Some people may have met Robert Heilbroner through his first (1953) book, an introduction to economic thought, The Worldly Philosophers, still used in many economics courses. He has returned after more than twenty other books and over forty years of active participation in the public debate to the task of rekindling "...a new interest in political economy...a mode of economic inquiry whose analytical conclusions started from an effort to take full cognizance of the sociopolitical realities of our time, whatever the difficulties they may pose for the construction of elegant models."(p.336)
His approach in Teachings is a combination of excellent "reviews" and "annotations" with long excerpts from the political economists of the past who he feels have contributed the most to our understanding of society. With little apology he has included only Thorstein Veblen, John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter from the twentieth century. This "deficiency" is more than made up by his critical appraisal (with William Milberg) of the economics profession since the early 1960s in his recent book, The Crisis of Vision in Modern Economic Thought (Cambridge University Press, 1995, 128 pages)
Robert Heilbroner states one of his objectives as "presenting an overview... a book that could actually be read, and not one destined for more or less permanent shelving". He has certainly accomplished this by first picking the "pivotal figures" that set the "historic trajectory" of what today we call economics. By placing each of the twenty in context with cogent comments he then uses their own words to highlight their contributions. (This book will do a lot for the reading and re-reading of the original classics as well.)
Of equal interest is the unfolding of the evolution of political economy, concerned about the fate of the sociopolitical strata in the eighteenth century (landowners, labourers, and employers) to the science-like discipline of economics, focused on faceless individual behavior and sterile firms in the nineteenth century. Only with the Great
Depression did we see with Keynes a return to the pressing social concerns of the day.
Who should read this book?
€ Anyone thinking about becoming an economist. If you find this book interesting and challenging, join up since we need more like you.
€ Students and teachers of economics. This book will help broaden your vision, as well as providing many topics for discussion.
€ Harried bureaucrats. Here is a book that recognizes the value of government, with each of the greats holding forth on the key roles of government, lest we forget.
€ Citizens and voters. Don't believe that nothing can be done and that policy makers are impotent, in spite of their claims. When you review the challenges of the past and the manner in which we moved forward in economic policy then you will demand better policy now.
Teachings from the Worldly Philosophy is divided into seven parts, with the Bible, Aristotle, and St.Thomas Aquinas covered in the short first part, Earliest Economic Thought. The second part, The Commercial Revolution, examines the contributions of Mandeville, Mun, Cantillon, Quesnay, and Turgot during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The Classical Economists-- Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill -- constitute the lengthy third part. Heilbroner delights in introducing the "real" Adam Smith, not the one so revered by the right-wing demagogues today.
Karl Marx has a section of his own, appropriately without a label. Heilbroner holds him high among the worldly philosophers and comments on the recent apparent demise of socialism with this thought; " If socialism failed, it was for political, more than economic reasons; and if capitalism is to succeed it will be because it finds the political will and means to tame its economic forces."(p.195)
The fifth part, The Marginalists, focuses on the nineteenth century economists Jeremy Bentham, William Stanley Jevons, Léon Walras, and Alfred Marshall. All turn away from the broad social issues to the specifics of price determination or microeconomics.
In the sixth part Thorstein Veblen, John Maynard Keynes, and Joseph Schumpeter "speak" for the twentieth century: Veblen with some derision of the foibles of economics, Schumpeter with his insights on the processes of innovation, and Keynes with his new vision of income determination, the role of saving and investment, and the potential for government action to restore full employment.
The final part develops Heilbroner's concern that today's economics is not up to the challenge of dealing with the emerging pressures from technology, international financial markets, ecological threats, and political instability. He calls for a re-invigoration of economics by adopting a vision that recognizes the full social and political realities of our time. The Teachings helps by showing what political economy has been in the past, while The Crisis... explains more specifically what needs to be done now.
Mike McCracken is an Ottawa political economist and econometrician. he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or thier Web page at www/informetrica.com