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Adam's Fallacy: A Guide to Economic Theology

13 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674023093
ISBN-10: 0674023099
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Consciously written as an alternative to Robert Heilbroner's classic The Worldly Philosophers, this book sets out to explore and critique the lives and ideas of the great economists. Both books begin with Adam Smith, though Foley discusses only eight of Heilbroner's 16 economists and gives less detail on each. Where Heilbroner celebrates the overlap between economics and other human activities, Foley criticizes "Adam's Fallacy," the artificial division between the economic sphere, in which pursuit of self-interest leads to social good, and the social sphere, in which good results from unselfish actions. Uncritical acceptance of the fallacy, which the author labels "economic theology," leads to the belief that short-term economic gain necessarily favors vague, long-term social gains. Unemployment and cultural destruction caused by free trade, for example, are ignored from a naïve faith that unrestrained trade leads to a greater good for a greater number. Foley finds some brilliance and rigor in the works of all his subjects, while also accusing them of sloppy thinking unsupported by data, which has led to heartless, misguided policies. However, his specific criticisms are mild and technical. Readers who want an abridged version of Heilbroner will like this better than readers who want to understand the fundamental errors of economics. (Sept.)
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Foley gets deep into the analytical content of major schools of thought, ranking Adam's Fallacy up there with Heilbroner's classic. (Robert Solow New York Review of Books 2006-11-16)

So what is 'Adam's Fallacy?'...It is the idea that the economic sphere of life constitutes a separate realm 'in which the pursuit of self-interest is guided by objective laws to a socially beneficent outcome'...Professor Foley's book is simultaneously an introduction to economic theory and a critique of it. It is his version of the classic introduction for the economically challenged by Robert L. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers, now in its seventh edition. Adam's Fallacy concentrates more on the worldly philosophies rather than on the philosophers, on economic theory rather than on the characters and events that along with Mr. Heilbroner's masterly storytelling gave The Worldly Philosophers so much color and verve...By questioning economic theory's cordoning off of an economic spheres of life ruled by its own laws and expertise, Professor Foley is implicitly proposing limits to the secularization that is an underlying characteristic of modernity. Secularization has meant that in a cultural transformation, major areas of human activity set themselves up as quasi-autonomous, with their own standards, authorities, and guiding principles. (Peter Steinfels New York Times 2006-11-25)

[A] passionate book, to be welcomed in a discipline notably devoid of passion. [Adam's Fallacy] can be read for pleasure and enlightenment by economists and non-economists alike. (David Throsby Times Literary Supplement 2007-03-23)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press (September 30, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674023099
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674023093
  • Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 5.2 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #673,323 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

35 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Augustas B. on May 27, 2008
Format: Hardcover
People who wrote negative reviews of this book could at least appreciate Foley's honesty: he unequivocally states it is his point of view and throughout the book he identifies himself as a political economist. He does not pretend he is some "positive scientist" like Milton Friedman did (the latter also used some of the most arbitrary and ridiculous assumptions in his work). This book presents an honest and well-argued opinion. Throwing the Soviet Union into the comments is a complete straw man and has no relevance whatsoever.

This book presents the ideas of classical political economists, Marx, marginalists, as well as 20th century economists like Keynes, Hayek and Schumpeter. Insights are abundant: Smith believed in limited laissez-faire (for example, he believed in the infant industry argument), Marx's vision looked quite similar to capitalism (as it included a surplus product), Keynes differentiated between risk and uncertainty, etc. It is not an easy read as some passages get somewhat dry and technical (e.g. when theories of value are being discussed). Utlimately, this book has a wealth of ideas. Foley includes a nice list for further reading for those interested and an appendix with certain concepts explained (I thought the graph with Ricardo's analysis of land and rents was very helpful).

My only complaint is that it could have been longer. For example, Foley discusses Smith's division of labor quite a bit, but forgets to include Smith's claim that without government intervention to provide education, division of labor could also render human beings "as stupid and ignorant as it possible for a human creature to become". The discussion of Schumpeter and Veblen are painfully short and leave one wanting more.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Michael Emmett Brady on July 1, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Foley is correct that "Modern" economic theory(Monetarism,Rational Expectations,Real Business Cycle theory,New Classical Economics, Efficient Market Hypothesis,etc.),which is based on the false claim that all markets can be modeled either as being normally distributed, or " as if " they were normally distributed,assumes stability and a natural self adjusting,self correcting invisible hand mechanism that,operating through the process of labor specialization,division of labor,extension of the market,and economic growth, transforms private greed into a social optimum.These theories model the economy as if it were inherently stable and subject only to exogenous shocks.They assume away the inherent ,internal,endogenous shocks created internally by both technical(capital goods) and financial innovation ,as well as the speculative shocks caused by speculators leveraging their bets with huge infusions of bank loans leading to the inevitable bubble and collapse.
Adam Smith did not make this error or commit "Adam's Fallacy".On pp.734-735 of the WN,1776,Modern Library (Cannan)edition,he makes it clear that the economic growth process of the Invisible Hand ,self interest,and the division of labor creates major undepletable,negative externalities(social,intellectual,martial,political,and moral) that impact practically the entire work force.The only way to counteract this is through government action.Foley needs to completely change the title to David's(Ricardo),Jeremy's(Bentham),and James'(Mills)Fallacy.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By OldGuy on September 7, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a truly excellent book. As a long time student of the history of economic thought, this book, subtitled "A Guide to Economic Theology" offers a truly insightful perspective on Smith and other classical economists. It has always been my belief that there are a lot of people (some are pompous neo-cons) who quote Adam Smith and have never read him. The author quite effectively dismantles the argument inherent in "Adam's fallacy"; that is by acting in our own (avaricous)self interest, we are acting for the public good; that we must accept injustice in the present to allow for distributive justice over time. Markets for goods, services, and labor do not always produce efficient, let alone just outcomes.

The book should be required reading - not just in Economics Departments, but for elected officials as well. Three cheers for Duncan Foley!!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By not me VINE VOICE on June 7, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"Adam's Fallacy" tells the story of economics through the ideas of the "great" economists -- principally Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, Marx, Keynes, Schumpeter and Hayek. The author is refreshingly heterodox and devotes the longest chapter of the book to Marx. The writing is succinct and clear, though a few sections (such as the one on marginalism) are too compressed. The focus is on ideas and analysis, not biography or social history.

Inevitably, the book has been compared to Robert Heilbroner's "The Worldly Philosophers." Bottomline: "The Worldly Philosophers" is a FAR better introduction for students coming to economics for the first time. "Adam's Fallacy" can't be appreciated without a fair amount of background knowledge, as much of it is written to defend the relevance of Classical economics to current problems and to criticize neoclassical ways of thinking about economics. A neophyte wouldn't understand what the fuss is about.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Phutatorius on February 4, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have recently read both Adam's Fallacy and R. Heilbronner's The Worldly Philosophers (as well as other introductions to economic thought). Adam's Fallacy compares favorably with Heilbronner in that it is a little less devoted to biographies of economists and a little more devoted to the content of their theories. Accordingly, it demands a little more effort from the reader. I didn't find it a quick or an easy read. Despite its title, it is a balanced approach to economics, giving Smith credit where due while attempting to provide "a critical and skeptical understanding of political economy." My advice is to read both Heilbronner's and Foley's books -- and not to stop there. The more you read on the topic of economics, the more nuanced your understanding will become.
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