Classical economics reading list

by on October 21, 2010 at 4:25 am in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

Joel, a loyal MR reader, asks me:

I am an undergraduate economics student curious about which of the classical economists and books you find most valuable. Classical not just meaning Ricardian but in terms of significant non purely quantitative works that influenced economics as a whole. If one were to put together a reading list of twenty or so of the most influential or important books, what would you recommend? The Wealth of Nations and General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money seem logical starting points, beyond them though it's hard to wade through the range of choices (Ricardo or Hayek? Schumpeter or Jean Baptiste Say?)

For now I'll stick with classical economics in the narrow sense, as it ends in 1871.  If you can read only a few works, I recommend these:

1. Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations.  Duh.

2. David Hume, Economic essays.  He lacks some of Smith's profundity as an economist, but he is more precise analytically and as always a beautiful writer.

3. David Ricardo, Principles of Political Economy, the first six chapters.  Rigor arrives, though at the expense of truth.  Still there is something to it.  Supplement with Mark Blaug on Ricardo, if you want the model spelt out mathematically.

4. The early marginalists: I'll recommend Samuel Bailey on value and Mountifort Longfield on price theory.  Yet still it was a (temporary) dead end and you should read them with that puzzle in mind.  At what level of technical sophistication do the contributions of marginalism suddenly seem impressive?

5. Thomas Robert Malthus, on population (don't ask which edition) and Principles of Political Economy.  He understood supply and demand, elasticity, a version of the Keynesian model, and environmental economics, and yet he is mainly criticized for being wrong about population.  He is one of the strongest and most profound and most underrated economists of all time.  Also read Keynes's biographical essay on him.

6. Edinburgh Review.  The econ blogosphere of its day.  Read the economic essays published in that outlet, by Malthus and many others, especially on monetary theory.  I don't know any easy way to track this stuff down, but if you do please tell us in the comments.

7. John Stuart Mill: Autobiography (yes, for economics) and his Some Essays on Unsettled Questions in Political Economy (Kindle edition is free).  Mill has underrated depth as an economic thinker and he encompassed virtually all of the interesting trends of his time.  That was both his greatest strength and his biggest weakness.

8. Marx: The 1844 manuscripts.  More generally, read the Romantics as critics of classical political economy.  Coleridge and Carlyle are good places to start.

What about the French?:  I find Say boring, Bastiat fun, Cournot incredible but there is no reason to read the original.  Try someone weird like Comte or LePlay to get a sense of what economic discourse actually was like back then.

dirk October 21, 2010 at 12:55 am

Where is Roissy in this list? You know, how about somebody who is relevant and influential regarding our current state of affairs? Economic protectionism is the future and he and Sailer and Blowhard will be more influential to the current generation than any of the above geeks in your list.

Andrew1 October 21, 2010 at 1:22 am

Marshall wouldn't be considered a 'classical' economist. He followed on from the marginal revolution (where have I heard that term before?).

Jacob Hedegaard October 21, 2010 at 1:57 am

Regarding Marx:
You should definitely consider reading Marx after the 1844 manuscripts, if you want to understand the marxian economic doctrines.

For example Marx's 'Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie'. Profound Marxian theorists often argue whether Marx even had a comprehensive economic doctrine before 1857.

In the Scandinavian countries and Germany a school of Marxian followers were proponents of the so-called 'capital logic', which found Marx' historical materialism to be wrong but his post-1857 economic writings to be almost spot on – these still teach at Danish universities where I've come across them personally.

Regards,

Jacob Hedegaard, Non-Marxian student of economics.

D. Watson October 21, 2010 at 2:41 am

Given the recent discussion about problems with the great works, I'm surprised you don't have more "read Sen on Smith's other works" recommendations.

Jeff October 21, 2010 at 3:24 am

Many of the books listed are unreadable, and even the best of them have stuff in them that is just not right. Save yourself some time and get a guide. Schumpeter's "History of Economic Thought" is still the best one out there, and as a bonus, you can use it at the end of a row of books in your bookcase if you can't find a bookend.

Bónapar October 21, 2010 at 3:34 am

Henry Thornton, perhaps? His "Enquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Paper Credit of Great Britain" had everything in it that Wicksell came up 100 years later…

Aslak October 21, 2010 at 4:40 am

Friedrich List should definitely be included, it's a nice supplement and corrective to Smith.

steve October 21, 2010 at 5:01 am

IMO "Wealth of Nations" was a terrible chore to read, and I like reading economics. Really laborious and boring and after the pin factory its all downhill. But it is so often referenced it is a no brainer to put it on the list.

kurt October 21, 2010 at 5:11 am

@Mathew Toll
Read Henry Carey, it's in English.

candadai Tirumalai October 21, 2010 at 5:26 am

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, best known for travelling into fantastic

regions in "The Ancient Mariner," "Christabel," and "Kubla Khan,"

was a wide-ranging thinker. He does call into question

the premises of classical economics and the centrality of "economic man."

