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Can you all please suggest books that I can read to get started in the fields of political economy and the history of economic thought?

While my major in Mathematical Economics has given me a good grounding in the theoretical models of economics and the empirical methods used to test them in the real world, I feel that my knowledge of political economy and economic history is sadly lacking. I would like to get a more holistic understanding of the discipline(s) and would greatly appreciate your advice.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not sure this will be of help to you when suggesting readings but I have taken the standard sequence of classes in Intermediate Micro, Intermediate Macro and Econometrics in addition to electives in Economic Development, Economic Growth, Labor Economics and a bunch of math classes. $\endgroup$ – lasoon Jun 13 '15 at 18:36
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As a first read in these fields I would recommend J K Galbraith's A History of Economics. It covers, in a concise and highly readable way, major developments in economic thought from ancient times until around 1980, making links with major economic and political events.

A much more detailed book on the history of economic theory is Ekelund & Hebert's A History of Economic Theory and Method. This is not light reading but through use of formulae and diagrams would probably make some clear links with economic models you have studied and describe the historical context in which they were developed.

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  • $\begingroup$ Do you have any suggestions for books that provide a technical treatment of the history of economic thought? I would be interested in reading something that used calculus akin to an advanced book on intermediate micro or macro theory. Of course, the availability of such a book depends on whether historical economic theories were ever mathematicized to that level. $\endgroup$ – lasoon Jun 15 '15 at 2:14
  • $\begingroup$ I'd be surprised if such a book exists. So far as calculus is concerned, Ekelund & Hebert state (3rd international edition p 291) that its use in economics was championed by Cournot in the mid 19th century, which suggests that it was not much used before then. $\endgroup$ – Adam Bailey Jun 15 '15 at 21:28
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My app is acting odd and won't allow me to comment, but here's my follow up comment.

Yeah, for sure! My list consists of this:

  1. Wealth of Nations - Adam Smith

  2. Capital - Karl Marx

  3. Principles of Economics - Alfred Marshall
  4. General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money - John Maynard Keynes.

Those are just the most definitive works in the field that I've found, so there are many more I've yet to discover. If I remember correctly I think Marshall put most of his analytic work in the appendices at the back of his Principles. Marshall had the body of his work written - not in math, but in words - to be concise, but yet understandable for most of the laymen of his day.

Anyways, I pulled out those four books because they establish a turning point in some way for the field (i.e. General Theory caused a bifurcation between macro and microeconomics where it left Marshall's Principles for micro and Keynes for macro.)

If you are pressed for time, then I'd suggest reading Backhouse's book along with the Teachings book by Heilbroner. Those will give you a very broad and quick view of where the fields come from and almost catch you up to modern day economics. And unfortunately a lot of the classics are lengthy and hard to decipher. Karl Marx writes his critique of capitalism in a full three or four volume set! (I can't remember the exact number.)

I think if you approach this adventure in the right manner, you may become hooked. That's how I got fascinated with the field, I read Worldly Philosophers when I was younger and just fell head over heels for the subject.

Hopefully this helps out, just let me know if you have any more questions or concerns.

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Personally, I feel like Joseph Schumpeter's history of economic analysis does a great job at developing the scope of how economic methodology and analysis has changed with age. It's dense and will take time.

I also have a few shorter books that help translate the history of the discipline with more ease:

  1. Worldly Philiosophers-Robert Heilbroner
  2. Teachings from the Worldly Philosophy-Robert Heilbroner
  3. The ordinary business of life- Roger Backhouse

All three are great, quick reads and classics.

Being a college student and also majoring in math and economics I feel as if the discipline is moving towards a math based discipline, which I don't necessarily agree with. Math should be a tool, and not the fundamental bastion of any other field - other than math itself. With that being said, I do suggest Schumpeter's book, if time allows, because he displays a great scheme of how/why the analytics were involved; along with delivering a great historical appreciation of the field. Other than that I'd suggest just reading the great economic classics. It's something I find great fascination in.

Best of luck on your academic endeavors!

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  • $\begingroup$ Schumpeter's book looks very interesting, but it's worth noting that it was published in 1954 following his death in 1950 so does not include developments since then. $\endgroup$ – Adam Bailey Jun 17 '15 at 6:59
  • $\begingroup$ True. I do agree with you. I haven't read Ekelund and Herbert's book yet. I'm always on the lookout for great economic books to read. Although I think Schumpeter was a fascinating intellect. His book would be a good base to launch from. A fair warning, he was akin to the Austrian school of thought, though it doesn't play a big role in his history of economic analysis, it definitely comes through in a fair amount of his work. (Aside: Thank you Jamzy for correcting that list; you've made it more legible that way.) $\endgroup$ – Michael Jun 17 '15 at 13:51
  • $\begingroup$ Michael, thanks for the suggestions. Can you list what you consider to be the great economic classics? I found Marhsall's Principles of Economics, An Introductory Volume and I might start reading through it. However, the book is 900 pages long and seems a little daunting. Are most historical/classic works as long as this? $\endgroup$ – lasoon Jun 17 '15 at 20:01
  • $\begingroup$ Michael, I don't see any list. Could you please post that again? Thanks. $\endgroup$ – lasoon Jun 18 '15 at 2:43
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Technical books on political economy

  • Persson, Political Economics
  • Persson and Tabellini, The Economic Effects of Constitutions
  • Acemoglu, “Political Economy Lecture Notes.” (full pdf)
  • MIT Political economy and development: Reading list

Non-technical books

  • Smith, The Wealth of Nations

In fact, most major 19th century economists, such as David Ricardo and Karl Marx, wrote pure political economy, which was overcome by economics after the Marginal Revolution. You may read them, but be aware that their theories happen to be mostly wrong or incomplete.

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Economics of Good and Evil is a great read and covers a wide range of economic thought across human history and would be a good complement to the more technical curriculum of mathematical economics. While its focus isn't on the history of economics per se, it covers a broad range of ideas beyond simply modern liberal/classical economics.

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