Political economy

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discours sur l'oeconomie politique, 1758

Political economy is the study of production and trade and their relations with law, custom and government; and with the distribution of national income and wealth. As a discipline, political economy originated in moral philosophy, in the 18th century, to explore the administration of states' wealth, with "political" signifying the Greek word okonomie" (household management). The earliest works of political economy are usually attributed to the British scholars Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo, although they were preceded by the work of the French physiocrats, such as François Quesnay (1694–1774) and Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727–1781).[1]

In the late 19th century, the term "economics" gradually began to replace the term "political economy" with the rise of mathematical modelling coinciding with the publication of an influential textbook by Alfred Marshall in 1890.[2] Earlier, William Stanley Jevons, a proponent of mathematical methods applied to the subject, advocated economics for brevity and with the hope of the term becoming "the recognised name of a science".[3][4] Citation measurement metrics from Google Ngram Viewer indicate that use of the term "economics" began to overshadow "political economy" around roughly 1910, becoming the preferred term for the discipline by 1920.[5] Today, the term "economics" usually refers to the narrow study of the economy absent other political and social considerations while the term "political economy" represents a distinct and competing approach.

Political economy, where it is not used as a synonym for economics, may refer to very different things. From an academic standpoint, the term may reference Marxian economics, applied public choice approaches emanating from the Chicago school and the Virginia school. In common parlance, "political economy" may simply refer to the advice given by economists to the government or public on general economic policy or on specific economic proposals developed by political scientists.[4] A rapidly growing mainstream literature from the 1970s has expanded beyond the model of economic policy in which planners maximize utility of a representative individual toward examining how political forces affect the choice of economic policies, especially as to distributional conflicts and political institutions.[6] It is available as a stand-alone area of study in certain colleges and universities.


Originally, political economy meant the study of the conditions under which production or consumption within limited parameters was organized in nation-states. In that way, political economy expanded the emphasis of economics, which comes from the Greek oikos (meaning "home") and nomos (meaning "law" or "order"). Political economy was thus meant to express the laws of production of wealth at the state level, just as economics was the ordering of the home. The phrase économie politique (translated in English as "political economy") first appeared in France in 1615 with the well-known book by Antoine de Montchrétien, Traité de l’economie politique. Other contemporary scholars derive the roots of this study to the 13th Century Tunisian Arab Historian and Sociologist, Ibn Khaldun, for his work on making the distinction between "profit" and "sustenance", in modern political economy terms, surplus and that required for the reproduction of classes respectively. He also calls for the creation of a science to explain society and goes on to outline these ideas in his major work, the Muqaddimah. In Al-Muqaddimah Khaldun states, “Civilization and its well-being, as well as business prosperity, depend on productivity and people’s efforts in all directions in their own interest and profit” – seen as a modern precursor to Classical Economic thought.

Leading on from this, the French physiocrats were the first major exponents of political economy, although the intellectual responses of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, David Ricardo, Henry George and Karl Marx to the physiocrats generally receives much greater attention.[7] The world's first professorship in political economy was established in 1754 at the University of Naples Federico II in southern Italy. The Neapolitan philosopher Antonio Genovesi was the first tenured professor. In 1763, Joseph von Sonnenfels was appointed a Political Economy chair at the University of Vienna, Austria. Thomas Malthus, in 1805, became England's first professor of political economy, at the East India Company College, Haileybury, Hertfordshire. In its contemporary meaning, political economy refers to different yet related approaches to studying economic and related behaviours, ranging from the combination of economics with other fields to the use of different, fundamental assumptions that challenge earlier economic assumptions: