Neoclassical Economics - Origins

Origins

Classical economics, developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, included a value theory and distribution theory. The value of a product was thought to depend on the costs involved in producing that product. The explanation of costs in Classical economics was simultaneously an explanation of distribution. A landlord received rent, workers received wages, and a capitalist tenant farmer received profits on their investment. This classic approach included the work of Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

However, some economists gradually began emphasizing the perceived value of a good to the consumer. They proposed a theory that the value of a product was to be explained with differences in utility (usefulness) to the consumer. (In England, economists tended to conceptualize utility in keeping with the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and later of John Stuart Mill.)

The third step from political economy to economics was the introduction of marginalism and the proposition that economic actors made decisions based on margins. For example, a person decides to buy a second sandwich based on how full they are after the first one, a firm hires a new employee based on the expected increase in profits the employee will bring. This differs from the aggregate decision making of classical political economy in that it explains how vital goods such as water can be cheap, while luxuries can be expensive.

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