Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Character of Robbins\' Definition - The Economic Point of View
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The Character of Robbins' Definition - Israel M. Kirzner, The Economic Point of View 
The Economic Point of View: An Essay in the History of Economic Thought, ed. with an Introduction by Laurence S. Moss (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews McMeel, 1976).
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The Character of Robbins' Definition
Robbins was at some pains to point out that the conception of economics that he expounded had an entirely different character from that of the previously accepted conceptions of the subject. The earlier definitions had almost invariably been classificatory, marking off certain kinds of behavior, i.e., behavior directed to certain types of ends, as the subject matter of economics. Robbins' own formulation, on the other hand, is analytical. It “does not attempt to pick out certain kinds of behavior, but focuses attention on a particular aspect of behavior, the form imposed by the influence of scarcity.”16 Hitherto it had been believed possible to describe certain acts and activities as being “economic”; Robbins' definition, however, does not consider the adjective “economic” as at all appropriate for the description of any act as such, but sees it as singling out a point of view from which actions may be examined. Whereas the earlier definitions of economic affairs had searched for criteria sufficiently comprehensive, and yet sufficiently exclusive, to describe accurately a given class of acts, Robbins' definition sets forth the particular interests that actuate the singling out of the economic aspect of an act. An act pertains to economic science in so far as it reveals the consequences of a compulsion to allocate scarce resources among conflicting ends. Robbins' formulation thus differs from others perhaps less in its choice of a criterion for definition than in its radically different conception of the kind of idea that is to be defined.
The critics subjected this feature of Robbins' contribution to close attention and expressed a wide range of opinions concerning its validity and significance. Writers who hailed Robbins' book as an auspicious turning point in the conception of economic science and who viewed his definition as a final and definitive pronouncement on the particular problem with which it grappled saw one of its principal merits in this concern with an aspect of action rather than with a particular kind of action.17 Writers assessing the difference between Robbins' definition and earlier attempts recognized this approach as one of the most significant features of his contribution.18 Those who have described (and deplored) Robbins' definition as the “dominant academic doctrine” have had especially in mind its lack of concern with the particular ends involved and its concentration on viewing action from a given “aspect.”19
As the essential component of Robbins' definition, this disregard for the kinds of ends pursued in action had certain further consequences that aroused lively discussion. Perhaps the foremost of these is the ethical neutrality of the economic point of view as set forth by Robbins. If the economist is, as such, exempted or interdicted from choosing particular ends of action as his special concern, then the results of his researches will be achieved with ethical indifference towards the data with which he deals. This consequence of the definition of economics in terms of a particular aspect of action is reserved for separate discussion later in this chapter.
Two implications of this ethical neutrality have led to sharp criticism of the definition as a whole. On the one hand, the abandonment of the search for particular ends of action meant that the range of economic interest is widened to cover the “economic aspect” of actions that had not been able to qualify for inclusion in the class of “economic” acts on the basis of any of the previous definitions. On the other hand, the lack of concern for the nature of ends facilitated an academic detachment from the full reality of actions and the cultivation of a “purely formal” view of the economist's interest in the relationship between ends and means.
A. the “breadth” of robbins' definition
The former of these two implications led to immediate attacks on Robbins' definition condemning it as being far too wide, i.e., as bringing within the scope of economics phenomena in regard to which the economist has no professional competence and to which economists have historically paid no attention whatsoever. Some writers have tended to see in this alleged shortcoming an opportunity to indulge their wit in describing the problems—whether literary controversies, games of chess, or even affairs of the heart—with which Professor Robbins, on the basis of his own definition of economics, should, as an economist, be equipped to deal.20
Ultimately these attacks and the consequent pronouncements rejecting the concept of economizing as a criterion for defining the nature of economic phenomena provide yet another instance of the similarities between the conception of economics as a science concerned with economizing and the conception of it as a science concerned with maximization. Writers in the eighties of the last century who had considered the essence of economic behavior to consist in the impulse toward maximization had found themselves vulnerable to the objection that this propensity characterizes all human activities. The fact that economizing, like maximization, is an operation capable of being performed in widely differing situations means that the use of such a concept as a criterion for defining the nature of the economic cuts across many traditional boundaries. But clearly if a definition is to be rejected as too wide, some area must be accepted as the standard of reference. The stress that economists in the past have laid on the phenomena of the market as the area to which their researches applied makes suspect a definition that sees an essential economic unity existing in activities ranging far beyond this area.
