The best books in the history of economic thought

Avner Offer Author Of The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy, and the Market Turn
By Avner Offer

Who am I?

As a Professor of Economic History at the Oxford University, I taught the history of economic thought and wrote articles and a book in the field (The Nobel Factor). I love the limpid style and encompassing view of the classical economists (the first century after Smith). Their literary and academic styles have been abandoned, but they still have a great deal to teach. The role of land and natural resources as a factor of production in their theory has become relevant again as the environment comes under pressure. I also published in several other fields. My latest book is Understanding the Private-Public Divide: Markets, Governments and Time Horizons (2022). 

I wrote...

The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy, and the Market Turn

By Avner Offer, Gabriel Söderberg,

Book cover of The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy, and the Market Turn

What is my book about?

Economists aspire to tell society how it should manage its affairs. They claim to be impartial scientists, and have a Nobel Prize to validate these claims. But the prize is a latecomer, established by the Swedish Central Bank in 1968, not by Alfred Nobel’s will in 1895.

The prize was a move by the Central Bank in support of monetary orthodoxy, against a Social Democratic government keen on social investment, especially housing. It has helped to legitimize the worldwide transition from social democracy to market liberalism, from governments striving to increase security for everyone, to those that take which take the large business corporation as the model to promote, and to emulate in the public service as well. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers

Why did I love this book?

If you know only little about the subject, this is where to start.

A brilliant survey of the main thinkers, from Smith via Marx to Keynes, it surveys the era of political economy, when economists pondered how to make life better for all.

Not always correctly, not always in good faith, but their thinking formed our understanding of the world.

While you are at it, get the flavour of the real thing, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776, find Edmund Cannan’s edition, still in print or secondhand) – the best book in economics and one of the greatest ever. 

History of Economic Analysis

By Joseph A Schumpeter, Elizabeth Boody Schumpeter (editor),

Book cover of History of Economic Analysis

Why did I love this book?

There is little abstraction and no maths.

Like a picaresque novel, it is a beguiling tour of every nook and cranny of economics ever, by a very great economist.

Deliberately provocative judgments, sometimes plain wrong (e.g. about Adam Smith) but always founded on deep knowledge and acute thought.

More than 1000 pages, never boring, with some original heterodox economic interpretation, e.g. on how money is created. Dip into or read right through.

He has read everything and knows it all. 

By Joseph A Schumpeter, Elizabeth Boody Schumpeter (editor),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked History of Economic Analysis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the time of his death in 1950, Joseph Schumpeter--one of the great economists of the first half of the 20th century--was working on his monumental History of Economic Analysis. A complete history of efforts to understand the subject of economics from ancient Greece to the present, this book is an important contribution to the history of ideas as well as to economics. Although never fully completed, it has gained recognition as a modern classic due to its broad scope and original examination of significant historical events. Complete with a new introduction by Mark Perlman, who outlines the structure of…

Book cover of Economic Theory in Retrospect

Why did I love this book?

The corrective for Schumpeter. How an orthodox post-1945 American economist interprets the historical greats of economic thought.

For those who know some economics already, it translates into a language they can understand. Blaug was a very distinguished scholar himself, an independent thinker, a very clear writer.

If this is not always what the greats really meant, it shows what modern analytical economics is losing and has lost by neglecting its past. 

By Mark Blaug,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Economic Theory in Retrospect as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a history of economic thought from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes - but it is a history with a difference. Firstly, it is a history of economic theory, not of economic doctrines, that is, it is consistently focused on theoretical analysis, undiluted by entertaining historical digressions or biological colouring. Secondly, it includes detailed Reader's Guides to nine of the major texts of economics, namely the works of Smith, Ricardo, Mill, Marx, Marshall, Wickstead, Wicksell, Walras and Keynes, in the effort to encourage students to become acquainted at first hand with the writings of all the great economists.…

Book cover of Studies in the Theory of International Trade

Why did I love this book?

Despite its austere title and exterior, this may be the best book ever written in the history of economic thought.

At its heart is the debate between defenders of fiat money and adherents of the gold standard during the Napoleonic wars in Britain, and some decades afterwards. This debate set the parameters of monetary discourse from that day to this – whether money should serve the economy or vice versa.

Written with unmatched clarity, precision, and penetration. 

By Jacob Viner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Studies in the Theory of International Trade as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this book, originally published in 1937, Jacob Viner traces, in a series of studies of contemporary source-material, the evolution of the modern orthodox theory of international trade from its beginnings in the revolt against English mercantilism in the 17th and 18th centuries, through the English currency and tariff controversies of the 19th century, to the late 20th century. The author offers a detailed examination of controversies in the technical literature centering on important propositions of the classical and neo-classical economists relating to the theory of the mechanism of international trade and the theory of gain from trade.

Book cover of Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science

Why did I love this book?

Read anything by Mirowski. By far the best writer in the field today.

Highly original, massively intelligent, stimulating, witty, deeply informed, a trenchant writer. His life’s work is to probe the validity and scientific pretensions of the discipline.

The critiques are biting, all the more so for the real-world authority wielded by economists. That he is sometimes a provocative maverick adds to the appeal.

Machine Dreams argued implausibly (for its time) that economics had embraced robotic simulation. The emergence of AI shows how far ahead of its time it was.

A better read than most straight economics. 

By Philip Mirowski,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Machine Dreams as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This was the first cross-over book into the history of science written by an historian of economics. It shows how 'history of technology' can be integrated with the history of economic ideas. The analysis combines Cold War history with the history of postwar economics in America and later elsewhere, revealing that the Pax Americana had much to do with abstruse and formal doctrines such as linear programming and game theory. It links the literature on 'cyborg' to economics, an element missing in literature to date. The treatment further calls into question the idea that economics has been immune to postmodern…

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