Published by EH.NET (April 2005)


Donald Rutherford, editor, The Biographical Dictionary of British Economists. Bristol: Thoemmes Continuum, 2004. xxv + 1330 pp. (two volumes), ?395/$650 (cloth), ISBN: 1-84371-030-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Richard A. Kleer, Department of Economics, University of Regina.

I confess to a broad sympathy with the dictionary’s central aim: to afford “knowledge in context of economic writers.” Like many other historians of economic thought, I was schooled to start right in on the core theoretical parts of the canonical works, measuring them against the standard of neoclassical economics. Only later did it dawn on me that acquaintance with a broad spectrum of contemporary literature could shed considerable light on The Wealth of Nations or The Principles of Political Economy. Passages that I had imagined to be driven by the disinterested pleasure of forging a coherent theory of value turned out to be speaking to pressing practical problems and to have levels of meaning of which I had been utterly ignorant. I hope the publication of this dictionary signals that other historians of economic ideas have had a similar experience and are keen to alert their students to the importance of reading the classic works in context.

Unfortunately the contextual approach has been carried through only with varying success. The common run of article starts with a short biography, follows this with a chronological list of the individual’s key writings (sometimes embellished here and there with biographical tidbits), and concludes with a short survey of the main ideas therein contained, selected and analyzed from the perspective of modern economic theory. An article of this type is only a modest improvement upon the standard fare in history of economics. And sometimes the end result is positively misleading. Many of the articles pertaining to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries assume that an author’s key “economic” works were motivated primarily by intellectual concerns and proceed on this basis to single out little bits of theory as the author’s “aim” or “contribution.” It is natural and easy to make this assumption. It requires long study to acquire the requisite degree of familiarity with contemporary intellectual, social and political trends that can alone open other interpretive doors. Specialists in the area will know that the “economic” works from these two centuries were often conceived and written as works of advocacy. Many were addressed to the concerns of a specific session of parliament. Leaders of the administration or opposition politicians used freelance writers to float ideas in advance of their campaigns for or against a particular statute or budgetary measure. Others, concerned only with their financial well-being, promulgated ideas for new revenue schemes, hoping for a lump-sum reward from the Treasury or better still to be hired to administer the new programs. Theoretical consistency was a minor concern for authors of this ilk. The contributor of the article on, say, Defoe, is well aware of these kinds of problems; others are not.

One rung up the ladder are pieces like those on Keynes and Hayek, in which we are informed of the specific political and historical context in which the author’s various writings appeared and how each work was received by contemporaries and helped or failed to alter the intellectual landscape. In fairness to the other contributors, however, it has always been easier to write good intellectual histories of early twentieth-century economists. We still share many of the same questions and concerns and so are not nearly so much at sea as we must be whenever starting in upon economic writers from earlier centuries. The highest praise must therefore be reserved for entries like the one on Mandeville. Here we see a contributor who has laboured long and hard to acquire a sophisticated grasp of the political, intellectual and ideological environment within which the Fable of the Bees was first published and then steadily reworked. After just five short pages the reader comes to understand quite well how the work challenged orthodoxy and would have delighted or infuriated its readers.

The dictionary contains some six hundred entries. Most are well-written. The editors have also exercised a firm hand. Specialist terminology has been kept to a minimum; first-year university students could easily read any given article with full comprehension and even with pleasure. And none of the contributors was given license to run amok; the longest article I spotted spans a mere eight pages. The contributors are a distinguished group and come from a healthy range of disciplines. But seldom is an article written by the leading authority on that particular individual. Specialists will therefore find small errors of fact scattered about. Fortunately for the normal run of reader, this isn’t much of a problem. The dictionary will still serve its main purpose of interesting new scholars in a contextual approach to the history of economics and of providing a handy starting point for deeper investigations.

Coverage is very complete for the period before the twentieth century. I couldn’t think of a single seventeenth- or eighteenth-century figure who should have been included and wasn’t. One can find articles even on obscure writers such as Asgill, Briscoe and Chamberlen, commonly known only to economic historians suffering like myself from a prurient interest in the ABCs of early English banking. All of the usual nineteenth-century suspects also seem to be present and accounted for — though I shall leave the last word on that century to its own specialists. Conversely, of the vast set of persons who have practiced economics in Britain since it became an independent academic discipline, only a few receive their very own article. So were we interested in utter accuracy, the book should have been titled: Biographical dictionary of those persons born or long resident in Britain who, during the period before economics was professionalized, once wrote something (however brief) that professional economists still read today (however infrequently) or who, after the discipline was professionalized, were very prominent professional economists and have already died. Most will forgive the editors their shorter title, even though at some level we all know it constitutes false and misleading advertising. And the editors must be commended for including a very full range of dissenting economists in their list of “major” twentieth-century economists.

There is, of course, the question whether it makes sense to publish a dictionary specifically upon British economists. Certainly the decision to include an entry on Marx speaks to this particular problem. The situation will improve with the publication of a parallel Biographical Dictionary of American Economists, due out from Thoemmes Continuum in 2006. (I hope the publisher will agree to include in that work an index of contributors, a feature lacking in the present dictionary.) But it might have made more sense to aim from the outset for the more ambitious undertaking of a biographical dictionary of modern economists.

Richard A. Kleer is an associate professor of economics at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. His article, “‘The ruine of their Diana’: Lowndes, Locke and the Bankers,” appeared in the November 2004 issue of the History of Political Economy. At present he is working on a book-length study of English public finance during the Nine Years War of 1689-97, focusing on the recoinage of 1696.