The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics
The four gigantic volumes of The New Palgrave—nearly 2,000 entries, more than 700 biographies, over 4 million words—may be said to represent more or less everything that is known about what is called economics. The subject is far more sprawling than most people think. We would expect a dictionary of economics to contain such entries as Consumption and Production, Investment, Business Cycles, and the like, but The New Palgrave also has entries on sports, lemons (not the fruit), and performing arts. Yet there is none on power, although power would seem to be inextricable from economics.1
The dictionary itself is named after R.H. Inglis Palgrave, the son of an English banker and scholar, who entered his father’s banking business in the 1840s, then began to write on financial matters, and ended up as editor of The Economist on the death of Walter Bagehot in 1877. Palgrave conceived the idea of a “dictionary” of political economy during the next decade, publishing the first of three volumes in 1894. The work itself was uneven, ranging from brilliant short articles by Francis Ysidro Edgeworth, perhaps England’s greatest economic theorist at the time, to pieces on obscure currencies of exchange and obscure French economics by equally obscure contributors. With all its faults, the undertaking was soon recognized as the first real compendium of economic knowledge. Palgrave himself was knighted and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and his name became attached to the title of the third volume, issued after his death.2
All this information comes from the present Palgrave, which carries on the intent of the founder on a vaster scale than he could have imagined. The original work contained entries by some two hundred-odd economists, only a handful of whom are remembered today. The New Palgrave has entries by 927 contributors from more than thirty countries, including the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Most of the profession’s Nobel Prize–winning economists, such as Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson, have contributed, as have household names like John Kenneth Galbraith and Lester Thurow. The entire undertaking has been carried out in only five years by John Eatwell (Cambridge and The New School for Social Research), Murray Milgate (Harvard), Peter Newman (Johns Hopkins), and the Macmillan (England) editor Margot Levy.
The result is an unparalleled store of information. For the college freshman prepared to spend an hour or more on a subject there are lucid, although occasionally demanding, expositions of such matters as rent (by Armen Alchian) and philosophy and economics (by Vivian Walsh), as well as magisterial essays on Adam Smith and Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. For the graduate student there are superb, sometimes very advanced, articles under such headings as General Equilibrium, and Growth and Cycles. The specialist can consult articles on Lyapunov functions, Pontryagin’s principle, fuzzy sets, martingales (mathematical models of fair games, not a part of a horse’s harness), and an entry on impatience, written in mathematics and somewhat beyond me.
And what of the layman?…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.