The Worldly Philosophers

I just finished reading “The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers” by Robert Heilbroner, which is probably one of the more preeminent works on the history of economic thought. Indeed, “The Worldly Philosophers” probably ranks among the more famous economic works ever written, it is certainly among the best selling. It’s surprising that it’s taken me so long to get around to reading this work. When I first announced to one of my social studies teachers all the way back in my sophomore year of high school, he actually handed me a copy of the book and told me to read it, yet at the time I was too busy reading other economic tracts.

Nonetheless, here was a book that had been recommended to me by repeatedly for years, so it’s not surprising that I had significant expectations for the book. I have a pretty extensive exposure to economic history from other sources, including Mark Skousen’s “The Making of Modern Economics”, a more formal textbook, “A History of Economic Theory and Method”, and a variety of other channels. Perhaps this gave me a fairly rigid and preconception of how the history of economic thought developed which in turn put me outside the target demographic of this book (whoever that actually includes). With all of this in mind, I have to say that I’m not impressed with Heilbroner’s acclaimed book.

This is certainly not to say that there aren’t good things about the book. By far the best sections were the first and final chapters. The former offers a fascinating look into pre-capitalistic economic life, the importance of economics itself, why the science emerged when it did (along with markets), and the “economic questions” which are so important to human society. The last chapter has an impressive overview of economic methodology, as well as an interesting look into the direction that Heilbroner felt the discipline of economics was moving. I found both of these chapters very insightful even though Heilbroner deals with the subject material in a very different way than I would have.

Another of the book’s gems includes the chapter talking on the Utopian Socialists, the section on Fourier being particularly amusing. Heilbroner’s chapter on “The Victorian World and Underworld of Economics”, although deeply flawed, is also quite interesting since it talks both about some lesser known and more eccentric economists, as well as providing an explanation of how economics took some of the important turns that it did, particularly in the area of mathematization and utility analysis. The section on Keynes is also written with clear admiration, as well as sympathy for the economists’ work, which makes it both interesting and particularly informative. The section dealing with Marx focused on his economic system in a way that I hadn’t seen done before. Heilbroner assigned Marx’s exposition of capitalism within “Capital” as taking place within a “perfect” capitalism in which all things had attained their true “value”, and progressed from there. I feel that this is interpreting Marx’s analysis as starting from an equilibrium condition, which is quite an intriguing approach.

Finally, Heilbroner’s description of the lives of the economists is always engrossing, and certainly gives one a good idea of the personalities of these thinkers. Since this is a large part of the book, it acts as the saving grace for the text as a whole and makes a full read through possible to recommend, and without this the book’s flaws might make most of the work superfluous.

Perhaps the biggest problem with “The Worldly Philosophers” is that it’s very unclear who the book’s audience is. For the layman the discussion appears slightly too advanced or extensive (often in odd areas), while at the same time the book is lacking as a coherent survey of economic thought over time and anyone looking for a very in-depth view of the ideas at hand. Therefore it’s unclear to me whether this book is aimed at attracting the attention of the common person, or whether it’s instead aimed at academics. The book is clearly lacking in both substance and readability. It’s too deep for beginners and it’s too shallow for anyone who is likely to be familiar with many of the relevant details.

The most annoying aspect of Heilbroner’s work are the constant, seemingly snide remarks that he makes every so often when talking about the beliefs of certain economists. The target of choice is the subject of general gluts and recessions, which Heilbroner seems to insinuate were a foolishly, if understandably overlooked phenomenon by the classical economists. This may make sense from Heilbroner’s Keynesian perspective, and perhaps from the perspective of anyone looking from modern mainstream macroeconomics, but nonetheless I found it immensely irritating since it was both unwarranted from the viewpoint of a scholar and a writer, and highly indicative of Heilbroner’s own bias without being stated as such. He also indicates – with irritating comments littered throughout the first two thirds of the book – that human beings aren’t quite as tame and regular as the homoeconomicus that was portrayed by the economists. This might have been acceptable if Heilbroner had gone into a greater discussion of the issue of economic simplification, since this is a very important issue, (he also seems to have a big problem with basic utility theory), but no such analysis exists within Heilbroner’s book. As it is any layman reading the book may have dubious thoughts about anything economics has to say which is based around simplified models, while at the same time being without the haziest idea of a preferable alternative to this approach or why it’s actually wrong. While assuming too much will certainly corrupt one’s conception of economics, every important principle of economics from every one of the subject’s schools of thought has been arrived at by looking at a simplified view of the economy

From a more formal perspective, Heilbroner overlooks a great deal of valuable material in favor of a variety of less valuable subjects. This comes both in the form of overlooking important figures in economics and in relegating the topics of interest to a very limited area of discussion. The most important economists who were almost or entirely overlooked include J.B Say, Carl Menger, and Irving Fisher, all significant in shaping modern economics as well as influencing the thought of their own time. Other significant economists who were left out include Friedrich Hayek, William Stanley Jevons, Eugen Bohm Bawerk, and Leon Walras. One could talk about the size constraints of a book, but it would only take perhaps four pages a piece to breeze over the lives of these economists and talk about their basic contributions to economics, something that Heilbroner is obviously content doing elsewhere. These omissions may have been more understandable if it were clear what type of book this was attempting to be, whether it was just a selection of the lives of some famous economists or even the most famous economists (although it’s certainly debatable if Schumpeter, Fourier, Hobson, and Bastiat were more influential than those above). Instead the book ends up in an awkward limbo where the book switches at random from a simple collection of biographies to an in-depth examination and assessment of the economic ideas of certain economists.

