An Economics Reading List

Pre-1800 Economic Thought, Including Mercantilism

Bentham, Jeremy, Defence of Usury

    Blue Ribbon, Top Econlib PickOne of the first applications of applied economics following Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. This superb, sometimes satirical, extended essay on interest rates and usury moved applied economics a step forward, and began Bentham’s introduction of the concept of utility to economics. See Letter IX for an entertaining satire mocking the writings of Blackstone, a famous jurist. Difficulty Level 1: College

Cantillon, Richard, Essay on the Nature of Trade in General, Henry Higgs, tr. and ed.

    Richard Cantillon’s posthumously published work, the Essai sur la Nature du Commerce in Général, or Essay on the Nature of Trade in General was rediscovered by William S. Jevons in 1881 after having been lost to economists for over a century. The highly integrated text moves from the theory of production and value, to the velocity of money, to foreign exchange markets. With language unequalled in clarity till long after it was rediscovered, this innovative book based on Cantillon’s firsthand knowledge and research is arguably the first complete economics textbook ever written. It leaves Hume in the dust, and in draft form probably influenced economists on both sides of the channel, from Smith to Say.

    Jevons’s enthusiastic rediscovery of the book in an essay titled “Richard Cantillon and the Nationality of Political Economy,” sparked an industry investigating this man’s economic thought, as well as his fascinating life and untimely death by murder. (Don’t miss Jevons’s closing paragraphs for a moving commentary on nationalistic pride.) In 1931 Henry Higgs retranslated the book from the existing French version, publishing it along with a solid bibliographical essay and Jevons’s article, all of which we bring you here.

    Cantillon’s insights, based on firsthand experience and research, were many. They stud the text in paragraph after paragraph. Not to be missed are his descriptions of the velocity of money (Part II) and foreign exchange markets (Part III). To see just one example of his perspicuity, compare Cantillon’s chapters on currency stabilization and purchasing power parity (particularly Part III, Chapters III-V) to an entry by Irving Fisher from the 1921 Encyclopedia Britannica on the same topic titled “Dollar Stabilization.” Also fascinating is Cantillon’s concept of the entrepreneur and risk, discussed in F. A. Hayek’s essay “Richard Cantillon” and in the article by Mark Casson in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics titled “Entrepreneurship.” Difficulty Level 2: Graduate School
    See also:

Heckscher, Eli, Mercantilism

Hume, David, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, edited by Eugene F. Miller. 1987; first published 1742.

    Hume’s renowned essays deeply influenced Adam Smith, and cover topics both philosophical and economic (the latter particularly in Part II, commonly known by the title of Political Discourses). Also included in this authoritative and informative Miller edition are Hume’s “My Own Life,” Adam Smith’s eloquent letter on the circumstances of Hume’s death, and easily accessible links to the variant readings of all earlier versions of each essay.

    Miller’s superb footnotes, glossary, and careful scholarship are a delight in and of themselves. He fully explains Hume’s references to people from Hume’s contemporaries to classical Greek and Roman scholars, including helpful anecdotes, translated quotations, and biographical details. These details lend a richly informative context and make the Miller edition a searchable reference work of broad application to the classics. (Who was Pliny anyway, and were there two by that name? Search the Miller edition of Hume for Pliny for quotes, references, dates, and entertaining historical anecdotes.) Miller’s Foreword and Editor’s Notes further increase the usefulness of this fine edition. Difficulty Level 2: Graduate school

Malthus, Thomas, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1st edition and 6th edition.

Milton, John, Areopagitica.

    A plea for reduced government regulation of the printing industry. This essay is often cited as an early source for free speech; however, it is also an early example of applied microeconomics by a non-economist. Difficulty Level 1: College

Quesnay, Francois, The Economical Tableaux (The Economic Table).

Say, Jean-Baptiste, A Treatise on Political Economy

Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

Turgot, Anne Robert Jacques, Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth

    An early work on economics, in the French Physiocratic school. For a helpful guide to one of Turgot’s main contributions—on interest rates—see Böhm-Bawerk’s Capital and Interest, Book I, Chapter III. Difficulty Level 2: Graduate School