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William Milberg The Robert Heilbroner Problem* 1. THE PROBLEM When historians and economists refer to the “Adam Smith problem” they mean the difficulty o f reconciling the highly empathetic and socialized individual presented in Smith’s Theory ofMoral Sentiments in 1759 with the asocial, self-interested individual Smith elaborated in The Wealth ofNations, which was published in 1776. The difference between the two is so remarkable that Smith would seem to have forgotten his earlier and more complex conception of the individual in his later and most famous work on economic progress. A comparable problem arises in interpreting the writings of Robert Heilbroner over the past 50 years. Heilbroner’s major contri­ bution to academic economics has been in the area of the history of economic thought, a waning field within the economics profession, taught today in only a handful of graduate programs. But at the same time that Heilbroner was laboring over the dusty economics classics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he was also making a name for him self as one of the most respected commentators on contemporary economic problems and especially on the prospects for social better­ ment in the late-twentieth-century period of advanced capitalism. How are we to reconcile the classicist with the contemporary critic? Are these two Heilbronerian oeuvres simply the reflection o f two distinct intellectual interests? Or is it possible to identify a common *1 am very grateful to Nina Shapiro and Hedy Kalikoff for comments on a previous draft of this essay. social research Vol 71 : No 2 : Summer 2 0 0 4 235 conception of epistemology, society, and economy in both sets of writ­ ings? In this essay, I hope to show how these two strands of Heilbroner’s writings are closely connected. The worldly philosophers’ insistence on endogenous system dynamics, their focus on social determinants of individual psychology and behavior, and the rich interplay of morality and efficiency all help set the tone of Heilbroner’s voice as prognosticator . At the same time, Heilbroner’s deep concern with the pros­ pects for late-twentieth-century capitalist societies provides the lens through which he interprets the history of economic thought. The dual Heilbronerian “voices” are not just compatible: the historical, ethical, and social grounding of the classical vision are what give meaning to his imagination of the prospects for capitalism in the future. Heilbroner’s work in these areas sits uneasily with that of his contemporaries. As prognosticator, he is too firmly rooted in the classi­ cal economists to fit in with the more technologically minded futurists such as Alvin Toffler or even Lester Thurow. As a historian of economic thought, Heilbroner is too forward looking for the more specialized academic journals. In fact, the only article Heilbroner has published in such a journal is an interpretation of the Adam Smith problem, an essay that gives unusual insight, we will see later, into the “Robert Heilbroner problem” itself. Heilbroner’s writings on the future of capitalism constitute a unique genre. Books such as The Future as History (1959), An Inquiry into the Human Prospect (1974), 21st Century Capitalism (1993), and Visions ofthe Future (1995), along with articles in Social Research, TheNew Yorker, and The New YorkReview ofBooks, place him at the forefront of public intellectual life in the latter part of the twentieth centuiy. In all of these writings Heilbroner regards capitalism as a particular economic arrangement with both creative and destructive tendencies that must be understood and intelligently managed if social improvements are to be made and disaster is to be avoided. The writings are also similar in their use of intellectual history, recapturing the early economists’ vision of capital­ ism and projecting these visions onto a map of plausible scenarios for capitalism’s future. What drives these unusual works of social prog­ 236 social research nostication is a Smithian sensibility toward economics, aimed not at forecasting the future in any statistical sense, but instead—as Adam Smith wrote about philosophy in his Essays on Astronomy—at introduc­ ing “order into this chaos o f jarring and discordant appearances, to allay this tumult of the imagination” (cited in Heilbroner, 1986:16). For Heilbroner, “There is a deep...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 235-250
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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