Published by EH.NET (August 2003)


Lionel Robbins, A History of Economic Thought: The LSE Lectures, edited by Steven G. Medema and Warren J. Samuels. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000. xxviii + 375 pp. $22.95 (paperback) ISBN: 0-691-07014-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Bradley W. Bateman, Department of Economics, Grinnell College.

It is difficult to read these lectures without reflecting on their commercial success. With this paperback printing and over 5,000 copies sold, the lectures represent a rare achievement in the world of university press publishing and an even more rare achievement in the history of economic thought. Although paperback editions of university press books have became a commonplace, few books in the history of economics achieve the kind of success that this book is enjoying. For that matter, how many books in intellectual history run to a fifth printing?

What makes the book so successful? After all, it is not obvious that a full year course of thirty-three lectures in intellectual history given by an 80 year old, retired economics professor at the London School of Economics would make a publishing success. The lectures exist only because they were taped by Robbins’s grandson, who was a student at the LSE. The book consists of verbatim transcriptions of Robbins’s lectures from 1979-1981; one can easily imagine this material being dry as bones and not well-suited for publication.

One reason for their success might have to do with the fame of the lecturer. Lionel Robbins was perhaps the most well known (living) economist in Britain in the postwar era. He was active as a public figure in many arenas (e.g., the rapid expansion of the new public universities in Britain) and served as the chairman of the Financial Times from 1961-1970. He was widely respected as an adviser on economic policy, the arts, education, and the finance of charitable organizations.

Still, one can imagine that a lecture series by someone of Robbins’s stature might not become a publishing success. Many “good and great” people have published books that did not make a second printing, much less a fifth one. So what sets these lectures and this book apart? The simple answer is Robbins’s passion.

Robbins obviously loved the history of economic thought, but the passion that shows through on each page of this book is more than a passion for the history of economics. Robbins loved the discipline of economics itself, and the lectures reflect the gusto with which he had spent his life pursuing its mastery. Robbins often makes asides in the lectures about the rarity of a particular text that he has brought to the lecture hall to read from that day, and he also talks about the many pamphlets and books that he helped to have reprinted through the London School of Economics or the Royal Economic Society. In short, Robbins devoted himself to the intellectual discovery of the discipline, and these lectures tell the story of what he found in a lifetime of exploring.

Of course, not everyone will like what Robbins found. The whole story, from its beginnings in Plato and Aristotle, to its conclusion in Marshall, Fisher, and Wicksell, points toward the eventual construction of modern neoclassical economics: marginal analysis and monetary economics are the ultimate desiderata of economic analysis. Robbins tells his version of the approach to these desiderata from a unique perspective as he was, for instance, well read in the German Historicists (younger and older) and had a grasp of the Austrian literature that is rare among Anglo-American economists.

Robbins’s careful reconstruction of the approach to the neoclassicism that ultimately reigned over the second half of the twentieth century will not satisfy all tastes. Marxists, Sraffians, post-Keynesians, and Institutionalists will find cold comfort in this version of how economics became what it was in Robbins’s eyes. It is not just that the heroes of the alternative schools of thought get short shrift, it is also that Robbins explains with clarity and conviction why he held the views that he did.

Steven Medema (University of Colorado- Denver) and Warren Samuels (Michigan State University) are to be highly commended for their excellent editorial work in bringing these lectures to the reading public. They have tracked down each passage that Robbins quotes in the lectures and provide the full bibliographic citation for it. Their passion for their editorial task was perfectly matched to Robbins’s own passion for his task. The result is an unexpectedly excellent volume on how modern marginalism and monetary economics were discovered.

Bradley W. Bateman is the Gertrude B. Austin Professor of Economics at Grinnell College.