Journal of Economic Perspectives: Vol. 10 No. 2 (Spring 1996)


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Retrospectives: The Origins of the Representative Agent

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Hartley, James E. 1996. "Retrospectives: The Origins of the Representative Agent." Journal of Economic Perspectives, 10(2): 169-177.

DOI: 10.1257/jep.10.2.169


This paper examines Alfred Marshall's invention of the representative firm. Marshall first used the representative firm in order to describe an industry supply curve for an industry with heterogeneous firms. Despite Marshall's limited use of the notion, the representative agent was extensively criticized as an ephemeral, useless construct that was unable to account for economic growth and that ignored important heterogeneities. The criticisms succeeded in banishing the representative agent from economics. These initial criticisms are also shown to apply to modern uses of the representative agent as well.

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Hartley, James E. (Mount Holyoke College)

JEL Classifications

B13: History of Thought: Neoclassical through 1925 (includes Austrian, Marshallian, Walrasian
D21: Firm Behavior
B31: History of Thought: Individuals
B21: History of Thought: Microeconomics


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