Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Rise of Economics!

Adam Smith is often considered the father of economics, but he never used the word.  Soon after Smith, Political Economy became the dominant term to describe the study that we call economics today.  David Ricardo wrote another one of the first semi-famous books on the subject, and he titled it, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation.  That book contributed to the phrase's first spike in use.  John Stuart Mill wrote the dominant text on the subject for the mid nineteenth century, Principles of Political Economy, which cemented it as the term to descibe our study.

The marginal revolution can be considered a turning point for the two terms.  William Jevons titled his The Theory of Political Economy in 1871.  The same year Carl Menger published Grundsätze der Volkswirtschaftslehre which is translated to Principles of Economics.  A few years later Léon Walras wrote Éléments d'économie Politique Pure, or Elements of Pure Economics.  But it was not until after Alfred Marshall published his landmark textbook, Principles of Economics, that economics became dominant over political economy.

Around the same time as Marshall (1890), the Journal of Political Economy began publication.  By 1911 the American Economic Review began publication.  A couple generations of economists were introduced to the concepts by Alfred Marshall.  Principles of Economics was more dominant than any textbook being used today, and economists raised by the book would often say 'it's all in Principles.'

This chart shows the two terms relative usage frequency as measured by Google's Ngram Viewer.  It shows that economics surpassed political economy in 1907, and has shot up in usage since.  It is an interesting story in the etymology of the study.

The marginal revolution was a transformative time for economic thought.  It is one of the first lessons that I learned at George Mason University, and all economic theory that is taught before is taught with its lesson as a caveat.  It seems that the first bumps of the term economics spawned from the marginal revolution authors and their impact in academic circles.  It became a growth word after that, while Political Economy peaked out, and began to fade slightly.  We often take words for granted, but it is really interesting to see two words that were effectively interchangeable allowed an entire profession to rebrand itself.

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