The Worldly Philosophers:
The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers

Robert Heilbroner

Penguin 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
Apart from an opening chapter which sketches a "pre-economic" economic history of the world, and the occasional foray into topics such as the rise of multinationals, it is "Lives" that dominate The Worldly Philosophers. Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen, John Maynard Keynes, and Joseph Schumpeter all have chapters to themselves; Daniel Malthus and David Ricardo share one, as do Robert Owen, Henri Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and John Stuart Mill (as utopian socialists) and Frédéric Bastiat, Henry George, John Hobson, and Alfred Marshall (as figures from the Victorian "underworld" and mainstream). The choice of some of these thinkers is clearly driven as much by their human interest as by their intellectual importance, but Heilbroner makes his biographical sketches lively and entertaining without excessive dependence on anecdotal trivia or personal oddities and quirks.

The popularity of The Worldly Philosophers has no doubt been helped by its relatively small dose of actual economics. Heilbroner restricts himself to a few of the key ideas and interests of each thinker: with Adam Smith, the invisible hand of the market and specialisation of labor; with Malthus, the effects of inevitable population growth; with Ricardo, the conflict between landowners and industrialists; with Mill the idea of a fundamental distinction between economic production and political distribution; and so forth. What economics is covered, however, is clearly explained — if anything, the explanations are too easy to digest, slipping down so comfortably one hardly notices them...

It is in his treatment of "Times" that Heilbroner really shines, however. He describes the development of thinkers and the formation of their ideas in their social and intellectual context — and explores the ways in which they and their ideas in turn influenced the policies of elites and broader social and cultural trends. Ricardo's focus on rents is set in the context of the British Corn Laws; Veblen's "economic psychopathology" in the world of late 19th century "robber barons"; and so forth. Figures such as Smith and Marx are all too commonly presented out of their historical context, in ways that make them and their ideas little more than convenient cardboard cutouts; The Worldly Philosophers is an excellent antidote to that.

July 2002

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%T The Worldly Philosophers
%S The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers
%A Heilbroner, Robert
%I Penguin
%D 2000
%O paperback, notes, 7th edition, index
%G ISBN 0140290060
%P 365pp