All Commentary
Wednesday, December 1, 1999

Heilbroner’s One-Armed Philosophers

Heilbroner Suffers from a Highly Prejudicial, Unbalanced View of Economics


“Without the government, the market as a system would not last two minutes.”

—Robert Heilbroner[1]

The May-June issue of Challenge magazine highlighted Robert Heilbroner, perhaps the best-selling economics author of all time. This year he published the seventh edition of his celebrated work, The Worldly Philosophers (Simon & Schuster, 1999), which has now sold over three million copies.

I am not surprised that The Worldly Philosophers has gone through multiple editions since 1953. Heilbroner has written a colorful and entertaining masterpiece. And no one has come up with a better title about the lives and ideas of the great economic thinkers.

Challenge also interviewed the 70-year-old professor. One question they failed to ask, however, is, “Why have you doggedly refused to acknowledge the success of twentieth-century free-market schools of economics?”

Heilbroner’s Bias

Yes, it’s a sad commentary: Robert Heilbroner, the masterful stylist, suffers from one serious defect—a highly prejudicial, unbalanced view of economics. After revising and updating his book seven times, he still never mentions the Chicago school of Milton Friedman and the Austrian school of Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek (although he does have a chapter on Joseph Schumpeter, the enfant terrible of the Austrians).

Heilbroner’s resolve is a tragic reminder of the one-sided way economics was taught a generation ago: Give Adam Smith his due, and then spend the rest of the time patronizing Keynes, Marx, Veblen, and the socialists. Meanwhile, the Chicago school, the Austrians, the supply-siders, the public-choice school, and other free-market proponents are poured down an Orwellian memory hole.

Heilbroner’s bias reminds me of Stalin’s rewriting of history when he would have his enemies’ pictures erased from official photographs. In Heilbroner’s photograph of the “great economic thinkers,” he has erased men like J. B. Say, Carl Menger, Eugen Bohm-Bawerk, Knut Wicksell, Irving Fisher, Frank H. Knight, Henry Simons, Mises, Hayek, Friedman, Robert Lucas, and James Buchanan, among others. Heilbroner writes as if the Nobel Prize in economics hadn’t existed for the past 25 years!

Both Mark Blaug and James Tobin regard Irving Fisher as the greatest American economist. A year ago, Time magazine’s editor-in-chief, Norman Pearlstine, named Milton Friedman “economist of the century,” ahead of Keynes.[2] Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw wrote in The Commanding Heights: “In the postwar years, Keynes’s theory of government management of the economy appeared unassailable. But a half century later, it is Keynes who has been toppled and Hayek, the fierce advocate of free markets, who is preeminent.”[3] Yet you wouldn’t know anything about Fisher, Friedman, or Hayek after reading The Worldly Philosophers.

No one is objecting to Heilbroner’s right to favor Keynes over Friedman, but to ignore Friedman (whose name does not even appear in the seventh edition) is a travesty.

Why the Sins of Omission?

All editions of The Worldly Philosophers have purposely hid the background of the author, and with good reason. His mentors are Marxists Paul Sweezy at Harvard and Adolph Lowe at the New School for Social Research. No wonder he wrote so sympathetically toward Marx.[4] Heilbroner has been a dedicated “democratic socialist” for most of his life and was for many years the Norman Thomas Professor of Economics at the New School. He is perhaps the only economist in the United States who holds a chair named after a socialist political leader. He has long favored a large public sector and Keynesian deficit spending. He hates the term “free market,” adding, “Markets aren’t free. They depend on government.”[5] He prefers the Marxian term “capitalism.”

Several years ago, I met Bob Heilbroner in his New York apartment and asked him why he ignored Friedman and Hayek. He felt that Friedman had not advanced economics beyond Adam Smith, and as for Hayek, he said, “I tried reading Hayek but could never follow him.” Yet I give Heilbroner high marks for condemning abstract mathematical modeling in economics as generating “rigor, but, alas, also rigor mortis,” and for being the only socialist to publicly give credit to Mises and Hayek for correctly anticipating the collapse of Soviet central planning.[6]

Galbraith and Buchholz: More Balanced Views

Heilbroner could learn a lot from his friend John Kenneth Galbraith. Although Galbraith’s title isn’t as dramatic, Economics in Perspective (Houghton Mifflin, 1987) bends over backwards to be fair to free-market economists. Sure, Galbraith gives full space to his favorite writers (Keynes, Veblen, Marx), but he also devotes major portions of his book to Say’s law and the French laissez-faire school, the Austrians’ critique of socialism, Fisher’s quantity theory of money, and Friedman’s monetary counterrevolution to Keynesian economics.

Heilbroner’s rewriting of history is one reason more and more instructors are turning to more balanced histories of economic thought such as Todd Buchholz’s New Ideas from Dead Economists (Penguin, 1989 and revised in 1999). Like Heilbroner, Buchholz has chapters on Smith, Marx, Veblen, and Keynes, but then gives equal time to Alfred Marshall and the marginalist revolution and the twentieth-century counterrevolution of Friedman and Buchanan. Buchholz leaves out the Austrians because, he says, he was never taught anything about Mises or Hayek when he attended Harvard.


Notes

  1. Interview with Robert Heilbroner, Challenge, May-June 1999, p. 62.
  2. Time, December 7, 1998, p. 35. However, when Time published its “The Century’s Greatest Minds” special issue, the editors gave top billing to Keynes. Pearlstine acknowledged a disagreement between him and his editors. “This is not the first time that the editors of Time have chosen to disagree with me …. I still think Friedman is the economist of the century.” (Private correspondence, April 20, 1999.)
  3. Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw, The Commanding Heights (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), pp. 14-15.
  4. In the 1961 edition I used in college, Heilbroner wrote that Marx was a “devoted husband and father” (p. 124), but after it was revealed that he had an illegitimate son from his housemaid, Heilbroner dropped the approving reference.
  5. Challenge interview, p. 61.
  6. Robert Heilbroner, “The Triumph of Capitalism,” The New Yorker, January 23, 1989, and “Reflections After Communism,” The New Yorker, September 10, 1990.

  • Mark Skousen is a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University, editor of Forecasts & Strategies, and author of over 25 books. He is the former president of FEE and now produces FreedomFest, billed as the world's largest gathering of free minds. Based on his work “The Structure of Production” (NYU Press, 1990), the federal government now publishes a broader, more accurate measure of the economy, Gross Output (GO), every quarter along with GDP.