A Worldly Economist

Robert L. Heilbroner, who died January 4 at the age of 85, was one of a dwindling generation of professional economists who had broad humanistic curiosity and progressive values, and who wrote graceful prose for a large audience. Heilbroner was first and foremost a student of the history of economic thought. His masterwork, The Worldly Philosophers, written in 1953, was once required reading in introductory economics courses. His characterization of the great political economists was perfect: They were moral philosophers with empirical curiosity -- worldly philosophers

Heilbroner was not just their chronicler. He was one of them. His great lifelong project, with Smith, Mill, Marx, and Keynes, was to get his mind around the capitalist system and to figure out how the thing worked.

His other truly great book was a short work written in 1985, The Nature and Logic of Capitalism. Like Marx, with whom he had an intellectual love-hate relationship, Heilbroner understood capitalism as a system of social relations and political power, not just exchange. An empiricist, he had little patience for oversimplification of any kind, neither the reductionism of vulgar Marxism nor the vulgar reductionism of modern theoretical economics, which perceives capitalism as merely a neutral field of property rights.

In the early 1980s, I paid a call on Heilbroner while researching a book. I was a little startled to find that he lived in a Park Avenue duplex. I'm not wealthy, he explained. I was just fortunate to sell a lot of books, and I happened to be in the market for an apartment in 1975, the year the bottom fell out of the Manhattan real-estate market. He had picked up his place, he explained, for well under $100,000. I mumbled something about the professional economist understanding real-estate cycles. No, he said. It was just lucky timing.

A man of charm and sweetness, he appreciated just how much the economic fate of ordinary people is simply an accident of luck and timing. That made him an egalitarian (though, as a worldly man, he didn't mind living well). I never was his student, but I repeatedly sought him out as a teacher, and he was unfailingly generous and wise.

It's a pity that few economics students nowadays read the worldly philosophers. Heilbroner, along with John Kenneth Galbraith, Karl Polanyi, and Albert Hirschman, deserves to be read and read and read. The academy and the society will be better places when professional economists again find this broadly educated voice.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.

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