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Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond Hardcover – May 16, 2001

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 378 pages
  • Publisher: Pennsylvania State Univ Pr (Txt) (May 16, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0271020954
  • ISBN-13: 978-0271020952
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,147,360 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"Nelson's book is a challenge to economists to see their field anew." --Eileen Ciesla, American Enterprise

"Economics as Religion is an excellent book. [Its] purpose is to show how the arguments of economists legitimate social and economic arrangements by providing these arrangements with quasi-religious justification. Economists are thus doing theology while for the most part unaware of that fact. It provides a remarkably balanced and comprehensive history of the way that economics developed in the twentieth century. The book will undoubtedly be welcomed by … [a] considerable number of theologians. Professional economists will find [it] will broaden their understanding of what economists have been doing in recent decades. Political scientists or philosophers can…clarify their understandings of social science and especially economics. And I think it will find a fair number of readers in the general population." --Paul Heyne, University of Washington

From the Publisher

An insightful exploration of the powerful role that economic belief plays in our modern society as a secular religion that serves many of the same functions as early Christian and other religions did in their time. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

More About the Author

Dr. Nelson is the author of many book chapters and journal articles and of eight books: The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America (Penn State University Press, 2010); Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government (Urban Institute Press, 2005); Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond (Penn State University Press, 2001); ); A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000); Public Lands and Private Rights: The Failure of Scientific Management (Rowman & Littlefield, 1995); Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Meaning of Economics (Rowman & Littlefield, 1991); The Making of Federal Coal Policy (Duke University Press, 1983); and Zoning and Property Rights (MIT Press, 1977). The New Holy Wars was the 2010 Winner of the Grand Prize of the Eric Hoffer Book Award for the best book of the year by an independent publisher; and also silver medal winner for "Finance, Investment, Economics" of the 2010 Independent Publisher Book Awards (the "IPPYs"). Dr. Nelson has written widely in publications for broader audiences, including Forbes, The Weekly Standard, Reason, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Denver Post. He worked in the Office of Policy Analysis of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior from 1975 to 1993. He has served as the senior economist of the Congressionally chartered Commission on Fair Market Value Policy for Federal Coal Leasing (Linowes Commission) and as senior research manager of the President's Commission on Privatization. He has been a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution, visiting senior fellow at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, research associate at the Center for Applied Social Sciences of The University of Zimbabwe; visiting professor at Keio University in Tokyo; visiting professor at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires; and visiting professor at the School of Economics of the University of the Philippines in Manila. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from Princeton University (1971).

Areas of Writing and Research:

Dr. Nelson is a nationally recognized authority in the areas of (1) local zoning and property rights to housing in the United States; (2) the use and management of the public lands owned by the federal government in the American West; and (3) the normative foundations of economics and environmentalism and their often clashing ways of thinking about the world. He is a member of the environmental policy specialization of the School of Public Policy.

Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

53 of 55 people found the following review helpful By Jennifer Morse on March 8, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Prof. Robert Nelson argues that economics has become the modern religion, complete with a priesthood (economists), a sacred text (Samuelson's "Economics") and a plan of salvation, (material progress will solve the problem of mankind, including the problem of sin.) Over the top, you say? He makes a great case. Read this book and find out for yourself.
I am a professional economist myself. Nelson's arguments ring true in my experience in the profession. He argues that many of the controversies over economic policy are really controversies over views of the world. These world views are so fundamental, and deeply held, that they are unlikely to be dislodged by technique and data, no matter how rigorous. Nelson thinks we would have more fruitful policy discussions if we would quit pretending to be scientists, and face up to these fundamental questions. I have to agree with him.
I wish he had pointed out that economics is not doing a very good job being a religion. Material progress can not solve all the problems of the human race. We would all be better off, if we would admit that.
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49 of 53 people found the following review helpful By "pgeddes" on November 15, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Ever wonder how the field of economics could produce such disparate voices, from interventionists such as John Maynard Keynes to the classical liberalism of Milton Friedman? Those looking for insights will do well to read Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond by Robert H. Nelson, an economist at the University of Maryland.
As the book's subtitle suggests, Nelson takes the reader on tour of modern economic thought. Here he's done commendable job, providing a highly readable account of the major personalities. This book will appeal to historians as well as the informed non-specialist. Nelson ranges far and wide in his effort to explore the often unstated philosophical assumptions behind supposedly objective economic analysis. Of particular interest is Nelson's treatment of the rift between economists and environmentalists. He places the debate squarely (and rightly in my opinion) in religious terms. While this is not particularly original, he does a service by reinforcing the deep religious roots of modern American environmentalism.
Finally, in an increasingly small world, Nelson again hammers home a vital point regarding economic opportunity provided by free markets: Economic progress requires the creation of a "civil society" and the rule of law. Social and human capital must be both nurtured and sustained. Laws must reflect these norms and governments must enforce them fairly. Without these, human rights and the environment suffer.
In environments of rampant corruption and political instability, value creating institutions aren't sustained. Success comes when people are rewarded for creating value, not for transferring wealth via force or fraud. Political plunderers, not the market process, keeps countries poor.
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful By S. Elliott on November 1, 2003
Format: Paperback
This is a brilliant intellectual history of late 20th century American economics which puts it in both American and European economics in historic context. It is both erudite and immensely practical in helping one to see the limitations in recommendations of economists more clearly.

As a former international banker (and a mathematician by training) who has lived both in Europe and the Far East, the practical limits and occasional parochialism of American mainstream economics have long been clear, but except for Joseph Stiglitz' "Globalization and Its Discontents", I can't think of any book that does a better job of explaining just what is wrong and why. Read them together and be prepared to think hard about the difference beween what we really "know" about (international) economic behavior and what we merely believe.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 24, 2003
Format: Paperback
This is a remarkable book... erudite, opinionated, original, and addressing a crucially important subject matter. Prof. Nelson covers a wide swath of recent economic thinking (that survey alone makes the book worthwhile), and contends that while economics wears the cloak of authority of science, it can more accurately be viewed as a secular religion. I had read one of his 1980s articles, and picked up the book on that basis - and became thoroughly engaged. If one measures success in terms of underlined sections, exclamation points and scribbled notes in the margins, then this one more than passes. I'm not an economist (or a theologian), but nonetheless found this to be a tremendously interesting read. I wanted more, and hope that his next book follows up on his closing point, about the cutting edge role of libertarians and environmentalists.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Aurelian on January 8, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
IN the last few years I was puzzled when seeing economists cannot agree on basic issues like what caused the crisis and what are the adequate remedies. Keynesian, Monetarist and Austrian schools of thought for example interpret the same facts in different ways to come out with conclusions that are frequently opposite. And nobody admits others may be right.
Robert Nelson's book made me understand that the great economists positions are driven by deep values, convictions, models of reasoning and mythical stories which have a religious essence and are embraced with a quasi-religious fervor.
This is a great book for whoever wants to take a peak through the veil of mathematical models, statistics and charts of economists' writings.
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