Definitions of economics
There are a variety of modern definitions of economics. Some of the differences may reflect evolving views of the subject itself or different views among economists.
The earlier term for 'economics' was political economy. It is adapted from the French Mercantilist usage of économie politique, which extended economy from the ancient Greek term for household management to the national realm as public administration of the affairs of state. Sir James Steuart (1767) wrote the first book in English with 'political economy' in the title, explaining that just as:
- Economy in general [is] the art of providing for all the wants of a family, [so the science of political oeconomy] seeks to secure a certain fund of subsistence for all the inhabitants, to obviate every circumstance which may render it precarious; to provide every thing necessary for supplying the wants of the society, and to employ the inhabitants ... in such manner as naturally to create reciprocal relations and dependencies between them, so as to supply one another with reciprocal wants.
The title page gave as its subject matter "population, agriculture, trade, industry, money, coin, interest, circulation, banks, exchange, public credit and taxes".
The philosopher Adam Smith (1776) defines the subject as "an inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations," in particular as:
- a branch of the science of a statesman or legislator [with the twofold objective of providing] a plentiful revenue or subsistence for the people ... [and] to supply the state or commonwealth with a revenue for the publick services.
J.-B. Say (1803), distinguishing the subject from its public-policy uses, defines it as the science of production, distribution, and consumption of wealth. On the satirical side, Thomas Carlyle (1849) coined 'the dismal science' as an epithet for classical economics, in this context, commonly linked to the pessimistic analysis of Malthus (1798). John Stuart Mill (1844) defines the subject in a social context as:
- The science which traces the laws of such of the phenomena of society as arise from the combined operations of mankind for the production of wealth, in so far as those phenomena are not modified by the pursuit of any other object.
- Economics is a study of man in the ordinary business of life. It enquires how he gets his income and how he uses it. Thus, it is on the one side, the study of wealth and on the other and more important side, a part of the study of man.
- Economics is a science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.
Robbins describes the definition as not classificatory in "pick[ing] out certain kinds of behaviour" but rather analytical in "focus[ing] attention on a particular aspect of behaviour, the form imposed by the influence of scarcity."
Some subsequent comments criticized the definition as overly broad in failing to limit its subject matter to analysis of markets. From the 1960s, however, such comments abated as the economic theory of maximizing behavior and rational-choice modeling expanded the domain of the subject to areas previously treated in other fields. There are other criticisms as well, such as in scarcity not accounting for the macroeconomics of high unemployment.
Gary Becker, a contributor to the expansion of economics into new areas, describes the approach he favors as "combin[ing the] assumptions of maximizing behavior, stable preferences, and market equilibrium, used relentlessly and unﬂinchingly." One commentary characterizes the remark as making economics an approach rather than a subject matter but with great specificity as to the "choice process and the type of social interaction that [such] analysis involves."
A recent review of economics definitions includes a range of those in principles textbooks, such as descriptions of the subject as the study of:
- the economy
- the coordination process
- the effects of scarcity
- the science of choice
- human behavior
- human beings as to how they coordinate wants and desires, given the decision-making mechanisms, social customs, and political realities of society.
It concludes that the lack of agreement need not affect the subject-matter that the texts treat. Among economists more generally, it argues that a particular definition presented may reflect the direction toward which the author believes economics is evolving, or should evolve.
- • Backhouse, Roger E., and Steven Medema (2008). "economics, definition of," The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, 2nd Edition, pp. 720-22. Abstract.
• _____ (2009). "Retrospectives: On the Definition of Economics," Journal of Economic Perspectives, 23(1), pp. 221–33.
- • Antoine de Montchrestien (1615). Traicté de l’oeconomie politique. F. Billacois, ed., 1999, critical edition, preview.
• P. Bridel (1987 ). "Montchrétien, Antoyne de," The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics, v. 3, p. 546 [pp.546-47].
- James Steuart ([1767, 1770] 1966). An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Oeconomy: Being An Essay on the Science of Domestic Policy in Free Nations, v. 1, [title page] and pp. 2-3, Oliver and Boyd for the Scottish Economic Society. Title page and Book I, "Introduction," , pp. 15, 17, as quoted in Peter Groenwegen (1987 ), "'political economy' and 'economics'," The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics, v. 3, p. 905.
- Smith, Adam (1776). An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, and Book IV.
- Say, Jean-Baptiste (1803 ). A Treatise on Political Economy; or the Production, Distribution, and Consumption of Wealth, trans. 1834, C. C. Biddle, ed., Grigg and Elliot.
- • [Carlyle, Thomas] (1849). "Occasional Discourse on the N[egro] Question," Fraser's Magazine, republished in Works of Thomas Carlyle, 1904, v. 29, Charles Scribner's Sons, pp. 348-383.
• Malthus, Thomas (1798). An Essay on the Principle of Population.
• Persky, Joseph (1990). "Retrospectives: A Dismal Romantic," Journal of Economic Perspectives, 4(4), pp. 166-169 [pp. 165-172].
- Mill, John Stuart (1844). "On the Definition of Political Economy; and on the Method of Investigation Proper to It", Essay V, in Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy (V39). (Accessed Nov 2011)
- Marshall, Alfred (1890 ). Principles of Political Economy, v. 1, pp. 1-2 [8th ed.]. London: Macmillan.
- Backhouse, Roger E., and Steven Medema (2009). "Retrospectives: On the Definition of Economics," Journal of Economic Perspectives, 23(1), p. 225. [pp. 221–33.
- Robbins, Lionel (1932). An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, p. 15. London: Macmillan. Links for 1932 HTML and 2nd ed., 1935 facsimile.
- Robbins, Lionel (1932). An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, p. 16.
- • Backhouse, Roger E., and Steven G. Medema (2009). "Defining Economics: The Long Road to Acceptance of the Robbins Definition," Economica, 76(302), V. Economics Spreads Its Wings. [Pp. 805–820.]
• Stigler, George J. (1984). "Economics—The Imperial Science?" Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 86(3), pp. 301-313.
- Blaug, Mark (2007). "The Social Sciences: Economics," The New Encyclopædia Britannica, v. 27, p. 343 [pp. 343-52].
- Becker, Gary S. (1976). The Economic Approach to Human Behavior, Chicago, p. 5.
- Backhouse, Roger E., and Steven Medema (2009). "Retrospectives: On the Definition of Economics," Journal of Economic Perspectives, 23(1), p. 229 [pp. 221–33.
- Backhouse, Roger E., and Steven Medema (2009). "Retrospectives: On the Definition of Economics," Journal of Economic Perspectives, 23(1), Introduction and Conclusion [pp. 221–33.
- Bye, Raymond T. (1939) "The Scope and Definition of Economics," Journal of Political Economy, 47(5), pp. 623-47.
- Coase, Ronald H. (1978). "Economics and Contiguous Disciplines," Journal of Legal Studies, 7(2), pp. 201-211.
- Dow, Sheila C. (2002) Economic Methodology: An Inquiry, Oxford University Press. Description and review.