Foundations of Economics: A beginner’s companion

This book was published in 1998 by Routledge and is the culmination of ten years of teaching introductory economics at Sydney University. It started life as a set of lecture notes, the purpose of which was to engage the student in a critical discussion of the models residing in standard textbooks.

The idea was that the economics textbook, contrary to widely held belief, contains a great deal of philosophically and politically interesting assertions. Moreover, I was convinced that an otherwise boring course (economics is usually reviled by a large majority of students) could be enlivened if the student is allowed a glimpse into these hitherto unexplored parts of economics. The end result of exposing students to a critical assessment of the textbook would be, I claimed, beneficial not only for students but also for the profession.

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This book is written with the conviction that the economics textbook, contrary to all evidence, contains delightful mind-teasers, philosophically exciting questions and lots of intriguing politics. It is also written in the conviction that beginners who are usually dismissed as insufficiently sophisticated to get involved with these higher order issues, are perfectly up to the detective work necessary to bring these delights onto the surface. Additionally, I embarked on this book with the certainty that pursuing these discoveries promises not only to enliven an otherwise dull course but also to help students do well in it. Who knows; it may even inspire us, the teachers of this all-conquering but prosaic discipline, to lift our game.

And lift it we must! Open any economics textbook. These days you will find excellent graphics, numerous examples, helpful appendices, computer disks with moving curves and, naturally, sets of solved problems to help you get a handle on how economists answer the questions they pose. Indeed, today’s textbook is incredibly competent at providing answers to set questions. Already publishers of economics textbooks offer web pages on the Internet which contain numerous links to material relating to the topics in each chapter; students who have bought their book  are even given passwords allowing them to submit their answers to set problems electronically. Indeed the textbook has become only a entry point into a multi-media package which provides answers to given questions with astonishing competence. But here is the rub: None of this technological wizardy provides a guide as to where the questions come from, of why different questions are not being asked, of who does the asking. It works like a Do-It-Yourself manual taking you by the hand and illustrating the method for doing things.

Now we all know how boring manuals are. No wonder students find economics a touch too dry. However it might be argued that if one wants to learn to do things one has to plough through the manual. That, as in physics, a beginner must conquer the boring stuff first (eg. classical mechanics) before she can discuss black holes sensibly. I do not think this is a good analogy with economics. Let me explain why.

All physicists agree on the method of mechanics. You will not, for example, find them arguing fiercely on the value of differential equations for describing the motion of fluids. Yet economists seem unable to agree on the same scale. Effectively there is no commonly agreed borderline between (i) a set of topics within which all practitioners agree (such as there is in natural science, eg. mechanics) and (ii) another set of topics (including black holes and the origin of the universe) in which they do not. In economics the set of disagreement encompasses almost all of economic life. For instance a Keynesian and a Neoclassical economist do not even agree on the meaning of probability in a social setting!

The point here is that if those who teach economics find it hard to agree with one another on basic things, is it not a trifle hypocritical to use textbooks which pretend that there is a set of answers and questions which students must learn to recite? Or, equivalently, that economics students can be trained in the same way students of chemistry can? I think it is and this book is written with a sense of shame for such hypocrisy. It is also written with passion, though I hope without rashness.

Of course there are those who think that passion gets in the way of sound reasoning; they would prefer the detached style of conventional texts. For my part I feel that taking emotion and controversy out of economics is responsible for losing a great deal of analytical power. The greatest thinkers to have tackled economics were motivated by debates so passionate that their emotions were stirred until new ways of understanding economic relations emerged. The danger is that the way we teach economics today has become so banal that the brightest are bored and leave the discipline early for greener pastures. The future generation of economics graduates runs the risk of leaving University with a large box of tools and the motivation of a gravedigger. Perhaps the time has come to give these old emotions another stir.

The challenge for this book is to be stirring while respecting pedagogical constraints.  One reviewer of an early sketch of my intentions for this book warned against the danger that my approach may resemble “…insisting that small children taking their first steps in learning to walk should be taught the subtleties of body language at the same time”.  Although I recognise that principles must be well understood before criticised (indeed there is nothing more pointless than uninformed criticism), I take a different line: Learning social science is (or at least ought to be) radically different to learning how to walk. Whereas walking is best learnt mechanically, social theory is best imparted by critical thinking (accompanied of course with large doses of rigorous training). In social theory the two are parasitic on each other; rigour without critical thinking leads to bad theory while critical thinking without rigour reduces to blind moralism. The trick is to find a decent balance between the two. 

