AN INTRODUCTION TO ECONOMICS by Maurice Dobb 1932
TO DEFINE what Economics is about is considerably more difficult than most people think. Economic text-books have provided a number of definitions. “Economics is a study of man in the ordinary business of life.” “Economics is a study of those motives and actions which are capable of being measured in money” But such definitions do not carry us very far. In inductive and experimental sciences a preliminary definition of scope is given (at least initially) by the nature of the material, although even here the frontier may be a vague and fading one: for instance, the frontier between Astronomy and Physics today. But since experiment in the social sciences is so restricted, Economics is primarily a deductive science, which (like Geometry and Mechanics) deduces a series of conclusions from certain premises or assumptions; and in a deductive study it is necessarily the development of the concepts themselves which provides its boundaries. In such a case when different schools of thought exist, employing qualitatively different concepts, a satisfactory definition is hardly possible which includes them all. Each may be separately defined, and then the relationship in which each stands to the other may be expressed in terms of something wider. But a final and satisfactory answer can only really be given when qualitative differences have been reduced to a common term, viz., to common differences of quantity or number. This stage, however, is far removed as yet in a field so little charted as the social sciences; and for the present the most satisfactory way of defining Economics seems to be in terms of the type of question which it asks and seeks to answer, and similarly to define the rival schools of thought in terms of the different questions they pose to themselves or of differences in the type of answer they afford. Much of the confusion which reigns in the field of Economics to-day is, I believe, due to failure to use this simple device. Much barren controversy – for instance between the classical economists and modern economists – has been staged with no issue but stalemate and confusion, because the contestants have failed to realise that each is engaged in answering a different set of questions – Ricardo or Marx, for instance, being concerned with certain aspects of the distribution of wealth between classes, Jevons or Pareto with the conditions of price-equilibrium on a competitive market. Much of the discussion as to the adequacy of a certain theory (say of wages or of profits) turns on whether it answers the questions it claims to when those questions are framed with a greater or smaller degree of explicitness. More than one economist has launched his enquiry in quest of answers to certain questions, and then has proceeded to employ an apparatus of assumptions which essentially precluded those questions from receiving any answer.
It is the fashionable view to imagine that the early economists were the crude craftsmen of economic science who, working with inferior tools and experience, built their structure in an imperfect way, and that their modem successors have retrieved their errors and mistakes in a more finished and completer structure. Ricardo is said to have emphasised “only one side” of the problem (e.g., supply, not demand): to have noticed only one set of the forces at work; Adam Smith to have laid certain foundations (his enquiry into the causes of the wealth of nations) which needed the improved technique of a hundred years later to complete. Hence the concepts of classical economy are laid against the concepts of twentieth century economic theory and directly compared, to the undoubted credit of the latter for their greater finish and perfection of detail. Where they differ (e.g. in their emphasis on cost of production as against utility as determinants of exchange-value), argument is conducted between them as though it were solely a question of differences of answers afforded to the same basic questionnaire.
This method of approach is fundamentally erroneous. At best it is a sufficiently partial view of the matter to cause more confusion than enlightenment; and any further progress in the subject seems likely to be seriously obstructed until an alternative critical approach is tried. It is a commonplace in Art to-day that the “Primitives” of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were not merely cruder craftsmen compared to the representational painters of a later date – in many respects they very obviously were not – but at they were trying to do something t as qualitatively different. The Physiocrats and the classical economists are in a sense the “Primitives” of economic science. In some ways they may have had a less finished technique than their twentieth century descendants. But what is more important is that many of the concepts they used were different and that they were trying to answer a different set of questions in a different way: questions partly concerned with the distribution of income between classes, partly with the conditions of maximum economic progress. This fact is obscured because economists of to-day imagine themselves to be answering, and certainly claim to answer, many of the questions which their classical forebears set out to do. But, to a large extent, 1believe that the apparatus which they use produces, in reality, solutions which are in fact appropriate to a quite different and more limited context.