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Routledge Handbook of the History of Global Economic Thought

Editor(s):Barnett, Vincent
Reviewer(s):McCann, Charles R. Jr.

Published by EH.Net (October 2018)

Vincent Barnett, editor, Routledge Handbook of the History of Global Economic Thought. London: Routledge, 2015. ix + 348 pp. $255 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-50849-0.

Reviewed by Charles R. McCann, Jr., Department of Economics, University of Pittsburgh.

This volume, viewed by the editor as a Cosmoconomy or Economographia, is but a “modest attempt to map the global contour-lines of economic ideas” — modest, that is, with respect to Ptolemy’s Cosmographia, itself “an early attempt to delineate the world’s physical geography” (p. 1). The editor freely admits to a lack of comprehensiveness, instead opting for “a condensed introductory overview and regionally coordinated analytical account of a significant number of national/regional traditions in economics . . . that will facilitate comparisons across nations and between historical eras” (p. 1).

In addition to Barnett’s Introduction and Conclusion, there are twenty-eight substantive chapters surveying the progress of economic thought as it developed in more than forty countries and regions. The volume is divided into five parts: Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, Africa, and the Asia-Pacific. Coverage includes not merely individual countries, but as well entire regions and even cultural groups, such as Spanish-speaking South America, Arab-Islamic Economics, North Africa (included among the Middle-Eastern countries), West Africa, Southern Africa, and the Asian Tigers.

Given the scope of the coverage, and the different approaches employed, it is not surprising that the quality and tone of each is uneven. The chapters are, for the most part, approximately ten pages or less in length, with two notable exceptions, these being the chapter on the United States (John King, 27 pages) and the one on England (Roger Middleton, 21 pages). It seems rather obvious why each would require more extensive coverage. Given the material and the manner of its presentation, it seems best to comment briefly on each chapter.

The United Kingdom is represented in the first three substantive chapters – England (Middleton), Scotland (Alexander Dow and Sheila Dow), and Ireland (Renee Prendergast). This is perhaps understandable, as their cultural and intellectual environments differed and to a somewhat great extent. Middleton, having noted the difficulty in identifying an “English” economics as distinct from a “British” variant, nonetheless defined “English economics” as “that produced by ‘English economists,’ with these defined as those working (at least for a major part of their career) in England which, in turn, encompasses Wales and Ireland (Northern Ireland from 1923)” (p. 17). Notably, however, this excludes Scotland, which, as Dow and Dow explain, became, with the development of an Enlightenment philosophy that “combined reason and evidence within a theory of human nature,” itself the product of a uniquely Scottish cultural and social milieu, the catalyst for the emergence of classical political economy (p. 38). As to Ireland, Prendergast informs us that, while Ireland may have produced economic theorists of great renown, nonetheless “there was nothing specifically Irish about their contribution.” Their recognition may be in the “models” they employed, “designed to facilitate an understanding of the real economy,” inspiring an awareness “of both specific institutional features, and the dangers of general maxims” (p. 56).

With respect to the development of economic thought on the continent, we have chapters on Italy (Pier Luigi Porta), Greece (Michalis Psalidopoulos), Spain and Portugal (José Luis Cardoso and Luis Perdices de Blas), Germany (Erik Grimmer-Solem), Sweden (Lars Magnusson), and Russia and Ukraine (Francois Allisson). Curiously, there are no chapters on the development of French or Austrian economic thought! The Italian Enlightenment is “the greatest contribution of Italian culture to the development of a common European tradition of civil rights and enlightened governance,” distinct from its French and Scottish counterparts “in its attention to the interplay between legislation and moral sentiments, civic culture and economic development, fiscal technique, and social structure” (p. 60). Significantly, the core of Italian economic thought lies in the civil tradition, “the product of a special blend of lay and religious motives, which stems from the re-discovery . . . of antiquity or the pre-Christian world” (p. 58). This focus continued through the nineteenth century. The presentation of the Greek tradition is somewhat disappointing, as its primary focus is on the period from 1830 to the present, thus omitting what should have been a fascinating discussion of the development of the ancient roots of modern economic thought. By contrast, Cardoso and Perdices de Blas set the stage for a review of the development of Spanish and Portuguese economics beginning in the sixteenth century with the works of the Scholastics, the contributions of which “were some of the side effects of their musings on the spiritual salvation of human beings in all their activities, especially those related with dangerous trading activities completely divorced from the honorable, virtuous life in the countryside” (p. 78). Sadly, note the authors, Spanish economists in the eighteenth century in particular, while cognizant of European contributions, nonetheless produced little in the area of economic theory, “showing a noticeable preference for studies on applied economics” (p. 81).

The chapter on the development of economic thought in Germany focuses primarily on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the occasional nod to the eighteenth, due perhaps to the fact that Germany as a unified nation-state was formed only in 1871. Of significance is the influence it was to have in the United States and Japan, where the transfer of German ideals were implanted in the universities and ultimately became the foundation for the emergence of the American welfare state. Sweden is something of a late-comer if one employs the metric of “printed works,” which date only from the early eighteenth century; prior to this, Swedish economics “was defined in its Aristotelian meaning as an Art of Household Management” (p. 96). English, French, and German, and later Austrian, influences are particularly noticeable in early Swedish economic thought into the early twentieth century, when an identifiable Swedish School emerged. Finally, economic thought in Russia and the Ukraine, combined here due to the common history, did not really come into their own until the nineteenth century; again, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the publication of legal, political, and religious texts presenting economic ideas.