This book is the result of two related personal experiences. First came the experience of learning economics as a first year student at the University of Essex back in 1978. By golly it was boring! So disheartening that I changed my degree and concentrated on mathematics. (Only by an historical accident I returned to economics much later.) The second experience was that of trying to teach first year students. How could I not inflict on them what was inflicted on me in 1978? With textbooks treating students as seals in need of training (as opposed to humans in need of an education), and with all the interesting debates involving a terminology inaccessible to first year students, one is tempted to take the easy option: follow the Text. My rebellion took the form of notes on the philosophical aspects of the various models in the Text. The idea was to animate economics; to give students a glimpse of it as a contested terrain on which armies of ideas clash mercilessly in order to win the argument. As the years went by, these notes grew. Eventually they insisted on being transformed into something bigger. You are holding the result.

How to use this book:

All terms and concepts are introduced from first principles. This book has been designed as a companion to those who are just beginning to tackle economics and who find that  conventional textbooks make them feel intellectually uncomfortable. It can be read by itself as an introduction to economic thinking. Or it can be utilised by University students who have chosen (or who, as is increasingly common with some degrees, have been forced) to take an introductory course in economics. The hope is that this book will be the place where you turn for inspiration, or for some hope that all your efforts to get on top of tutorials and assignments are not without meaning. A kind of friend you approach when the course gets you down and you need to pick yourself up again. A source of insights when you write essays. A companion who helps you see the forest when your face is pushed firmly into some tree.

The book’s structure

As you will notice in the Table of Contents which follows, there are two segments in this book: Book 1 and Book 2. The former is the main segment and is devoted to the Foundations of economics. Book 2 is tiny, by comparison, but tries to reach parts of the beginner’s psyche that other books are not interested in: Anxieties resulting from having been exposed to economic debates. Have you been wasting your time thinking critically about economic ideas? Do they matter at all in the end? Has your mind been contaminated by a perverted way of thinking about the world?

Book 1 begins with an Introduction (Chapter 1) which offers an historical account of the rise of economics as well as a simple explanation of why economics textbooks look the way they do. The rest of Book 1 is divided into three Parts. There is one Part on the theory of how people choose between the different options available to them. The immediate repercussion of that theory is a model of consumer behaviour. The second Part extends the theory to decisions taken by firms whose fortunes are determined in the jungle of the market. Finally the third Part takes a broader look at how well a capitalist economy functions and at its effects on distribution of well-being amongst people.

YV, 1998, Glasgow

A brief plan of the book


The first chapter constitutes the book’s introduction. This is followed by three Parts: Part 1 – Consumer Choices, Part 2 – Production and Markets, Part 3 – Markets, the State and the Good Society. Each of these Parts comprises three chapters: (a) Review of textbook material, (b) The history of these ideas as found in today’s textbooks and (c) A radical assessment  of these ideas. Book 1 ends with a Conclusion.


Two chapters (Chapters 11 and 12) addressing two central anxieties that all students of economics develop (at some stage): Does all this economic theory really matter to anyone (other than to our teachers)? Is this how the world works? What effect will this exposure to economics have on me as a person? Should I be bothering with economics at all? Should I choose another course while there is still time?

From the outline above, you can see that each of the three Parts in Book 1 is identically structured: It contains three chapters whose purpose is to offer a review of the material in conventional textbooks, an explanation of where these ideas came from and a radical assessment  of them (faithful to the belief that understanding is achieved best through criticism) respectively. More precisely, Chapters 2,5 and 8 (the first chapters in Parts 1,2 and 3 respectively) offer a review of what the conventional textbook says on the respective segment. To avoid repetition, the discussion bypasses details in preference for the juicy ideas.

Chapters 3,6,9: These are the ‘archaeological’ chapters which aim to explain the origin of the ideas in the preceding chapter. Your textbook does not attempt this. Instead it gives the impression that these ideas have always been around  – like the laws of nature. Well as you can imagine this is not so. By excavating the history of these concepts we can succeed in demystifying them. And there is nothing like de-mystification to give one sufficient confidence when one tries to learn.

Chapters 4,7,10: Here you have arrived at the subversive bit. These are chapters which challenge the concepts in the textbook. Unlike the latter, which tries to avoid controversy like the plague, here we question everything. Why should we assume what the textbook asks us to assume so slavishly? What is the meaning of those assumptions? If people behaved in the way that the economists’ assumptions demand, what would our society look like? Could the free market, ie. capitalism, be deeply flawed? Or is it the system of organising economic life most compatible with human nature?

