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on 17 January 2017
There was Smith, there was Ricardo, there was Malthus, there was Marx, there was Keynes, there was Schumpeter. Some of them were students of others. Others were born around the same time.

Well punctuated: yes. A daunting subject (the history of economic thought): most definitely. But did I learn anything much from it: alas No. Truth be told I didn't really even understand the conclusion.

It could just be me, of course. Many worthy people seems to rate this book very highly, and they probably all know the subject matter far better than I do. And two million people bought it........somehow. On the other hand, I can attest that I have actually read it.

It's ok. But my search for a really good book about the history of economics goes on.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 May 2013
Heilbroner wrote this classic in 1953, but reading it in 2013 you cannot help thinking how relevant it is to today's world economy. A few random examples:

He kicks off by explaining why Economics did not exist before the eighteenth century. In a traditional economy, where everybody does his father's job as best he can, there's simply nothing to study. And you open the newspaper today and read about the 28 "closed professions" that dominate modern Italy's services sector and you realise "oh, wow, this is a traditional economy." No wonder it can't be helped by the tools of fiscal and monetary policy. It predates Adam Smith, the invisible hand, perfect competition, supply, demand and all that jazz. Simple as that!

Halfway through the book he discusses the work of Hobson, a man who observed that capitalism leads to income inequality because some people are more able than others. No big deal, except over time this leads to underconsumption. The poor can't consume because their incomes are too small, and the rich because their incomes are too large! Now, where have I heard that before? Turns out it's a problem as old as the hills. Well, not quite. It's as old as our system. Hobson goes on to say this was the cornerstone of Imperialism, and I am not in a position to agree or disagree. I sure don't think it applies to today's world, but that's beside the point; I got so excited to read about it. It's just one of the things about our system that's here to stay.

The treatment of Keynes' ideas (if not the idealised tour of his private life) is the very best bit of the book, though. Two big ideas, basically. First the idea that you don't get recessions in traditional economies or under the Pharaoh or Stalin. You get them in economies with a business sector only. What we earn we mainly spend. What we don't spend we save. Business takes our savings (be it the money in our bank account or what we paid to buy the stock of a company) and invests it. But every once in a while, fearing we won't spend enough, businesses sit on our savings and don't build that new plant / don't develop that new pill / don't write as many new computer games and the economy stalls as the consumers earn less from their work. This, however, drives down the price of money. The bank won't pay us as much on our deposits if business won't ask for a loan. Rates come down, more projects make sense for business and they invest again, they hire again, they pay again and we start all over. This drives up the price of money just as investments are being made that might have been marginal even at the old price of money and the set-up is in place to go down the elevator again. But the key insight is that the cycle is a business cycle. You don't get it outside of a capitalist setting.

The second idea is very relevant to today and it's that the elevator can get stuck on the ground floor. Suppose the most recently fashionable type of investment bombs and there is no ready substitute for it. Then, until business can come up with its next big investment opportunity, the economy can get stuck in a rut where people keep losing jobs and a spiral of contraction emerges. Under those circumstances, Keynes sees a potential role for government to bridge the gap between now and when the next use arises for the savers' cash. Not only that, but in doing so the government can protect the value of their previous investments, as business is not forced to retreat.

I'm probably making a hash of explaining it all, I probably ought to copy/paste Heilbroner's concise and elegant prose. My main point is that many of the big questions have been posed in the past, many of the answers have been posited and if you are thinking about the present without having looked at the past you're giving yourself unnecessary work. This is as good a guide to the history of capitalism as you will ever read. Heilbroner takes you through the thoughts of the people who first described it, like Smith and Ricardo, those who incorrectly prophesised its demise, like Malthus, Marx and Veblen and those who best understood it, like Keynes and Schumpeter.

I'm not sure I've ever read a better book.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 29 August 2010
Heilbroner has created a masterpiece with his 'Worldly philosophers' - a fantastic introduction to the main economic thinkers, their ideas and the times and circumstances that shaped them. It is a rare book in economics that brings little prejudice to evaluating the theories - it favours none of the thinkers described.

The book starts with an evaluation why economic thought was less than essential until the start of industrialisation and capitalism, and then goes on to evaluate Adam Smith, Parson Malthus, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen, John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter. In between these there is additional description of various other thinkers and important personalities (social utopians, Mill, Marshall, etc.).

Each of the thinkers is introduced into his environment, their theories are described in terms of how they arose, what the main thrusts of them were, how they fit into the environment and what was novel about them at the time - what the contribution was to the body of economic knowledge / literature.

Viewed in this way, it is easy to understand the importance and contribution of all of them, even if several of their theories have since been discredited. This however is as much as a result of the world changing unrecognisably from the the one they lived in as well as in response to their thinking (whether acceptance or rejection). It also shows the futility of analysing the theories of these authors without the additional historical and social / environmental components being taken into account.

Heilbroner also does a good job of demonstrating how the thinking of these 'worldly philosophers' shaped the mental models we have in interpreting and reacting to our economic environment. That's why he partially questions the development towards mathematical economics - not that he thinks the development is not important or inevitable, only that it is not sufficient, in case it does not answer political as well as social issues as well.

I was advised to read this book at the start of university (first year economics course) and id not follow the advice for nearly 15 years. This is unfortunate as it would have made the early study of economics definitely easier - Heilbroner makes the economists really come to life and there is many a funny anecdote included in the book to make them more lifelike than some of their work. And while I have had an extensive economic education before reading the book, I am certain it will not present any problems for a reader, who is not at all familiar with the subject. Having read the originals of most of the economists described in this book, I can also say that reading Heilbroner even after knowing the work and criticisms of it of all the economists described, Heilbroner's work is still exquisite - familiarity does not at all decrease its enjoyment.
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on 8 June 2017
Excellent introduction to economic thinking and without any need to resort to econometrics
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on 4 December 2017
thanks good quality
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on 8 November 2010
Many books and texts based around the topic of political economy are very heavy going and complicated, but 'The Worldy Philosophers' is a fairly simple read, almost written like a story rather than a non-fiction text.

The book goes through various political philosophers and economic theorists and acts as a good foundation for further reading of the subject, though sometimes lacks detail and depth.

I'd recommend this book for politics and economics students, as well as anyone who is keen to know more about the subject.
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on 4 February 2018
Haven’t looked into the book yet but the preface is fun. Delivery is quite good.
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on 12 September 2016
One of the most informative books I've ever read. Masterfully written.
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on 19 September 2013
Great little book to start understanding economics, it travels through the life's of great economists to describe what economics is and why its so important to us. Like the internet most would have little idea of what it is or does but this book goes some way to pierce this misunderstood or ignored thing.

5/5 would recommend to anyone studying Economics or to anyone who wants to learn more about it.
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on 12 October 2013
I am the sort of person who doesn't like reading. I struggle at best and I've always hated reading but this book got me reading! It is so interesting and a perfect book to read if you want to learn about economic.
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