Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Book Review (#15 and #16 of 2010)

The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers by Robert L. Heilbroner (7th edition). (original version was 1953).


Ideas of the Great Economists by George Soule (9th printing, 1952)

The Heilbroner text is considered "seminal" and is standard reading at universities. It's part of Harvard's freshman economics seminar. The Soule text is apparently long-forgotten, I discovered it at a local used book store. I read them both together since they cover roughly the same economists and chronology.

Hands down, the Soule text is better. He covers more economists and does a much better job giving context to ideas in a much smaller space. Heilbroner is verbose and leaves out important context. For example, Soule rightly credits the monetarists and Wicksell for the development of many of J.M. Keynes' ideas. Heilbroner doesn't bother to mention them. Soule was director of the NBER and ends the book with insight into the economist that got it started, something important for the present day.

Their treatment of the subject matter is roughly the same, Heilbroner gives a bit more detail. But there is only so much I need to know about Thorstein Veblen's personal life. Why Heilbroner's text was never updated to include more modern developments is beyond me. He quotes from events in the 1990s but ignores any relevant developments.

I enjoyed reading Soule because he's writing at a time when some of the great thinkers were still alive. He addresses concerns that Von Mises and Hayek have about planning, illustrating that the debate was pretty clear in 1952. What his book lacks is a proper bibliography.

I give Heilbroner's book 3 stars. It's required reading for a reason, it's just not great.
I give Soule's book 4 stars. It's a gem, and you can purchase it for $0.01 used.

For more modern updates you have to go to New Ideas from Dead Economists (my review). And you'll not find much about Austrians in any of the above.

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