Neoclassical Economics - The Marginal Revolution

The Marginal Revolution

The change in economic theory from neoclassical economics has been called the 'marginal revolution', although it has been argued that the process was slower than the term suggests. It is frequently dated from William Stanley Jevons's Theory of Political Economy (1871), Carl Menger's Principles of Economics (1871), and Léon Walras's Elements of Pure Economics (1874–1877). Historians of economics and economists have debated:

  • Whether utility or marginalism was more essential to this revolution (whether the noun or the adjective in the phrase "marginal utility" is more important)
  • Whether there was a revolutionary change of thought or merely a gradual development and change of emphasis from their predecessors
  • Whether grouping these economists together disguises differences more important than their similarities.

In particular, Jevons saw his economics as an application and development of Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism and never had a fully developed general equilibrium theory. Menger did not embrace this hedonic conception, explained diminishing marginal utility in terms of subjective prioritization of possible uses, and emphasized disequilibrium and the discrete; further Menger had an objection to the use of mathematics in economics, while the other two modeled their theories after 19th century mechanics. Walras' conception of utility, like that of Menger, was that of usefulness in general, rather than the hedonic conception of Bentham or of Mill; and Walras was more interested in the interaction of markets than in explaining the individual psyche.

Alfred Marshall's textbook, Principles of Economics (1890), was the dominant textbook in England a generation later. Marshall's influence extended elsewhere; Italians would compliment Maffeo Pantaleoni by calling him the "Marshall of Italy". Marshall thought classical economics attempted to explain prices by the cost of production. He asserted that earlier marginalists went too far in correcting this imbalance by overemphasizing utility and demand. Marshall thought that "We might as reasonably dispute whether it is the upper or the under blade of a pair of scissors that cuts a piece of paper, as whether value is governed by utility or cost of production".

Marshall explained price by the intersection of supply and demand curves. The introduction of different market "periods" was an important innovation of Marshall’s:

  • Market period. The goods produced for sale on the market are taken as given data, e.g. in a fish market. Prices quickly adjust to clear markets.
  • Short period. Industrial capacity is taken as given. The level of output, the level of employment, the inputs of raw materials, and prices fluctuate to equate marginal cost and marginal revenue, where profits are maximized. Economic rents exist in short period equilibrium for fixed factors, and the rate of profit is not equated across sectors.
  • Long period. The stock of capital goods, such as factories and machines, is not taken as given. Profit-maximizing equilibria determine both industrial capacity and the level at which it is operated.
  • Very long period. Technology, population trends, habits and customs are not taken as given, but allowed to vary in very long period models.

Marshall took supply and demand as stable functions and extended supply and demand explanations of prices to all runs. He argued supply was easier to vary in longer runs, and thus became a more important determinant of price in the very long run.

Read more about this topic:  Neoclassical Economics

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