There is no one definition of economics which has a general acceptance. The formal roots of the scientific framework of economics can be traced back to classical economists. The pioneer economists of the science of economics defined economics as science of wealth. Following classical definitions of economics are given below:
Classical Definition (Economics as a Science of Wealth):
Adam Smith (1723-1790), the founder of economics, described it as a body of knowledge which relates to wealth. According to him if a nation has larger amount of wealth, it can help in achieving its betterment. Adam Smith, defined economics as:
“The study of nature and causes of generating of wealth of a nation”.
Adam Smith in his famous book, “An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” emphasized the production and expansion of wealth as the subject matter of economics.
Best Classical Definitions of Economics by Ricardo, J.B. Say, J.S. Mill and Malthus:
Ricardo, another British classical economist shifted the emphasis from production of wealth to the distribution of wealth in the study of economics.
J.B. Say, a French classical economist, described economics as:
“The science which treats of wealth”.
J.S. Mill in the middle of 19th century looked upon economics is as:
“Practical science of production and distribution of wealth”.
According to Malthus:
“Man is motivated by self interest only. The desire to collect wealth never leaves him till he goes into the grave”.
Explanation and Characteristics:
The main features or characteristics of the classical definitions of economics given by the above classical economists are that:
- Economics is the study of wealth only. It deals with consumption, production, exchange and distribution aspects of wealth.
- Only those commodities which are scarce are included in wealth. Non-material goods such as air, services etc., are excluded from the category of wealth.
Criticism or Demerits:
The definitions given by Adam Smith and other classical economists were severely criticized by social reformers and men of letters of that time Ruskin and Carlyle. They dubbed economics as a ‘dismal science’ and a ‘science of getting rich’. The main criticisms on these definitions are as under:
(i) Too much importance to wealth: The definitions of economics give primary importance to wealth and secondary importance to man. The fact is that the study of man is more importance than the study of wealth.
(ii) Narrow meaning of wealth: The word ‘wealth’ in the classical definitions of economics means only material goods such as chair, book, pen, etc. These do not include services of doctors, nurses, soldiers etc. In modern economics, the word ‘wealth’ includes material as well as non-material goods.
(iii) Concept of economic man: According to wealth definitions, man works only for his self-interest. Social interest is ignored. Dr. Marshall and his followers were of the view that economics does not study a selfish man but a common man.
(iv) No mention of man’s welfare: The ‘Wealth’ definitions ignore the importance of man’s welfare. Wealth is not be all and the end all of all human activities.
(v) It does not study means: The definitions of economics lay emphasis on the earning of wealth as an end in itself. They ignore the means which are scare for the earning of wealth.
(vi) Defective logic: The definitions of economics given by classical economists were unduly criticized by the literacy writers of that time. The fact is that what Adam Smith wrote in his book ‘Wealth of Nations’ (1776) still holds well. The central argument of the book that market economy enables every individual to contribute his maximum to the production of wealth of nation still not only holds good but is also being practiced and advocated throughout the capitalistic world. Since the word ‘wealth’ did not have clear meaning, therefore the definition economics became controversial. It was regarded unscientific and narrow. At the end of 19th century, Dr. Alfred Marshall gave his own definition of economics and therein he laid emphasis on man and his welfare.