Leon Walras

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Martina Topalova|
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Léon Walras

Marie Esprit Léon Walras is one of the best-known and least widely read economists of all times, whose main contribution in economics is the creation of the general equilibrium theory. He was born on the 16th of December 1834 in Évroux, France and died on the 5th of January 1910 in Clarens, Switzerland. His father, Auguste Walras, who was also a French economist, although not a professional one, was the only teacher in economics Walras ever had and therefore his ideas in the field had a great impact on his son’s future works. Walras enrolled in the Paris School of Mines, after failing to gain admission in the renowned École Polytechinque, apparently due to shortcomings in his mathematics. Quite soon, however, he grew tired of engineering and abandoned his studies to dedicate himself to literature and journalism. He published a novel in 1858, Francis Sauveur, and a short story in 1859, “La lettre” in the Revue francaise. These pieces were not without significance, for they contained ideas inspired by the revolution of 1848 and, in most unlikely contexts, elements of economic reasoning that were clearly the first fruits of Walras’ upbringing in an economist’s household. He then tried his hand at journalism but was soon discharged because of the independence of his opinions – apparently Walras adopted his father's socialist policy positions on taxation and land reform (in fact, he was a supporter of outright land nationalization, believing that land’s value would always increase and that rents from that land would be sufficient to support the nation without taxes). Walras was a clerk with the railways, co-editor with Léon Say of a cooperativist review, Le Travail (1866–8), administrator of a cooperative bank (which went bankrupt in 1868), and a paid lecturer. Finally, after many failed attempts in France, he became a teacher at the Academy (later University) of Lausanne in Switzerland in 1870 and a year later was nominated to the chair of political economy. He married Celestine Aline in 1869. During their marriage Walras had to undertake various additional jobs in order to be able to support his family during the long illness of his wife, who died in 1879. Five years later Walras married again, finally reaching a sound economic position; but only in 1892, thanks to an inheritance from his mother, was he able to pay back the debts contracted to finance publication of his writings. It was in the same year, when, aged only fifty-eight, he retired both because he felt tired and to concentrate on research. Walras was succeeded in his chair by his young disciple, Vilfredo Pareto. The two men formed the core (and some argue the full extent) of what became known as the Lausanne School. Prior to going to Lausanne Walras made almost no progress in pure economics except from his attempt to apply the little mathematics he knew to economic analyses and thus to arrive to only one important concept – his equation d’echange or budget equation. Nor did he make any advance in applied economics at this time. His attention was almost entirely absorbed in formulating the fundamental philosophical ideas of his social economics. But whether only out of caution or out of sheer intellectual curiosity, he initially concentrated upon pure economics, which then became his dominant passion. Léon’s main work were Éléments d’économie politique pure (Elements of Pure Political Economy), published in 1874. The second part came in 1877 and the edition that is commonly used today is Jaffé’s English translation of the ‘definitive’ French edition of 1926 which in many important aspects is quite different from the first. Originally, Walras intended to write two other volumes, one dedicate to applied economics and the other to social economy, but he only managed to write two collections of essays on the subjects: Studies in Social Economics (1896) and Studies in Applied...
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