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Great Economists and Their Times:
Major Schools of Economic Theory


   * Introduction
   * Mercantilists
   * Physiocrats
   * Classical School
   * Marginalist School
   * Marxist School
   * Institutionalist School
   * Keynesian School
   * Summary



The word "economics" is derived from oikonomikos, which means skilled in
household management. Although the word is very old, the discipline of
economics as we understand it today is a relatively recent development.
Modern economic thought emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries as the
western world began its transformation from an agrarian to an industrial

Despite the enormous differences between then and now, the economic problems
with which society struggles remain the same:

   * How do we decide what to produce with our limited resources?
   * How do we ensure stable prices and full employment of our resources?
   * How do we provide a rising standard of living both for ourselves and
     for future generations?

Progress in economic thought toward answers to these questions tends to take
discrete steps rather than to evolve smoothly over time. A new school of
ideas suddenly emerges as changes in the economy yield fresh insights and
make existing doctrines obsolete. The new school eventually becomes the
consensus view, to be pushed aside by the next wave of new ideas.

This process continues today and its motivating force remains the same as
that three centuries ago: to understand the economy so that we may use it
wisely to achieve society's goals.


Mercantilism was the economic philosophy adopted by merchants and statesmen
during the 16th and 17th centuries. Mercantilists believed that a nation's
wealth came primarily from the accumulation of gold and silver. Nations
without mines could obtain gold and silver only by selling more goods than
they bought from abroad. Accordingly, the leaders of those nations
intervened extensively in the market, imposing tariffs on foreign goods to
restrict import trade, and granting subsidies to improve export prospects
for domestic goods. Mercantilism represented the elevation of commercial
interests to the level of national policy.


Physiocrats, a group of 18th century French philosophers, developed the idea
of the economy as a circular flow of income and output. They opposed the
Mercantilist policy of promoting trade at the expense of agriculture because
they believed that agriculture was the sole source of wealth in an economy.
As a reaction against the Mercantilists' copious trade regulations, the
Physiocrats advocated a policy of laissez-faire, which called for minimal
government interference in the economy.

Classical School

The Classical School of economic theory began with the publication in 1776
of Adam Smith's monumental work, The Wealth of Nations. The book identified
land, labor, and capital as the three factors of production and the major
contributors to a nation's wealth. In Smith's view, the ideal economy is a
self-regulating market system that automatically satisfies the economic
needs of the populace. He described the market mechanism as an "invisible
hand" that leads all individuals, in pursuit of their own
self-interests, to produce the greatest benefit for society as a
whole. Smith incorporated some of the Physiocrats' ideas, including
laissez-faire, into his own economic theories, but rejected the idea that
only agriculture was productive.

While Adam Smith emphasized the production of income, David Ricardo focused
on the distribution of income among landowners, workers, and capitalists.
Ricardo saw a conflict between landowners on the one hand and labor and
capital on the other. He posited that the growth of population and capital,
pressing against a fixed supply of land, pushes up rents and holds down
wages and profits.

Thomas Robert Malthus used the idea of diminishing returns to explain low
living standards. Population, he argued, tended to increase geometrically,
outstripping the production of food, which increased arithmetically.
The force of a rapidly growing population against a limited amount
of land meant diminishing returns to labor. The result, he claimed, was
chronically low wages, which prevented the standard of living for most of
the population from rising above the subsistence level.

Malthus also questioned the automatic tendency of a market economy to
produce full employment. He blamed unemployment upon the economy's tendency
to limit its spending by saving too much, a theme that lay forgotten until
John Maynard Keynes revived it in the 1930s.

Coming at the end of the Classical tradition, John Stuart Mill parted
company with the earlier classical economists on the inevitability of the
distribution of income produced by the market system. Mill pointed to a
distinct difference between the market's two roles: allocation of
resources and distribution of income. The market might be efficient
in allocating resources but not in distributing income, he wrote, making it
necessary for society to intervene.

Marginalist School

Classical economists theorized that prices are determined by the costs of
production. Marginalist economists emphasized that prices also depend upon
the level of demand, which in turn depends upon the amount of consumer
satisfaction provided by individual goods and services.

