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Lionel Robbins Definition of Economics Merits and Demerits

Lionel Robbins Definition of Economics (Modern School of Thought)

“Economics is the Science of Scarcity and Choice”

Prof. Lionel Robbins has strongly criticized Alfred Marshall’s definition about economics in 1932 in his book “Nature and Significance of Economic Science.” He said that the concept of material welfare does not explain the subject economics on wide and scientific grounds. The word “material” imposed unnecessary limitation.

According to Prof. Lionel Robbins:

“Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between multiple ends and scarce means which have alternative uses”.

Prof. Lionel Robbins thus defined economics in the following four fundamental propositions that constitute the basis of the structure of economic science.

  1. Human wants or ends are unlimited.
  2. Human wants are different in importance.
  3. Resources to fulfill human wants are limited.
  4. Resources have alternative uses.

1. Wants or Ends are Unlimited:

Human beings have wants which are unlimited in number. If one want is satisfied another crops up. If wants had been limited, they would have not and all incentives to economic effort would have ceased.

2. Wants or Ends vary in Importance:

Human wants are not of equal importance because these are uncountable. Therefore, they compel us to choose between more urgent and less urgent ones.

3. Resources are Scarce:

To satisfy unlimited wants people have limited economic resource. These resources are various types of labour Capital, land and entrepreneurship used in producing goods services. Since these resources are limited, the ability of the community to produce goods and services is also limited.

4. Resources have Alternative Uses:

The limited resources are capable of alternative uses. As wants are varying in importance, some are more urgent and others less urgent. There, resources should be used selectively to the most urgent wants firstly, so choice comes again.

Keeping all the above points in view, Robbins’ idea can simply be stated in the following words of Prof. Wicksteed.

“Economics is a science which is the study of those principles on which the resources of a community should be so regulated and administrated as to secure the communal ends without waste.”

According to Prof. Lionel Robbins

“Our economics holds good under barter as well as under money exchange, under individual as well as under social human conduct, under capitalist as well as under socialist society.”

According to Prof. Stigler

“Economics is the study of the principles governing the allocation of scarce means among competing ends when the objective of allocation is to maximize the attainment of the ends.”

The followers of Lionel Robins’ like Wicksteed, Schoenfeld, Hans Mayhers, Carl Manger, Stigler, Fetter, Schaffle, Spaan, Cohen, Oppenheimer, Maxweber, Voigt etc. also called economics as “a science of scarcity and choice.”

All of them are of the view that resources as compared to desires are limited and economic problem is that how these limited resources can be used to satisfy maximum desires.

Superiority of Robbins’ Definition/ Merits of the Definition:

Robbins has provided a strong basis of the relationship between unlimited desires and limited means to the structure of economics science, which has changed the scope of economics. His definition about economics is superior to all the earlier definitions, which can easily be understand from the following points:

1. Scientific View:

Prof Lionel Robbins’ definition about economics is more scientific because it is not based on the Marshall’s artificial classification of material and non-material desires, rather it is based on realistic view of multiple ends and scarce means.

2. Neutral:

Prof. Lionel Robbins, “economics is a neutral science”. It is not concerned with normative aspects. Thus, economics is free from the responsibility of making value judgments. It is no longer its function to examine the right or wrong of an economic activity.

3. Universal in Nature:

Prof. Lionel Robbins’ definition about economics is universal in nature. It takes into account all types of human wants, material or non-material, as well as of all types of persons whether living in society or not.

4. Comprehensive and Clear:

Prof. Robbins’ definition about economics is comprehensive and clear because it is based on realities of life. no one can deny the fact of unlimited wants and limited resources of the people. Therefore, his statement proves comprehensive and clear everywhere and every time.

5. Free of Animadversions:

In the light of Robbins’ definition about economics, “economics cannot be called a dismal science, pig philosophy, science of bread and butter, science of selfishness and greediness or degrading sordid inquiry because it takes no responsibility of selecting the ends”. They may be good or bad. Economics is directly concerned with the multiple ends and scarce means, cannot be animadversion.

6. Analytical Study:

Prof. Robbins’ definition about economics is an analytical study which has widened the scope of economic science. Because it does not deal with particular place or time, rather it applies on all places, all times and all the people.

Demerits / Drawbacks:

Robbins claims that his definition is superior to the earlier definitions but so many economists have criticized his view about economics from different angles and have put a strong defense of Marshallian economics. According to them, it is very difficult for economists to divest their discussions completely of all normative significance. R. W Souter, T. Parsons, Lindley Fraser, A. L. Macfie and Barbara Wooton etc. have pointed out the following drawbacks of Robbins’ definition about economics.

1. Economics is not Only a Science but also an Art:

Prof. Robbins has completely ignored the reality that basic objective of all the social science is to increase the human welfare. Thus, Economics as a queen of social sciences should be with basic objective of human welfare because economics is not only a science but by acting upon its principles, human life can be developed.

2. Economics cannot be Neutral:

Economics is not a neutral science but in practical life people expect advices for the solutions of economic problems from economic experts.

3. It Ignores Economic Planning and Economic Development:

Prof. Robbins’ definition economics does not explain the concept of economic planning and economic development. While in modern economics both of these concepts are very important branches of economics. Through which a nation can increase its income and prosperity, while Robbins just explain the concept of means and the consumption only which is not sufficient.

4. It Ignores Human Touch:

In the Robbins’ definition about economics the importance of human being is completely ignored, while economics is something more than a science. In its study there is a n important aspect of human values also.

5. Scope of Economics Made Too Wide:

According to Prof. Lionel Robbins, “Economics takes into account all types of human wants in response to the scarce resources”. Since search for wants has been abandoned, the scope of economics has been widened to include phenomena, which are not strictly economic.

6. It Ignores Macroeconomics:

Prof. Robbins emphasized only on how resources are allocated and how prices are determined while economics is much than this. In economics we study how national income is generated, how employment level is determined, how economic fluctuations occur, what is inflation, what is over population, and how can these be controlled, etc.

7. It Lacks Social Implications:

Robbins’ definition about economics emphasizes on choice of individual only which has no particular significance because individual choice having no social implications cannot form the subject matter of economics.

8. Economics Is Not A Positive Science:

Prof. Robbins made economics a positive science while economics depicts human behavior, which are not constant. Therefore, its laws state that given certain conditions certain results will follow. Thus, economics is not like physical sciences.


Although there are a few drawbacks in the definition of economics given by Prof. Lionel Robbins, even then so many modern economists explain the scope and nature of economics in the light of Robbins’ idea of multiple ends and scarce means.

Paper Question for above material:

Q.Explain the definition of economics given by Lionel Robbins. (OR)

Q.Examine critically Robbins’s definition of economics. How does it differ from earlier definitions? (OR)

Q.Give merits and demerits of Robbins’s definition of economics. (OR)

Q.Economics is the “Science of Choices”. Discuss. (OR)

Q.Multiplicity of wants and scarcity of means are the two foundation stones of economics”. Explain it critically. (OR)

Q.”Economics is a Science and Studies allocation of scarce resources to the alternative uses'”. Critically examine. (OR)

Q.Economics is a Science of scarcity. Discuss.


Munir Ahmed Bhutta. Economics, Azeem Academy Publishers, Lahore.

Abdul Haleem Khawja. Economics, Khawja and Khawja Publishing House, Islamabad.

Manzoor Tahir Ch. Principles of Economics, Azeem Academy Publishers, Lahore.

Muhammad Irshad. Economics, Naveed Publications, Lahore.

K K Dewett & M H Navalur. Modern Economic Theory (Theory and Policy), S. Chand Publishing.

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