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I'm looking for a good book that gives an (introductory) overview about the existing economic theories and the different schools of thought (optimally with focus to those that affect governments and institutions). Presentations that use mathematical formalisms and that give a little bit of historical background to the respective theory are very welcome. I don't have any economic education, so I am hoping that there exist some 'standard works' that compare the different theories and schools of thought.

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This is not an answer to your question, but I think this is a very bad way to go about learning economics. Good economics does not deal in generalities about the role of government or other institutions; instead it carefully analyzes specific questions using a powerful set of tools. Some people learn best by starting with a question and then picking up the tools as they need them; others learn best by learning a tool and then finding questions to apply it to. But one way or another, you learn by working with the tools, not by talking about them. – Steven Landsburg Dec 7 '14 at 18:30
@StevenLandsburg you might be right about what constitutes good economics, but I disagree that it's somehow bad to learn about your tools before you start using them. Yes, hands-on experience always changes your perspective. But to stretch the tool analogy, imagine you are starting a home improvement project but you know nothing about hammers. You go to Home Depot and find there are 10 different kinds. Do you just grab one off the shelf and take it home, or do you ask the sales associate for an overview? – ssdecontrol Dec 8 '14 at 2:27
I would forget about "schools of thought". These are much less important in modern economics than they were in the past. Much better would be to pick up a book like Tim Harford's "The Undercover Economist", which provides an introduction into economists' way of thinking in a very digestible format. – Ubiquitous Dec 8 '14 at 9:27
I believe Palgrave's authoritative dictionary may be the best option. It's huge, but you'll find what you're looking for. – Anton Tarasenko Dec 8 '14 at 9:39
Maybe I'm reading the question differently from the rest of you. The line "optimally with focus to those that affect governments and institutions" makes me think the poster is looking for something more specifically related to governments and institutions, on which topic specific theories do exist. It seems like a classic case of looking for something without knowing what it is you're actually looking for. – ssdecontrol Dec 9 '14 at 16:43

Snowdon and Vane "Modern Macroeconomics: Its Origins, Development And Current State" is probably the best book I have read which gives a clear exposition of all the major macroeoconomic schools from the classicals to the New Keynesians. It highlights what the different schools have contributed to modern macroeoconomics and compares them to the other schools. They even include interviews with economists such as Robert Lucas Jr. and Milton Friedman to mention a few. I guess this is exactly the book you are looking for and to be honest I think every single person studying economics should read this book. It is not an introductionary economics book but I think most people should be able to read and understand it.

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"I think every single person studying economics should read this book" Perhaps you mean every macroeconomist? – FooBar Dec 8 '14 at 21:46

Because this question will ultimately produce subjective answers, and given the wise advice (given in the above comments) to avoid learning economics by studying "schools of thought," I decided to answer by telling you what books were assigned in my introductory economics class as an undergraduate.

In my first undergraduate class, our textbook was "Principles of Economics" by Mankiw (which is actually very nice to read even though it's a textbook). Along with this textbook we were required to read these two more popularly oriented books: "Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science" (which has some fun discussion of economic issues) and "The Armchair Economist: Economics and Everyday Life" (which gives a great introduction to economics thinking).

These three books give a good beginner's overview of economics and economic thinking in general. I think this would be a nice way to start.

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