From Samizdat to success—Hugh Stretton’s Economics: A New Introduction

Anthony Housego, University of Sydney

Hugh Stretton Economics: A New Introduction Sydney, UNSW Press, 1999 (852pp). ISBN 0-86840-498-5 (paperback) RRP $49.95.

In a 1996 article entitled ‘After Samuelson?’, which preceded by three years the eventual publication of his very different textbook Economics: A New Introduction, Hugh Stretton appeared to be both refreshingly frank and almost entirely pessimistic about the prospect of his magnum opus ever being published. He went so far as to present an entire section called ‘Market Chances’ in that earlier article, detailing the reasons why his book would inevitably be rejected by any prospective publisher. The book would be too large, too expensive and too idiosyncratic to be viable in a market that favours only the most ‘marketable’ texts in the 700 to 1000 page size range. It would be unlikely to achieve the large sales usually attained when a book is set as the required text for a core course. The level of difficulty would also contribute to the book’s downfall, ensuring that ‘as a prescribed text for mass first-year classes it is likely to put off, confuse or mislead many average or below-average students, so humane teachers should probably not prescribe it’ (Stretton 1996, pp. 1577–1578). Then there was the subject matter itself. The fact that the book espoused government regulation of markets in certain circumstances was not a point in its favour. He argued in this regard that ‘Authorities who contrast market and government as alternative principles of organization and resource allocation, believing the one can generally do best with least of the other, cannot be expected to welcome a book which treats that belief as a menace to private efficiency’ (Stretton 1996, p. 1578). And finally, the book saw fit to attack perhaps the most sacred cow of all, the scientistic façade of ‘Positive Economics’. Stretton concluded that ‘That last impiety may earn the most decisive rejection of all’ (Stretton 1996, p. 1578). The prospects of such a book appearing in anything but samizdat form therefore appeared, to the author at least, to be close to nil.

Forward to 1999 and Stretton’s book has appeared, published in Australia by the University of New South Wales Press. Weighing in at a little less than 900 pages of noticeably unfancy black and white print, it has, since its publication, met with general acclaim. One reviewer, proclaiming that ‘Those who know Stretton’s work have been anticipating his “big book” for some time’, concluded that ‘The wait has certainly been worth it’ (Patience 2001, p. 1). The end product? The first thing to state about Economics: A New Introduction is that it is a text of enormous breadth. This truly is ‘Economics as Gestalt’, and the ‘scope’ of the book, to borrow a Schumpeterian term, is undeniably huge. Together with this breadth of vision, a further remarkable quality is Stretton’s refusal to simplify and dumb-down economics when the hard answer, or no answer at all, is required. A text of this size and complexity does run the risk of leaving the newcomer bewildered. If size doesn’t faze them then they might still easily be put off by the eclectic nature of much of the discussion. However what unites most of the text, and ensures its remarkable coherence, is Stretton’s singular vision about economics—its role as a human enterprise which can affect the life of ordinary citizens. This is a difficult book, make no mistake, and it provides a level of complexity that will not suit all readers and will not, it must be said, fit in well with most course structures. The author himself admits this—of course he does—and provides the following useful advice: ‘A course based on this text should probably extend over three or four semesters for undergraduates who must study two or three other subjects at the same time, or a year for those who can give it half their time, or one semester for graduate students from other disciplines who can give it their whole time’ (Stretton 1999, p. xi). Arguably, given its sheer size and exhaustive attention to detail, the book can also be used as a sort of economics encyclopedia, to be consulted from time to time on subjects as diverse as rent control, the economic role of children or the language of economics. (It is in this latter role that Stretton’s text has been an invaluable teaching aid to this reviewer.) However the use of the text as an encyclopedia comes at a price, in that one often loses sight of Stretton’s vision across topics.

Stretton refuses to simplify and dumb-down economics when the hard answer, or no answer at all, is required.

The structure of the book also sets it apart from more conventional texts. In some sense the book moves from a micro-based perspective through to a later focus on national and international macro-policy, but this description understates the eclectic nature of chapter sequences. The text begins with seven excellent chapters on what can broadly be called methodology. This section covers topics such as causation in economics, the disputed role of mathematics in economics and the controversies over the possible meanings of various economic terms such as capital, profit etc. Most memorable here is Stretton’s identification of five principles of orthodox economics that he identifies as irrational: ‘Work within the discipline’, ‘select for certainty’, ‘keep your work objective’, ‘be as mathematical as possible’ and ‘focus on regularities’. He argues that economists who operate on the basis of the above ‘will usually know less and do worse’ (Stretton 1999, pp. 25–26). By this stage the reader is fully aware that he is not reading Lipsey’s Positive Economics. Sections on economic growth, economic development and changes in modern economies with respect to work, technology, children and natural resources follow. The next third of the book is devoted to presenting a detailed picture of the various groups in an advanced economy (households, private enterprise, public enterprise). The final section of the book most resembles a macroeconomic text, however the level of institutional detail contained in this section differs greatly from the hermetic vision of the nation state so common in many mainstream macroeconomics texts.

The reader is fully aware that he is not reading Lipsey’s Positive Economics.

In the final analysis, despite all its excellent qualities and good intentions, one cannot help but wonder, as Hugh Stretton himself has, about how successful this text will be in reaching a broad audience. Certainly the market for textbooks generally is enormous. As Donald Lamm (in Colander and Coats 1989) has pointed out with reference to the United States:

At the peak of their sales, both Paul Samuelson’s Economics and Campbell McConnell’s Economics exceeded in a single year the lifetime sales to date of Keynes’s General Theory. Every year, six or seven introductory textbooks achieve sales of 60,000 copies or more. The market, variously estimated at a million and a half to two million students per annum, is immense. It is also captive.

It would be a wonderful thing were such a likeable, rigorous and thought-provoking work to gain the coverage that such a market affords. No doubt the market will decide!

REFERENCES

Colander, David and Coats, A.W. (1989) The Spread of Economic Ideas, Cambridge: CUP.

Patience, Alan (2001) ‘Lonely Colossus’ http://home.vicnet.net.au/~abr/Sept00/pat.html.

Stretton, Hugh (1996) ‘After Samuelson?’ World Development 24(10):1561–1578.

Stretton, Hugh (1999) Economics: A New Introduction Sydney: UNSW Press.

Anthony Housego is Associate Lecturer in Economics in the School of Economics and Political Science, The University of Sydney.