Robbins' Definition of Economics

GP Chudal

Lionel Robbins’ Definition of Economics

Lionel Robbins took a critical stance on Alfred Marshall’s definition of economics and, in 1932, published a book titled ‘Nature and Significance of Economic Science.’ In this book, Robbins provided an alternative perspective on economics. He regarded economics as a science that possesses the unique ability to have various applications. It explores into the study of human behavior concerning the allocation of scarce resources to satisfy unlimited needs and desires.

Features of Robbin’s Definition of Economics

Robbins’s definition highlighted several fundamental points:

  1. Unlimited Human Needs: Robbins emphasized that human needs are boundless. The fulfillment of one need gives rise to another, creating a continuous cycle of desires. Not all needs can be met simultaneously, leading individuals to prioritize their most pressing needs before addressing others.
  2. Limited Resources: The primary reason for the inability to satisfy all human needs lies in the scarcity of resources. Robbins asserted that resources are scarce, meaning that their supply falls short of the demand. This scarcity necessitates people to make choices and allocate resources based on their priorities.
  3. Alternative Uses of Resources: Robbins acknowledged that resources can serve multiple purposes. Limited financial resources, for instance, can be allocated to various activities or purchases, such as buying books, dining, watching movies, or engaging in other endeavors.
  4. Prioritization of Needs: Not all needs carry equal importance. People allocate resources based on the hierarchy of their needs, a concept central to economics. Therefore, economics can be seen as a science of choice, reflecting the decisions individuals make in pursuit of their well-being.

Criticism of Robbins’s Definition of Economics

While Lionel Robbins’s definition of economics represents an improvement over Marshall’s, it has not escaped criticism. Critics have raised several points of contention:

  1. Neglect of Ideals and Moral Concepts: Robbins’s definition is characterized by its scientific objectivity, lacking in moral or idealistic considerations. Some argue that economics should not solely function as a mechanical science devoid of moral values.
  2. The Economic Problem Beyond Scarcity: Critics contend that attributing the economic problem solely to scarcity and inadequate means is insufficient. They point to instances, such as the Great Depression of 1930s, where economic challenges persisted despite overproduction.
  3. Similarity with Material Well-being: Robbins’s definition, in striving for maximum satisfaction through limited means, aligns closely with the concept of material well-being. Despite his criticism of Marshall, Robbins’s definition retains elements of Marshall’s perspective.
  4. Self-ambiguous Definition: Robbins’s definition appears contradictory, as it maintains a neutral stance toward goals while asserting that maximum satisfaction can be achieved through the judicious allocation of scarce resources.
  5. Incompleteness: Modern economics encompasses important themes such as economic development, national income, and price levels, which are not explicitly addressed in Robbins’s definition. Consequently, critics argue that his definition remains incomplete.

In conclusion, Lionel Robbins’s definition of economics offered a fresh perspective by emphasizing the allocation of limited resources to meet unlimited human needs. However, it has faced criticism for its perceived shortcomings, including its neutrality towards moral values and its failure to encompass critical contemporary economic themes.

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