The Elgar Dictionary of Economic Quotations
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The Elgar Dictionary of Economic Quotations

Edited by Charles Robert McCann

The Elgar Dictionary of Economic Quotations is a unique compendium of quotations on subjects of interest to economists and those who are generally intrigued by the social sciences. The coverage is not merely confined to economists, but includes quotes from essayists, jurists, philosophers, politicians, religious leaders, revolutionaries, scientists, and numerous other important figures who have contributed to our understanding of economic matters. Presented in a highly readable format, this impressive volume contains the thoughts and opinions of hundreds of individuals on issues relating to the economy, government, money, poverty, wealth, and a host of other important topics.
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Very often, economists and other social scientists, as well as public officials, journalists, pamphleteers, and others in the business of public persuasion, require in their writings, speeches, and pronouncements some rhetorical device beyond that of the argument itself. Typically this device is a resort to quotations from those great and near-great authorities of the past. Many an argument that may be otherwise unsustainable on the merits seems to take on legitimacy and purpose when dressed in the words of a distinguished intellectual, beloved social or cultural figure, or esteemed wit.

At times it appears as though every writer and critic thinks himself qualified to offer opinions on the state of the economy, whether or not he actually has any knowledge of or expertise in the area, and seeks to justify his contributions to the debates through reference to the great works of the past, to which he of course establishes agreement. One problem that frequently arises, however, is that the quotations employed to this end are either misstated, erroneously attributed, incomplete, or taken out of the context in which they were originally presented. This is especially so in regard to ruminations on the state of the economy and to matters economic. What is needed is a sourcebook of passages relating to matters of economic import, a guide through which references can be checked. Thus the need for a dictionary of economic quotations.

This collection of quotations is by economists and others on topics of specific interest to economists – although one may hope it has an appeal to social scientists in general and to others interested in the areas covered under the rubric of economics as well. There have of course been other efforts at collecting in encapsulated form the economic wit and wisdom of the past – especially notable are A Dictionary of Economic Quotations, edited by Simon James (London: Croom Helm, 1981, 1984), and The Macmillan Book of Social Science Quotations: Who Said What, When, and Where, edited by David L. Sills and Robert K. Merton (New York: Macmillan, 1991) – but the present work is designed to be different. First, while the arrangement is alphabetical by author, within each such heading the quotations are categorized by topic. This allows the reader greater ease in searching – one need not peruse an entire list of material of a favorite author to discover a quote of interest on a specific topic, for each topic is clearly identified within each author heading.

Second, the extent of the coverage is different. More often than not, a dictionary of quotations will present some pithy phrase in isolation from its context, as though the expression itself holds the key to understanding a complex philosophical position. One seems to find support on some such issue, while in reality the actual context of the passage is suggestive of quite another meaning altogether. This is not the method employed here, for this is not primarily a dictionary of phrases. The context is at least as significant as the phraseology. Adam Smith's two statements of the invisible hand cannot be appreciated apart from the contexts in which they occur; one would be the poorer if the imageries of Thomas Robert Malthus, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill were reduced to trite passages devoid of the elegance which has largely been responsible for their continued appeal; the literary stylings of George Bernard Shaw and Robert Southey would hold little interest or meaning to social scientists divorced from their settings. Here the decision was made to include as much material as necessary for p. viiithe reader to appreciate the argument presented, as well as the phrases which have come to such importance.

Third, while the selection of writers is somewhat eclectic, it is not without a purpose. The book is designed not so much as a survey of the ideas presented within the dominant economic texts as it is a compendium of ideas on topics of interest to economists and writers on economic subjects. Among those included here are many non-economists – scientists, sociologists, politicians, political agitators, jurists, essayists, theologians, poets, philosophers, religious figures are among those who have contributed to an understanding of economic problems, and who have provided some of the more interesting observations of economic phenomena, broadly defined. After all, it was the essayist Thomas Carlyle who dubbed political economy ‘the Dismal Science,’ the philosopher Francis Bacon who observed that ‘Money is like Muck,’ and the United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall who declared that ‘An unlimited power to tax involves, necessarily, a power to destroy.’

One may object that the many non-economists have been accorded more space than those typically recognized as economists. The American clergyman Francis Wayland has ten entries, the British critic and writer John Ruskin fourteen, and Pope Leo XIII five, while Nobel Prize winners Lawrence Klein, Gerard Debreu, and Robert Lucas have, respectively, but three, two, and one. This is not to imply that the non-economists were and are more influential than the economists, or even that, as they have often appealed to a greater audience, they are somehow deserving of more acclaim. It is simply to argue that what they have written is so more interesting, more pointed, more directed to the issues of interest, and that their positions have a greater immediacy and even a more dramatic quality, style, and wit missing from the more technical jargon of the professional economist.

Finally, it is abundantly clear that some may have difficulties with the selections, both with the choice of authors and with the range, depth, and scope of quotations. Undoubtedly some favorite author has been ignored or appears to have been given short shrift, or a particularly sanguine quote did not make the cut and so has upset the reader. So be it. All I have to say is, this is the reason for second editions.