Ten of the Greatest Economists

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), July 17, 2011 | Go to article overview

Ten of the Greatest Economists


Byline: by VINCE CABLE Business Secretary

1 ADAM SMITH (1723-1790)

A key figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith is the giant on whose shoulders subsequent economists have stood. He is best known for The Wealth Of Nations, his 1776 landmark book on economics, published at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution - and was even consulted on economic matters by Pitt The Elder, the Whig politician and Prime Minister. His arguments for free trade, market competition and the morality of private enterprise remain as fresh and influential as when written over 200 years ago. That said, Smith - who studied and later taught at Glasgow University - saw only a limited role for government and was hostile to economic nationalism.

However, his arguments have at times been misinterpreted by free marketeers in recent decades. The fact is that he did not believe in 'laissezfaire' (an earlier French doctrine opposing any government intervention in economic matters) - he saw government's sole job as to establish law and justice, and provide for the nation's education and basic infrastructure.

2 DAVID RICARDO (1772-1823)

A British political economist - the third of 17 children from a Sephardic Jewish family of Portuguese origin - Ricardo was a huge influence on 19th-century economics. After making a fortune as a stockbroker, he became fascinated by economics - and wrote the influential The Principles Of Political Economy And Taxation (1817). In it, he dealt with questions of distribution (worker and landlord rewards, etc) and the link with the value of production: in particular, the idea of economic 'rent', where rewards are greater than the cost of production. This foreshadowed today's debate about 'fair' pay and rewards. Crucially, he developed Adam Smith's thinking on free trade, and his work helped the Anti-Corn Law League win the battle over the Corn Laws (protective duties on corn, designed to protect the landed gentry, which were repealed in 1846) which established Britain as a free-trading nation.

3 FUKUZAWA YUKICHI (1834 -1901)

An author, entrepreneur and political theorist, Yukichi's ideas made a lasting impact on Japan following the 1868 Meiji Revolution, which saw the restoration of imperial rule in Japan and set in train its economic modernisation. Widely regarded as one of Japan's founding fathers, Yukichi (pictured right and on the 10,000 yen note, inset) tried to understand how modern systems and organisations worked and how 'civilisation', including business enterprise and new technology, could be transplanted to Japan to create economic development. He was an educator rather than an economist but wrote many books that influenced a generation of Japanese to embrace a rational and scientific approach to economic, and wider, policy. If it hadn't been for Yukichi, I suspect the modernisation and industrialisation of Japan, and subsequently the rest of east Asia, would have probably been longer in coming.

4 KARL MARX (1818-1883)

OK, Marx might now be remembered as a revolutionary advocate of communism - he co-wrote The Communist Manifesto - but he was a leading 19th-century economist in the 'classical' tradition. Indeed, in many ways he is the father of Economic History, having developed explanations for the evolution of the economic structure from feudalism to capitalism. The German philosopher, sociologist and economist, who spent much of his life in London (and is buried in Highgate Cemetery), developed theories to explain why capitalist economies - which he opposed - have fluctuations and crises. However, despite his belief in capitalism's self-destructive tendencies, much of his economic thinking stands up to scrutiny. Had it not been for The Communist Manifesto, I think Western commentators would recognise more readily today his role in advancing economic thinking.

5 AMARTYA SEN (1933-)

Among the most important events of my lifetime has been the economic emergence through rapid growth of major developing countries - most notably China and India, but also Korea, Brazil and Mexico among others. …

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