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  • Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Volume 22, Issue 1
  • March 2000, pp. 43-48

A Smithean Perspective on Increasing Returns

  • James M. Buchanan (a1) and Yong J. Yoon (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 June 2009

Despite its recent re-emergence to analytical importance, the phenomenon of increasing returns remains outside the central core of neoclassical economics. The history of this idea (or set of ideas) might have been quite different if Adam Smith's explanation of the origins of trade had not been replaced by that of David Ricardo. To Adam Smith, mutually beneficial exchange emerges because of specialization, which, in its turn, implies the presence of increasing returns to the size of the exchange nexus. Even in a world of equals, trade offers mutuality of gain. There is no need for participants in the economic nexus to differ one from another. In the Ricardian logic, by contrast, trade presumably emerges because productive resources differ in their capacities to create economic value, at least among separate “goods.” Specialization is a “natural” feature of resource endowments—a feature that is exploited by trade. Comparative advantage ensures the mutuality of gain. But, in this explanation, there is no direct linkage between the size of the exchange network and the degree of specialization that is viable. There is no need to introduce increasing returns. Comparative advantage may be present even if there are constant returns to scale, both for the economy and for its separate productive sectors.

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W. Brian Arthur . 1994. Increasing Returns and Path Dependence in the Economy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

James M. Buchanan and Yong J. Yoon , eds. 1994b. “Increasing Returns, Parametric Work-Supply Adjustment, and the Work Ethic.” In Return to Increasing Returns. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

James M. Buchanan and Yong J. Yoon . 1995. “Constitutional Implications of Alternative Models of Increasing Returns.” Constitutional Political Economy 6 (Winter): 193–98.

James M. Buchanan and Yong J. Yoon . 1999. “Generalized Increasing Returns, Euler's Theorem, and Competitive Equilibrium.” History of Political Economy 31 (Fall): 511–23.

J. Marcus Fleming . 1955. “External Economies and the Doctrine of Balanced Growth.” Economic Journal 65 (06): 241–56.

Nicholas Kaldor . 1972. “The Irrelevance of Equilibrium Economics.” Economic Journal 82 (12): 1237–55.

Paul R. Krugman 1979. “Increasing Returns, Monopolistic Competition, and International Trade.” Journal of International Economics 9 (11): 469–79.

Paul R. Krugman 1987. “Is Free Trade Passé?Journal of Economic Perspectives 1 (Fall): 131–41.

Paul R. Krugman 1992. “Does the New Trade Theory Require a New Trade Policy?The World Economy 15 (07): 423–41.

Robert E. Lucas Jr. 1988. “On the Mechanics of Economic Development.” Journal of Monetary Economics 22 (07): 342.

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Paul N. Rosenstein-Rodan 1943. “Problems of Industrialisation of Eastern and South-eastern Europe.” Economic Journal 53 (0609): 202–11.

Piero Sraffa . 1926. “The Laws of Returns under Competitive Conditions.” Economic Journal 36 (12): 535–50.

Allyn Young . 1928. “Increasing Returns and Economic Progress.” Economic Journal 38 (12): 527–42.

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Journal of the History of Economic Thought
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