Nevertheless, there is an important sense in which the definition of the economic in terms of economizing is less suspect in this regard than that couched in terms of maximization had been. The latter had been used in the form of the so-called economic principle, which was seen as essentially a principle of explanation. Market phenomena were explained on the hypothesis of the existence of such an economic principle. The concept of a form of behavior characterized by maximization was found to yield the results required to understand the real economic world. From this point of view, the definition of economics as the science concerned with the maximization pattern of behavior drew the boundaries of the subject in such a way as to include all phenomena that admitted of explanation on the hypothesis of the existence of such a principle. Any activity that involved maximization was thus prima facie economically relevant. And here the objection was immediately raised that such a criterion embraced all human behavior, including areas in which maximization did not lead to “explanations” such as economists had successfully provided in what was then accepted as the domain of economics.
Robbins' definition of economics in terms of economizing was in a somewhat different case. The concept of economizing was not being used as an explanatory device at all, but only as a means of characterizing certain behavior. The fact that such behavior proved more amenable to economic analysis in regard to market phenomena than in other cases does not necessarily void the use of this definition, since the latter is not predicated on its suitability for this kind of economic analysis. At most, the criticisms aimed at Robbins' definition could cast doubt on its suitability for readily characterizing the day-to-day problems to which economic theory is most frequently applied. Professor Robbins himself has presented the case for his exemption from this type of criticism.21
B. the “formalism” of robbins' definition
The other implication of the ethical neutrality inherent in Robbins' definition has occasioned perhaps even warmer debate. If economic theory is seen as focusing interest, not on the actual ends of action, but merely on the bare relationship that scarce resources have to these ends, then the theory becomes very formal, very pure indeed. Robbins stressed this feature of his conception of economics as finally detaching the essentially economic structure of action from the clutter of concrete data necessarily enveloping it in the real world. But several critics saw this “formalism” as an arid scholastic exercise that succeeded only in leaving out the important features of an economic problem.
This view found its most forthright expression in Souter's bitter essay in 1933 fiercely defending the “Living Classical Faith,” reverently associated with the name of Marshall, against the “Austrian” position as set forth by Robbins. Apparently Professor Robbins came to be identified as a “juggler with a static verbal logic” and a “profane sunderer of ‘form’ from ‘substance.’” Perhaps the principal target for Souter's scathing denunciation was the attempt to define economics as distinct from other disciplines in terms of its attitude towards a subject matter that it shared in common with these other disciplines. Souter's attack on Robbins' “formalism” arises from his burning belief in the status of eco- nomics as a member in a “society” of sciences, each of which can be sealed in an airtight receptacle only on the penalty of death.22 The issue raised by the “formalistic” approach to economics is whether the science “is to enter upon the fatal path of fastidious withdrawal from organic intercourse with its fellows; or whether it will have the courage and honesty to assume its rightful place in the society of sciences.”23 As a member of such a society, economics is “necessarily and inevitably dependent upon sociology, upon psychology, upon technology,”24 and progress in economics must derive from “organic” relationships with the other disciplines.
All this leads to the almost emotional rejection of Robbins' conception of ends that the economist treats from the outset merely as data. Economics may legitimately take over from ethics or psychology the finished results of their study of the determination of the concrete means and ends involved in human action. But any attempt to consider economic analysis or the conception of an economic aspect of a problem as possible without taking into account such factual information concerning the content of action is “mere hocus-pocus.”25 To treat the concrete ends of action as “given,” in the “perverted” sense of not affecting economic analysis, is a display of instincts that are “corruptly sophisticated”26 and involves the bartering of the Mecca of “economic biology” for the mess of pottage of an illusory “static precision.”27
Professor Parsons, in a paper following shortly after that of Souter, provided a calmly reasoned appraisal of the issues involved in the Robbins-Souter controversy. Parsons pointed out that the “formalism” that Souter denounces is not quite the same formalism that Robbins is rather pleased to find in his conception of economics. According to Robbins, economics is formal in the sense that it is abstract, making use of “logic,” which is not confined to specific historical situations. Souter, on the other hand, attacks Robbins' definition on the grounds that it makes economics a “purely formal science of implications” in the sense of “having no reference whatever to empirical facts.” If exception is taken to Robbins' view of economics as necessarily abstract because it involves the use of logical reasoning, then the road is open to a complete “empiricism” and Historismus.28 The only room left for debate on Robbins' formalism is the fruitfulness of the particular abstractions that Robbins requires for his conception of economics.
