The Early, British Hegemony in Economics

I’m still reading New Ideas from Dead Economists by Todd Buchholz (progressing slowly; see Living Among the Dead). Although I haven’t seen much to the promising new ideas yet, Buchholz give a great, historical account of the development of economics.

The father of Economics was, as every economist know, Adam Smith, at least if we are talking about economics as its own, scientific disipline (and we are!). Adam Smith was from Scotland. Given that and Brittain’s position as world leader (in politics, trade, military, you name it), it comes as no surprise that all the early, great economists were British. They were also all rather close; this is how Buchholz begins the chapter on John Stuart Mill:

Almost all renowed British economists since Adam Smith have been linked through close friendships. Remeber that Smith’s good friend David Hume was a “godfather” to Thoms Malthus, who was an intimate friend with David Ricardo, whose comrade James Mill encouraged his economics. James begot John Stuart Mill. A slight break occurs since Mill did not befriend his successor Alfred Marshall. But Marshall learned from Mill’s works (and from the economist F.Y. Edgeworth, nephew or Ricardo’s friend Maria Edgeworth) and then thaught Keynes, who dominated British economics until World War II and produced numerous prominent disciples [p. 91].*

No surprise, perhaps, that the early development of a new field has a geographical structure, so to speak; after all, they had to learn from each other and compete for the same, few positions. Anyway, that it was a hegemony is beyond doubt:

In 1848, Mill published his chief work on economics, Principles of Political Economy. For decades it dominated the book market like monopolies Mill discussed within its pages. Oxford relied on the Principles until 1919, probably because its successor was written by Marshall, a Cambridge man. Indeed, the works of all the great economists illuminate long paths. [Here it comes:] From 1776 to 1976, just five books regined over economics in nearly unbroken succession: Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Ricardo’s Principles, Mill’s Principles, Marshall’s Principles, and Samuelson’s Economics. What they lack in imaginative titles, they make up in endurance [p. 102].

Looks like I just got five new books on my ‘buy and read’ list. Perhaps a tall order, but 200 years of economics, almost 90% of its history, in just five books sounds rather cheap. (But how many volumes?)

* New Ideas from Dead Economists, Revised Edition, Todd G. Buchholz, 1999, Penguine Books.


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