798) used the idea of diminishing returns to explain low living standards. Human population, he argued, tended to increase geometrically, outstripping the production of food, which increased arithmetically. The force of a rapidly growing population against a limited amount of land meant diminishing returns to labor. The result, he claimed, was chronically low wages, which prevented the standard of living for most of the population from rising above the subsistence level.
Malthus also questioned the automatic tendency of a market economy to produce full employment. He blamed unemployment upon the economy's tendency to limit its spending by saving too much, a theme that lay forgotten until John Maynard Keynes revived it in the 1930s.
While Adam Smith emphasized the production of income, David Ricardo (1817) focused on the distribution of income among landowners, workers, and capitalists. Ricardo saw an inherent conflict between landowners on the one hand and labor and capital on the other. He posited that the growth of population and capital, pressing against a fixed supply of land, pushes up rents and holds down wages and profits. Ricardo was the first to state and prove the principle of comparative advantage, according to which each country should specialize in producing and exporting goods in that it has a lower relative cost of production, rather relying only on its own production. It has been termed a "fundamental analytical explanation" for gains from trade.
Coming at the end of the Classical tradition, John Stuart Mill (1848) parted company with the earlier classical economists on the inevitability of the distribution of income produced by the market system. Mill pointed to a distinct difference between the market's two roles: allocation of resources and distribution of income. The market might be efficient in allocating resources but not in distributing income, he wrote, making it necessary for society to intervene. Value theory was important in classical theory. Smith wrote that the "real price of every thing ... is the toil and trouble of acquiring it" as influenced by its scarcity. Smith maintained that, with rent and profit, other costs besides wages also enter the price of a commodity. Other classical economists presented variations on Smith, termed the 'labour theory of value'. Classical economics focused on the tendency of markets to move to long-run equilibrium.
The Marxist school of economic thought comes from the work of German economist Karl Marx.
Marxist (later, Marxian) economics descends from classical economics. It derives from the work of Karl Marx. The first volume of Marx's major work, Das Kapital, was published in German in 1867. In it, Marx focused on the labour theory of value and the theory of surplus value which, he believed, explained the exploitation of labour by capital. The labour theory of value held that the value of an exchanged commodity was determined by the labor that went into its production and the theory of surplus value demonstrated how the workers only got paid a proportion of the value their work had created.
Marx's theories about society, economics and politics—collectively known as Marxism—hold that all societies progress through the dialectic of class struggle: a conflict between an ownership class which controls production and a lower class which produces the labour for goods. Heavily critical of the current socio-economic form of society, capitalism, he called it the "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie", believing it to be run by the wealthy classes purely for their own benefit, and predicted that, like previous socioeconomic systems, it would inevitably produce internal tensions which would lead to its self-destruction and replacement by a new system, socialism. He argued that under socialism society would be governed by the working class in what he called the "dictatorship of the proletariat", the "workers state" or "workers' democracy”. He believed that socialism would, in its turn, eventually be replaced by a stateless, classless society called communism. Along with believing in the inevitability of socialism and communism, Marx actively fought for the former's implementation, arguing that both social theorists and underprivileged people should carry out organised revolutionary action to topple capitalism and bring about socio-economic change
A body of theory later termed 'neoclassical economics' or 'marginalism' formed from about 1870 to 1910. The term 'economics' was popularized by such neoclassical economists as Alfred Marshall as a concise synonym for 'economic science' and a substitute for the earlier 'political economy'. This corresponded to the influence on the subject of mathematical methods used in the natural sciences.
Neoclassical economics systematized supply and demand as joint determinants of price and quantity in market equilibrium, affecting both the allocation of output and the distribution of income. It dispensed with the labour theory of value inherited from classical economics in favor of a marginal utility theory of value on the demand side and a more general theory of costs on the supply side. In the 20th century, neoclassical theorists moved away from an earlier notion suggesting that total utility for a society could be measured in favor of ordinal utility, which hypothesizes merely behavior-based relations across persons.
In microeconomics, neoclassical economics represents incentives and costs as playing a pervasive role in shaping decision making. An immediate example of this is the consumer theory of individual demand, which isolates how prices (as costs) and income affect quantity demanded. In macroeconomics it is reflected in an early and lasting neoclassical synthesis with Keynesian macroeconomics.
Neoclassical economics is occasionally referred as orthodox economics whether by its critics or sympathizers. Modern mainstream economics builds on neoclassical economics but with many refinements that either supplement or generalize earlier analysis, such as econometrics, game theory, analysis of market failure and imperfect competition, and the neoclassical model of economic growth for analyzing long-run variables affecting national income.
John Maynard Keynes was a key theorist in economics.
Keynesian economics derives from John Maynard Keynes, in particular his book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), which ushered in contemporary macroeconomics as a distinct field. The book focused on determinants of national income in the short run when prices are relatively inflexible. Keynes attempted to explain in broad theoretical detail why high labour-market unemployment might not be self-correcting due to low "effective demand" and why even price flexibility and monetary policy might be unavailing. Such terms as "revolutionary" have been applied to the book in its impact on economic analysis.