The questions in the critical chapters (4,7 and 10) are questions that according to many of my colleagues are better left to more ‘mature’ students. I hope however that these chapters  demonstrate the potential for engaging beginners in serious debate without reaping confusion. My point is simple: In a fast moving world, with students eager to get courses out of the way, we cannot afford to put these controversies to one side ‘until later’ for three reasons:

  1. It is never a good idea to treat students as immature children.
  2. If we leave these controversies aside ‘for a while’, there is a danger we will never come back to them, either because we will have forgotten them, or because the more thoughtful students who detest being treated like children may abandon us and our discipline too early.

By asking the impertinent questions in Chapters 4,7 and 10 one gets a much better idea of what the concepts under scrutiny are: a little passion goes a long way in motivating analytical thinking; a motto which, as economists, we seem to have forgotten. So, if at the end of all this you find the economists’ theories convincing, you will know why. And if you remain unconvinced, then no one will have fooled you. In a sense Chapters 4,7, and 10 are motivated by that other motto which brought us the Enlightenment: ‘On no one’s word.’

In summary, the contents of Book 1 follow closely that of any textbook’s main segments. While tackling the theory of demand (or consumer theory), read Part 1. Once you have moved to the theory of supply (or of the firm, production and markets) turn to Part 2. When the course takes you into the territory of Welfare Economics (or Market Failure, Public Choice, Government Policy etc.), Part 3 will become timely.

Finally, there is Book 2 to turn to, not because it contains material that you are likely to encounter in your course, but for personal gratification! Indeed Book 2 does not correspond to anything in your textbook. Its role is to pose questions that you are likely to wonder about but never dare (or bother) ask your teachers (perhaps for fear of sounding unschooled, or uncommitted to your course). Chapter 11 asks: Does economic theory matter? How many students of economics (compare say with engineering students) respect their chosen field of study today? In the 1950s and 1960s students used to believe that by learning about economics they are learning about society. How many still think so today? Depressingly few. Are they wrong to be so cynical? Or is there indeed a very loose connection between economics and the economy? And why do we economists insist on disagreeing so much? Why can we not (like >real scientists= do) put our different theories to the test and find out which works better? Why does this book have to waste so much ink and paper on debates and philosophical-cum-political criticism? These are the questions that almost all economics students I have known wanted answers to. Chapter 11 presents my answers.

Lastly Chapter 12 cuts closer to the bone by adopting a more personal and less abstract perspective: What effect does an economic education have on the personal development of those who acquire it? Put bluntly, is an education in economics good for you? And why is it that economics is increasingly developing an image problem with hoards of bright students abandoning economics degrees and courses midstream, visibly fed up with the coldness and arrogance of a discipline which, once upon a time, was considered essential by those passionate enough to want to make the world a better place? Perhaps surprisingly, given the general tone of this book, Chapter 12 ends with a plea to all those ready to jump ship: Don=t do it! An understanding of economics remains crucial.

A note for the general reader

Although I wrote this book with the undergraduate student in mind, this is by no means a book inaccessible to the reader with a general interest in (yet no great commitment to) the subject. When you come across a diagram that the undergraduate has already endured in class, feel free to do one of two things: Either attempt to understand it (there should be enough in this book to allow you to grasp all the technicalities used) or, alternatively, skip it. In the latter case the loss of continuity will be insufficient to prevent you from enjoying the main debates on which the book turns. I hope you have fun!


If it was not for seven generations of first year students at the University of Sydney (1989 to 1995), I would not have had cause to think about a book such as this. They acted as guinea-pigs for my quasi-philosophical lectures and were subjected to reading notes on introductory economics which later grew into this book. One of those students, John Michael Howe, conscientiously scanned an earlier draft, spotted mistakes and suggested improvements. I also wish to thank my colleagues at Sydney for being so tolerant to someone who insisted on teaching weird things in the context of an otherwise perfectly respectable course. In particular I am grateful to Warren Hogan for recklessly assigning me to the introductory segment of the course. Tony Aspromourgos (who also read the first draft), John Carson, Peter Docherty, Flora Gill, Bruce Ross, Graham White, Don Wright and Steffen Ziss were the other members of the team who, over the years, tried against all the odds to make Economics 1 a decent educational experience for students. I am grateful to them for the warm atmosphere they helped create and for the many ideas they gave me, some of which are now lost somewhere in this book. I am also grateful to the University of Sydney=s management who, in early 1997, with a stroke of brilliance destroyed the atmosphere of collegiality and public spiritedness which characterised this course hitherto. I thank them for releasing me from any moral imperatives viz. teaching introductory economics and thus for turning this book into a kind of testimonial.

