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 its 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.
Before the capitalist revolution, there was no need for a discipline devoted to explaining why production, distribution and exchange are structured as they are, because, as Heilbroner says: “[who] would look for abstract laws of supply and demand, or cost, or value, when the explanation lay like an open book in the laws of the manor and the church and the city, along with the customs of a lifetime? Adam Smith might have been a great moral philosopher in that earlier age, but he could never have been a great economist; there would have been nothing for him to do.”
Once capitalism began its relentless rise, however, people felt an imperative to clarify its unwritten rules, to pass judgement on whether they were good or bad, and to strive to rewrite its constitution accordingly. The project that answered that call was economics – an enterprise as value-laden and politically fraught as constitution writing always is. In Heilbroner’s scheme, in other words, economics is unashamedly not a science – and, in striking contrast to the natural sciences, there is no real distinction between the history of economic thought and the history of the economy itself. The former is a reaction to the latter; and as economic thought began to pervade the modern mindset, the latter was just as often a reaction to the former.
Hence the plan of The Worldly Philosophers: a parallel history of the capitalist revolution and of the theories that have been developed to make sense of it. In Heilbroner’s scheme, in order to understand the rules we live by today, we need to understand who invented them, and why. The history of economic thought is therefore one of the keystones of economics – and economics itself is, to an important extent, intellectual history.
On the face of it, Yueh’s book follows the format of The Worldly Philosophers. It too devotes a series of separate chapters to a pantheon of historical economic thinkers (and six of them – Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, Alfred Marshall, John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter – are covered by both books). It, too, aims to extract contemporary guidance from study of their theories. The resemblance is only superficial, however, because the conception of economics that underpins Heilbroner’s work is not one that would be recognised by most economists today.
Heilbroner himself, in an epilogue to the 1999 edition of The Worldly Philosophers entitled “The End of the Worldly Philosophy?”, explained that economics had even then almost completed its transition to a new sense of its essence and purpose. “The new vision,” he wrote, “is Science; the disappearing one, Capitalism.”
The Great Economists reflects this dramatic change in how economics conceives its methods and its aims. For Yueh, as for most contemporary practitioners, economics is not about reconstructing the historical mind-map of capitalism, but
about the discovery of objective economic laws through the scientific study of the social world.
Her rationale for exploring the history of economic thought is accordingly quite different from Heilbroner’s. It is not so much to understand the era in which the great economists lived, still less to grasp any role their theories may have played in shaping the conventions that govern the modern economy. It is rather because each of her subjects was the first to explain some fundamental economic principle or discover some economic law applicable to our contemporary dilemmas. It is in this direct sense that their ideas can help us today.
One chapter, for example, recruits the 19th century English economist David Ricardo to help answer the timely question “Do trade deficits matter?” Ricardo was the first to formalise the principle of comparative advantage – the idea that all nations gain if each one specialises in producing the things at which it is relatively more efficient and then freely trades its output. The truth of this principle, Yueh explains, is more important than ever as the US seems headed for protectionism.
Another chapter summarises the life and work of Irving Fisher, the greatest American economist of the first half of the 20th century, in order to answer the question “Are we at risk of repeating the 1930s?” Fisher’s most celebrated contribution was his book The Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions, which explained how a recession-induced drop in prices can raise the real burden of debt, leading to further deflation and so yet heavier debt, in a vicious circle. That led him to advocate reflationary monetary policy as the correct response to debt crises – a conclusion which, as the past decade has shown, modern central bankers have taken warmly to heart.
Yueh acknowledges that the validity of such principles is not unchallenged today and she is scrupulous in stressing ongoing debates. Nevertheless, the general idea is that they represented major advances in our knowledge of how the economy works, and that these economists are, to paraphrase Newton, giants on whose shoulders modern economists stand.
Hence the plan of The Great Economists reflects a distinct conception of the purpose of studying the history of economic thought, and indeed of economics itself. In this view, the history of economic thought is primarily a pedagogical device – a harmless cosmetic aid, as useful for adding some much-needed colour as, and no less scientific than, teaching physics by referring to Boyle’s Law, or biology by studying Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Economics itself, however, is definitely a science.
As I said, I don’t think the question of whether economics is a science is a very useful one. The inconvenient truth is that in some respects it is, and in others it isn’t. As a result, the different approaches to the history of economic thought taken by Yueh and Heilbroner both have their merits.
Nevertheless, if I was forced to recommend only one of them to a budding student of economics, I would have to plump for Heilbroner’s classic. In my view, the challenges facing Western economies in the post-2008 era are existential, as well as normal – and over all of them hovers the master question that haunts the writings of every one of Heilbroner’s worldly philosophers, from Smith to Schumpeter: whether or not capitalism is ultimately sustainable as a way of organising society.
The achievements of modern, scientific economics are significant, and the reader who wants a slick and well-curated tour of its current policy recommendations will profit greatly from Yueh’s enjoyable and up-to-date book. But if you want to know whether capitalism can survive its current crisis, and what might replace it if it doesn’t, then Heilbroner’s study of those great thinkers, who explored these questions free from our contemporary prejudices and vested interests, remains the place to start.
Felix Martin is the author of “Money: the Unauthorised Biography” (Vintage)
The Great Economists: How Their Ideas Can Help Us Today
Viking, 368pp, £20
This article appears in the 14 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game