Including a Symposium on Robert Heilbroner at 100: Volume 37C

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Table of contents

(8 chapters)

Part I A Symposium on Robert Heilbroner at 100 Edited by Luca Fiorito and Harald Hagemann


In his bestselling The Worldly Philosophers, Robert Heilbroner puts the focus on the visions and analyses of the great economic thinkers from Adam Smith to Joseph A. Schumpeter. Worldly philosophy is considered as a child of capitalism and worldly philosophers as system-builders addressing the long-run development of the economy and the society. This implies viewing the economy as historically and institutionally situated demanding a more interdisciplinary perspective and embedding economics in the social sciences. The article compares the work of Heilbroner and Adolph Lowe who was Heilbroner’s main mentor. The focus is on their reflections on Smith and Schumpeter. Heilbroner considered Smith as the first worldly philosopher of whose Wealth of Nations a German translation was published already in 1776 in Stuttgart, Lowe’s native city. Lowe’s early work on business cycles was strongly inspired by Marx and Schumpeter’s emphasis on the role of capital accumulation and technical progress as well as Schumpeter’s distinction between statics and dynamics. Lowe was forced to emigrate from Nazi Germany in spring 1933, only half a year after Schumpeter’s move to Harvard where Heilbroner studied in the late 1930s when Schumpeter enjoyed making provocative statements on the Great Depression which was still not yet overcome.


This paper focuses on two books that Robert Heilbroner wrote with Peter Bernstein on public finance – A Primer on Government Spending (1963) and The Debt and the Deficit (1989). It also discusses how the economic world changed between the early 1960s and the late 1980s, and how these changes affected their books. Primer introduced Keynesian economics, and the possibility that government policy and deficits could be forces for good in the world. Debt focused exclusively on government deficits and public debt. Changing circumstances made this work a more difficult undertaking. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, government budget deficits were small, growth was sluggish, and Keynesianism was the dominant paradigm in macroeconomics. Primer explained Keynesian public finance, why tax cuts would spur spending and growth, and why we should not worry about government debt under these circumstances. By the 1980s, Keynes was vanquished, deficits were ballooning, and Keynesian public finance was under attack. Contrary to the conventional wisdom at the time, Debt advocated government deficits along the lines proposed by Keynes but not along the lines enacted during the Reagan administration. Nonetheless, there were many similarities in these two works. Both made a case for an active government role in creating a good society; and both argued that when done correctly deficit spending created no economic problems and had many benefits.

Part II Essays


The view of Karl Marx as “revolutionary” endorsing violent overturn of the capitalist system is standard textbook fare filtering through to popular and professional opinion. John Stuart Mill specialists frequently contrast their subject with Marx in this regard. The perspective on Marx as “revolutionary” is unconvincing, for Marx was no less “evolutionary” than Mill, his version of evolution reflecting concern that reformist measures to correct perceived injustices in the capitalist-exchange system might assure its permanence, and extending to the stage following a proletarian political takeover which might itself occur by way of democratic voting enabled by extensions of the franchise accorded by the capitalist state itself. Our demonstration prefaces a speculative evaluation of Mill’s stance regarding Marx – “speculative” since Mill apparently never read Capital. In particular, Mill would doubtless have welcomed Marx’s position, for to differentiate him from the continental “revolutionaries” makes excellent sense considering his principle that when it comes to prediction all depends on ruling circumstances coupled with his evolutionism including allowance after a proletarian takeover of a residual capitalist sector, income inequality, and compensation of expropriated property owners. By the same token he would have found unpalatable Marx’s vision for a more distant communism of a central-controlled system.


This chapter documents how eugenics, scientific racism, and hereditarianism survived at Harvard well into the interwar years. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Thomas Nixon Carver and Frank W. Taussig published works in which they established a close nexus between an individual’s economic position and his biological fitness. Carver, writing in 1929, argued that social class rigidities are attributable to the inheritance of superior and inferior abilities on the respective social class levels and proposed an “economic test of fitness” as a eugenic criterion to distinguish worthy from unworthy individuals. In 1932, Taussig, together with Carl Smith Joslyn, published American Business Leaders – a study that showed how groups with superior social status are proportionately much more productive of professional and business leaders than are the groups with inferior social status. Like Carver, Taussig and Joslyn attributed this circumstance primarily to hereditary rather than environmental factors. Taussig, Joslyn, and Carver are not the only protagonists of our story. The Russian-born sociologists Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin, who joined the newly established Department of Sociology at Harvard in 1930, also played a crucial role. His book Social Mobility (1927) exercised a major influence on both Taussig and Carver and contributed decisively to the survival of eugenic and hereditarian ideas at Harvard in the 1930s.

Part III From the Vault


Alvin Hansen and John Williams’ Fiscal Policy Seminar at Harvard University is widely regarded as a key mechanism for the spread of Keynesianism in the United States. An original and regular participant, Richard A. Musgrave was invited to prepare remarks for the fiftieth anniversary of the seminar in 1988. These were never published, though a copy was filed with Musgrave’s papers at Princeton University. Their reproduction here is important for several reasons. First, it is one of the last reminiscences of the original participants. Second, the remarks make an important contribution to our understanding of the Harvard School of macro-fiscal policy. Third, the remarks provide interesting insights into Musgrave’s views on national economic policymaking as well as the intersection between theory and practice. The reminiscence demonstrates the importance of the seminar in shifting Musgrave’s research focus and moving him to a more pragmatic approach to public finance.

Cover of Including a Symposium on Robert Heilbroner at 100
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Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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