Classic works of literature endure not because teachers assign them in the classroom, but because they continue to engage the imagination and touch the heart. Classic works of political economy endure because they engage our critical faculties and compel us to think deeply about topics of lasting significance, often in ways foreign to current orthodoxy.
What is a classic? There will never be a definitive list. Yet in almost every
field there are exceptional works of great influence that have changed our
understanding of the world. Economics is no exception.
In this issue of The Independent Review, we have invited authors to reconsider
thirteen works of enduring significance in the field of political economy. We asked them
to reread a particular classic, put it into context, decide whether its arguments work, and
discuss its usefulness for today. We do not propose that these works have been the most
influential (although most of them have been very influential) or that the arguments in
them are correct. In fact, the readermay not have previously encountered a couple of them,
and several of them appear to have deep flaws. Rather, we think that they deserve a
rereading (or an initial reading) because of the issues they raise and the insights they contain.
Speaking of classic works of literature, Louise Cowan explains that the classics
guard the truths of the human heart from the faddish half-truths of the day by
straightening the mind and imagination and enabling their readers to judge for
themselves. Moreover, she suggests that one should read a classic with pencil in
hand. . . . The very act of underlining and annotating serves to engage the reader in
a conversation with the text (1998, 23). I will add that reading with a pencil in hand
also allows the reader to engage in a conversation with himself or herself. A few years ago
I taught a seminar on Adam Smith. I was somewhat disappointed in rereading my own
copies of The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which I had
purchased in graduate school. The disappointment wasnt in Smith but in my younger
self for making too few marginal commentsthus depriving my older self of a glimpse
of my own perspectives and insights (and errors?) from more than thirty years earlier.
Writing as you read captures so many potentially brilliant ideas before they evaporate. I
admonish my students not to repeat my mistake when I see that they havent carried on
a written conversation with their texts.
The essays in this symposium are arranged in chronological orderrunning from
Adam Smith to Elinor Ostrom: Smith, Malthus, Marx, Weber, Knight, Keynes, Mises,
Schumpeter, Galbraith, Buchanan and Tullock, Jacobs, Hayek, and Ostrom. Each
reader will most likely create a list of conspicuous absences. Where are Gary Becker,
Milton Friedman, Henry George, Carl Menger, J. S. Mill, Douglass North, Mancur
Olson, A. C. Pigou, Karl Polanyi, David Ricardo, Joan Robinson, Paul Samuelson, and
Amartya Sen, for example? Where are earlier thinkers, from Aristotle to Aquinas? What
about classic articles written by thinkers such as Armen Alchian, Harold Demsetz,
Ronald Coase, and Anne Krueger? Unfortunately, space in The Independent Review is
scarce. These thinkers will have to wait.
After you read the essays in this collection, we invite you to follow C. S. Lewiss
advice that [i]t is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another
new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should
at least read one old one to every three new ones ( 1993, 4).