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50 Robert Heilbroner Quotes About Economic History and Philosophy

There are lots of different perspectives on socialism and capitalism. Pick one of these Robert Heilbroner quotes and share your perspective with us.

Robert L. Heilbroner was an American economist and historian who studied the economic thoughts of famous economists like Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes.

Heilbroner authored around 20 books and was best known for The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers (1953). It chronicled the lives and contributions of other famous economists. It’s no surprise that there are many Heilbroner quotes about socialism, communism, and economics. Keep reading to learn more about Heilbroner and his thoughts!

Heilbroner was a great mind who graduated from Harvard University in 1940 with a Summa Cum Laude degree in philosophy, government, and economics. He served in the United States Army during WWII and worked at the Office of Price Control under John Kenneth Galbraith.

After the war, Heilbroner tried being a banker briefly. However, he soon entered academia in the 1950s, becoming a research fellow at the New School for Social Research. During this period, the German economist Adolph Lowe, who was a foremost representative of the German Historical School, had a significant influence on Heilbroner. In 1963, Heilbroner earned a Ph.D. in Economics from the New School for Social Research. Enjoy these Robert Heilbroner quotes and sayings!

Don’t forget to also check out these Adam Smith quotes from the father of modern economics.

Robert Heilbroner quotes on socialism, communism, and capitalism

1. “If socialism failed, it was for political, more than economic, reasons; and if capitalism is to succeed, it will be because it finds the political will and means to tame its economic forces.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

2. “Socialism—defined as a centrally planned economy in which the government controls all means of production—was the tragic failure of the twentieth century.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

3. “Communists talked to the masses and urged violence, if necessary, to encompass their ends; the Socialists appealed to their own kind—to the intelligentsia, the petit-bourgeois, the freethinking middle-class citizen, or the intellectually emancipated aristocrat—for adherents to their schemes.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

4. “Less than seventy-five years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over: capitalism has won.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

5. “Stalinism is a pathology of socialism, Hitlerism being the apposite example for capitalism.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

6. “But despite the clarion words of the Manifesto, the demonic note was not a call for a revolution of communism; it was a cry born only of frustration and despair.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

7. “Socialism has been a great tragedy this century.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

8. “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.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

9. “Capitalism is the only society in human history in which neither tradition nor conscious direction supervises the total effort of the community; it is the only society in which the future, the needs for tomorrow, are entirely left to an automatic system.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

10. “The cure for capitalism’s failing would require that a government would have to rise above the interests of one class alone.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

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11. “To one American family out of four, the idea of capitalism as a benign system of comfort, dignity, and personal advance is only a myth, or worse, a bitter mockery.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

12. “Today and over the foreseeable future, traditional capitalism throughout most of the world has been thrown on a defensive from which it is doubtful that it can never recover.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

Robert Heilbroner quotes about Marxism and democracy

13. “We turn to Marx, therefore, not because he is infallible, but because he is inescapable.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

14. “Karl Marx did not call for an opposition to the forces of history. On the contrary, he accepted all of them, the drive of technology, the revolutionizing effects of democratic striving, even the vagaries of capitalism, as being indeed the carriers of a brighter future.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

15. “For one who has read the works of Marx, it is frightening to look back at the grim determination with which so many nations steadfastly hewed to the very course which he insisted would lead to their undoing.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

16. “As the histories of ancient and modern democracies illustrate, the pressure of political movement in times of war, civil commotion, or general anxiety pushes in the direction of authority, not away from it.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

17. “Marx wrote only a few pages about socialism, as either a moral or a practical blueprint for society.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

18. “The worst that Marx had claimed was that the system would destroy itself; what Hobson suggested was that it might destroy the world.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

Robert Heilbroner quotes and sayings on economics

19. “It is from the scope and wisdom of the economists of the past that we must reap the knowledge with which to face the future.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

20. “The change began with John Stuart Mill and the Utopians. When Mill pointed out that economics had no ultimate solution to the problem of distribution, that society might do with the fruits of its toil as it saw fit, he introduced into the mechanical calculus of the market a conflicting calculus of moral judgment.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

21. “Nevertheless, these first readings will give us a chance to think about a matter that we would certainly consider to be at the heart of economics—the drive to gain wealth.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

22. “The secret to economic growth lay in the fact that each generation attacked Nature not only with its own energies and resources but with the heritage of equipment accumulated by its forebears.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

23. “If an economy in the doldrums could drift indefinitely, the price of government inaction might be graver by far than the consequences of bold unorthodox.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

24. “Before economics can progress, it must abandon its suicidal formalism.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

25. “If one could divine the nature of the economic forces in the world, one could foretell the future.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

