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Home » Definition and Explanation of Economics » Economics as a Science of Scarcity and Choice


Economics as a Science of Scarcity and Choice:


Robbins Definition of Economics:

Marshall’s definition of economics remained an article of faith with all economists from 1830 to 1932. However, with the publication of Robbins book 'Nature and Significance of Economic Science' (1932), there developed a fresh controversy in regard to the definition of economics. Lionel Robbins, after criticizing the definitions given by the Classical and Neo-classical economists, gave his own definition of Economics. According to him:


Firstly, the definition of Economics given by him is superior to that of others because it does not contain any reference of the term material or welfare. Secondly, it applies as much to the case of an isolated individual as to the complicated net working of society. Thirdly, it raises the status of Economics to that of Science. Fourthly, it makes Economics a positive science which deals only with facts, It forbids the economists to pass any value judgment of what is good or bad, right or wrong, etc.


Lionel Robbins claiming his definition Economics precise, scientific and superior, defines Economics book ‘Nature and Significance of Economics Science' (Published in 1932):


"A science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses".


This definition is based on the following five pillars:


Main Pillars of Robbins's Definition:


(i) The Human wants or ends are unlimited: Human wants referred to as ends by Robbins are unlimited. They increase in quantity and quality over a period of time. They vary among individuals and overtime for the same individual. It is not possible to find a person who will say that his wants for goods and services have been completely satisfied. This is because of the fact that when one want is satisfied, it is replaced by another and there is then no end to it.

(ii) The ends or wants vary in importance: The ends or wants are of varying importance. They are ranked in order of importance as: (a) necessaries (b) comforts and (c) luxuries. Man generally satisfies his urgent wants first and less urgent afterwards in order of their importance.

(iii) Scarcity of resources: Resources are the inputs used in the production of things which we need. The resources (Land, labor, capital and entrepreneurship) at the disposal of man are scarce. They are not found in as much quantity as we need them. Scarcity means that we do not and cannot have enough income or wealth to satisfy our every desire. Scarcity exists because human wants always exceed what can be produced with limited resources and time that Nature makes available to man at any one time. Scarcity is a fact of life. It occurs among the poor and among the rich. The richest person on earth faces scarcity because he too cannot satisfy all his wants with the limited time available to him.

(iv) According to Robbins: the unlimited ends and the scarce resources provide a foundation to the field of Economics. Since the human wants are innumerable and the means to satisfy them are scarce or limited in supply, therefore, an economic problem arises. If all the things were freely available to satisfy the unlimited human wants, there would not have arisen any scarcity, hence no economic goods, no need to economic and no economic problem. Scarcity, thus, can be defined as the excess of human wants over what can be actually produced in the economy.

(v) Economic resources have alternative uses: The fourth important proposition of Robbins definition is that the scarce resources available to satisfy human wants have alternative uses. They can be put to one use at one time. For instance, if a piece of land is used for the production of sugarcane, it cannot be utilized for the growth of another crop at the same time. Man, therefore, has to choose the best way of utilizing the scarce resources which have alternative uses. The scarcity resources and choices are the key problems confronting every society.

The choices to be made by it are:

  • What goods shall be produced and in what quantity?

  • How should the various goods and services be produced?

  • How should the goods and services be distributed?

Summing up the foundation of economic science according to Robbins, is based on satisfaction of human wants with scare resources which have alternative uses.


Merits of Robbins's Definition of Economics:


There are many admirers of Robbins definition. It has the following merits:


(i) Status of a positive science: Robbins tries to make economics a more exact science. According to him, economics has nothing to do with ends. They may be noble or ignoble, material or non-material. Economics is not concerned with them as such.


(ii) An analytical definition: Robbins definition makes study of economics analytical. It studies the particular aspect of human behavior which is imposed by the influence of scarcity.


(iii) A universal definition: Robbins definition is applicable everywhere. It is concerned with unlimited wants and limited resources which is the problem facing every economy socialistic or capitalistic.


(iv) Clear on the nature and scope of economics: Robbins definition serves to specify the nature, scope and subject matter of economics. According to him, an economic problem is characterized by the possibility of exercising choice between ends an which have alternative uses.


(v) Valuation is the central problem: According to Robbins, valuation is the central problem of economics. Wherever the ends are unlimited and the resources scare, they give rise to an economic problem Marshall’s definition does not identity this valuation process.


Criticism on Robbins Definition of Economics or Demerits:


Robbins definition of economics has been bitterly criticized by eminent writers Hicks, Longe, Durbin, Frazer, etc., on the following grounds:


(i) Reduced economics merely to a theory of value: Robbins’s definition restricts the scope of economics by treating it as a positive Science only while in reality it is both a positive and a normative science.


(ii) Scope of economic has been widened: Robbins’s definition has widened the scope of economics by covering the whole of economic life, while it is concerned with that part of human life which is connected with the market price.


(iii) Economics has become a colorless science: Robbins’s made economics colorless, impersonal and abstract. It is in fact a definition of economics for economist only.


(iv) Study of economic growth: The study of economic growth process remains outside the scope of economics while it is through economic growth that living standards improve.


Summing up: The definition of economics given by Robbins has doubt certain flaws. However, it is more comprehensive in describing the problem of resource utilization.

Relevant Articles:

» Economics as a Science of Wealth or Definition of Economics By Adam Smith
» Economics as a Science of Material Welfare or Definition of Economics By Alfred Marshall
» Economics as a Science of Scarcity and Choice or Definition of Economics By Robbins
» Economics as a Science of Growth and Efficiency or Definition of Economics By Modern Economists
» Is Economics Neutral Between Ends
» Economics Problems
» Scope of Economics
» Nature of Economic Laws
» Methods of Economic Analysis
» Economic Analysis and Economic Policy
» Micro and Macro Analysis
» Importance of the Study of Economics


Principles and Theories of Micro Economics
Definition and Explanation of Economics
Theory of Consumer Behavior
Indifference Curve Analysis of Consumer's Equilibrium
Theory of Demand
Theory of Supply
Elasticity of Demand
Elasticity of Supply
Equilibrium of Demand and Supply
Economic Resources
Scale of Production
Laws of Returns
Production Function
Cost Analysis
Various Revenue Concepts
Price and output Determination Under Perfect Competition
Price and Output Determination Under Monopoly
Price and Output Determination Under Monopolistic/Imperfect Competition
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National Income and Its Measurement
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National Debt and Income Determination
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Determinants of the Level of National Income and Employment
Determination of National Income
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Theory of International Trade
Balance of Payments
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Development and Planning Economics
Introduction to Development Economics
Features of Developing Countries
Economic Development and Economic Growth
Theories of Under Development
Theories of Economic Growth
Agriculture and Economic Development
Monetary Economics and Public Finance

History of Money

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