Monday, March 18, 2013


In its beginning as social discipline, the economic theory did not begin calling itself simply “Economics”, but “Political Economy”. This is something that comes from the mercantilist tradition in the year 1615, when Antonio de Montchretien coined this term with the publication of his Treatise on Political Economy, wanting to imply thereby that the economics and politics are intrinsically linked.

In that sense, this article aims to explain and make a critical analysis of the historical and epistemological process through which it has been tried “depoliticize” the economics which still happens today.

The classical revolution

The classical school was born in 1776 when Adam Smith published his famous book Investigations on the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. The publication of this book was a great revolution in the history of economic analysis by the fact that from there it began to consider the economics as an independent scientific discipline.

As is well known Adam Smith wasn't an economist by profession but rather a philosopher especially interested in ethics, politics and law. This is clearly reflected in several of the passages of Wealth of Nations when, beyond his initial approach about the “invisible hand”, Smith analyzes the interests of different social classes and their relationship with the good of the community in general. For example, with respect to the landowners he argues that, as they get their income without working, they often ignore their own interests and are therefore unable to understand the consequences of any policy that might be proposed.

As regards the bourgeoisie, Smith considers that this is the social class better able to appreciate their own interests and thus, of propelling economic development. But this does not inhibit him see that we must be wary of these men’s attitude toward public policy and that their interests necessarily come into conflict with those of the working class because, as he himself explains: “current salaries of labor depend on the contract established between two parties whose interests are by no way identical. Workers want to get the maximum possible and give employers want the minimum. While the first join to raise them, the seconds meet to lower them”. (1)

In addition to Adam Smith, among the main representatives of the classical school we have David Ricardo, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill. None of them ever separated political analysis of economic analysis but that instead they always incorporated the first to the second. Clear examples of this are the titles of theirs major books: Principles of political economy and taxation (David Ricardo, 1817), Principles of political economy with some of their applications to social philosophy (John Stuart Mill, 1848), and Capital: critique of political economy (Karl Marx, 1867).

With regard to Ricardo, he takes as basic unit of analysis to social classes which distribute the social surplus and therefore proposes that “the main problem of political economy is to determine the laws that regulate the distribution” (2). Starting from this premise it is evident the relationship between economy and policy because Ricardo is going to come to defend the interests of the bourgeoisie against the landowners arguing that “the interests of the landowner are always opposite to the consumers and the manufacturers... Interest to the landlord that increases the cost of production, which does not favor the consumer... or the industrial... Therefore, all classes, except the landowners, will be affected by the rise in the price”. (3)

Even more radical than Ricardo in his political analysis of the economy is Marx who maintains the famous theory of class struggle: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes”. (4)

It is very important to note here the big difference from the analysis of Marx on the conflict of classes with respect to the previous classics. While Smith and Ricardo defended the interests of the capitalist bourgeoisie against the mercantilist and feudal privileges of landowners in a time in which the Industrial Revolution was just brewing, Marx defended the interests of the working class front the preponderance of the capitalist bourgeoisie in a context in which the Industrial Revolution had already been consolidated.

The first neoclassical counter-revolution

The first neoclassical counter-revolution was given at the end of the 19th century as a theoretical response to the uncomfortable policy implications of classical analysis, particularly the marxist, with regard to the conflict between classes. So Robinson and Eatwell explain us: “At the end of the 19th century, the focus of social conflict had moved from the antagonism of the capitalist and the landowner to the opposition of workers and capitalists. The fear and horror aroused by Marx’s work were exacerbated by the effect that throughout Europe produced the Paris Commune in 1871. The doctrines that suggest conflicts were no longer desirable. The theories that distracting attention, away from the antagonism of the social classes, had a good reception”. (5)

It is in this context that arise marginalist and neoclassical schools which main representatives were Jules Dupuit, William Stanley Jevons, León Walras and Alfred Marshall. Facing the classic paradigm, which was based on social classes as basic units of analysis, this new approach will support a radical subjectivism in which the atomized individual who seeks to maximize his benefit is the basic unit from which is built the entire building of the economic theorist. This artificially removes any political or sociological factors of the economic analysis and is in this sense that the English teacher Eric Roll maintains that “schools of the utility claim their validity by a different reason than the classical school because they hold that formulate a theory of value independent of any specific social order. (...) Some theories that had been made ​​on the basis of equal individuals dedicated to save and work could not say anything about the social differentiation of these individuals”. (6)

Economists of the Austrian school, and especially its founder Carl Menger, were mainly responsible for the introduction of this mentioned subjectivism in economic analysis. But in reality were León Walras and Alfred Marshall who gave the final blow to the classical economics, understood as “Political economy”, when they matematizaron the economic theory based on their analysis of general equilibrium and partial equilibrium, respectively. It is absolutely impossible for a mathematical system can consistently illustrate the intrinsic relationship that has politics with economy. This was clearly perceived by Alfred Marshall himself who, although "was a mathematician who could use, and in fact used, algebraic and geometric technique to show the exact relationships between different variables in certain well-defined situations, (...) never felt fully satisfied with the purely mechanical study of abstract forces that act in isolation. (...) Marshall who was a realistic deep connoisseur of the complexity of economic life, (...) was convinced that it should be something that this paradigm could not successfully assimilate ". (7)


1. Adam Smith, Research on the nature and causes of the wealth of nations (1776), Ed. Modern Library, New York, 1937, p. 149
2. David Ricardo, Principles of political economy and taxation (1817), Ed. Everyman, 1926, p. 1
3. David Ricardo, Principles of political economy and taxation, op. op. cit., p. 225
4. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848), (electronic PDF), 2000, p. 25
5. Joan Robinson and John Eatwell, Introduction to modern economics, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico, 1976, p. 54
6. Eric Roll, History of economic doctrines, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico, 1978, p. 366
7. Eric Roll, History of economic doctrines, op. op. cit., p. 389.

You can contact the author of this article in: “Dante Abelardo Urbina Padilla” (Facebook) and (email)