Marginalists provided modern macroeconomics with the basic analytic tools of
demand and supply, consumer utility, and a mathematical framework for using
those tools. Marginalists also showed that in a free market economy, the
factors of production -- land, labor, and capital -- receive returns equal
to their contributions to production. This principle was sometimes used to
justify the existing distribution of income: that people earned exactly what
they or their property contributed to production.

Marxist School

The Marxist School challenged the foundations of Classical theory.
Writing during the mid-19th century, Karl Marx saw capitalism as an
evolutionary phase in economic development. He believed that capitalism
would ultimately destroy itself and be succeeded by a world without private

An advocate of a labor theory of value, Marx believed that all production
belongs to labor because workers produce all value within society. He
believed that the market system allows capitalists, the owners of machinery
and factories, to exploit workers by denying them a fair share of what they
produce. Marx predicted that capitalism would produce growing misery for
workers as competition for profit led capitalists to adopt labor-saving
machinery, creating a "reserve army of the unemployed" who would eventually
rise up and seize the means of production.

Institutionalist School

Institutionalist economists regard individual economic behavior as part of a
larger social pattern influenced by current ways of living and modes of
thought. They rejected the narrow Classical view that people are primarily
motivated by economic self-interest. Opposing the laissez-faire attitude
towards government's role in the economy, the Institutionalists called for
government controls and social reform to bring about a more equal
distribution of income.

Keynesian School

Reacting to the severity of the worldwide depression, John Maynard Keynes in
1936 broke from the Classical tradition with the publication of the General
Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. The Classical view assumed that
in a recession, wages and prices would decline to restore full employment.
Keynes held that the opposite was true. Falling prices and wages, by
depressing people's incomes, would prevent a revival of spending. He
insisted that direct government intervention was necessary to increase total

Keynes' arguments proved the modern rationale for the use of
government spending and taxing to stabilize the economy. Government would
spend and decrease taxes when private spending was insufficient and
threatened a recession; it would reduce spending and increase taxes when
private spending was too great and threatened inflation. His analytic
framework, focusing on the factors that determine total spending, remains
the core of modern macroeconomic analysis.


Economic theories are constantly changing. Keynesian theory,
with its emphasis on activist government policies to promote
high employment, dominated economic policymaking in the early
post-war period. But, starting in the late 1960s, troubling inflation and
lagging productivity prodded economists to look for new solutions. From this
search, new theories emerged:

Monetarism updates the Quantity Theory, the basis for macroeconomic analysis
before Keynes. It reemphasizes the critical role of monetary growth in
determining inflation.

Rational Expectations Theory provides a contemporary rationale for the
pre-Keynesian tradition of limited government involvement in the economy. It
argues that the market's ability to anticipate government policy actions
limits their effectiveness.

Supply-side Economics recalls the Classical School's concern with economic
growth as a fundamental prerequisite for improving society's material
well-being. It emphasizes the need for incentives to save and invest if the
nation's economy is to grow.

These theories and others will be debated and tested. Some will be accepted,
some modified, and others rejected as we search to answer these basic
economic questions: How do we decide what to produce with our limited
resources? How do we ensure stable prices and full employment of resources?
How do we provide a rising standard of living both for now and the future?


Great Economists and Their Times:
Timeline: 1730-1800

Major Economists of This Era

   * Adam Smith (1723-1791)


   * Decade opens with Peace in Europe
   * Benjamin Franklin begins Poor Richard's Almanack in Philadelphia,
   * John Kay patents flying shuttle, a major landmark in textile mass
     production, leading to textile mills in England
   * Voltaire writes Lettres sur les Anglais championing democratic
   * David Hume creates empiricist philosophy in his Treatise on Human
   * War of Jenkins' Ear begins when England declares war on Spain


                * War of the Austrian Succession breaks out among major
                  European powers
                * War of Jenkins' Ear spreads to Florida and Georgia
                * Johann Sebastian Bach issues second volume of The
                  Well-Tempered Clavier
                * The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ends War of the Austrian
                  Succession. Major powers again at peace in Europe
                * David Hartley writes Observations on Man, arguing that
                  one's moral sense is derived from an association of ideas


   * Interest on Britain's national debt falls from 10% to 3%
   * Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert begin publishing Encyclopedia
   * Ben Franklin flies kite with key proving that lightning is like an
     electric spark
   * Samuel Johnson publishes Dictionary of the English Language.
   * Economist Francois Quesnay founds the Physiocrats, who advocate
     laissez-faire economic policies
   * Claude-Adrien Helvetius publishes De'l'esprit arguing that
     self-interest is the primary motive of human conduct


