Happy Birthday, Alfred Marshall

by Don Boudreaux on July 26, 2009

in Economics

Were he still alive, the great English economist Alfred Marshall would today celebrate his 167th birthday.

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dg lesvic July 26, 2009 at 12:04 pm

I don't know much about him, but wasn't he the founding father of mathematical economics?

If so, he doesn't deserve any thanx for that.

Pareto July 26, 2009 at 2:56 pm

If I recall correctly, Marshall preferred a more organic and evolutionary economics, while it was his student Pigou who was a driver in the mathematicization of economics.

dg lesvic July 26, 2009 at 3:01 pm

What is the difference between an "organic" and "evolutionary" economics and "mathematical" economics?

dg lesvic July 26, 2009 at 3:01 pm

And I thought you were dead.

Pareto July 26, 2009 at 3:56 pm

'Evolutionary' economics can have several meanings, but in this case it entails the use of biological metaphors in a somewhat Hayekian way, with heterogenous agents and systems of coevolving elements and spontaneous order. Strictly speaking, it can be mathematical as well, but it stands in contrast to Pigou's physics-inspired purview.

And old economists never die, their productivity just declines ;)

dg lesvic July 26, 2009 at 4:22 pm

But not their wit.

indiana jim July 26, 2009 at 8:34 pm

Marshall wrote: "There is no room in economics for long trains of deductive reasoning; no economist, even Ricardo, attempted them."

And he wrote that: "But a training in mathematics is helpful by giving command over a marvelously terse and exact language for expressing clearly some general relations and some short processes of economic reasoning."

And that economics is "the study of mankind in the ordinary business of life."

dg lesvic July 26, 2009 at 9:38 pm


Thanx for the insights into Marshall.

I thought I wouldn't like that guy.

Anyway, happy birthday, but no returns, please.

Russell Nelson July 27, 2009 at 3:05 am

Until he died, he was an immortal.

Daniel Kuehn July 27, 2009 at 9:26 am

My favorite Marshall quote:

"Nature's action is complex: and nothing is gained in the long run by pretending that it is simple, and trying to describe it in a series of elementary propositions."

dg lesvic -
RE: "I thought I wouldn't like that guy."

Don't speak too soon, dg. :-D
Alfred Marshall was so impressed with John Maynard Keynes that he personally funded Keynes's first teaching position at Cambridge.

Eric Hammer July 27, 2009 at 10:38 am

That quote pretty clearly shows Marshall's shortcomings in thought. Nature is generally governed by rather simple rules that have extremely complex interactions when taken en masse. Very simple propositions can make for some very complex results.

And I am not certain giving Keynes his first job would get any fellow many free drinks in this crowd :)

Daniel Kuehn July 27, 2009 at 11:06 am

Eric -
First, I think we can give Marshall a little bit of breathing room considering the fact that he wrote those words decades before modern formulations of self-organization and complexity.

But even then, I'm not so sure he contradicts our modern sensibilities on the topic so much. We don't try to characterize nature itself with simple propositions. The whole point is you can't – and Marshall is saying you can't. What we characterize with simple propositions is the underlying laws and dynamics of the system that give rise to an incredible complex emergent order. Isn't that what Marshall is essentially saying?

dg lesvic July 27, 2009 at 12:24 pm


I'm with you.

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