Grand Pursuit by Sylvia Nasar, Simon and Schuster, 555 pp
It was John Maynard Keynes who said, “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”
Sylvia Nasar has taken this thought as her inspiration, producing a highly readable account of the lives and ideas of key economic thinkers from the last 200 years. Nasar’s earlier book, A Beautiful Mind, showed that she is a talented writer capable of translating highly complex technical details for a lay audience. Grand Pursuit is another triumph, as she brings to life the human stories of these defunct economists. She does this not just to enliven the narrative but to provide insights to the influences and ideas that key economists eventually became famous for.
I was surprised when she did not start with Adam Smith, a great pity as few popular boo have really told the story well, which would certainly help shed light on his influential theories. Instead, Nasar starts unexpectedly with Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Starting a book with these authors, Nasar sets the theme that runs through her book: modern economic practices have largely been responsible for improving the state of the world. Before, most people faced a life that was, in Hobbes’s famous words, “poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Instead of dwelling on the dusty tomes of her defunct economist, Nasar breathes life into them and, in telling their stories sheds new light on their ideas and legacies. For example, one chapter is titled “Engels and Marx,” in which we discover that Frederick Engels did more than just finance his library-bound friend, he was instrumental in developing many of the key ideas that we know today as Marxism.
Many of the usual suspects are there –Alfred Marshall, Irving Fisher Joseph Schumpeter, Paul Samuelson—are also some surprises, such as Beatrice Webb, who pioneered welfare economics that redefined the nature and purpose of the state. Webb argued that governments should be responsible for looking after the poorer members of society. This chapter is particularly relevant today, as neoliberals are intent on attacking the welfare state. Another surprise, but no less relevant inclusion, is Amartya Sen, the Indian economist and Nobel Prize winner who pioneered development economics.
Several chapters are devoted to the ideas of, and disputes between, John Maynard Keynes and Frederick Hayek. One of the most interesting discoveries is how important the First World War was in shaping both men’s economic theories. For Keynes, government should interfere to stabilize markets. Hayek not only believed that governments were incapable of stabilizing markets, but believed that it led to loss of economic freedom, which in turn led to the loss of personal freedom.
Above all, Grand Pursuit is an easy read, as Nasar uses telling anecdote to allow readers to enter the worlds in which these important economists have developed ideas that are still relevant in the 21st century. Nasar makes a strong case that modern economics, rather than being the “dismal science,” has released the energy of capitalism, despite its frequent hiccups. “Economic calamities,” she specifies of the Great Depression, “have always triggered crisis of confidence but they have not come close to wiping out the cumulative gains in average living standards.” Her book is a timely reminder what we owe to these defunct economists who “put mankind in the saddle,” rather than continue to be victims of the Fates.