How Economics Shifted Shape: In an Age of Science and Statistics, We Can Still Learn from History's Great Thinkers

By Martin, Felix | New Statesman (1996), March 16, 2018 | Go to article overview

How Economics Shifted Shape: In an Age of Science and Statistics, We Can Still Learn from History's Great Thinkers


Martin, Felix, New Statesman (1996)


The Great Economists:

How Their Ideas Can Help Us Today

Linda Yueh

Viking, 368pp. 20 [pounds sterling]

Is economics a science? It's an old question--and in my view, not a terribly useful one. Yet there is a reason why it never stops being asked. Physicists have discovered the universal laws governing energy and motion, and as a result can tell us with scarcely credible precision how to land a man on the moon. Economists, by contrast, can't even agree on why the last financial crisis happened, let alone what we should do to prevent the next one--and that's despite the fact that we wrote the rules of finance ourselves. Real sciences make progress. Economics, on the other hand, seems to go round and round in circles.

Needless to say, this embarrassing situation irritates economists more than anyone else. As a result, over the past several decades mainstream economics has attempted to assimilate itself ever more closely to the culture and methods of the natural sciences. These days, self-respecting economists express their theories as mathematical models, rather than in words. Advanced statistical techniques are deployed to test hypotheses and so resolve the answers to empirical questions. If possible, experiments are designed and conducted. A few avant-garde researchers have even gone so far as to rebrand their research groups as "labs".

Whether these developments represent a long-overdue reform of the methodology of economics, or just the symptoms of a chronic inferiority complex, they have certainly dealt a mortal blow to one formerly central area of the economics curriculum: the history of economic thought. If economics is a science, there is as little point in reading the economists of prior ages as there is in engaging with Aristotle on biology or mugging up on the theory of phlogiston.

The publication of Linda Yueh's The Great Economists: How Their Ideas Can Help Us Today is therefore a fascinating event for anyone interested in economics. For this is a book which, as it title suggests, champions the value of studying the leading economic thinkers of the past.

It sounds like swimming against the tide of history. Is it really possible to reclaim a role for the scientifically backward theorising of a canon of Dead White Men (and, to Yueh's credit, one Dead White Woman)? Well, there can hardly be anyone better qualified to try. As an Oxford don and a professor at London Business School, Yueh undoubtedly knows her stuff; and as a former chief business correspondent for the BBC and economics editor at Bloomberg TV, she is a well-known and skilful communicator.

The challenge Professor Yueh has set herself is even bigger than it first appears, however. For looming like Muhammad Ali in his pomp over any modern attempt at an overview of history's great economists is a classic so enduringly popular as to make most challengers throw in the towel before the starting bell: Robert Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers.

I first read this multimillion best-seller, published in 1953, 25 years ago. There can hardly be an economist in the English-speaking world who wasn't assigned it as the first text on their undergraduate reading list--and for not a few of them, I suspect, it is about the only thing they can remember from their course. And with good reason: for Heilbroner--a student of Joseph Schumpeter at Harvard who later became a professor at the New School for Social Research in New York--was a talented writer in command of his subject matter and with a gift for leavening abstract ideas with earthy biography. Yet the real reason that The Worldly Philosophers has reigned for so long as the heavyweight champion of the genre is that it is organised around a clear and compelling vision of what, historically speaking, economics actually is.

The book's underlying argument is that economics is nothing more nor less than the project of trying to understand, evaluate, and then control capitalism--the historically unprecedented system of organising society though the operation of markets and money that began to evolve in Europe in the late Middle Ages. …

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