Neoclassical economics is an approach to economics in which the production, consumption and valuation (pricing) of goods and services are driven by the supply and demand model. According to this line of thought, the value of a good or service is determined through a hypothetical maximization of utility by income-constrained individuals and of profits by firms facing production costs and employing available information and factors of production, in accordance with rational choice theory, a theory that has come under considerable question in recent years.
Neoclassical economics dominated microeconomics and, together with Keynesian economics, formed the neoclassical synthesis which dominated mainstream economics as Neo-Keynesian economics from the 1950s to the 1970s. It competed with New Keynesian economics as new classical macroeconomics in explaining macroeconomic phenomena from the 1970s till the 1990s, when it was identified as having become a part of the new neoclassical synthesis along with New Keynesianism. There have been many critiques of neoclassical economics, a number of which have been incorporated into newer versions of neoclassical theory, whilst some remain distinct fields.
The term was originally introduced by Thorstein Veblen in his 1900 article 'Preconceptions of Economic Science', in which he related marginalists in the tradition of Alfred Marshall et al. to those in the Austrian School.
No attempt will here be made even to pass a verdict on the relative claims of the recognized two or three main "schools" of theory, beyond the somewhat obvious finding that, for the purpose in hand, the so-called Austrian school is scarcely distinguishable from the neo-classical, unless it be in the different distribution of emphasis. The divergence between the modernized classical views, on the one hand, and the historical and Marxist schools, on the other hand, is wider, so much so, indeed, as to bar out a consideration of the postulates of the latter under the same head of inquiry with the former.
It was later used by John Hicks, George Stigler, and others to include the work of Carl Menger, William Stanley Jevons, Léon Walras, John Bates Clark, and many others. Today it is usually used to refer to mainstream economics, although it has also been used as an umbrella term encompassing a number of other schools of thought, notably excluding institutional economics, various historical schools of economics, and Marxian economics, in addition to various other heterodox approaches to economics.
Neoclassical economics is characterized by several assumptions common to many schools of economic thought. There is not a complete agreement on what is meant by neoclassical economics, and the result is a wide range of neoclassical approaches to various problem areas and domains—ranging from neoclassical theories of labor to neoclassical theories of demographic changes.
Three central assumptions
It was expressed by E. Roy Weintraub that neoclassical economics rests on three assumptions, although certain branches of neoclassical theory may have different approaches:
- People have rational preferences between outcomes that can be identified and associated with values.
- Individuals maximize utility and firms maximize profits.
- People act independently on the basis of full and relevant information.
From these three assumptions, neoclassical economists have built a structure to understand the allocation of scarce resources among alternative ends—in fact understanding such allocation is often considered the definition of economics to neoclassical theorists. Here's how William Stanley Jevons presented "the problem of Economics".
Given, a certain population, with various needs and powers of production, in possession of certain lands and other sources of material: required, the mode of employing their labour which will maximize the utility of their produce.
From the basic assumptions of neoclassical economics comes a wide range of theories about various areas of economic activity. For example, profit maximization lies behind the neoclassical theory of the firm, while the derivation of demand curves leads to an understanding of consumer goods, and the supply curve allows an analysis of the factors of production. Utility maximization is the source for the neoclassical theory of consumption, the derivation of demand curves for consumer goods, and the derivation of labor supply curves and reservation demand.
Market supply and demand are aggregated across firms and individuals. Their interactions determine equilibrium output and price. The market supply and demand for each factor of production is derived analogously to those for market final output to determine equilibrium income and the income distribution. Factor demand incorporates the marginal-productivity relationship of that factor in the output market.
Neoclassical economics emphasizes equilibria, which are the solutions of agent maximization problems. Regularities in economies are explained by methodological individualism, the position that economic phenomena can be explained by aggregating over the behavior of agents. The emphasis is on microeconomics. Institutions, which might be considered as prior to and conditioning individual behavior, are de-emphasized. Economic subjectivism accompanies these emphases. See also general equilibrium.
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 he or she is 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.
The change in economic theory from classical to 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. Jevons built on the hedonic conception of Bentham or of Mill, while 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.
An important change in neoclassical economics occurred around 1933. Joan Robinson and Edward H. Chamberlin, with the near simultaneous publication of their respective books, The Economics of Imperfect Competition (1933) and The Theory of Monopolistic Competition (1933), introduced models of imperfect competition. Theories of market forms and industrial organization grew out of this work. They also emphasized certain tools, such as the marginal revenue curve.
Joan Robinson's work on imperfect competition, at least, was a response to certain problems of Marshallian partial equilibrium theory highlighted by Piero Sraffa. Anglo-American economists also responded to these problems by turning towards general equilibrium theory, developed on the European continent by Walras and Vilfredo Pareto. J. R. Hicks's Value and Capital (1939) was influential in introducing his English-speaking colleagues to these traditions. He, in turn, was influenced by the Austrian School economist Friedrich Hayek's move to the London School of Economics, where Hicks then studied.
These developments were accompanied by the introduction of new tools, such as indifference curves and the theory of ordinal utility. The level of mathematical sophistication of neoclassical economics increased. Paul Samuelson's Foundations of Economic Analysis (1947) contributed to this increase in mathematical modelling.
The interwar period in American economics has been argued to have been pluralistic, with neoclassical economics and institutionalism competing for allegiance. Frank Knight, an early Chicago school economist attempted to combine both schools. But this increase in mathematics was accompanied by greater dominance of neoclassical economics in Anglo-American universities after World War II. Some argue that outside political interventions, such as McCarthyism, and internal ideological bullying played an important role in this rise to dominance.
