The best general overview of economic systems and ideologies?
February 8, 2009 4:07 AM   Subscribe

Recommend me a book with a good overview of the entire history of economic systems.

I recently realized I don't know as much about economic systems as I would like to, and I would like to read something that provides a general overview of economical systems / ideologies, but with more of a political / societal angle (social orders etc), rather than a solely financial approach. For now I am reading the wikipedia pages, which are a good start, but it would be even better if there was a excellent book out there. Ideally it would have examples of civilizations / societies / countries in a case study style to go with the ideologies and would cover things such as feudalism and ancient societies' systems as well as more current systems, although this might be a bit much to ask of one book.

Thank you hive mind for helping me educate myself. Oh and I should probably mention that it would be a bonus if it was written in an approachable style, not a high scholarly analysis style (the brain gets easily distracted...)
posted by atmosphere to Education (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
First of all, I think you'll find that economic ideology has a lot more to do with philosophy, specifically ethics, than with sociology, though that is occasionally important. To the extent that politics affects economics--and it does, to be sure--it's usually through the political philosophy angle rather than something more concrete.

Second, you're also going to find that economics did not become distinct from moral philosophy until the 18th century, and then only in the Western world. Until the European Enlightenment, and a good ways into it as a matter of fact, what we now think of as "economics" was entirely a subset of moral and political philosophy. "Oeconomics" for Aristotle was the proper management of the household according to the Golden Mean, and the management of the polis was analogized from there. So you see discussions about how truly independent men would not involve themselves in trade because that would imply they were equal with their inferiors. General equilibrium theory this is not. So if you're looking for a discussion of medieval/feudal economic thought you aren't going to get much, because there wasn't any to speak of. Same goes for Asian cultures. People didn't think about "the economy" as a free-standing entity which it was possible to study until quite recently, and to the extent that you can find prescriptions/proscriptions in antique literature that look like they might have something to do with the economy, you'll find that the justifications are always moral, not economic.

As such, you have simply got to read More Heat than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature's Economics by Philip Mirowski. It's a fascinating discussion of how contemporary economics got where it is, and delves deeply into the metaphors economists have borrowed from the natural sciences, particularly physics. Mirowski clearly has an axe to grind--but it's a pretty damn sharp axe and not one that is easily categorizable--so if you're interested in something a little less argumentative you might try Allesandro Roncaglia's The Wealth of Ideas: A History of Economic Thought. But I'd definitely go with the first one.
posted by valkyryn at 4:22 AM on February 8, 2009

Have a read here - nice starting point could be the History of econimic thought website
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:20 AM on February 8, 2009

Agreed on the philosophy end. You may try reading The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek, the collected works of Marx and Engels, and perhaps a good biography of John Maynard Keynes. There are also a number of books on modern capitalism and globalization by Jeffrey Sachs, Joseph Stiglitz, and Amartya Sen.
posted by proj at 5:26 AM on February 8, 2009

The Ascent of Money is a nice overview of economic history by Niall Ferguson. Also, not quite what you are looking for, but The Worldly Philosophers gives a great overview of the lives and ideas of some of the more prominent early economists, though it is an older book.
posted by blahblahblah at 6:03 AM on February 8, 2009

I've just finished reading The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes, and I think it's exactly what you're looking for.

With respect to some of the other suggestions here, I would advise you to forget about reading the theory books -- they might tell you what people were hoping to achieve, but they'll rarely explain why things turned out the way that they did. Almost everything you'll read will be quite recent, too, and won't explain why a significant "division of labour" was possible in England and not, for instance, France, let alone why Chinese rulers failed to capitalize on some of the most important inventions in history (gunpowder and the compass, to name two examples).

This book does exactly what you ask: it looks at specific countries in a 'case study' style, examining why each country's economic system evolved as it did. It's rare that you find a book that convincingly explains why China failed to industrialize, how Spain squandered its New World wealth and was left behind by the rest of Europe, or why England – a little island of merchants and yeoman peasants – managed to become the greatest power in the world.

Thes book discusses economics in the context of culture and society, arguing that economics is inseparable from tradition. The whole point of the book is this: that societies shape their economic systems, not the other way around, and to understand why some countries are rich and some are poor it isn't enough to know what tax rates, etc, were – you have to understand the cultures that these systems were created by.

Landes's writing style is also excellent – he writes in a conversational, fluid way that will keep you completely gripped. I'm sorry if I'm gushing – I want to be the first to recommend this to you because I think it's exactly what you're looking for, and I really enjoyed the book. I hope you give it a look.
posted by SamuelBowman at 6:27 AM on February 8, 2009

If you're looking for recent history, David Harvey's "A Brief History of Neoliberalism" is very short, very readable, and a great bibliographic reference. It's not an "objective" history (he's a Marxist critic) -- but then, neither is "Wealth of Nations," Keynes, or Stiglitz, so take that for what it's worth. It's a great read, though, and very enlightening if you're at all interested in WTO / IMF politics, deregulation, and post-Keynesian economics
posted by puckish at 6:44 AM on February 8, 2009

I really enjoyed reading "Dr. Strangelove's Game" by Paul Strathern. It seems to be along the lines of what you're looking for.
posted by Proginoskes at 6:58 AM on February 8, 2009

Certainly not an overview, but perhaps a resource.

The History of Economic Thought
posted by timsteil at 10:21 AM on February 8, 2009

whoops...sorry for the double
posted by timsteil at 10:30 AM on February 8, 2009

Again reiterating History of Economic Thought: it was co-written by my professor and another fantastic economics textbook author. I'll be taking this course this coming semester and I'm thrilled as I already own the book. The book itself has a great timeline of economic systems beginning with Mercantilism in the 1700s moving to the plethora of economic ideologies common today. It is both comprehensive and approachable; I think it's exactly what you're looking for!
posted by thatbrunette at 11:49 AM on February 8, 2009

Thank you for all the great answers, there have been a lot of interesting books recommended. I am starting university in a few weeks and so will probably only get round to reading one of them for now, but it is good to have such a comprehensive reading list.

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations looks like a really interesting book, it's culture / society angle appeals to me especially, and the fact it looks at what happened and not what could have ideally happened (i.e. the point about reading theories) makes it sound very relevant to my future studies. Thanks again!
posted by atmosphere at 1:49 PM on February 8, 2009

Well, far be it from me to tell you what to do, but understanding the ideologies behind the systems (what people are saying "was meant to happen") is quite important to understanding why people act the way they do. Want to understand why people want free markets? Read Smith, Hayek, Friedman. This won't tell you why free markets sometimes don't work, but it will help you understand the motivations for these systems.
posted by proj at 1:57 PM on February 8, 2009

posted by neelhtak at 2:43 PM on February 8, 2009

I came here to recommend The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes, but I see Samuel Bowman beat me to it. This book is highly recommended. Think of it as a kinda economic Guns, Germs & Steel (by Jared Diamond). If that comparison doesn't mean anything to you, don't worry. Just pick up Landes's book; you'll enjoy it. By the way, he also wrote a fascinating book on the history of clocks. True!

Finally, as has already been mentioned, Niall Fergusson's recent book The Ascent of Money is pretty good. There's also an accompanying TV series, which makes the pair kinda interesting (combined media).

Good luck!
posted by Mephisto at 3:16 PM on February 8, 2009

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