Popular books on Economics

Someone asked me the other day for ten books on economics that they should read (not being an economist).

I haven’t given this a lot of thought, but here are some books – and some comments on them. I’m hoping the list can be filled out by other Troppodillians. 

  • John Kay, The Truth about Markets 

The best popular book about economics I know.  Friendly to markets without being mesmerised by them. 

  • James Surowieki, The Wisdom of Crowds

The best bestseller I know.  A simple idea, expounded (relatively) briefly, with great power. I wrote it up here

  • Amatya Sen, Development as Freedom

A rich treatment of a lot of Sen’s work on rational choice fused with development and the idea that development is about developing human capability.  A fondness for Adam Smith doesn’t go astray. 

  • Dani Rodrik, One Economics, Many recipies

I haven’t read it I’m afraid, but would if I hadn’t read lots of Dani’s articles leading up to the publishing of the book. I’ve reviewed several of Rodrik’s articles on troppo. Rodrik was very influential in taking on the Washington Consensus.  He points out that the most successful development stories simply don’t conform with the WC.  Rather countries like India, China and Vietnam are sensibly and strategically pragmatic about addressing economic priorities as they come up. 

  • Nassem Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by randomness

A bitof a ratbag, not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Taleb is scathing, and generally right, in his criticisms of the way in which economists pretend they’re in a Gaussian world in which, while there is risk (known unknowns as in a casino) they can downplay Knightian (or Rumsfeldian) uncertainty – or unknown unknowns. A good rave which you don’t have to read every word of.

This is a quirky list I realise, spirred on by the request and what swam into my head.  I coudl add I’m sorry I don’t have anything by Krugman up there, but I don’t think he has produced a classic, just a string of great books and one classic column after another.  Recent good books, which I’ve partially read are Supercrunchers and Nudge, both of which give good interesting surveys of what they’re taking about (behavioural economics and numbercrunching using techniques often pioneered in econometrics respectively). And I have Akerlof and Shiller’s book Animal Spirits on my ‘to read list’ also.  Looking at my bookshelf a couple more that are of interest are Brian Loasby’s Choice Complexity and Ignorance, though I expect it woudl be of more interest to economists than general readers.  Its discussion of what I call ‘the antinomies of perfect competition’ is great fun (the paradoxes in the state in which competition is so thoroughgoing that no-one’s sales has any influence on anyone else and so firms compete without being rivals, and make choices which are not really choices because the level of competition does not permit it).  And Emma Rothchild’s Economic Sentiments about Adam Smith and Condorcet is a great read (at least the two best chapters on Smith – which I can send you if you want to email me).   

Anyway, other suggestions are now welcome.

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12 years ago

On my equivalent list would be Against the Gods, the Remarkable story of Risk, by Peter Bernstein. I’m probably biased towards books about risk (I would also have Fooled by Randomness) so that may not be a particularly mainstream choice. But it’s a great book.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
12 years ago

Nicholas, I think you need to distinguish between popular books on the one hand, and non-specialist books for academically trained readers on tne other. Rodrik and Sen are in the latter category — they are much too dry and difficult for a general reader looking for an entree into the subject.

Heilbroner’s The Wordly Philosophers is still the most entertaining introduction to the history of economics.

I’d encourage anyone to read The Wealth of Nations, skipping any bit that gets too rambling — it’s not the kind of systematic arguemnt that you need to follow every twist and iurn. For Ricardian economics JS Mill’s Principles is a much more readable exposition.

As far as contemporary issues are concerned, almost anything by Krugman, but Peddlers of Prosperity and The Return of Recession Economics are the best, and pleasantly polemical if you like that sort of thing.

Someone seriously interested in learning about Keynes should consider Skidelsky’s biography.

Taleb and that sort of thing are fine, but I’d hesitate to call them economics.

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
12 years ago

A really good book (textish), I am rereading at the moment that is particularly relevant in the current climate, which is sceptical of mathematical/neoclassical economics is Hunt, EK and Sherman HJ’s Economics: An Instrodution to Traditional and Radical Views. While it would be used by first/second year Political Economy students, it is extremely accessible. The Maths does not go beyond Year 10, graphs are minimal, and the language simple.

While Hunt and Sherman are radical/marxist economists, the 720 page book has 46 chapters divided into four parts. It has chapters on:

1. The ideology of pre-capitalist Europe;
4. Classical Liberalism and the Triumph of Industrial Capitalism;
7. Marx’s Social and Economic Theory;
9. The Consolidation of Monopoly Power and the writings of Veblen
12.Keynesianism and the Great Depression
16. Prices and Incomes: The Neoclassical Theory;
17. Income Distribution;
18. The Labor Theory of Value;
19. Prices and Profits of a Monopoly;
21. Prices and Profits in Pure Competition;
25. Economics of Discrimination;
28. National Income Accounting;
31. Investment;
32. Unemployment and Business Cycles;
38. Economic Growth
40. International Capitalist Trade and Finance.
41. Economic Underdevelopment;
43. Socialist Development in Russia and China.
45. Socialism: Democratic and Undemocractic.

Well worth checking out, even if it is nearly 30 years old.

12 years ago

As a non-economist I found Development as Freedom difficult, but that may not be because of the level of the economics.

