Great works of political economy tend to be long and dense, and these are no exception. Readers may want to sample from them selectively, or seek out commentary on their central arguments. It is important, regardless, to be aware of their presence alongside the standard canon of Smith and Marx, Keynes and Hayek, and of their influence on subsequent writers.
Friedrich List, The National System of Political Economy. List, a German émigré, was a leading member of the “American School” of political economy and a critic of Adam Smith and classical economics. His analysis emphasized a nation’s “power of production” as more important than its stock of accumulated wealth, and so argued for policies that would place a nation on a trajectory toward a robust and diversified economy rather than those that maximized the immediate value of exchange.
Liberty Fund, 1841. 366 pages.
Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation. Examining the changes wrought by the industrial revolution, Polanyi argues that the emergence of market economies was historically contingent, not a natural outgrowth of a human instinct to “truck, barter, and trade” as Adam Smith had said. Polanyi distinguishes earlier economic systems in which markets were discrete mechanisms of exchange embedded within a textured social fabric, from the modern “self-regulating market,” in which all features of society must operate within the commoditized logic of a market mechanism. This new “Market Society,” he argues, is incompatible with human nature and ultimately unsustainable, devouring all other facets of life unless forcefully checked.
Beacon Press, 1994. 360 pages.
Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community. In what Ross Douthat has dubbed “arguably the 20th century’s most important work of conservative sociology,” Nisbet traces the vicious cycle of centralizing state power and individualism. He argues that the erosion of traditional mediating institutions, such as families, churches, neighborhoods, labor unions, and voluntary associations, creates a widespread sense of alienation that fuels the centralization of government. Though written in an era considered notable for its social cohesion, it has become a foundational text for studies of the social fabric and its fraying in the twenty-first century.
Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1953. 330 pages.
Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Bell argues that modern society faces strong and mounting tensions between economic, political, and cultural realms characterized by capitalism, liberal democracy, and modernism. The economy depends upon hard-working, productive individuals, while the culture promotes consumerism and instant gratification and the politics demands an ever-larger welfare state. Bell perceived these tensions as manifest in the upheavals of the 1970s, but they may have only grown stronger and less sustainable in the decades since.
Basic Books, 1976. 301 pages.