   * Seven Years' War ends with the Treaty of Paris and the Treaty of
   * J. J. Rousseau published The Social Contract arguing that government
     must rest on the consent of the governed
   * Joseph Priestley issues an Essay on First Principles of Government
     anticipating Jeremy Bentham's ideal of "greatest happiness for the
     greatest number"
   * Boycott of imports begins in Boston to oppose tax on lead, paint, paper
     and tea


   * Boston Tea Party protests tea tax in America after its repeal in
   * First Continental Congress meets in Philadelphia and writes a
     Declaration of Rights and Grievances
   * Revolutionary War begins in Concord, Massachusetts
   * Continental Congress on July 4, 1776 adopts the Declaration of
   * Adam Smith writes Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of
     Nations, launching the Classical School of economic theory


   * Revolutionary troops defeat British at Yorktown, Virginia to
     gain independence
   * Immanuel Kant publishes Critique of Pure Reason
   * Britain, USA, France and Spain sign the Treaty of Versailles
     recognizing the independence of the United States of America
   * First paddle wheel steamboat sails on the Saone River, France
   * U.S. Constitution signed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and ratified
     within a year
   * French Revolution begins in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille


   * Dollar becomes the currency unit of USA
   * Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin
   * Thomas Paine writes The Age of Reason
   * Napoleonic Wars rage throughout Europe following the end of the French
   * British Government introduces income tax
   * Thomas Malthus completes Essay on the Principle of Population


Great Economists and Their Times:
Timeline: 1800-1850

Major Economists of This Era

   * David Ricardo (1772-1823)
   * Thomas Malthus (1766-1834)
   * John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)


   * Napoleonic Code, a system of laws, is introduced in France
   * USA buys Louisiana Territory from France
   * Jean-Baptiste Say writes Treatise on Political Economy
   * Lewis and Clark expedition explores and maps western continental USA
   * Ludwig von Beethoven publishes 5th and 6th Symphonies


   * Spain's South American colonies struggle to gain independence
   * Walter Scott publishes Waverley beginning popularity of historical
     romance novel
   * British invade USA and burn Washington DC in War of 1812. Treaty of
     Ghent ends war
   * Wellington defeats Napoleon at Waterloo. Napoleonic Wars end with the
     Congress of Vienna deciding the future map of Europe
   * David Ricardo publishes Principles of Political Economy and Taxation


   * Thomas Robert Malthus publishes Principles of Political Economy
   * Michael Faraday develops primitive electric motor
   * The Monroe Doctrine expresses USA's opposition to extension of European
     influence in the Western hemisphere
   * Erie Canal is opened for shipping
   * Webster publishes American Dictionary of the English Language
   * Western Australia colonized by British
   * The Workingman's Party formed in New York


   * The Baltimore and Ohio becomes first railroad in USA
   * Louis Jacques Daguerre invents the first practical photographic process
   * Cyrus McCormick patents a mechanical reaper
   * Samuel Colt patents his revolver
   * Samuel Morse develops telegraph and Morse Code for sending/receiving
   * Isaac Pitman develops a system of shorthand writing
   * Victoria becomes Queen of England


   * John Stuart Mill publishes Principles of Political Economy
   * Potato crop failure in Europe causes an estimated 2.5 million to starve
   * Gold is discovered in California
   * Factory Act in Britain limits the working day of women and children to
     10 hours
   * Series of republican revolutions in Europe end in failure and
   * Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels publish Communist Manifesto
   * John Deere invents plow with a steel mold-board
   * Amelia Bloomer introduces trousers for women called Bloomers


   * Old-Age insurance introduced in France
   * Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes Uncle Tom's Cabin
   * Elisha Otis demonstrates safety elevator at New York Fair of 1854
   * Florence Nightingale pioneers modern nursing during the Crimean War
   * Henry Bessemer revolutionizes steel industry with new converter process
   * Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of the Species by means of
     Natural Selection
   * First oil well in USA is drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania


Great Economists and Their Times:
Timeline: 1850-1900

Major Economists of This Era

   * Karl Marx (1818-1883)
   * Leon Walras (1834-1910)
   * Alfred Marshall (1842-1924)


   * Civil War begins at Fort Sumter, South Carolina
   * Issue of Greenbacks to help finance the Civil War marks the beginning
     of modern currency in USA
   * Etienne Lenoir invents internal combustion engine in France
   * National Banking Act establishes a system of federally-chartered banks
     in the USA
   * Civil War ends when South surrenders at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia
   * Karl Marx begins writing Das Kapital, which will form the basis for the
     Marxist School of economic theory
   * Alfred Nobel invents dynamite
   * Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads meet in Utah


   * The Standard Oil Company is founded by John D. Rockefeller
   * City of Chicago destroyed by fire
   * Germany adopts the mark as its currency
   * Financial panic in Europe spreads to USA, causing withdrawal of foreign
   * Alexander Graham Bell invents telephone
   * Thomas Alva Edison invents the phonograph and electric light bulb
   * Beginning of the Marginalist School of economic theory


   * American Federation of Trades and Labor is founded
   * William LeBaron Jenney builds first skyscraper in Chicago, Illinois
   * France presents the Statue of Liberty to the USA
   * Louis Pasteur successfully uses vaccination against rabies
   * Heinrich Hertz identifies radio waves
   * Gottlieb Daimler builds first automobile
   * Eiffel Tower is built in Paris for World Exposition of 1889


   * Labor unrest erupts in USA when workers strike the Carnegie Steel
   * Alfred Marshall publishes Principles of Economics
   * The Sierra Club is founded by John Muir
   * Sigmund Freud establishes psychoanalysis with publishing of Studien
     uber Hysterie
   * Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen discovers X-rays
   * U.S. Congress enacts Income Tax Act, but Supreme Court declares it
   * Henry Ford produces his first automobile


Great Economists and Their Times:
Timeline: 1900-1980

Major Economists of This Era

   * Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929)
   * John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946)
   * Irving Fisher (1867-1947)


   * Guglielmo Marconi transmits messages across Atlantic with
     wireless telegraph
   * Orville and Wilbur Wright make first heavier-than-air machine flight
   * Albert Einstein publishes Theory of Relativity
   * Earthquake and fire destroy much of San Francisco
   * Financial panic in 1907 begins with the fall of the Stock Market and
     causes many banks to close
   * Gold Standard Act enacted in USA
   * Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act raises tariffs on imports into USA


   * Marie Curie discovers radium
   * Federal Reserve Act creates central bank for the USA
   * Assassination of Austria's Archduke Francis Ferdinand brings about
     World War I
   * Gilbert Lewis develops electron theory of valency explaining structure
     of atoms
   * Revolution overthrows monarchy in Russia
   * Paris Peace Conference redraws map of Europe after World War I and
     establishes the League of Nations


   * Women in USA receive the right to vote
   * Prohibition begins in the USA as sale of all alcoholic beverages
     becomes illegal
   * Germany suffers financial collapse as hyperinflation destroys value of
   * U.S. Steel Company abolishes twelve hour work day and seven day work
   * Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin
   * Charles Lindbergh makes first solo airplane flight across the Atlantic
   * Collapse of Stock Market ushers in decade of economic hardship


   * Worldwide Depression worsens, fostering the rise of political
   * Hawley-Smoot Tariff Bill sets highest duties in US history, hurting
     world trade
   * James Chadwick discovers the neutron, Carl Anderson discovers the
   * U.S. repeals Prohibition Amendment
   * President Franklin Roosevelt begins New Deal government spending
   * Adolf Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany
   * Wallace Carothers produces Polymer 66, or nylon
   * Germany invades Poland starting World War II


                * Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and USA enters war against
                  Japan, Germany and Italy
                * By 1944 war rages throughout the world
                * "D Day" offensive by USA, Britain and allies begins end of
                  war in Europe
                * Germany surrenders in April 1945
                * USA drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japanese
                * The United Nations is formed
                * John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley invent
                  the transistor
                * Communist forces seize power in China


   * Cold War between USA and Russia develops as Russia builds an atomic
   * Korean War breaks out as North Korea invades south Korea. War ends in
   * Electricity produced by atomic power in USA
   * James Watson and Francis H. C. Crick describe the "double helix"
     structure of DNA
   * UNIVAC is first mass produced computer
   * Jonas Salk develops anti-polio vaccine
   * Russia launches Sputnik I, the Earth's first spacecraft
   * U.S. Supreme Court orders desegregation of public schools