There are of course many more people who contributed ideas which I have taken on board and whom I cannot properly acknowledge. However I must mention two colleagues from a previous life: Shaun Hargreaves-Heap, with whom we have been sharing other projects, and Martin Hollis whose writings I have plundered before. I do it again in this book excusing myself with the thought that Martin=s ideas for impressing certain points on students’ minds cannot be improved upon.

Finally, it is to the fine city of Glasgow (where I completed the book’s first draft) that I must direct the last “thank you”.


FOUNDATIONS OF ECONOMICS: A beginner’s companion


Chapter 1 Introduction

1.1 A world without economics
1.2 The birth of economics
1.2.1 The coming of industrial revolution
1.2.2 The moral philosopher: Adam Smith
1.2.3 The stockbroker: David Ricardo
1.2.4 The revolutionary: Karl Marx
1.2.5  The twin masters of economics: History and ideology
1.3 Modern textbook economics (or neoclassical economics)
1.3.1 The transition from classical to neoclassical economics
1.3.2 The rise of neoclassical economics
1.3.3 The imperialism of neoclassical economics
1.3.4 Economics and your textbook


Chapter 2 Review: Textbooks on consumer and choice theory

2.1 The model of rational decision
2.1.1 Instrumental rationality and the concept of equilibrium
2.1.2 Utility and the Equi-marginal Principle
2.1.3 Consistent preferences as rationality
2.1.4 Extending the Equi-marginal Principle
2.1.5 From the Equi-marginal Principle to the theory of consumer demand
2.2 Towards a general theory of choice
2.2.1 Gathering information
2.2.2 From demand to supply: Time and the supply of savings
2.2.3 From demand to supply: The decision to sell one’s labour
2.2.4 The valuation of life
2.3 Summary: From instrumental rationality to an economic theory of choices

Chapter 3 History of textbook models: The roots of utility maximisation

3.1 Tracing the origins of utility maximisation
3.1.1 A short history of self-interest and instrumental rationality
3.1.2 The birth of utilitarianism
3.1.3 From Bentham’s utility to neoclassical economics
3.2 Ordinal, cardinal and expected utilities
3.2.1 From Hume’s passions to ordinal utility
3.2.2 The limits of ordinal utility and the partial return of cardinal utility
3.3 Instrumental rationality and utility maximisation: The politics beneath the surface

Chapter 4  Critique: Do we maximise utility (even subconsciously)? Should we?

4.1 Introduction: Humanity through the lens of economics textbooks
4.2 How like homo economicus are we?
4.2.1 Behaving according to a theory even if we do not know anything about it
4.2.2 Suspect desires and the threat of rational idiocy
4.2.3 The utility machine
4.2.4 The first reason for shunning the utility machine: The fluidity of desires
4.2.5 The second reason for shunning the utility machine: Looking for happiness is not like  looking for gold
4.3 Happiness, freedom and creativity
4.3.1 Sour grapes and manufactured desires
4.3.2 Creative self-manipulation and identity
4.3.3 Utility maximisation and freedom
4.4 Conclusion


Chapter 5 Review: Textbooks on firms, production and markets

5.1 Firms and the Equi-marginal Principle
5.1.1 The nature of a firm’s inputs
5.1.2 The firm’s choice of input combinations
5.1.3 The firm’s cost of production
5.1.4 Profit maximisation

5.2 Firms and markets
5.2.1 Competition as a determinant of a firm’s revenue
5.2.1 A market with two competitors: A duopoly
5.2.3 Collusion, cartels and monopoly
5.2.4 Expanding competition
5.2.5 Perfect competition
5.2.6 The significance of perfect competition
5.2.7 The market for factors of production
5.3 Summary

Chapter 6 History of textbook models: The intellectual road to perfect competition

6.1 Production: From classical narratives to neoclassical models 
6.1.1 The classical view: Firms as blocks of capital
6.1.2 The neoclassical view: Production as exchange
6.2 Markets and competition
6.2.1 Classical theories of the market:  Their origin in Natural Law philosophy
6.2.2 Classical theories of the market: Rivalry and profit equalisation
6.2.3 Neoclassical theories of the market: Perfect competition as the ideal market
6.3 Summary

Chapter 7 Critique: Is the textbook’s theory of production good economics, good politics, both or neither?