I am surprised that John Gilbraith hasn’t ranked a mention yet with “A History of Economics”.

Sinclair Davidson
Sinclair Davidson
12 years ago

For the non-economist (but advanced reader) in no paticular order

(1) Skidelsky’s second volume of Keynes
(2) Friedman Free to Choose
(3) Hayek Constitution of Liberty
(4) Mises Planning for Freedom
(5) Mises Bureaucracy
(6) Barro Nothing is sacred
(7) Bernstein Capital Ideas
(8) Landes Wealth and poverty of nations
(9) Ferguson The cash nexus
(10) Becker The economics of life

12 years ago

Paul Ormerod’s book “The Death of Economics” is very readable and presents a very important viewpoint. Might be best to read this one last.

12 years ago

Meghnad Desai’s Marx’s Revenge is interesting.

derrida derider
derrida derider
12 years ago

Sinclair’s list is more an indoctrination than an education. I’d only keep Skidelsky and Friedman, and perhaps Landes (though I haven’t read Ferguson or Bernstein). All 3 Skidelsky volumes are genuinely great works, but only volume 2 focuses fully on Keynes’ economics.

If you want something socialist that is at the join between economics and sociology, try Titmuss’ classic “The Gift Principle”. Or for anarchists and libertarians Scott’s “Seeing Like a State”.

Kay’s book is terrific for someone who has no background at all in economics and doesn’t intend to acquire it. But they’ll learn why understanding markets, both when they work and when they don’t, is so crucial to understanding the world as it is.

Most of Galbraith’s books are good for the general reader – you just have to be aware his opinion was often simply wrong. My personal favourite is “Money – whence it came, where it went”, which manages to make a dry subject – monetary theory – highly entertaining.

I’d also second Tel_’s comment on Ormerod.

Above all, don’t let them anywhere near Ricardo or Marx – they’ll be turned off for life. Both were turgid writers whatever you think of their economics. Surely it was Engels, not Marx, who wrote the Communist Manifesto – Marx never evinced much ability for condensing powerful ideas into a single striking phrase in his solo scribblings.

Sinclair Davidson
Sinclair Davidson
12 years ago

DD – grumpy I can understand, but it’s not like you to be lazy. I reckon you haven’t read the two Mises books either. So 40% of my list is unknown to you and you’d keep up to 30% of the rest. So the remaining 30% is ideological? Barro and Becker? Hayek? Ha! Anyway you should try Mises on bureacracy. I recommend it to everyone. He sets out an argument we don’t hear enough of. It is (very often) inappropriate to judge the public sector and the private sector in the same way. The objectives of each sector is very different and the criteria for success and failure very different.

derrida derider
derrida derider
12 years ago

Ya got me on Mises, but not on Barro and Becker – I’ve read both (especially Becker). And they are both hard neoclassicists (well, alright, Barro’s maybe more of a New Classicist – all that Ricardaian stuff). And a lot of Hayek really is sui generis. All that’s fine as far as it goes but it doesn’t fairly represent the field.

My point, Sinclair, is that I think your list is not balanced. If ’twas me I’d want to traverse a bit more of the ideological and methodological spectrum.

And yeah, I am grumpy at the moment – sorry. Tough days at work, but I’ll try and be a little more civil. I will chase up Mises on bureaucracy when work calms down a bit.

12 years ago

Yes, Mises’ Bureaucracy is a good read. Not least because it’s very well written. I agree with lot of his analysis but not necessarily all his conclusions. For example he tapdanced around the fact that private sector organisations are also prey to “illusory fantasies and empty catchwords”.

To be fair I doubt he could have foreseen that so much of this corporatism crap (paper Taylorism) would end up infecting the public sector from the private sector.

An interesting case study here is Robert McNamara. What made him a brilliant designer and manager of industrial production processes also made him a lousy SecDef, right at the time when the US needed a brilliant one.

Another interesting case study is the Victorian Empire, so often hailed by conservatives as the a truly benevolent empire with a legacy we dismantle at our peril. And yet that was managed through a system that put terms like “bureaucracy” and “mandarins” into common currency. With an cute opposite little tag by Horace or whoever at the end of their memorandums.

In short bureaucracy is not exclusively a public sector disease. And often the private sector is the vector. Nor is it necessarily a disease.

Like do we really want a super-efficient government anyway? Uninhibited by the systems, multiparty approvals and paper trails required of yer usual bureaucracy. A Government freed from such constraints would be up your arse with a microscope all the time. Or yer a libertarian, bureaucracy may make governments bigger but it also makes ’em slower and easier to spot and avoid.

Anyway, ‘claudite iam rivos, pueri, at prata biberunt’ as the Virgster used to say.

12 years ago

Oh right, back OT. Useful economics texts.

“David Copperfield”

Hey, it improved Dickens’ economic circumstances no end.

12 years ago


@17 – for “opposite” read “apposite”.

For “sausage” read “hostage” throughout.

Sinclair Davidson
Sinclair Davidson
12 years ago

Frank Herbert had a couple of books where the protangonist worked for the Bureau of Sabotage that was charged with preventing government efficiency because that undermined civil society. Unfortunately they’re out of print.