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:
- the state of our local economy
- the strength of the global economy; and
- local and international economic policy
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.
Famous British Economists
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 (1723 – 1790)
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.
David Ricardo (1772 – 1823)
Another classical economist, David Ricardo had many theories regarding wages, profits and labour, including:
- the concept of economic rent;
- comparative advantage; and
- the labour theory of value.
His most famous work is The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, which was released in 1817.
John Maynard Keynes (1883 – 1946)
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:
- stabilise the booms and busts of economic activity;
- decrease unemployment; and
- prevent an economic recession.
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.
Amelia Fletcher (1966 - )
If Keynes was revolutionary in the world of economics, Dame Amelia Fletcher has completely obfuscated the lines that define traditional economists.
Not just because she is one of the rare females that have made a name for themselves in the field of economics, either!
She earned her Doctorate in Economics from Nuffield College at the tender age of 27. Eight years later, she was appointed to the Office of Fair Trading in the position of Chief Economist.
For those not in the know, that office is our country’s economic regulator.
In October 2016, she was appointed to direct the Competition and Markets Authority, a government entity that ensures strong business competition (and works to prevent unfair business tactics).
For all of her noteworthy accomplishments, far from the stereotypical image of an economist is Dame Amelia...
You might take a break from your own economics studies to catch her in concert, singing and playing her guitar with Canterary Wires.
Arthur Cecil Pigou (1877 – 1959)
Everyone knows all about John Keynes but many overlook his patron when contemplating the world’s most influential economists.
Arthur Pigou was educated at Harrow School and, later, at King’s College as a history scholar where he won several awards, among them the Chancellor’s Gold Medal, for a poem he wrote.
He came to economics in a roundabout way: through philosophical and ethical studies. However, once introduced to the subject, he found himself adept at the subject, especially with the legendary Alfred Marshall as his teacher.
He later succeeded Marshall, having been elected to the post of Professor of Political Economy. Soon after earning that post, he funded Keynes’ work on probability theory.
The two men would later have very different perspectives on their relationship, with Pigou averring that Keynes’ theory had substantial merit. That latter’s views over his benefactor, however, were mainly disparaging.
Pigou’s most enduring legacy in the field of economics remains the concept of externality, essential to modern welfare economics and environmental economics.
If you are enroled in the School of Economics at Cambridge, you should give thanks to Arthur C. Pigou.
Starting in 1901, as he lectured in Economics there, he formulated a course syllabus that every Economics student followed for the next 30 years. It influences economics teaching at that school still today!
W. Arthur Lewis (1915 – 1991)
Mr Lewis earned his PhD at the London School of Economics under the tutelage of Sir Arnold Plant, electing to remain on staff for eight years after earning his doctorate.
He then went on to lecture at the University of Manchester, where he formulated some of his most influential economic ideas about wages and capital in developing countries.
While at Manchester, he published a paper which introduced the Lewis Model – also known as the dual sector model.
He got plenty of experience in analysing the movement of money in Ghana, which had just won its independence (in 1957). As their first appointed economic advisor, he was instrumental in formulating that new country’s first 5-year economic plan.
His research into development economics earned him the Nobel Memorial Prize in 1979, which he shared with Theodore Schultz.
Beatrice Webb (1858 – 1943)
Martha Beatrice Webb was remarkable in that she was never formally educated but still had strong ideas about education in general and the impact of cooperation on a society.
A dedicated socialist, she refined her ideas whilst working first as a rent collector – a position she took over from her older sister, and in helping her cousin Charles Booth survey the slums of London.
His study of the poor in the capital city is reflected in the massive oeuvre Life and Labour of the People in London, a shocking report which eventually led to government initiatives against poverty.
Meanwhile, Beatrice, having never spent time in a classroom herself, used part of an endowment she and her husband received to found the London School of Economics and Political Science.
If you think it unusual that she would elect such a subject to dedicate a school to, consider how much time, energy and effort she put into improving people’s lives.
She made numerous contributions to the cooperative movement economic theory, even publishing several theses on the topic.
She and her husband were firm advocates of the central planning concept; it was she who coined the term collective bargaining to describe disparate entities meeting in the middle and agreeing on aspects of labour such as wages and working conditions.
US Economists Lists
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.
Irving Fisher (1867 – 1947)
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.
Milton Friedman (1912 – 2006)
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:
- less government intervention;
- the steady increase of the supply of money within growing economies; and
- floating exchange rates, among other items
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.
Joseph Stiglitz (1943-)
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.
Alan Greenspan (1926 - )
One target of Mr Stiglitz's ire exactly because of his laissez-faire attitude toward economics, Mr Greenspan is infamous for the series of economic earthquakes that rocked America and the world during his tenure as chairman of the Federal Reserve – America’s central bank.
He is another influential economist who did not always have his feet firmly planted on that career path; initially, he studied music at Julliard, playing the sax and the clarinet.
Maybe economics was in his blood... his father was a market analyst and stockbroker. Or perhaps it was his friendship with John Kemeny that spurred his love of numbers.
Whatever the reason, Greenspan enroled in the Stern School of Business where he soon earned his Masters in Economics, later transferring to New York University to earn his doctorate.
A long-time member of industry think-tank The Conference Board, he was a natural choice for appointment to the Federal Reserve.
Under his tenure, several economic crises shook the US (and the globe) in rapid succession.
- Two months after taking office, Black Monday, the global stock market crash (1987) started in Hong Kong and rippled across the world.
- The Dot.Com bubble (1995-2000) is largely thought to have been caused by his consistent raising of interest rates.
- In 2001, various corporate scandals (and the 9/11 event) caused the Fed to lower interest rates to 1%, permitting outrageous loans and speculation.
- The sub-prime mortgage crisis is often attributed to Greenspan’s policies while chairman of the Fed.
- The global economic downturn (2008) is attributed to his laissez-faire style of economics.
After leaving the Fed in 2006, Mr Greenspan accepted an honorary position at the Exchequer.
Elinor Ostrom (1933 – 2012)
A political economist, Ms Ostrom was discouraged from attending college by her mother, who could see no point in her daughter’s further education.
She nevertheless went on to study political science at UCLA, finishing her Bachelor’s in three years thanks to her taking extra classes during summer sessions.
She went on to earn her PhD but, as was common at the time, could not find work to pay for her schooling because most employers assumed she wanted secretarial work or a position as a teacher.
Limited by gender policies in both her education and career, she was declined for a study programme in Economics and opted to work towards a doctorate in political science.
A resource arrangement that works in practice also works in theory – Lee Ann Fennel, describing Ostrom's Law
This adage was born of her work in managing natural resources to prevent ecosystem collapse.
It had been previously assumed that resources such as water and land, needed by everyone in the community, would soon become depleted through hoarding, mismanagement or overuse.
However, Ms Ostrom’s research revealed that community members work to preserve and renew their resources, thus disproving long-held ideas of how a collective would manage and sustain their ecology.
In 2009, she was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize for her work in economic governance. To this day, she is the only woman to have won Nobel recognition in the field of economics.
Top Economists Internationally
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.
Karl Marx (1818 – 1883)
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.
Friedrich Hayek (1899 – 1992)
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:
- the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974;
- the Companion of Honour in 1984; and
- the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991.
Amartya Sen (1933-)
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.
My London Economics tutor told me all about this most venerable economist!
Daniel Kahneman (1934-)
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.
Ernst Fehr (1956 - )
Nominated the most influential economist in Germany, Austria and Switzerland (2016), this behavioural economist, along with his brother, is making substantial strides in the relatively new field of neuroeconomics.
Besides teaching microeconomics and experimental economic research at the University of Zurich, his research into human cooperation and sociality has garnered growing interest in academic circles – both anthropologic and economic!
He has won numerous awards and prizes for his work and has been granted honorary membership in economic societies worldwide.
Hernando de Soto Polar (1941 - )
Known for his work in the informal economy, Mr de Soto was instrumental in bringing about Peruvian reforms in land rights and entrepreneurship.
He contends that any nation not informed of all of its economic activity cannot have a strong market economy.
Specifically, he was referring to the microentrepreneurs who have no deed of title to their land, house or enterprise, making it difficult for them to obtain credit or seek legal redress should their business suffer from an outside entity.
Such conditions result in parallel economies: one that is taxed and regulated while the other goes unrecorded.
The ‘informal’ economy is largely driven by unresponsive, unfair and cumbersome bureaucracy; the very conditions that Mr. de Soto’s efforts continuously work to reform – not just in his native land but globally.
Most recently, he attended a summit hosted by Sir Richard Branson.
The topic was blockchain: how it could replace traditional methods of recordkeeping, insofar as recording (and thus making official) the land rights of indigenous peoples all over the world.
Already the project is coming to fruition: Georgia is using blockchain technology to title land to families who have worked it for generations.
Research Famous Economists That Most Appeal to You
Although prevailing economic theories understandably move with the times, we still owe much to economists such as:
- Hayek; and
- Adam Smith.
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 an economics tutor to help teach you more about these great minds, or choose to learn economics online.
Superprof has a range of tutors to provide you with A Level Economics help. They are very familiar with the above economists and they would be happy to help you improve in your studies.
Learn about the financial crisis of 2008 here.
Discover more about economic modelling here.