7.1 Work and production
7.1.1 Difficulties in distinguishing between production and consumption
7.1.2 Difficulties in distinguishing between work and leisure
7.1.3 The modern invention of work and production
7.2 Production as exchange
7.2.1 Labour as more than a commodity
7.2.2 Keeping politics out of the picture: the covert role of isoquants
7.2.3 The covert politics of isoquants
7.2.4 Consenting to exploitation
7.3 The source of profit in competitive markets
7.3.1 The political dimension of profit
7.3.2 Profit as a just payment
7.3.3 Capital as a social relation
7.3.4 Saving capitalism from its neoclassical defence
7.4 An alternative approach to production
7.4.1 A pure production model
7.4.2 Wages, prices and profit
7.4.3 The strengths, weaknesses and politics of the pure production model
7.5 Conclusion


Chapter 8 Review: Textbooks on markets and social well-being

8.1 Welfare economics and its three theorems
8.1.1 The icing on the cake
8.1.2 The first theorem: The Equi-marginal Principle and economic efficiency
8.1.3 The Equi-marginal Principle and society’s budget constraint: The production possibility frontier
8.1.4 The second theorem: The Equi-marginal Principle and re-distribution
8.1.5 The first two theorems and the distribution of utility amongst society’s members
8.1.6 The third theorem: the impossibility of aggregate preferences
8.1.7 A brief summary
8.2 Market failures
8.2.1 Productivity linkages and over-production
8.2.2 Exploitation of natural resources
8.2.3 Non-provision of public goods
8.2.4 Summing up: Externalities, market failure and the free-rider problem
8.2.5 Market failures due to ignorance and uncertainty
8.2.6 Monopoly as social failure
8.3 Correcting market failures
8.3.1 Correcting markets by extending them
8.3.2 The inadequacy of approximations of the public good: The compensation principle
8.3.3 Conclusion: Neoclassical economics on rational societies

Chapter 9 History of textbook models: The concept of a legitimate State in economics – Origins, the Dead-End and Two Escape Routes

9.1 Introduction: Chronicle of a failure foretold
9.2 The Great Liberal Debate: Efficiency versus equity
9.2.1 Rationalising wealth and privilege
9.2.2 Liberal thinkers and the efficiency-versus-equity debate
9.2.3 The efficiency-versus-equity debate and the dead-end of welfare economics
9.3 The first escape route from neoclassical economics’ dead-end: John Rawls’ theory of distributive justice
9.3.1 Towards a rationally compassionate society
9.3.2 Rational but self-less deliberation on what is just: Rawls’ veil of ignorance
9.3.3 From theory to practice: Re-distributing according to the Maximin Principle
9.3.4 Rawls on the efficiency-versus-equity dilemma
9.3.5 Summary: Rawls and the Good Society
9.4 The second escape route from neoclassical economics’ dead-end: Robert Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice
9.4.1 Process, not outcomes!
9.4.2 The three rights that individuals are entitled to in the Good Society
9.4.3 Summary
9.5 Rawls and Nozick: An assessment
9.5.1 Rawls and Nozick as Contractarians
9.5.2 Internal contradictions of Rawls and Nozick
9.6 Conclusion: Economists and their textbooks at the Deep End

Chapter 10 Critique: Can a Capitalist Society be Good?

10.1 Introduction: Economics at the mercy of ideology and history
10.1.1 Economics as ideology
10.1.2 Economics as history
10.1.3 Economics and change
10.2 Social Justice and Freedom FROM the Market
10.2.1 Freedom from the labour market: Nozick’s and Rawls’ oversight 
10.2.2 Commodified information and the gift of knowledge
10.2.2 The profanity of putting the human condition on sale: Blood, education and human remains  
10.3 Market failure or market nature?
10.3.1 Is market failure an exception or the rule?
10.3.2 Can the habitually failing labour market be corrected? Keynes’ answer
10.3.3 Unemployment surges as capitalism’s essential regulating device: Marx’s view
10.4 Conclusion: Challenging the Great Liberal Debate
10.4.1 There can be no uniquely just or socially optimum level of government intervention
10.4.2 Public interest cannot exist in an exploitative society
10.4.4 A brief glimpse of the Good Society

Conclusion to Book 1: Foundations and beyond


Chapter 11 Does economic theory matter?

11.1Criticising assumptions: Useful appraisal or romantic time-wasting?
11.2 The impossible task of separating facts from theory
11.3 Why economic theories cannot be judged by the facts
11.4 Three examples of untestable economic theories
11.5 How do we find out the truth when the ‘facts’ are too compromised?
11.6 So, do economic theories matter?

Chapter 12  The curse of economics

12.1 Economics can seriously damage your character!
12.2 Economics courses as indoctrination
12.3 The economics profession as a priesthood 
12.4 Payback time: Economics Departments in crisis
12.5 In defence of economics

Further reading

List of Boxes

List of Figures

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