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Marginalism and Life
Economic Issues
Ali Salman

(The author can be contacted at:

Marginalism, as economists say, lies at the core of economics. It is Marginalism, thinking and evaluating at the margins, which helps in economic decision-making. ‘Don’t take the ‘total’ picture. Think instead in terms of margins’, is one of the most consistent advice, which one gets in any rudimentary course in or about economics. In fact, the idea of Marginalism has started altering age-old maxims. As one economist put it: ‘Anything worth doing is only worth doing as well as is suggested by comparing its marginal costs and marginal benefits.’ (Gasper: 2000/ Based on Rhoads: 1999). Well, I, as someone might be thinking, do not intend to disagree. In fact, I want to strengthen this line of thinking. My argument is that success, in the case of most respected men of history as well as in the every-day life comes only at the end -- at the margins.

Probably, everybody who has a slightest degree of interest in Cricket (the game, in which at any given moment, great majority of players is standing still) knows Imran Khan.  In his biography, he has related his story of his first test match in 1973. He tried hard for first three days to get a single wicket but in vain. It was the last session of the third day, at the margin of the day, when he had lost all hopes, he finally struck. He succeeded at the margin. A more direct example would be of presidential elections of the United States in 1968 when the presidential candidate Herbert Humphery could not make it to the White House as Richard Nixon got a few hundreds vote winning margin, the narrowest ever in the American history. Even in developing countries like India, we find examples of losing or succeeding (it depends which party do you belong to) at the margins. In 1998, the main opposition party Congress (I), put a no-confidence move against the incumbent Prime Minister, and the move was defeated with the margin of only a couple of votes.

In everyday life, we notice that at many times, we are tired of trying. We try and try again but fail and fail again. Yet, at most of the occasions, just ‘another’ attempt, just a marginal attempt, gets us through. I, for example, was trying for a scholarship for last four years and I had decided that if, for the fifth time, I could not make it, I will forget about it.

Fortunately, it was at the fifth time, when I succeeded. I succeeded at the marginal point by doing just an additional attempt, which in fact was my last attempt. I am sure that the readers of these lines could cite much more interesting examples from their lives, where they can see how life is working at the margins.  We all remember the famous line: ‘Silver lining at the end (or at the margin) of the clouds’ or often quote: ‘Light at the end of the tunnel’. We are, in fact, thinking in terms of margins when we are hoping against hope.  Even on failures, we often say: Only if I had attempted for another time, success would have been there. We, as a matter of daily observation, explain our successes or failures not in terms of the total effort we had made, but in terms of the last attempt which we did or did not make. We describe and prescribe, therefore, in terms of margins, without consciously knowing it.

I understand that the idea of Marginalism is un-romantic (Rhoads: 1999), but so is life at critical crossroads. For example, as a whole, life of successful men looks very romantic. We see these men as ‘he came; he saw; he conquered’, but often overlook the critical moments of their lives during which they were perplexing, tumbling, and struggling at the margins. These marginal moments are ignored and a ‘total’ and perfect picture emerges. This picture, suffice is to say, is incomplete. But probably, to see a better picture, we need a ‘history of Marginalism in life.’ Practically speaking, however, only a few will bother for such finer and marginal details and will rather, let me say it finally, marginalize this Marginalism itself.


(Author is a participant of Masters Programme 2000-01in Public Policy and Administration at Institute of Social Studies, the Hague, The Netherlands.)

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