A History of Economics

John Kenneth Galbraith

A History of Economics



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In his book, A History of Economics, John Kenneth Galbraith explains the history of economics as a means of understanding modern economics, including the powerful and vested interests which moulded key economic theories to their financial advantage. Galbraith walks us through some decisive historical events, such as the Russian Revolution, and highlights some of the important personalities, such as Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes, that helped shape economic theory, so that we might begin to appreciate the many nuances of this fascinating subject.

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Analysis and key concepts


Economics is a discipline that changes over time, and has not always held a central role in people’s lives


The birth of the concept of private property and the advent of Christianity were both key events in the creation of the economy in Roman times


In Mediaeval times trading and exchange intensified, and the issues that would be given great importance in the coming centuries began to arise


During the merchant era all trading activities intensified, and merchants were looked upon more favourably


In France, a school of thought took hold that favoured agriculture over trade


The Industrial Revolution put a swift end to the age of merchants, created a new society, and gave economic theory a huge boost


Adam Smith and other academics who lived during the Industrial Revolution are defined as classical economists, and had a strong influence on those who came after them


Karl Marx’s theories transformed our view of the world, capital, and the employer-employee relationship


The October Revolution in Russia in 1917, had a huge impact on the history of the economy


Keynes was a prominent economist who was able to highlight the limitations and contradictions of traditional economic theory


Even among economists there is great resistance to change, and there is a persistent belief in many principles that are now obsolete and out of touch with reality




Take-home message

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Many useful tips to:

  • Better understand the origins of economics.
  • Appreciate the ways in which economic theories are closely linked to the environment and culture in which they are developed.
  • Help us to stop thinking of economics as a static discipline that is not subject to change.

John Kenneth Galbraith OC, was born in Canada in 1908, and moved to the United States in the 1930s, where he later obtained citizenship. He was also known as Ken Galbraith, and was an economist, diplomat, public official, and intellectual. He taught economics in some of the most prestigious universities in America, such as Harvard, Princeton, and Cambridge. He has been called the last of the old-style liberals, and his many books which focused on the market, the behaviour of affluent society, and capitalism made him a respected authority in his field. He was also very active in politics: he supported the Democratic party, and had the opportunity to hold public office.

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