Robert L. Heilbroner was an American economist and historian of economic thought. The author of some twenty books, Heilbroner was best known for The Worldly Philosophers (1953), a survey of the lives and contributions of famous economists, notably Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes.
Heilbroner was born in New York, to a wealthy German Jewish family. Robert graduated from Harvard University in 1940 with a summa cum laude degree in philosophy, government and economics. During World War II, he served in the United States Army and worked at the Office of Price Control under John Kenneth Galbraith, the highly celebrated and controversial Institutionalist economist.
After the war, Heilbroner worked briefly as a banker and entered into academia in the 1950s as a research fellow at the New School for Social Research. During this period, he was highly influenced by the German economist Adolph Lowe, who was a foremost representative of the German Historical School. In 1963, Heilbroner earned a Ph.D. in Economics from the New School for Social Research, where he was subsequently appointed Norman Thomas Professor of Economics in 1971, and where he remained for more than twenty years. He mainly taught History of Economic Thought courses at the New School.
Although a highly unconventional economist, who regarded himself as more of a social theorist and "worldly philosopher" (philosopher pre-occupied with "worldly" affairs, such as economic structures), and who tended to integrate the disciplines of history, economics and philosophy, Heilbroner was nevertheless recognized by his peers as a prominent economist. He was elected Vice President of the American Economic Association in 1972.
Written in 1953, Worldly Philosophers has sold nearly four million copies-—the second-best-selling economics text of all time (the first being Paul Samuelson's Economics, a highly popular university textbook). The seventh edition of the book, published in 1999, included a new final chapter entitled "The End of Worldly Philosophy?", which included both a grim view on the current state of economics as well as a hopeful vision for a "reborn worldly philosophy" that incorporated social aspects of capitalism.
He also came up with a way of classifying economies, as either Traditional (primarily agriculturally-based, perhaps subsistence economy), Command (centrally planned economy, often involving the state), Market (capitalism), or Mixed.
Though an outspoken socialist for nearly his entire career, Heilbroner famously wrote in a 1989 New Yorker article:
Less than 75 years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over: capitalism has won...Capitalism organizes the material affairs of humankind more satisfactorily than socialism.
He further explained in Dissent in 1992 that "capitalism has been as unmistakable a success as socialism has been a failure" and complimented Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises on their insistence of the free market's superiority. He emphasized that "democratic liberties have not yet appeared, except fleetingly, in any nation that has declared itself to be fundamentally anticapitalist." However, Heilbroner's preferred capitalist model was the highly redistributionist welfare states of Scandinavia; he stated that his model society was "a slightly idealized Sweden."
He was a trustee of the Economists for Peace and Security.