Alfred Marshall

British economist

Alfred Marshall (26 July 1842 – 13 July 1924) was a British economist, considered one of the most influential economists of his time. His book, Principles of Economics (1890), was the dominant economic textbook in England for many years. It brings the ideas of supply and demand, marginal utility, and costs of production into a coherent whole. He is known as one of the founders of economics.

British economist Alfred Marshall (1842 - 1924) pictured in 1921.


Elements of economics of industry, 1892
  • I am myself an uncompromising anti-Jingoe, a peace-at-almost-any-price man. Chamberlain is the only Unionist public man whom I have ever thoroughly distrusted. Excepting Napoleon, I believe that England's true greatness has had no such dangerous enemy since Lord North. When a radical, he delighted to dish his colleagues even more than to flout his opponents. He is now engaged in dishing his new colleagues and flouting his old friends.
    • Alfred Marshall to N. G. Pierson, 6 April 1900
  • I have not been able to lay my hands on any notes as to Mathematico-economics that would be of any use to you. I have very indistinct memories of what I used to think on the subject. I never read mathematics now: in fact I have even forgotten how to integrate a good many things.
    But I know I had a growing feeling in the later years of my work at the subject that a good mathematical theorem dealing with economic hypotheses was very well unlikely to be good economics: and I went more and more on the rules—(1) Use mathematics as a shorthand language, rather than as an engine of inquiry. (2) Keep to them till you have done. (3) Translate into English. (4) Then illustrate by examples that are important in real life. (5) Burn the mathematics. (6) If you can’t succeed in (4), burn (3). This last I do often.

Alfred Marshall, Principles of Economics, (1890); online at

  • There has always been a temptation to classify economic goods in clearly defined groups, about which a number of short and sharp propositions could be made, to gratify at once the student’s desire for logical precision, and the popular liking for dogmas that have the air of being profound and are yet easily handled. But great mischief seems to have been done by yielding to this temptation, and drawing broad artificial lines of division where Nature has made none. The more simple and absolute an economic doctrine is, the greater will be the confusion which it brings into attempts to apply economic doctrines to practice, if the dividing lines to which it refers cannot be found in real life. There is not in real life a clear line of division between things that are and are not Capital, or that are and are not Necessaries, or again between labour that is and is not Productive.
    • Preface to the 1st edition
  • Political Economy or Economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life; it examines that part of individual and social action which is most closely connected with the attainment and with the use of the material requisites of wellbeing.
    • Bk I, Ch. I, Introduction
  • [E]ach several want is limited, and... with every increase in the amount of a thing which a man has, the eagerness of his desire to obtain more of it diminishes; until it yields place to the desire for some other thing, of which perhaps he hardly thought, so long as his more urgent wants were still unsatisfied. There is an endless supply of wants, but there is a limit to each separate want. This familiar and fundamental law of human nature may pass by the name of the Law of Satiable Wants or the Law of Diminishing Utility.
    It may be written thus:—
    The Total Utility of a commodity to a person (...the total benefit or satisfaction yielded it) increase with every increase in his stock of it, but not as fast as his stock increases. ...[i.e.,] the additional benefit ...from an additional increment of his stock of anything, diminishes with every increase in the stock ...
    • Bk III, Ch. III. The Law of Demand
  • The increment of the commodity which he is only just induced to acquire (whether by... direct labor or by purchase) may be called its Marginal Increment; because he is on the margin of doubt whether it is worth his while to incur the outlay required to obtain it. And the benefit-giving power, or Utility, of that increment to him may be called the Marginal Utility of the commodity to him.
    • Bk III, Ch. III. The Law of Demand
  • And thus the law may be worded:—
    The marginal utility of a commodity to anyone diminishes with every increase in the amount of it he already has.
    • Bk III, Ch. III. The Law of Demand
  • If we compare one country of the civilized world with another, or one part of England with another, or one trade in England with another, we find that the degradation of the working-classes varies almost uniformly with the amount of rough work done by women. The most valuable of all capital is that invested in human beings; and of that capital the most precious part is the result of the care and influence of the mother, so long as she retains her tender and unselfish instincts, and has not been hardened by the strain and stress of unfeminine work.
    • Bk VI, Ch. IV. Interweaving of Economic and Moral Causes.

Quotes about Alfred Marshall

  • Our understanding of how markets and businesses operate was passed down to us more than a century ago by a handful of European economists — Alfred Marshall in England and a few of his contemporaries on the continent. It is an understanding based squarely upon the assumption of diminishing returns: products or companies that get ahead in a market eventually run into limitations, so that a predictable equilibrium of prices and market shares is reached. The theory was roughly valid for the bulk-processing, smokestack economy of Marshall’s day. And it still thrives in today’s economics textbooks. But steadily and continuously in this century, Western economies have undergone a transformation from bulk - material manufacturing to design and use of technology — from processing of resources to processing of information, from application of raw energy to application of ideas. As this shift has occurred, the underlying mechanisms that determine economic behavior have shifted from ones of diminishing to ones of increasing returns.
    • W. Brian Arthur. "Increasing Returns and the New World of Business." Harvard business review 74.4 (1996): p. 100.
  • One of the most important skills of the economist, therefore, is that of simplification of the model. Two important methods of simplification have been developed by economists. One is the method of partial equilibrium analysis (or microeconomics), generally associated with the name of Alfred Marshall and the other is the method of aggregation (or macro-economics), associated with the name of John Maynard Keynes.
  • [Y]our letter concerning my paper... has told me much... concerning the ideas current in philosophical subjects in Cambridge. I was not aware that Marshall had so long entertained notions of a quantitative theory of political economy, and think it a pity that he has so long delayed publishing something on the subject.
  • The study of economics does not seem to require any specialized gifts of an unusually high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with the higher branches of philosophy and pure science? Yet good, or even competent, economists are the rarest of birds. An easy subject, at which very few excel! The paradox finds its explanation, perhaps, in that the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must reach a high standard in several different directions and must combine talents not often found together. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher – in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man's nature or his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician. Much, but not all, of this many-sidedness Marshall possessed. But chiefly his mixed training and divided nature furnished him with the most essential and fundamental of the economist's necessary gifts – he was conspicuously historian and mathematician, a dealer in the particular and the general, the temporal and the eternal, at the same time.
  • Jevons saw the kettle boil and cried out with the delighted voice of a child; Marshall too had seen the kettle boil and sat down silently to build an engine.
  • Though a skilled mathematician, he used mathematics sparingly. He saw that excessive reliance on this instrument might lead us astray in pursuit of intellectual toys, imaginary problems not conforming to the conditions of real life: and further, might distort our sense of proportion by causing us to neglect factors that could not easily be worked up in the mathematical machine.
    • Arthur Cecil Pigou ed. (1925). Memorials of Alfred Marshall, New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1966. p. 84
  • Marshall did something much more effective than changing the answer. He changed the question. For Ricardo the Theory of Value was a means of studying the distribution of total output between wages, rent and profit, each considered as a whole. This is a big question. Marshall turned the meaning of Value into a little question: Why does an egg cost more than a cup of tea? It may be a small question but it is a very difficult and complicated one. It takes a lot of time and algebra to work out the theory of it. So it kept all Marshall’s pupils preoccupied for fifty years. They had no time to think about the big question, or even to remember that there was a big question, because they had to keep their noses right down to the grindstone, working out the theory of the price of a cup of tea.
    • Joan Robinson, "An open letter from a Keynesian to a Marxist" (1953)
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