Tuesday, January 11, 2005

A realistic socialist dies 

Robert Heilbroner died last week. He wrote The Worldly Philosophers, which during my generation in undergraduate economics programs was fairly required of all econ majors. As I've mentioned, through most of my undergraduate program I waffled between business/economics and philosophy as majors, ending up with a minor in the latter. I have to say I liked Heilbroner's book, even though it was far too praising of command and control economic policies. It was an exposure to how much economics touched political philosophy and vice versa. That book came to me at the same time I was taking history of economic thought, and tying together Smith, Ricardo and Marx was part of what tipped me towards economics as a field later.

Heilbroner's statements after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union are why I call him "realistic". While I can't find the articles online, I remember them well, thinking "If Heilbroner thinks the argument between capitalism and socialism is over, then I guess it is." Heilbroner later wrote an entry about socialism for the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics that starts:
Socialism�defined as a centrally planned economy in which the government controls all means of production�was the tragic failure of the twentieth century. Born of a commitment to remedy the economic and moral defects of capitalism, it has far surpassed capitalism in both economic malfunction and moral cruelty. Yet the idea and the ideal of socialism linger on. Whether socialism in some form will eventually return as a major organizing force in human affairs is unknown, but no one can accurately appraise its prospects who has not taken into account the dramatic story of its rise and fall.

He was never forgiven by the Left for his realism.