The Progressive Living Glossary

Definition: Economics




"Economics" is usually defined as the social science concerned with analyzing and describing the production, distribution, and consumption of wealth.

Robbins' Definition

More recently, the definition offered by English economist Lionel Robbins has gained currency. Robbins defines economics as "the science which describes human behaviour as a relationship between (given) ends and scarce means which have alternative uses."


Both of these definitions are grossly deficient, most obviously because they leave unsaid why it is that anyone would ever bother with such a discipline. In this respect the older definition of Alfred Marshall came nearer the mark when he said that economics "examines that part of individual and social action which is most closely associated with


the attainment and with the use of the material requisites of wellbeing."

Marshall's definition has sometimes been attacked on specious grounds. It has been alleged, for example, that sociologists, psychologists, and even athropologists study "exactly" the same phenomena. However, to the extent that this is their primary concern, these social scientists are working more as economists than as psychologists, sociologists, or anthropologists. Each of these disciplines is far more centrally concerned with other topics, and touch upon economics only at their periphery; and in any case, there is nothing unusual in some degree of overlap between disciplines. For example, a similar situation is common in the physical sciences.

Economics is Not Concerned with "Behavior"

Apart from his studied attempt to ignore the values, or normative, dimension of economics, Robbins' attempt at definition


also suffers from another deficiency common to all of the social sciences, which, long after the demise of behaviorism, seem still to suppose that the virtually meaningless term "behavior" is somehow of concern to social scientists. In fact, however, the study of human behavior lies in the domain of physics, and perhaps biology, but is of no concern to a single one of the social sciences. Rather, the social sciences are properly concerned with cognition in its many manifestations, and in this respect economics is like every other social science. And while economic research should be objective, like all the other social sciences, economics also has a normative dimension.

Economics is Fundamentally Normative

Once we restore the normative dimension of economics, the deficiency of even Marshall's definition becomes more apparent. This is because economics isn't merely "associated" with the attainment and use of


the material requisites of wellbeing — rather, the primary task of economics is to tell us how to go about maximizing these requisites — and not just in just any haphazard fashion, but sustainably, taking all aspects of human wellbeing fully into account, and with a view to maximizing the requisites for the greatest good of the greatest number. (Here economics touches upon politics, and, even more fundamentally, upon ethics.)

Once the proper definition and role of economics is understood, it can be seen that many of those who present themselves as economists are, in fact, "counter-economists," whose actual task is to provide a rationale for the predatory economic practices of their corporate employers, or else to offer advice as to how best to go about pursuing such ends.

For further resources concerning economics in a Progressive perspective, follow the links below.