Part II, the Americas, is comprised of six chapters – the United States of America (J. E. King), Canada (Robin Neill), Mexico and Central America (Richard Weiner), the Caribbean (Mark Figueroa), Spanish-speaking South America (Veronica Montecinos), and Brazil (Patrice Franko). While American economic thought may be said to antedate independence from Britain, King’s primary focus is on the development of economic thought from the early nineteenth through the twentieth century. The story has been told numerous times, but the presentation is nonetheless quite compelling. Canadian economic thought is inextricably entwined with that of the United States, with Canadian economists having held important posts in American universities. The chapter on Mexico and Central America focuses primarily on Mexico, noting the influence of outside forces on the development of economic thought until the twentieth century, when there came into being a Mexican variant, rooted in culture and history (p. 145). The Caribbean economies suffered greatly from colonial administrations; the approaches to economics in these societies vary greatly, from Keynesian to Marxist, focusing primarily on issues of development and administration. Economic thought in Spanish-speaking South America developed in a highly-politicized atmosphere, with the influence of the Catholic Church assuming a prominent role. Finally, Brazilian economics tends to pragmatism, with approaches tuned to the needs of the times.

Part III, the Middle East, contains five chapters — Turkey and the Turkic linguistic zone (Eyüp Özveren), Israel (Yuval Yonay and Arie Krampf), Arab-Islamic economics (S. M. Ghazanfar), Persia/Iran (Hamid Hosseini), and North Africa (Hamed El-Said). The chapter of Turkish economics is more an excursion into economic history than the history of economic thought, as much of Turkish economics was absorbed from outside. In Israel, Don Patinkin and the “Patinkin boys” assume a starring role in the Americanization of an “Israeli economics” (pp. 194-97). The Arab-Islamic and Persian/Iranian contributions are taken to have roots in the seventh and eighth centuries with the writings of Arab and Islamic scholars; indeed, many of these scholars were producing important, if neglected, works during the European Dark Ages! Finally, the history of the economics of North Africa — Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and Sudan — “suggests that the impact of economic ideas as pure theory has (at least in the short-run) been limited,” with economic policies “often generated by factors outside the economics profession” (p. 238).

Part IV, Africa, includes three chapters — West Africa (Gareth Austin and Gerardo Serra), Southern Africa (Tidings P. Ndhlovu and Nene Ernest Khalema), and Angola and Mozambique (Steven Kyle). African economics in general is a development of and reaction to colonialism and dependence on western European ideals. In West Africa, competition developed between those who advocated the assimilation of Western economic ideas and those who advocated an indigenous West African model, and, following independence from colonial rule, there emerged a sort of pan-African model, incorporating elements of Leninist socialism (pp. 246-47) and the identification of backwardness with dependency (p. 250). In southern Africa, colonialism “imprisoned the African ways of understanding commerce, utilising indigenous economic ideas, traditions, beliefs and ideologies” (p. 266). In Angola and Mozambique the Marxist ideology that came to dominate following the collapse of Portuguese colonial rule “is virtually indistinguishable from general justifications for authoritarian extractive regimes of any political stripe,” and so the post-independence ideologies “are in many ways simply extensions of the old colonial regimes under new management” (p. 270).

Part V covers, in five chapters, the Asia-Pacific Region — Australia and New Zealand (William Coleman), China (Zagros Madjd-Sadjadi), Southeast Asia (Cassey Lee and Thee Kian Wie), the Asian Tigers (Takashi Kanatsu), and India (Balakrishnan Chandrasekaran). Again it is curious that no chapter appears on the development of Japanese economic thought. Coleman begins with the assertion that “any story of economic thought in Australia and New Zealand will necessarily tell of the attempt to plant and cultivate in uncleared ground the long developed vine of older societies” (p. 281), and concludes with the observation that “there is no Australia in economics any longer. Australian economics is at an end” (p. 290). With respect to China, it is culture and religion more than anything else that influenced the development of economic thought, with Confucianism and Taoism, legalism and Maoism, at various times competing for dominance (p. 295). Indonesia and Malaysia, representative, we are told, of Southeast Asia, developed under Dutch and British rule, respectively, and so there emerged “no singular or identifiable school of thought in these countries.” Such writings on economic matters as there were centered problems of “reconstruction and development,” and a concern with ethnic conflict (p. 312). The Asian Tigers — Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan — to varying degrees relied on state-directed development, with the government working in concert with the private sector to achieve high levels of industrial growth. Finally, culture has been a dominating influence in Indian economic thought, which is seen as being “based fundamentally on the liberty and freedom of individuals within the ambit of the family system” (p. 323). Chandrasekaran argues that any commitment to a unique, indigenous economics was abandoned after independence, with academic economics focusing on Marxism and neoclassicism (p. 374).

This is indeed an interesting project, one that by its nature requires a great degree of selection as to the material to be included. One may point to flaws in the coverage — obvious choices excluded, unusual ones given treatment; the choice is quite idiosyncratic. Yet in many of the offerings there is much to find that should provoke more extensive study.


Charles R. McCann, Jr. is a Research Associate at the University of Pittsburgh, and the author of Individualism and the Social Order and Order and Control in American Social Thought, both published by Routledge, and, with Mark Perlman, the two-volume Pillars of Economic Understanding (University of Michigan Press), among other publications.

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative