Reading the classics of Economics
July 24, 2012 7:57 AM   Subscribe

What are the classic Economics texts that one really should read for a thorough historical perspective of the evolution and changes in thought on Economics ( and where overlapping Political Theory)? And is reading them really necessary for deep understanding of the field from a more philosophical point of view?

I mean stuff like the following, and are these the iconic texts by these authors?

- Adam Smith - The Wealth of Nations
- Marx - Capital I (and possibly II, III ?)
- Milton Friedman - Capitalism and Freedom (?)
- Friedrich August Hayek - Road to Serfdom (?)
- David Ricardo - (?)
- John Maynard Keynes - (?)
- John Stuart Mill (or is he more political thought?)
posted by mary8nne to Education (18 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
John Stuart Mill (or is he more political thought?)

Mill is political and ethical philosophy, not economics.
posted by John Cohen at 8:01 AM on July 24, 2012

You might enjoy taking a look at the syllabus (PDF) for Brad Delong's Introduction to Economic History course at Berkeley.
posted by Perplexity at 8:01 AM on July 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

I used this text in my graduate-level History of Economic Thought seminar. I'd be sure to pair it with More Heat Than Light for a more critical take, as most economists are lousy historians, particularly of their own discipline. There's a pronounced tendency to either portray all previous economists as massively and obviously wrong or as obviously and inevitably leading to the author's own preferred system. Neither is responsible historiography.
posted by valkyryn at 8:06 AM on July 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also: until the late nineteenth century, economic thought was political thought. Economics was explicitly considered to be a subset of moral and political philosophy through at least Marx. It wasn't until Jevons, Walras, and Menger ushered in the marginal revolution in the 1860s-70s that anyone thought it was possible to treat this as a scientific discipline detached from morality, philosophy, or politics.
posted by valkyryn at 8:10 AM on July 24, 2012

I think that, like many technical fields, economics is not generally taught from "great books." Economics students learn principles and techniques from textbooks, and when they are ready start reading contemporary research papers. Only a relative handful of older economic writings are read with any regularity.

So reading an intellectual history of economics will be a quite different form of preparation from what is usual for economists.
posted by grobstein at 8:11 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

See also Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments
posted by BWA at 8:14 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

A mix of economics and sociology, Max Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" gives an early 20th century view.
posted by Longtime Listener at 8:20 AM on July 24, 2012

economics is not generally taught from "great books."

To a degree. But economic theories and models generally arise out of specific historical circumstances. Keynes' General Theory is canonical, but The Economic Consequences of the Peace was a direct response to Versailles and established his reputation.

I like DeLong's approach to Adam Smith: he introduces his students to Theory of Moral Sentiments before The Wealth of Nations, to show the continuum between 1750s moral philosophy and what we now call 'economics'.
posted by holgate at 8:38 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not an economist but I'd expect that most texts that will be classic to economists will be unlikely to be books. Far more likely to be highly technical articles in the AER or Econometrica or similar.

Friedman's important works, to economists, are less likely to be his well-known books and more likely to be articles that predate them (googling, it looks like the monetarist argument first appeared in JPE).
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:48 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't think textbooks would give much of an understanding of the evolution and changes within economics, or the philosophies. To a large degree they seem to me to be history written by the neoclassical victors (even where they weren't on the winning side).

Adam's Fallacy by Duncan Foley is meant to be a good philosophical overview - haven't read it myself but it's always highly recommended.

You might get more out of such commentaries than the works themselves. Capital, for example, is tough going without some help due to unfamiliar phrases/concepts and the move between the abstract and the concrete. David Harvey's book and video series are useful here.
posted by spectrevsrector at 9:40 AM on July 24, 2012

You cannot go wrong looking at Joseph A. Schumpeter's History of Economic Analysis as well as Mark Blaug's Economic Theory in Retrospect -- both lengthy scholarly surveys of the history of economic thought.
posted by lathrop at 9:54 AM on July 24, 2012

Here's the list of readings from an MIT undergrad course on Political Economy taught by Suzanne Berger and Michael Piore (quite a duo!).

I would suggest Robert Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers for a very readable introduction to most of the thinkers you mention. A "Guide to Further Reading" at the back of the book should also be helpful.

For Marx in particular, this selection from OUP is excellent.
posted by otio at 9:55 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're willing to read Marx, you should read some Proudhon as well. Marx comments on him a fair bit, his works are much less long-winded, and Proudhon anticipated some important parts of Marx's critique.
posted by phrontist at 11:14 AM on July 24, 2012

John Cohen: Mill is political and ethical philosophy, not economics.

...except that John Stuart Mill authored one of the most famous economics textbooks of his era.

If you want to get an adequate historical perspective on the evolution of economic thought, then yes, certain classics will almost assuredly help in that regard, and you could likely do little better than to read (significant portions of) them. I'm not sure I'd spend much time on books by Mill or Marx, and certainly not Friedman or Hayek, as their core ideas can be readily understood and gleaned from shorter works or secondary sources (as noted by ROU_Xenophobe, Friedman's books are typically written for "lay" audiences - really, grab a couple of his academic papers if you decide you want to know something about his economic thought). But I would consider:
  • Smith's Wealth of Nations (and maybe the Moral Sentiments)
  • David Ricardo's Principles
  • Pigou's Economics of Welfare
  • Edgeworth's Mathematical Psychics
  • Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class
  • Hick's Foundation of Welfare Economics, or if you're feeling particularly adventurous, his Value and Capital
  • Keynes's General Theory
  • Samuelson's Foundations of Economic Analysis - the importance of which really cannot be understood without actually reading it (or significant portions thereof)
Other key figures whose own writings might provide the best source for understanding would include Say, Jevons and Schumpeter.

Sadly, it appears that the New School's old site on the History of Economic Thought has been taken down, which would have been where I would have directed you as a starting point. He're hoping they bring it back up at some point.
posted by dilettanti at 12:45 PM on July 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

Hick's Hicks's
posted by dilettanti at 12:46 PM on July 24, 2012

...except that John Stuart Mill authored one of the most famous economics textbooks of his era.

Well, I stand corrected. Thanks for the info.
posted by John Cohen at 7:49 AM on July 25, 2012

Just a note that dilletanti's list stops before game theory really exploded, or before computational and behavioral economics took off.

I'm not sure where you'd go for the intellectual history of post-game-theory economics. I rather doubt that reading the original pieces by Nash and then Selten, Kreps, Harsanyi, etc on equilibrium concept refinements would be terribly useful since I'd guess that the critical things is which tools took off as ways to explore substantive topics.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:53 AM on July 25, 2012

ROU_Xenophobe is absolutely correct - I excluded game theory (no Cournot, Borel, Von Neumann/Morgenstern, Luce and Raiffa, Nash, Harsanyi, etc.), in large part because someone trying to get a sense of the evolution of thought probably wouldn't need (or want) to read the primary sources. But, on second thought, Thomas Schelling's Strategy of Conflict might be an exception, and Nash's original PNAS paper is only roughly one full page of text and makes a fun read.
posted by dilettanti at 11:21 AM on August 8, 2012

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