Hicks' book, Value and Capital had two main parts. The second, which was arguably not immediately influential, presented a model of temporary equilibrium. Hicks was influenced directly by Hayek's notion of intertemporal coordination and paralleled by earlier work by Lindhal. This was part of an abandonment of disaggregated long run models. This trend probably reached its culmination with the Arrow–Debreu model of intertemporal equilibrium. The Arrow–Debreu model has canonical presentations in Gérard Debreu's Theory of Value (1959) and in Arrow and Hahn's "General Competitive Analysis" (1971).
Many of these developments were against the backdrop of improvements in both econometrics, that is the ability to measure prices and changes in goods and services, as well as their aggregate quantities, and in the creation of macroeconomics, or the study of whole economies. The attempt to combine neo-classical microeconomics and Keynesian macroeconomics would lead to the neoclassical synthesis which was the dominant paradigm of economic reasoning in English-speaking countries from the 1950s till the 1970s. Hicks and Samuelson were for example instrumental in mainstreaming Keynesian economics.
The dominance of Neo-Keynesian economics was upset by its inability to explain the economic crises of the 1970s- neoclassical economics emerged distinctly in macroeconomics as the new classical school, which sought to explain macroeconomic phenomenon using neoclassical microeconomics. It and its contemporary New Keynesian economics contributed to the new neoclassical synthesis of the 1990s, which informs much of mainstream macroeconomics today.
Although neoclassical economics is the dominant mainstream school, economics is a diverse discipline which includes a variety of different schools such as the Marxist, Behavioral, Schumpeterian, Developmentalist, Austrian, and Institutionalist schools. All of these schools have differing theories from the neoclassical school and include various criticisms of it and disagreements with it. Even some prominent neo-Keynesians, such as the Nobel prize recipient and former chief economist of the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz, are vocally critical of mainstream neoclassical economics.
Because neoclassical economics is the primary school of the economic mainstream and is fundamentally capitalist, many criticisms of it also function as criticisms of mainstream economics, capitalism, or markets.
Methodology and Mathematical Models
One common criticism of neoclassical economics is that it relies too much on mathematical modelling and tries to treat economics as a hard science such as physics, when in reality economics is a social science which cannot be analyzed in the same way.
Critics such as Tony Lawson contend that neoclassical economics' reliance on functional relations is inadequate for social phenomena in which knowledge of one variable does not reliably predict another. The different factors affecting economic outcomes cannot be experimentally isolated from one another in a laboratory; therefore the explanatory and predictive power of mathematical economic analysis is limited. Lawson proposes an alternative approach called the contrast explanation which he says is better suited for determining causes of events in social sciences. More broadly, critics of economics as a science vary, with some believing that all mathematical economics is problematic or even pseudoscience and others believing it is still useful but has less certainty and higher risk of methodology problems than in hard sciences.
Milton Friedman, one of the most prominent and influential neoclassical economists of the 20th century, responded to criticisms that assumptions in economic models were often unrealistic by saying that theories should be judged by their ability to predict events rather than by the realism of their assumptions. He claimed that, on the contrary, a theory with more absurd assumptions has stronger predictive power. He argued that a theory's ability to theoretically explain reality is irrelevant compared to its ability to empirically predict reality, no matter the method of getting to that prediction.
Neoclassical economics is sometimes criticized for having a normative bias. In this view, it does not focus on explaining actual economies, but instead on describing a theoretical world in which Pareto optimality applies.
Rational Behavior Assumptions
One of the most widely criticized aspects of neoclassical economics is its set of assumptions about human behavior and rationality. These assumptions were chosen not because they were observed to be true by studying human behavior, but because they were the required conditions to reach a market equilibrium. The "economic man", or a hypothetical human who acts according to neoclassical assumptions, does not necessarily behave the same way as humans do in reality. The prominent economist and critic of capitalism Thorstein Veblen claimed that neoclassical economics assumes a person to be:
[A] lightning calculator of pleasures and pains, who oscillates like a homogeneous globule of desire of happiness under the impulse of stimuli that shift about the area, but leave him intact.
His characterization references a number of commonly criticized rationality assumptions: that people make decisions using a rigid utilitarian framework, have perfect information available about their options, have perfect information processing ability allowing them to immediately calculate utility for all possible options, and are independent decision-makers whose choices are unaffected by their surroundings or by other people.
While Veblen is from the Institutional school, the Behavioral school of economics is focused on studying the mechanisms of human decision-making and how it differs from neoclassical assumptions of rationality. Altruistic or empathy-based behavior is another form of "non-rational" decision making studied by behavioral economists, which differs from the neoclassical assumption that people only act in self-interest.
Problems exist with making the neoclassical general equilibrium theory compatible with an economy that develops over time and includes capital goods. This was explored in a major debate in the 1960s—the "Cambridge capital controversy"—about the validity of neoclassical economics, with an emphasis on economic growth, capital, aggregate theory, and the marginal productivity theory of distribution. There were also internal attempts by neoclassical economists to extend the Arrow–Debreu model to disequilibrium investigations of stability and uniqueness. However, a result known as the Sonnenschein–Mantel–Debreu theorem suggests that the assumptions that must be made to ensure that equilibrium is stable and unique are quite restrictive.
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