The History of Economic Thought in 10 easy steps

I recently tasked myself to produce a brief history of economic thought in 10 points and in 4 minutes (writing time). Here it is:

1. The ancient Greeks: Didn’t really do much, but they did try to think systematically about things, so we do have some microeconomic insights
2. St. Thomas Aquinas: Well, there wasn’t much thinking on anything in the Middle Ages, and this guy at least did some – making sure he framed it in Church-friendly terms too. Didn’t really say much either, but he did have a crack at the ‘fair price’ as well as why usury is bad, so we include him in books on history of economic thought
3. The Mercantilists: They said that exports are good, imports are bad. What idiots!
4. Adam Smith: What a nice bloke. Economics as we know it starts here. Hume was a good buddy of his, include him too for good measure.
5. Ricardo: Even nicer bloke. Did actual analysis. Comparative advantage, what a fantastic insight. He was also the first person to hold a chair of ‘political economy’ at university, at UCL. (Smith etc held chairs in ‘moral philosophy’ and other stupid sounding subjects)
6. Marx: Yes, he was an economist too. Not a particularly good one though. His theories generally have little basis to reality. His equations look funny too (but he had some equations, so he needs to get credit for that).
7. The Austrians: Government is bad, long live the market! These guys are still going today. I particularly like Boehm-Bawerk (can’t do the uemlauts, sorry), not least because his name sounds so cool
8. Modern economics: they pretty much start with Marshall. Pigou, Walras and several other guys also get honourable mentions. At the same time, important advances in statistics, but nothing to do with economics yet, so they are not covered. Knight, a very objectionable individual (he was fascist, racist etc) does some amazing work on statistics, and brings a lot of it to economics. Hypothesis testing and econometrics is born.
9. Keynes: Economists are allowed to give economic advice! The ‘profession’ is born. Macroeconomics too.
10. Post-war period. Rise of monetarism, rise of empirical economics (econometrics).. Economics turns mathematical and it becomes more than ‘political economy’ where moral philosophy plays a major role. Too many thinkers (Milton Friedman has to be mentioned), but this is the subject of a 'current economic thought' module.

Also: A lot of the old texts (Adam Smith, whatever we have from Ricardo etc etc) are available at Project Gutenberg. My favourite piece of 'old' economics, preceding Adam Smith by some 50 years, is this.

I know the list has ommissions (comments are open). A loyal reader has already mentioned Von Neumann and co., and another points to RBC theory.

There were also some contributions as to the future of economics. Forrest predicts that 'it will be the full systemisation of bounded rationality, with general theories of modelling cognitive biases' (an excellent suggestion if you ask me). And this prediction by another past contributor to Bluematter. is worthy of consideration too:

11. And in the future we have everyone caring about happiness. Hurrah! GDP maximisation gets killed by happiness maximisation, which means shorter working hours, learning to like family life, a reduction in ASBO-worthy behaviour, the rebirth of morality and being polite, plus better television.
11b. And if 11 doesn’t work, economics will advise the medical profession to develop soma-like drugs and we can all live in Aldous Huxley’s brave new world.


  1. sbw Says:

    I suggest for 11) Rediscover what Adam Smith really wrote because it isn't taught in History, Political Science, Economics, or Philosophy. Use P. J. O'Rourke,'s "On the Wealth of Nations" as crib notes. Much shorter.

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