Although when you think about the great minds of our age, we often turn our thoughts to thinkers, leaders or even politicians. However, when it comes to shaping our understanding of the world today, and why we act the way we do, we may be better served by looking to the great economists of our time for answers.
Economics sneaks into almost every part of our daily lives, as we are often directly or indirectly influenced by things such as:
As a result, it’s worth investing some time to find out more about the thinkers that shaped our understanding of economics as we know it today. What’s more, it’s often the case that such figures are part of a school or university curriculum, so the more familiar you can be with their ideas, the better position you’ll be in to perform well in your studies.
With that in mind, we outline below the 10 most influential economists of all time, and why you should know about them.
There’s no doubt that famous economic figures have emerged the world over, from Britain to the U.S. and beyond. However, when it comes to some of the foundations of modern economic theory, we owe a lot to the below economists.
Adam Smith was a philosopher. He is often considered one of the fathers of modern economics and was a prominent thinker within the classical school of economics.
A believer in laissez-faire policies, Smith suggested that free markets tend to be self-regulating, alluding to this concept as the “invisible hand.” His most famous works include The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, which were released in 1759 and 1776, respectively.
If you need any further proof as to Adam Smith’s importance, his image was placed on the £20 note in 2007 by the Bank of England.
Another classical economist, David Ricardo had many theories regarding wages, profits and labour, including:
His most famous work is The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, which was released in 1817.
Keynesian economics had a huge role to play in the field of macroeconomics.
Not only are Keynes’ theories still taught in schools today, but they have spawned their own offshoots, with economists such as the late Michal Kalecki having acted as proponents for the post-Keynesian school of economic thought.
In short, Keynes argued against laissez-faire, believing instead that governments should intervene in order to:
Equally revolutionary for his time, Keynes suggested that demand, and not supply, was the most important force driving the economy, which went against common belief at the time.
Keynes is one of the most influential economists ever to have lived. (Source: CC BY-SA 4.0, Edwardx, Wikimedia Commons)
Although there have been many prominent British economists over the years, there have been equally great economic minds within the U.S. as well as overseas.
Fisher was one of the most prominent economists of the early 20th century, and arguably was one of the first celebrity economists.
Fisher greatly contributed to the foundations of monetarism and is perhaps best known for his two works The Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions and The Theory of Interest.
Although his contributions to the field of economics are significant, he famously suffered a setback in 1929, when he declared that “stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau” when in fact, days later, Wall Street crashed, marking the beginning of the Great Depression.
Irving Fisher was one of the most famous economists of his generation. (Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division LC-USZ62-101512, Wikimedia Commons)
Often painted as a counter figure to Keynes, Milton Friedman was the figure behind the Chicago School of Economics. Following in Adam Smith’s footsteps, Friedman argued in favour of the free markets and is best known for his promotion of free-market capitalism.
Contrary to Keynesian theory, Friedman argued for:
His work was widely recognised and he is often credited as one of the major economic thinkers of the 20th century alongside Keynes. In 1976, Friedman received the Nobel Prize in Economics.
A professor at Columbia University, Joseph Stiglitz is part of the new Keynesian economic school. His contributions to the field of economics are significant, having acted as the Chief Economist and Senior Vice President at the World Bank, and also serving on the Council of Economic Advisers during Bill Clinton’s presidency.
A recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal in 1979, the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001, and a shared recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, Stiglitz is widely-recognised for his contributions to macroeconomic theory as well as education and has published a wide range of books worldwide.
He is known for his criticisms of laissez-faire economists, as well as institutions such as the International Monetary Fund.
The greatest economic minds of our time have emerged from all corners of the globe, and we outline below some of the most important economic thinkers below.
Although Marx is better known today as a revolutionary who extolled the benefits of communism, Marx has, for better or worse, had an undeniable impact on the economic thought and principles followed by many countries across the world today.
Born in Trier, Germany, Marx was considered as much a philosopher as an economist. He is most famous for The Communist Manifesto, which he wrote alongside Friedrich Engels. In the work, Marx and Engels explain the nature of Marxism and their understanding of how a capitalist system came into being. Ultimately, they argued that a capitalist society was unsustainable and that eventually it would be replaced by a socialist society.
Karl Marx is one of the most famous economists ever to have lived. (Source: Public Domain,
John Jabez Edwin Mayal, Wikimedia Commons)
An Austrian-born economist, Friedrich August von Hayek was a prominent economist during the Great Depression, and perhaps most well-known for his opposing views to Keynes. This clash of views is often cited in works about Keynes and Hayek and this clash has been brought to the popular imagination. For example, there are even YouTube rap battles outlining the two economists’ differing positions.
A believer in the power of the free markets, Hayek argued that prices in an economy should be free to change, as this communicates how well an economy is performing.
Hayek, like many of the names on this list, was also highly recognised in academic circles. During his life he received:
Amartya Sen is an Indian economist, who has worked internationally, highlighting ethical considerations behind his economic thinking. Sen has contributed greatly to welfare economics, arguing for instance that famines arise due to a lack of income, not food. Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998.
Kahneman, an Israeli-American phycologist, has been notable in his work within the relatively new field of behavioural economics.
Although former schools of economic thought, including Keynesianism and monetarism, focused more on the science or mathematics behind economic trends, behavioural economics is much more concerned with how humans behave irrationally at times, and how this impacts our economic systems. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002.
Although prevailing economic theories understandably move with the times, we still owe much to economists such as:
Although their views differ as to whether economies should be laissez-faire or should involve government intervention, these thinkers have all shaped the world of economics and economic theory that we have today. As a result, there’s so much that their theories and ideas can teach us about our local economy, as well as the global economy more broadly.
Due to their importance, it’s unsurprising that you learn about many, if not all, of the above figures during your economics studies at school and university. As such, taking some time outside of class to study these economists’ theories in more detail is a great way to stay ahead in your studies, and it will give you a lot of reference material to draw from when you’re sitting an exam question or have to complete an essay.
However, if you’re ever looking to learn more about a particular economic thinker or school of economic thought, you can always hire a tutor to help teach you more about these great minds.
Superprof has a range of economics tutors, who are very familiar with the above economists and they would be happy to help you improve in your studies.