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2.1 Introduction

In order to better understand current controversies within macroeconomics it is

necessary to trace their origin back to the ‘Keynes v. Classics’ debate which

began in the 1930s and has continued in various forms ever since. For example,

during the 1980s the two schools of thought at the centre of the mainstream

debate were represented by the new classical (real) equilibrium business cycle

theorists and the new Keynesian school. The former carry on the tradition of

the classical economists and emphasize the optimizing power of economic

agents acting within a framework of free market forces. The latter ‘believe that

understanding economic fluctuations requires not just studying the intricacies

of general equilibrium, but also appreciating the possibility of market failure on

a grand scale’ (Mankiw, 1989; see Chapters 6 and 7).

Classical economics is that body of thought which existed prior to the

publication of Keynes’s (1936) General Theory. For Keynes the classical

school not only included Adam Smith, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill,

but also ‘the followers of Ricardo, those, that is to say, who adopted and

perfected the theory of Ricardian economics’ (Keynes, 1936, p. 3). Keynes

was therefore at odds with the conventional history of economic thought

classification, particularly with his inclusion of both Alfred Marshall and

Arthur Cecil Pigou within the classical school. However, given that most of

the theoretical advances which distinguish the neoclassical from the classical

period had been in microeconomic analysis, Keynes perhaps felt justified in

regarding the macroeconomic ideas of the 1776–1936 period, such as they

existed, as being reasonably homogeneous in terms of their broad message.

This placed great faith in the natural market adjustment mechanisms as a

means of maintaining full employment equilibrium.

Before moving on to examine the main strands of macroeconomic thought

associated with the classical economists, the reader should be aware that,

prior to the publication of the General Theory, there was no single unified or

formalized theory of aggregate employment, and substantial differences existed

between economists on the nature and origin of the business cycle (see

Haberler, 1963). The structure of classical macroeconomics mainly emerged

after 1936 and did so largely in response to Keynes’s own theory in order that

comparisons could be made. Here we take the conventional approach of

presenting a somewhat artificial summary of classical macroeconomics, a

body of thought that in reality was extremely complex and diverse (see

O’Brien, 1975).

Although no single classical economist ever held all the ideas presented

below, there are certain strands of thought running through the pre-Keynes

literature which permit us to characterize classical theory as a coherent story

with clearly identifiable building-blocks. To do so will be analytically useful,

even if ‘historically somewhat inaccurate’ (see Ackley, 1966, p. 109). Even

an ‘Aunt Sally’ version of the classical theory can, by comparison, help us

better understand post-1936 developments in macroeconomic theory. We accept

that, whilst the major presentations of the ‘Keynes v. Classics’ debate

consist of ahistorical fictions – especially those of Hicks (1937) and

Leijonhufvud (1968) – and serve as straw men, they aid our understanding by

overtly simplifying both the Keynes and the classics positions.