A Little History of Economics (Little Histories): From Ancient Times to Modern Challenges
A Little History of Economics: How Economics Shaped Our World
Economics is often defined as the study of how people make choices under scarcity. It is also a way of understanding how human societies work, how they create wealth and distribute it, how they cooperate and compete, how they solve problems and face challenges. Economics matters because it affects almost every aspect of our lives, from what we buy and sell to how we work and play, from how we govern ourselves to how we interact with others.
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But economics is not a fixed or objective science. It is a dynamic and creative discipline that evolves over time, reflecting the changing conditions and values of human societies. Economics is also a diverse and contested field that encompasses different theories, methods, perspectives, and ideologies. Economics is not only about numbers and graphs, but also about stories and ideas.
In this article, we will explore some of these stories and ideas that have shaped the history of economics. We will trace the origins and development of economic thought from ancient times to the present day. We will meet some of the great thinkers who have contributed to economic knowledge and debate. We will examine some of the key themes and questions that have guided economic inquiry and practice. And we will see how economics has influenced and been influenced by politics, culture, society, and environment.
Our aim is not to provide a comprehensive or definitive account of economic history, but rather to offer a brief and accessible introduction that sparks your curiosity and critical thinking. We hope that by reading this article, you will gain a better appreciation of what economics is, where it came from, how it works, why it matters, and what it can do.
The Origins of Economics: From Ancient Greece to the Middle Ages
The history of economics begins with the history of civilization. As humans settled down in agricultural communities, they had to deal with various economic issues such as how to produce food and goods, how to exchange them with others, how to manage their resources and property, how to cope with natural disasters and famines, and how to organize their social and political institutions.
Some of the earliest attempts to understand and address these issues can be found in the writings of ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. They were interested in the nature and purpose of human life, and how it related to the organization of society and the distribution of wealth. They also discussed topics such as justice, happiness, virtue, democracy, and the role of money and markets.
Plato, for example, envisioned an ideal society in his famous work The Republic, where people were divided into three classes according to their abilities and functions: the rulers, the guardians, and the producers. He argued that each class should perform its duty and receive its share of wealth according to its contribution to the common good. He also criticized the use of money and trade as sources of corruption and inequality.
Aristotle, on the other hand, was more realistic and empirical in his approach. He recognized the diversity and complexity of human societies, and tried to classify them into different types based on their political and economic systems. He also analyzed the nature and functions of money, exchange, value, and wealth. He argued that money was a useful invention that facilitated trade and commerce, but that it should not be used for its own sake or for unlimited accumulation. He also distinguished between two kinds of economic activities: one that aimed at satisfying human needs (oikonomia), and one that aimed at making profits (chrematistike).
The ideas of Plato and Aristotle influenced many later thinkers and movements in economics, such as utopian socialism, welfare economics, and distributive justice. They also inspired other ancient civilizations such as Rome, India, China, and Persia, which developed their own economic theories and practices based on their cultural and historical contexts.
However, the economic thought of the ancient world was not very systematic or scientific. It was mostly based on ethical and philosophical principles, rather than empirical observation and analysis. It was also largely subordinate to political and religious authority, rather than independent or critical. It was not until the Middle Ages that economic thought became more formalized and specialized.
The Middle Ages were a period of transition and transformation in Europe, from the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century to the dawn of the Renaissance in the 14th century. During this time, economic activity was dominated by feudalism, a system of land ownership and social hierarchy that bound peasants to lords in exchange for protection and services. Trade and commerce were limited and localized, mostly within towns and villages or among monasteries and churches. Money was scarce and often replaced by barter or other forms of payment.
The main source of economic knowledge and debate in this period was the Christian religion, especially the Catholic Church. The Church taught that human life was a preparation for the afterlife, and that earthly wealth was a temptation and a distraction from spiritual salvation. The Church also regulated economic activity through moral rules and legal codes, such as prohibiting usury (charging interest on loans), enforcing tithes (giving a tenth of one's income to the Church), and promoting charity (giving alms to the poor).
However, not all economic thinkers in this period were strictly religious or conservative. Some of them were influenced by the rediscovery of ancient texts from Greece and Rome, as well as by new contacts with other cultures from Asia and Africa through trade and crusades. These thinkers tried to reconcile classical wisdom with Christian doctrine, or to challenge some of the assumptions and practices of feudalism.
One of these thinkers was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a Dominican friar and a leading scholar of scholasticism, a method of reasoning that used logic and evidence to support Christian teachings. Aquinas wrote extensively on economic topics such as property rights, market prices, fair wages, just taxes, public goods, and common goods. He argued that private property was a natural right that derived from human labor and stewardship, but that it was also subject to social obligations and moral limits. He also argued that market prices should reflect not only supply and demand, but also the costs of production and the needs of buyers and sellers. He also recognized that some goods were essential for human well-being (such as food, clothing, shelter), while others were superfluous or harmful (such as luxury goods or weapons).
Aquinas' work laid the foundations for later developments in economics such as natural law theory, social contract theory, labor theory of value, marginal utility theory, public choice theory, welfare economics 71b2f0854b