His collaborator William Wordsworth said, "Getting and spending we

lay waste our powers," in his sonnet "The World is Too Much with Us."

I would recommend Dostoevski's "Notes from the Underground," whose

higly unusual protagonist launches a furious assault on Utilitarianism

and, more generally, rational self-interested conduct.

Ramagopal October 21, 2010 at 5:57 am

At present many economics students think that the opportunity cost of reading the classics is too high. However if an economics student still wants the feel of the originals, the best book would be Heilbroner's book Teachings From the Worldly Philosophy , which has excerpts from the most important economics works till Keynes and Heilbroner's annotations. Read this book and you can impress people by pretending you have read the originals

Mathew Toll October 21, 2010 at 6:05 am

@Lou

Good point.

@kurt

Can't say i've heard of Henry Carey, untill now that is. I’m sure it’s known that List was influenced by Alexander Hamilton and the American system. In any event, Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantages has serious limitations.

claudio October 21, 2010 at 6:41 am

Carl Menger, Principles of Economics (1871)

Greg Ransom October 21, 2010 at 7:36 am

What about the Germans?

Luke Lea October 21, 2010 at 8:11 am

No Stanley Jevons? Come on!

Rahul October 21, 2010 at 9:28 am

Economics is a unique for its glorification of its hoary old men. If a Physics, Chemistry, Engineering or Math undergrad were to ask the same question I am skeptical the reading-list would be so skewed towards the 1800's. It is pretty counterproductive for a undergrad in, say, biochemistry to read from a historical text rather than a contemporary one.

I wonder what makes Economics so different…..

Barkley Rosser October 21, 2010 at 10:02 am

Lou,

Please keep in mind that "economic history" is not the same thing as "history of economics" (or "history of economic thought). Quite different, and the issue here is the latter.

Joel October 21, 2010 at 5:18 pm

@Lou-

I have some spare time and already read the Economist. My university doesn't offer a good history of economics for undergraduates and I don't intend to continue on as a graduate. If not now, when?

@Rahul-

Economics seems more akin to philosophy in some respects than a science such as physics. Since some of the fundamental questions are not fully definitively answered, it's important in my mind to have some idea of the different approaches or broad churches.

@ Ramagopal-

The opportunity cost as an undergraduate for reading the classics is missed beer pong and king's cup games. Not terribly high in my mind, but to each his own.

Thank you to everyone who contributed suggested books!

Adam Berkowicz October 22, 2010 at 2:33 am

How about some Mises? Human Action, perhaps.

Also, Rothbard's An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (Economic Thought before Adam Smith) has been immensely helpful to me personally.

Ramagopal October 22, 2010 at 7:51 am

Joel says "The opportunity cost as an undergraduate for reading the classics is missed beer pong and king's cup games." If only Joel was right. I think for an undergrad these days the real opportunity cost of reading the classics is reduced time for reading the kind of stuff which makes it easier to get into a good graduate school.
I doubt if there is a prestigious university which has "familiarity with the classics" as a precondition for admission into graduate school.
I have most of the classics in my personal library, including the 10 volumes of the Sraffa edition of Ricardo's works. I enjoy reading them, along with the relevant secondary literature. I can afford to since I have a tenured university position. My advice to undergrad students : stick to the excerpts in Heilbroner's book until you have the luxury to read the originals.

Nipples Erecticus October 22, 2010 at 6:29 pm

Who gives a shit what Gene Callahan thinks about anything?

Jaime Frontero October 22, 2010 at 10:52 pm

in re The Edinburgh Review: scans? Online versions? How tacky.

Try here:
http://cgi.ebay.com/Edinburgh-Review-Leather-FIRS

Or peruse these selections:
http://used.addall.com/SuperRare/submitRare.cgi?a

A bit pricey, granted. But, well, insolvent economists, and all that…

TGGP October 23, 2010 at 12:59 pm

What are the limitations of comparative advantage?

Joel October 25, 2010 at 6:56 pm

@ Jaime Frontero –

That's a bit out of my price range. I am a university student after all (admittedly, it's a state school, but still.)

@ Ramagopal-

Thank you but I hope curiosity for its own sake is not as rare as you suggest: "if any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence". I am a student after all, that entails being the best possible student, not just in terms of grades but in terms of general knowledge of my chosen field.

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