Visions of Inequality: From the French Revolution to the End of the Cold War by Branko Milanovic - review by Darrin M McMahon

Darrin M McMahon

Adam Smith the Socialist

Visions of Inequality: From the French Revolution to the End of the Cold War


Harvard University Press 368pp £28.95 order from our bookshop

For much of the 20th century, economists lost interest in history. That was particularly true of neoclassical economists in the West during the Cold War. Beguiled by the notion that theirs was an absolute science amenable to pure mathematical abstraction, they turned their backs on the record of experience. ‘Economics became the science of the present, slightly related to the future … but fully disconnected from the past’, Branko Milanovic writes. 

Milanovic, by contrast, is deeply immersed in history. A pioneer of the study of global inequality who served for almost twenty years as lead economist in the research department of the World Bank, he has emerged over the last decade as a distinctive voice through his many books and blog posts, and occasional articles. Championing economists’ rediscovery of the past and historians’ interest in economics, he brings time back into the equation.

The book he has written here is about the history of economic thought. Like Robert Heilbroner’s 1953 classic The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers, Milanovic’s book is organised around the lives and times of prominent figures. Yet his interest is more focused. Whereas Heilbroner set out to present a broad overview of the general theories of leading thinkers in the history of economic thought, Milanovic focuses specifically on how his figures envisioned income distribution. The result is a timely book that brings the weight of the past to bear on one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Just as economists forgot about history for much of the 20th century, they also forgot about inequality. That may seem surprising, given how centrally the subject has figured in recent commentary. But, as Milanovic shows, the ‘long eclipse of inequality studies’ was also a product of the Cold War. For

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