Such criticisms of Robbins' view of economics, objecting to the degree to which it makes abstraction from reality, have, of course, been made. One writer has recently deplored the fact that by “eliminating economic ends per se, the concept of ‘economizing’ has diverted attention from the really significant aspects of behavior in modern economy (for example, pecuniary thinking and acquisitive drives) ... ”29 But there is some difference between this kind of criticism and that of Souter. In the type of complaint that is voiced here there is room for recognition of the validity of an independent category of economizing. There is even room for recognition of the fundamental and possibly universal character of the category in its significance for economic problems. It is only objected that too-exclusive concentration by the economic theorist on this aspect of action may hinder adequate recognition of the particular, empirical content of a concrete economic problem. When the economist comes to apply his professional skills to the understanding of actual economic phenomena, it is argued, his attempt may be handicapped by the attitude with which he approaches the task. His conception of the nature and role of economic theory may prevent recognition of the actual facts of the situation the understanding of which could explain matters, whereas treating it purely as a case of economizing does not lead to an immediate solution. In other words, this objection does not necessarily question the validity of the concept of economizing as a criterion, but merely condemns it as inadequate in its application to the problems of the real world because of the “misleading” or “unfruitful” abstraction that it may make from significant elements of these problems. Souter, on the other hand, is objecting to theory, not in this way, as unsuitable for practical application, but altogether. He is opposed to the conception of a theory that has no reference to the phenomena of the real world. Yet, as Parsons pointed out, the alternative to the “aspect” type of definition propounded by Robbins must consistently lead all the way in an empiricist direction to the ultimate repudiation of the legitimacy of analytical abstraction to any degree and for any purpose.
In the last analysis, the attempts to condemn Robbins' definition of economics on account of its “formal” character fall into the same class as attempts to discredit economic theory as such and to construct an “economics” altogether free of theoretical propositions. The search for the definition of economic science in a particular “aspect” of the phenomena with which it deals simply brings to the task of definition the analytical attitude with which economic theorists have always expounded the substantive content of the discipline.
[]L. Robbins, Nature and Significance, pp. 16–17; see also Robbins' Introduction to his edition of Wicksteed's Common Sense of Political Economy, p. xxii.
[]Among the writers who have hailed Robbins' stress on the concern of economics with an aspect of action are A. L. Macfie, An Essay on Economy and Value, pp. 2–6; G. Tagliacozzo, “Croce and the Nature of Economic Science,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, May, 1945, pp. 308 f; W. H. Hutt, Economists and the Public (London, 1936), pp. 308–309.
[]L. M. Fraser, Economic Thought and Language, p. 32.
[]These writers include E. Heimann, “Comparative Economic Systems,” in Goals of Economic Life, ed. by A. D. Ward (New York, 1953), p. 122; J. S. Early, “The Growth and Breadth of Theoretical Economics,” in Economic Theory in Review, ed. by C. L. Christenson (1949), pp. 12–13; see also S. Schoeffler, The Failures of Economics: a Diagnostic Study (Harvard, 1955), pp. 11 f.
[]For examples see B. Higgins, What Do Economists Know? (Melbourne, 1951), pp. 2–3; L. M. Fraser, Economic Thought and Language, p. 32; L. Robbins, Nature and Significance, p. 22. See also G. J. Stigler, The Theory of Price (revised ed., 1952), p. 1 n.
[]Nature and Significance, pp. 19 f.
[]R. W. Souter, “The Nature and Significance of Economic Science' in Recent Discussion,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, May, 1933, p. 384.
[]Ibid., p. 386.
[]Ibid., p. 399.
[]Ibid., p. 390.
[]Ibid., p. 395 n.
[]Ibid., p. 400.
[]T. Parsons, “Some Reflections on ‘The Nature and Significance of Economics,’” Quarterly Journal of Economics, May, 1934, pp. 536–537, 530–531.
[]J. S. Early, “The Growth and Breadth of Theoretical Economics,” in Economic Theory in Review, p. 13.