Robert Heilbroner 1919-2005

Robert Heilbroner 1919-2005

“Whatever Dissent‘s problems,” Irving Howe once said to me in the 1980s, “we at least have two of the most literate economists alive.” He was referring to Robert Lekachman and Robert Heilbroner.

Bob Heilbroner was a man of prodigious energy. He wrote hundreds of articles and more than twenty books that sold in excess of ten million copies. His first book, The Worldly Philosophers, sold nearly four million copies and is the second best-selling economics textbook of all time, after Paul Samuelson’s Economics.

For all his renown as an economist, he was something of an outsider in the economics profession. In a field that is often obscure, he was a master of lucid prose. He had a simple style, seemingly easy but in fact almost impossible to copy. This writing did not come naturally. A typical Heilbroner lecture, for example—although insightful and wide-ranging, a restless mind thinking out loud—was not nearly as polished as his books and essays. His crystal-clear writing, for which he was so famous, was the result of disciplined hard work.

Bob had no patience with the boundaries of academic social science and disdained the narrowness of contemporary economics. He asked big questions. Consider the titles of his books: The Limits of American Capitalism, The Great Ascent, Inquiry into the Human Prospect, The Nature and Logic of Capitalism, Between Capitalism and Socialism, The Future as History, The Crisis of Vision in Modern Economics, Business Civilization in Decline, and, of course, The Worldly Philosophers.

His essays, marvelous examples of intellectual trespassing, drew from his vast reading in economics, history, sociology, political science, and psychology. On the obsession of modern economics with statistical and mathematical models, he remarked that it produced “rigor, but, alas, also mortis.” Modern economics, in his opinion, was becoming “like medieval philosophy—precise, elegant, and meaningless.”

For Bob, the more “scientific” economics tried to be, the less it was able to provide useful guidance about the most fundamental social questions of capitalist society—inequality, poverty, environmental degradation. He often noted, with amazement, that in leading economics textbooks, whether written by Greg Mankiw or Joseph Stiglitz, the word capitalism never appeared.

He could be a very tough critic, and he didn’t exempt his friends. For example, he wrote a surprisingly critical review of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The New Industrial State. Most economists at the time criticized Galbraith’s economics and praised his writing. Bob took the opposite tack. Galbraith, he said, is an economist of considerable merit whose fatal weakness is his celebrated style. He quoted Galbraith, “The economy for its success requires organized public bamboozlement.” Bob responded: