A Beautiful 'Grand Pursuit'

October 9, 2011

Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius by Sylvia Nasar

One of the most important outcomes of a liberal education should be the permanent eradication of a romanticization of the past. On any measure we care to generate, from health to wealth, we are better off than at any point in history. Go back a mere 200 years and you will find a population hobbled by frequent and persistent famines, early death (with less than half of newborns surviving to age 5), early death, and almost endless agriculturally related toil.

How is it possible that in such a short time span, say since the early 19th century, that the world has become both immeasurable more wealthy and fantastically less equal? Why is it that some nations have seen exponential growth in income per capita, life expectancy and a drop in childhood mortality - where other societies persist in relative poverty and ill-health?

To answer any of these questions, we must first find an economist. Or at least someone who has absorbed the theories and ideas of the great economists.

The idea that a people or a nation could exert some control over its own economic destiny is a relatively new one, and has its origins in the 19th century economic thinkers that Nassar profiles in her gorgeous and essential new book Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius. From the 19th century thinkers such as Karl Marx and Alfred Marshall, grappling with the meaning for society that is shifting for agriculture to industry, Nassar moves on the great economic thinkers of 20th century and how they understood, (and tried to end) two world wars and a Great Depression.

Keynes and Hayek get top billing in this story, and through their lives Nassar illuminates the economic theories and policies that led to, and eventually helped end (with the help of World War II) the depression of the 1930s. The story of Keynes and Keynesian thought is well known to non-economists and economic historians, but Nassar's narrative on the impact of Hayek on our modern thinking was, for me, a revelation.

In Grand Pursuit, Nassar succeeds in elucidating the history of modern economic thought by evoking the personal contexts of the individuals from which these theories emerged. Grand Pursuit could have been subtitled: "A Biography of Economic Thought". This approach takes longer than a straightforward exposition of the major ideas of economic history, but by situating these ideas in the times they were conceived, the reader of Grand Pursuit ultimately enjoy a much richer and nuanced understanding of the ideas the continue to rule our world.

Grand Pursuit is the kind of book I think that will convince some people to go to graduate school to study economic history. That would be a fine result.

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