Welfare economics are a part of normative economics which objective is to evaluate different situations of a given economic system, in order to choose the best one.
Its study can be traced back to Adam Smith, who related an increase of welfare with an increase on production, and to Jeremy Bentham, whose utilitarian views made him think that welfare was equal to the sum of individuals utilities or, in other words, to a “social” utility.
Traditional welfare economics is based on the work of three neoclassical economists. Alfred Marshall stated that consumer’s welfare was the consumer’s surplus, and therefore was measurable in monetary units. Vilfredo Pareto would criticize this cardinal view, and would be the economist who built a true theory of welfare economics in his book “Manual of Political Economy”, 1906: based on the principles of unanimity and individualism, he designed what nowadays is known as the Pareto Optimality, which would become the core of welfare economics. Later, Pigou wrote “The Economics of Welfare”, 1920, stating that a definition of social welfare must include both efficiency and equity.
During the XXth century, welfare economics developed quickly. Nicholas Kaldor and John Hicks’ compensation criteria, and its following critics by Scitovsky, Little and Paul Samuelson, which aim was to find some way of classification of different optima. Also Bergson’s social welfare function, and Kenneth Arrow’s impossibility theorem, proving the former could not be identified. The theory of second best, developed by Lipsey and Lancaster, aimed at finding an optimum when Pareto optimality could not be found. Finally, the increasing use of cost-benefit analysis marks the validity of welfare economics nowadays.