I’ll only let my Austrian bias show for a brief paragraph. Beyond the exclusion of Carl Menger from the book I actually think that omitting Austrians from the text was forgivable (although it would have made perfect sense for Heilbroner to list Hayek as a great example of a “true worldly philosopher” by his own standards). Instead what the book lacked in several cases was Austrian insight. In particular the section where Heilbroner talks about Thorstein Veblen’s proposed technocracy is wholly changed if we introduce the Austrian conception of entrepreneurship and calculation – they destroy Veblen’s whole argument. And although Heilbroner’s basic Keynesian concerns can stand up to immediate scrutiny, many of the simpler arguments in favor of Keynesianism made within the book fall apart if we introduce basic production structure analysis into the mix. I also feel as though Heilbroner’s representation of Schumpeter’s description of the Evenly Rotating Economy was interesting, although ultimately misrepresentative in a number of ways.

Perhaps the most criminal offense in “The Worldly Philosophers” is how Heilbroner totally sells short the achievement of Alfred Marshall and in turn one of the most important events in economics. Regardless of how one feels about this economist, he is the clearest representative of modern neoclassical economics and the importance of the “Marginal Revolution” and Neoclassical Synthesis, thusly forming the background of modern economics today. Indeed, the fact that marginalism appears nowhere in the book, when that is one of the insights that most separates modern and classical economists, is extremely bizarre. Instead Heilbroner merely attributes Marshall with having introduced the time element (short run/long run analysis) into economics, as well as vaguely attributing supply and demand curves to Marshall with a discussion of Marshall’s famous “scissors” analogy. Through reading “The Worldly Philosophers”, one would have no idea what the modern consensus towards economics is, as well as what was and what was not passed on within academia through the generations. Likewise, one would scarcely know that Marshall had approximately as grand an impact on modern economics as many of the classical economists.

“The Worldly Philosophers” is a decent book overall, and though it certainly provides some interesting insights, I cannot recommend it as an introductory book on economic history since it’s too complicated and uninformative to be of much intellectual help. I would recommend it for those who are already at least fairly familiar with both economic theory and history. If all you’re looking for is a reasonably short, interesting, and intellectually stimulating read, then “the Worldly Philosophers” is a decent pick for you, although I wouldn’t take too much of it to heart. Regardless of what you’re looking for, I’d much sooner suggest Skousen’s book on the subject. It has a clear free market bias throughout the book, but I don’t think that anyone is too badly represented because of their beliefs, and at any rate all critiques are in-line with mainstream theory. Skousen also has a generally straightforward narrative and a strong writing style that make the book interesting and informative. It’s a great way to to learn economic fundamentals when read along with an introductory economics textbook. I would relegate “The Worldly Philosophers” to those with a solid understanding of economic principles and a general understanding of economic history who are looking for a decent read.


Robert Heilbroner

3 thoughts on “The Worldly Philosophers

  1. henrymoore 07/17/2013 at 12:38 Reply

    Thank you for this review. I bought a used copy of this book some time back at a garage sale or a thrift store (don’t recall). It looks like it will be better as a reference than as a reader.

    The cover of the version of the book you used as an image reminds me of that of Sylvia Nasar’s “Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius”, which though written from a mainstream/Keynesian perspective aptly narrates the lives of contemporaries Keynes, Schumpeter, Hayek, Mises, and Fisher, among economists from other eras. Haven’t read it yet, but what I’ve skimmed so far is interesting.

    Robert “Mises was right” Heilbroner, though a socialist throughout most of his adult life, once admitted that socialism was unworkable but held the view that it was still necessary in order to prevent capitalism from ravaging the environment. I don’t know what that says about him, but what it tells you about the contemporary environmental movement is that even if they know socialism is destructive to humanity, it is still a worthy goal. This makes them far more dangerous than the few socialists left who actually think it would improve mankind’s lot (and thus who are willing to modify it when they come across clearly unworkable portions of it), though perhaps not as dangerous as the ones who use socialist rhetoric to engage in mob rule and outright fascism for power’s own sake.

  2. Neodoxy 07/18/2013 at 10:12 Reply

    “It looks like it will be better as a reference than as a reader.”

    That sounds about right. If you read anything from the book make sure that it’s the first and final chapters. “The Victorian World and Underworld of Economics”, and the chapter on Keynes are also interesting. The former has material you might not read much about elsewhere, and the latter is a rather staunch defense of Keynes and his brilliance that does a good job of showing some of the overlooked bedrock in the Keynesian paradigm, although with the very convenient omission of Hayek’s economics (Hayek is represented as a conservative who fears central planning which is the only thing that stops Keynesianism from working properly).

    I didn’t know that Heilbroner actually still advocated socialism even after conceding on the calculation issue. From what you say that sounds like a case where someone wants to hold on to their beliefs just because they can’t bear to part with them.

  3. henrymoore 07/18/2013 at 13:18 Reply

    I think he was making two observations: One, that environmentalism was socialism’s last great hope, and two, that environmentalists would increasingly come to reject capitalism (I had Randall O’Toole of the Cato Institute and the Antiplanner tell me in an email that prior to the Clinton era the mainstream environmental movement was inhabited by at least as many free enterprisers as it was socialists).

    Heilbroner did actually say, that “It is, perhaps, possible that some of the institutions of capitalism…may be adapted to that new state of ecological vigilance, but, if so, they must be monitored, regulated, and contained to such a degree that it would be difficult to call the final social order capitalism.”

    This quote and the one I originally alluded to both come from a September 10, 1990 New Yorker piece entitled “After Communism.” I can not access the other quote as it is a gated article and my log-in info has expired. I do recall that it starts with, “There is, however, another way of looking at, or for, socialism.”

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