Worldly Philosophers

date Nov 12, 2010
authors Robert L. Heilbroner
reading time 2 mins
  • Book Title: The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers
  • Author: Robert L. Heilbroner
  • Year written/published: 1953
  • Some extracts:


The absence of the idea on gain as a normal guide for daily life - in fact the positive disrepute in which the idea was held by the Church - constituted one enormous difference between the strange world of the tenth to sixteenth centuries and the world that begun, a century or 2 before Adam Smith, to resemble our own. The idea of “making a living” had not yet come into being. Work was not yet a means to an end - the end being money and the things it buys. Work was an end in itself, encompassing, of course, money and commodities, but engaged in as a part of a tradition, as a natural way of life. In a word, the great social innovation of the “market” had not yet been made.

World of tomorrow:

A second great current of change was to be found in the slow decay of the religious spirit under the impact of the skeptical, inquiring, humanist views of the Italian Renaissance.

Adam Smith’s laws of the market…

They tell us that the outcome of a certain kind of behavior in a certain social framework will bring about perfectly definite and foreseeable results. Specifically they show is how the drive of individual self-interest in an environment of similarly motivated individuals will result in competition; and they further demonstrate how competition will result in the provision of those goods that society wants, in the quantities that society desires, and at the prices society is prepared to pay.

Adam Smith’s magic hand:

It was not moving because anyone willed it to, or because Parliament might pass laws, or England win a battle. It moved because there was a concealed dynamic beneath the surface of things which powered the social whole like an enormous engine.

Taking risks…

What is it that drives the society to this wonderful multiplication of wealth and riches? Partly, it is the market mechanism itself, for the market harnesses man’s creative powers in a milieu that encourages him, even forces him to invest, innovate, expand, take risks.

Creature of circumstances…

“Man is the creature of circumstances”. And who makes the circumstances but man himself? The world is not inevitably good or bad but to the extend that we make it so. In that thought Owen left behind him a philosophy of hope more powerful than all his fanciful notions about spades and plows or money or villages of Cooperation.

Start of imperialism

Hobson’s answer was devilishly neat. The automatic savings of the rich could be invested in one way that would put them to use without the troublesome accompaniment of more production at home. They could be invested overseas.