26. “In the end, the question is: Who is to be master, man or his machines? As long as the control over technology rests primarily on economic calculation, the victor is not likely to be man.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

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27. “It is one of the dangerous self-deceptions of our society to pretend that mechanisms of control do not really exist and to maintain, without qualification, that we are an economically “free” people.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

28. “There was no simple riddance to the power of a dangerous political idea; no assassination possible to avert a disruptive change in technology; no natural death to be counted on to stop an economic change that ripped up ancestral estates or stirred up class discontent.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

29. “The use of mathematics has brought rigor to economics. Unfortunately, it has also brought mortis.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

30. “Economists can be called the worldly philosophers, for they sought to embrace in a scheme of philosophy the most worldly of man’s activities-his drive for wealth.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

31. “For it is certain that the future will bring realities for which our traditional optimism fails to prepare us and against which our economic momentum fails to arm us.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

Robert Heilbroner quotes from The Worldly Philosophers

32. “He who enlists a man’s mind wields a power even greater than the sword or the scepter.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

33. “The profit motive, we are constantly being told, is as old as man himself. Nothing could be further from the truth.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

34. “Nobody wanted this commercialization of life.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

35. “The Wealth of Nations may not be an original book, but it is unquestionably a masterpiece.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

36. “David Ricardo saw that the escalator worked with different effects on different classes, that some rode triumphantly to the top, while others were carried up a few steps and then kicked back down to the bottom.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

37. “The distribution of wealth, therefore, depends on the laws and customs of society. But the process of social change was not merely a matter of new inventions pressing on old institutions: it was a matter of new classes displacing old ones.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

38. “He is not money-hungry from mere motives of rapacity; he is an owner-entrepreneur engaged in an endless race against his fellow owner-entrepreneurs; he must strive for accumulation, for in the competitive environment in which he operates, one accumulates or one gets accumulated.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

39. “In the periods of crisis, the bigger firms absorb the smaller ones, and when the industrial monsters eventually go down, the wreckage is far greater than when the little enterprises buckle.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

40. “It was the unemployment that was the hardest to bear.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

41. “Very few of the heroes of the Golden Age of American finance had much interest in the solid realities of what underlay their structure of stocks and bonds and credits.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

Robert Heilbroner quotes from The Future As History

42. “History, as it comes into our daily lives, is charged with surprise and shock.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

43. “Unlike modern man, who dreams of the world he will make, pre-modern man dreamed of the world he left.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

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44. “The basic function of the military — to achieve victory over the enemy — has been rendered obsolete by the fact that “victory” and defeat are almost certain to be achieved simultaneously.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

45. “The total amount of electric power generated by India would not suffice to light up New York City.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

46. “The rise of the welfare state, on the one hand, and of the military bureaucracy, on the other, are instances of the manner in which technology is enforcing a socialization of life.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

47. “We may make progress only by freeing ourselves from the rut of the past, but without this rut, an orderly society would hardly be possible in the first place.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

48. “When we estrange ourselves from history we do not enlarge, we diminish ourselves, even as individuals. We subtract from our lives one meaning which they do in fact possess, whether we recognize it or not. We cannot help living in history. We can only fail to be aware of it.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

49. “In an age which no longer waits patiently through this life for the rewards of the next, it is a crushing spiritual blow to lose one’s sense of participation in mankind’s journey and to see only a huge milling around, a collective living-out of lives with no larger purpose than the days which each accumulates.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

50. “If we are to meet, endure, and transcend the trials and defeats of the future — for trials and defeats there are certain to be — it can only be from a point of view which, seeing the future as part of the sweep of history, enables us to establish our place in that immense procession in which is incorporated whatever hope humankind may have.” ― Robert L. Heilbroner

What did you learn from these Robert Heilbroner quotes?

After he completed his doctoral studies, Heilbroner was appointed Norman Thomas Professor of Economics in 1971, a post he held for over twenty years, teaching mostly History of Economic Thought courses at the New School.

Heilbroner, an outspoken socialist for most of his life, was viewed as a highly unconventional economist. In fact, he regarded himself as more of a social theorist and “worldly philosopher.” He desired to integrate history, economics, and philosophy. However, his peers recognized Heilbroner as a prominent economist, electing him Vice President of the American Economic Association in 1972.

In 1992, he published an article in Dissent, a left-wing intellectual magazine published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, that “capitalism has been as unmistakable a success as socialism has been a failure.”

He complimented Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises on their views that the free market was superior, emphasizing 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 states of Scandinavia. Scandinavia has a high redistributionist welfare system, and he stated that his model society was “a slightly idealized Sweden.”

What do you think about these Robert Heilbroner quotes and sayings? Let us know your thoughts using the comment section.

Danielle Dahl, Lead Contributor
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