In the 1930s, Keynes spearheaded a revolution in economic thinking, overturning the older ideas of neoclassical economics that held that free markets would, in the short to medium term, automatically provide full employment, as long as workers were flexible in their wage demands. Keynes instead argued that aggregate demand determined the overall level of economic activity, and that inadequate aggregate demand could lead to prolonged periods of high unemployment. Following the outbreak of World War II, Keynes's ideas concerning economic policy were adopted by leading Western economies. During the 1950s and 1960s, the success of Keynesian economics resulted in almost all capitalist governments adopting its policy recommendations.
At the height of the Great Depression, in 1933, Keynes published The Means to Prosperity, which contained specific policy recommendations for tackling unemployment in a global recession, chiefly counter cyclical public spending. The Means to Prosperity contains one of the first mentions of the multiplier effect. While it was addressed chiefly to the British Government, it also contained advice for other nations affected by the global recession. A copy was sent to the newly elected President Roosevelt and other world leaders. The work was taken seriously by both the American and British governments.
Keynes's magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money was published in 1936. The General Theory challenged the earlier neo-classical economic paradigm, which had held that provided it was unfettered by government interference, the market would naturally establish full employment equilibrium. In doing so Keynes was partly setting himself against his former teachers Marshall and Pigou. Keynes believed the classical theory was a "special case" that applied only to the particular conditions present in the 19th century, his own theory being the general one. Classical economists had believed in Say's law, which, simply put, states that "supply creates its own demand", and that in a free market workers would always be willing to lower their wages to a level where employers could profitably offer them jobs. An innovation from Keynes was the concept of price stickiness – the recognition that in reality workers often refuse to lower their wage demands even in cases where a classical economist might argue it is rational for them to do so. Due in part to price stickiness, it was established that the interaction of "aggregate demand" and "aggregate supply" may lead to stable unemployment equilibria – and in those cases, it is the state, and not the market, that economies must depend on for their salvation.
Keynesian economics has two successors. Post-Keynesian economics also concentrates on macroeconomic rigidities and adjustment processes. Research on micro foundations for their models is represented as based on real-life practices rather than simple optimizing models. It is generally associated with the University of Cambridge and the work of Joan Robinson.
New-Keynesian economics is also associated with developments in the Keynesian fashion. Within this group researchers tend to share with other economists the emphasis on models employing micro foundations and optimizing behavior but with a narrower focus on standard Keynesian themes such as price and wage rigidity. These are usually made to be endogenous features of the models, rather than simply assumed as in older Keynesian-style ones.
Chicago school of economics
The Chicago School of economics is best known for its free market advocacy and monetarist ideas. According to Milton Friedman and monetarists, market economies are inherently stable if the money supply does not greatly expand or contract. Ben Bernanke, present Chairman of the Federal Reserve, is among the economists today generally accepting Friedman's analysis of the causes of the Great Depression.
Milton Friedman effectively took many of the basic principles set forth by Adam Smith and the classical economists and modernized them. One example of this is his article in the September 1970 issue of The New York Times Magazine, where he claims that the social responsibility of business should be "to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits...(through) open and free competition without deception or fraud."
Other schools and approaches
Other well-known schools or trends of thought referring to a particular style of economics practiced at and disseminated from well-defined groups of academicians that have become known worldwide, include the Austrian School, the Freiburg School, the School of Lausanne, post-Keynesian economics and the Stockholm school. Contemporary mainstream economics is sometimes separated into the Saltwater approach of those universities along the Eastern and Western coasts of the US, and the Freshwater, or Chicago-school approach.
Within macroeconomics there is, in general order of their appearance in the literature; classical economics, Keynesian economics, the neoclassical synthesis, post-Keynesian economics, monetarism, new classical economics, and supply-side economics. Alternative developments include ecological economics, constitutional economics, institutional economics, evolutionary economics, dependency theory, structuralist economics, world systems theory, econophysics, feminist economics and biophysical economics.
"The dismal science" is a derogatory alternative name for economics devised by the Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century. It is often stated that Carlyle gave economics the nickname "the dismal science" as a response to the late 18th century writings of The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, who grimly predicted that starvation would result, as projected population growth exceeded the rate of increase in the food supply. However, the actual phrase was coined by Carlyle in the context of a debate with John Stuart Mill on slavery, in which Carlyle argued for slavery, while Mill opposed it.
Some economists, like John Stuart Mill or Léon Walras, have maintained that the production of wealth should not be tied to its distribution. The former is in the field of "applied economics" while the latter belongs to "social economics" and is largely a matter of power and politics. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith addressed many issues that are currently also the subject of debate and dispute. Smith repeatedly attacks groups of politically aligned individuals who attempt to use their collective influence to manipulate a government into doing their bidding. In Smith's day, these were referred to as factions, but are now more commonly called special interests, a term which can comprise international bankers, corporate conglomerations, outright oligopolies, monopolies, trade unions and other groups.
Prof. M. Guruprasad, AICAR Business School