2020-08-03

Book Review: "The Worldly Philosophers" by Robert L. Heilbroner

I've recently read the book The Worldly Philosophers by Robert L. Heilbroner; this was a book that I got from a friend who moved away a few years ago, but never got around to reading until now. This book is essentially a survey of the lives & works of famous philosophers whose works & thoughts had fundamental impacts on the development of economics as a field, and who considered the general problems faced by & ultimate evolution of society to be within the purview of their grand theories. The preface gives some background regarding the writing of this book, the first chapter explains how economic philosophy can be especially dangerous as it has arguably much more immediate relevance to human society but much less rigorous testability than natural sciences, the second chapter explains why economics as a distinct discipline did not emerge until societal change in Europe (and its colonies in North America) had led to a state where the interconnections of goods, services, and money pervaded all aspects of life even for ordinary people (i.e. going far beyond the raising of stocks & bonds for the large colonial corporations like the Dutch East India Company, which had to deal with financial instruments only at the level of the national interest), the eleventh (final) chapter recapitulates the ideas of the book and explains that there may be no further grand theorists of "worldly philosophy" because the apparent inability of capitalism to effectively regulate itself (in the author's view, at the time of the publication of this edition in 1986) would mean all further development would have to come more from active political decisionmaking, and each chapter in between catalogs the lives & works of famous "worldly philosophers". A key feature of this book is that the historical context of each of these philosophers' lives is made clear, such that the development of those philosophies can be read as essentially a natural consequence of those circumstances; as examples, the optimism of Adam Smith is seen as coming from his observation of improved standards of living arising from the proliferation of many small factories, while the pessimism of Thomas Malthus & David Ricardo came from their observations of growing numbers of people living in abject poverty and in unsafe & overcrowded conditions without their living standards seeming to improve as a whole.

The book is written in a very engaging, accessible, and clear way. The details of the philosophers' lives make for a more interesting read, and they sometimes (though not always) even add further context for understanding how the mindsets behind their philosophies. Moreover, the author's contextualization of each philosophy in its historical place & time is combined with clear explanations of the more generally applicable features of those philosophies, so that it becomes clear whether certain aspects of some philosophies that are dependent on the historical contexts leading to their development might suggest that applying those philosophies today may be problematic. This is also combined with cogent & clear critical analysis of those philosophies in the present context by the author, as appropriate; perhaps there could have been a little more critical analysis of some of the assumptions of Karl Marx, and I felt like the author made John Maynard Keynes's analysis of the emergence of economic recessions from savings gluts seem unduly different from prior ideas that economic recessions are essentially mass panics, but these are ultimately minor points. (As "present" means 34 years ago, some of those analyses & predictions have obviously not aged well, but in fairness, I cannot hold that against the author, because none of those analyses suggest an arrogance on the part of the author in claiming that nothing of those analyses would change 34 years later.)

The explanations of the various philosophies aren't extremely deep, but they are deep enough to give readers an appreciation for their contexts & differences and to encourage readers to learn more. For instance, I was struck by realizing how similar my thoughts about economic policy are to those of John Stuart Mill, so I've been inspired to read more by & about him. As another example, I always felt too intimidated to read about Karl Marx, due to the high likelihood that what I would find online would be too inflammatory/partisan (as he is revered among socialists & communists and reviled among many other groups, especially in the US given the country's historically strong anticommunist stance); while I may be biased in my sensibilities from growing up in the US, I thought the author did a good job of treating Marx & his work in an evenhanded way, explicitly stating that Marx should be thought of as neither saint nor demon, and the same should be true of his work. I also thought that by the end of the book, the reasons for the author's choices of which philosophers to highlight became quite clear. For example, I wondered why Henry George wasn't discussed in a full chapter but only in a part, but then the author made clear that this is partly because Henry George's singular focus on land rents was overly narrow & simplified, and because Henry George, like other heterodox economists in the 19th century, was too uncritically revered by those who wanted to think about the deep implications of economics for society (as opposed to the narrow focuses on mathematical formalism & description of equilibrium that had come into favor among establishment orthodox economists at that time); the author's criticisms helped to solidify some of the instinctive reservations that I had but couldn't quite articulate about Henry George's claims that taxing only land & rents would solve everything, as it seemed intuitively appealing yet weirdly incomplete. As another example, I felt like the chapter on Joseph Schumpeter didn't seem to suggest any great impact that would justify his inclusion along with John Maynard Keynes or other philosophers, but the following (final) chapter made clear that the real novelty of Schumpeter's analysis was in predicting an end state for business owners/capitalists that was notably different from their beginning state, and using this to argue for socialism as an end state to capitalism for completely different reasons than what Marx argued. Perhaps it could be argued that the contributions of John von Neumann & John Nash to game theory merited further discussion, given the important application of game theory to international politics (particularly nuclear deterrence in the Cold War), but a counterargument would be that unlike those discussed in this book, they did not set forth grand economic philosophies describing society as a whole, nor did they broadly set out to describe the evolution or endpoint of capitalism.

Overall, I rather enjoyed reading this book. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in starting to learn about economic philosophies, as the engaging storytelling helps to leaven the philosophical parts that may seem drier to some readers.

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