Edgeworth box

In 1881, Francis Y. Edgeworth came up with a way of representing, using the same axis, indifference curves and the corresponding contract curve in his book “Mathematical Psychics: an Essay on the Application of Mathematics to the Moral Sciences”. Edgeworth BoxHowever, the representation given, using as an example the work being done by Friday and wages being paid by Robinson Crusoe, was not the one we commonly know nowadays.

It was Vilfredo Pareto, in his book “Manual of Political Economy”, 1906, who developed Edgeworth’s ideas into a more understandable and simpler diagram, which today we call the Edgeworth box.

This diagram is widely used in welfare economics, game theory or general equilibrium theory, to name a few. It is easy to draw and can be easily explained. In the adjacent image, we can see two examples of an Edgeworth box, and how it is drawn.

The first example is mainly used for welfare economics and distribution matters. As we see, this “box” is formed using two sets of typical indifference maps, which in this case represent the indifference curves of agents A (green) and B (red), who must choose quantities of goods x and y. When the indifference map of agent B is rotated, and put on top of the map of agent A, the box is formed. When indifference curves are tangent to each other, which is the case in this example, a contract curve (blue) can be drawn using these tangency points.

Our second example is mainly used to explain Ricardian trade theory graphically. In this case, we draw the production-possibility frontier for countries 1 (green) and 2 (red). When we rotate the diagram of country 2, we end up with an Edgeworth box, which here will help understand how great the gains of international trade are and therefore helps illustrate how trade is not a sum zero game.


Video – Edgeworth box: