Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Worldly Philosophers by Robert L. Heilbroner

The Worldly Philosophers by Robert Heilbroner presents ideas of Adam Smith, Parson Malthus, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen, John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter, among others, with clarity and brevity. The book educates you about the historical development of the subject of economics with a very readable, quotable and imitable prose. Heilbroner takes the readers on a remarkable journey from the islands of unformed ideas to an understanding of economic realities of preceding generations. Once the knowledge of relevant forms and forces underlying different societies is shown together with methods of production, consumption and taxation; the seeker is introduced to various modes of thinking about profit, loss, welfare, capital, labor, supply, demand, stock and imperialism. 

The greatest thinkers (limited to Western/economic thinkers of the last three centuries) were people of flesh and blood, and in general most scientific (/and economic) texts ignore the persona behind the idea, principle or axiom. Every philosopher who has contributed to the unraveling of the mystery cult of market where profit is a virtue is revisited and celebrated as a prophet in The Worldly Philosophers. Prophets, not soothsayers, bring insight into existing situations/problems by providing perspectives that are either not available before them or are not pronounced with the same authority or clarity. Yet not all philosophers are ready for the realities of the world, just as not all the societies are mature or conducive for arrival and survival of their philosophers. The last ones are nevertheless worth being aware of, and the book introduces a remarkable cast of such characters as well. 

Reading the book makes one realize that a few fundamental questions remain unanswered in the field of economics: What is good and bad (in terms of choices, decisions, profit: personal vs labor force vs society? Where does the profit arise from: is it always causing injury to someone somewhere? Are market forces ever seeking profits for a marginal few? Can capitalism survive the contradictions brought about by rational or irrational self-interest versus welfare of humanity or society? Does capitalism always lead to imperialism, the nineteenth century version or the new one where multinational companies play a similar role? Is the customer always the king or is it only a ploy to rob the customer of his rightful profits? Can socialism exist unless many of the economic problems are first solved so that there is enough labor and enough work and enough food in the system? Will technocrats take over the world one day (or should they)? Does a perfect economic system exist only as a utopia? 

The book emphasizes how the current economic system is in fact only a century or so old, and is ever evolving, increasing in complexity, and when it comes to the distribution of wealth, the present times are no different in the West than were the days of the mediaeval Europe. We are forced to examine our notions of progress, property and propriety, and we are forced to admit that we have evolved varied ways of exploitation of masses and resources for achieving gains for a select few. Yet by its very nature, such a book provides an example of why intellectuals, why philosophers, why scholars are so central to directing and controlling human activity. In the clamor for justice in distribution of wealth we sometimes forget that we humans value things differently in different times, and equality and justice require equal opportunity for receiving any reward (material or spiritual). Perhaps we need a new worldly philosopher who will inspire a mode of production and distribution that allows education and opportunity to everyone when they are growing up, care and medicine to all old people after their share of tasks are done and sensible distribution of necessities to enable humans to live with honor, dignity, honesty and health. Before such a philosopher takes the center stage, he or she will find this book as a useful guide to the lives and works of thinkers before him/her, and I am sure he/she will nod and say, reading this made damn good economic sense!