Battlepanda: Monday Book Blogging: The Worldly Philosophers


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Monday Book Blogging: The Worldly Philosophers

Phew. Just finished a few minutes ago. This is exactly why I need Monday book blogging, to kick my ass just enough to read the books I really do want to read but won't get to without it.

The Worldly Philosophers by Robert L. Heilbroner

This book was a delight to read, and it filled in a lot of gaps for me. For instance, I've always known that Ricardo muttered darkly about rents, but it wasn't until I read Heilbroner's excellent chapter on Ricardo and Malthus (one of my favorites in the book), that I sympathized with the full tragic weight of his vision -- the laborers labored for enough bread to keep body and soul together, the capitalists find their profits shaved to the bone, the landlords alone collected profits while doing nothing! Nothing! If this man can make Malthus and Ricardo seem compelling, he can animate anything.

Heilbroner's gift is to take a historical figure's biography and personality and turn it into a kind of key to this person's intellectual vision. This kind of approach necessarily means a little bit of flakiness. But Heilbroner's book is an introduction to the great men of economics, not an introduction to economics, and it fulfills its brief wonderfully. Lawrence and Julian both warned me that the way the economics theory was presented by Heilbroner, especially in the chapter on Marx, was not rock solid. But I felt like, of the economists whose work I know, Heilbroner did a good job of pithily summing up each man's philosophy. This is especially valuable for the mess of Victorian economists like Henry George and Alfred Marshall that I was only dimly aware of until I read this book.

I think I would be selling The Worldly Philosophers short though, if I reduce it down to a series of colorful portraits. Heilbroner does a really good job of providing context, so that we can judge the ideas of the economists not through the lens of our current economy, but as products of their times and their economy. Ultimately, even as economists struggle more and more to establish legitimacy for their subject as a science, to be more quantitative and more universal, the study of economics is bound by historical, social and political factors that are ever changeable. Commenting on the failures of economists throughout the ages to correctly prognostigate beyond the immediate future, Heilbroner said (315-316):
Smith's vision, which was a spacious one, did not extend beyond his century into the next, for The Wealth of Nations holds not the slightest hint of the industrial capitalism that was to replace the pin factory with the steel mill. Ricardo's remarkable model of an economy running up against the barriers of agricultural fertility did not envisage the England of Alfred Marshall's time, fifty years into the future, in which agricultural rents would be a minor element in the economy. By the time of Mill's death in 1870, it was already abundantly clear that his imagined stationary state was only a figment. Marx's prognosis was more resistive to the erosion of events, but 50 years after his death one could see in the Great Depression both the confirmation of his scenario and its disconfirmation in the first experiments with a state supported economy. Keynes lived almost long enough to discover that buttressed capitalism would develop its own dysfunctions, inflation prominent among them.
This idea of economics as a bounded science is interesting to me. Obviously, the prevailing trend towards quantitative analysis have been bearing much fruit and we are unlikely to go back to the kind of grand philosophizing Heilbroner describes, but it is well alway to remember how much of economics is predicated on factors that defy quantification.