   * Russia launches first man into space
   * President Kennedy establishes Peace Corps to assist
     underdeveloped countries
   * Rachel Carson writes Silent Spring, marking concern with environmental
   * Martin Luther King leads massive Civil Rights demonstration in
     Washington, D.C.
   * President Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas
   * Vietnam War intensifies as USA begins massive military buildup.
     Anti-war movement begins on college campuses
   * Israel defeats Arab forces in Six-Day War
   * USA lands astronauts on the moon


   * Equal Rights Amendment to US Constitution passes Congress but fails to
     be ratified by the necessary number of states
   * President Nixon resigns in the wake of the Watergate scandal
   * Following Israeli-Arab War in 1973, oil-producing countries double oil
     prices causing energy crisis and economic hardship
   * Vietnam War ends as South Vietnam surrenders and USA evacuates troops
   * Egypt and Israel sign historic peace accord


                * Personal computers change the way businesses do business
                * Environmental issues become a major concern for most
                * AIDS, a disease destroying the human immune system,
                  becomes pandemic
                * U.S. sees rise of the largest federal budget deficit in
                * Free market emphasized; deregulation of airlines and
                  S&L's; stock market boom


Great Economists and Their Times:
Ten Great Economists


   * Adam Smith (1723-1791)
   * David Ricardo (1772-1823
   * Thomas Malthus (1766-1834)
   * John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
   * Karl Marx (1818-1883)
   * Leon Walras (1834-1910)
   * Alfred Marshall (1842-1924)
   * Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929)
   * John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946)
   * Irving Fisher (1867-1947)


Adam Smith

Scotland, 1723-1791

The father of modern economics, he saw the market system acting as
an "invisible hand" which leads people to unintentionally promote
society's interests while pursuing their own.

David Ricardo

England, 1772-1823

His theory that landlords enriched themselves at the expense of society led
him to campaign tirelessly in Parliament and in print for free trade.

Thomas Malthus

England, 1766-1834

A Classical economist, he startled early 19th century society with
his pessimistic prediction that population growth would exceed food
supply, condemning mankind to misery.

John Stuart Mill

England, 1806-1873

The last of the great economists of the Classical School, he denied
the doctrine that society could not alter the existing distribution
of income.

Karl Marx

Germany, 1818-1883

Intellectual father of modern day Marxist economics, he predicted
that capitalism would be ultimately destroyed by its own inherent

Leon Walras

France, 1834-1910

He revolutionized economics with his rigorous mathematical formulation of
the mechanics of the price system.

Alfred Marshall

England, 1842-1924

He demonstrated the tremendous theoretical power of demand and
supply curves, and bequeathed to economics the critical distinction
between the short run and the long run.

Thorstein Veblen

United States, 1857-1929

One of the leading Institutionalists, he is best remembered for his theory
of "conspicuous consumption" which parodied the ostentation of the Gilded

John Maynard Keynes

England, 1883-1946

His ideas on the causes of unemployment revolutionalized
macroeconomic theory and profoundly altered government's involvement
in the economy.

Irving Fisher

United States, 1867-1947

His work on money and prices, with its sophisticated use of statistical
techniques, provided the basis for recent theoretical work in economics.


Great Economists and Their Times

   * Ten Great Economists
   * Major Schools of Economic Theory
   * Timeline:
        o 1730-1800
             + Beginning of Physiocratic School of economic theory
             + Adam Smith (1723-1791)
             + Beginning of Classical School of economic theory
        o 1800-1850
             + David Ricardo (1772-1823)
             + Thomas Malthus (1766-1834)
             + John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
        o 1850-1900
             + Karl Marx (1818-1883)
             + Beginning of Marxist School of economic theory
             + Leon Walras (1834-1910)
             + Alfred Marshall (1842-1924)
             + Beginning of Marginalist School of economic theory
        o 1900-1980
             + Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929)
             + Beginning of Institutionalist School of economic theory
             + John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946)
             + Beginning of Keynesian School of economic theory
             + Irving Fisher (1867-1947)

The information in this publication was taken from The World of Economics, a
unique exhibition on economics and the U.S. economy located in the lobbies
of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and its Los Angeles Branch.
    For additional information contact ( via e-mail .