Wednesday, July 19, 2017

No, Ibn Khaldun is not the father of economics

I am a great admirer of work of the C14th Muslim intellectual Abū Zayd ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Khaldūn al-Ḥaḍramī (1332-1406), known as Ibn Khaldun. I gave a paper on his thought to the University of Melbourne Medieval Roundtable in April 2016, I will be giving another examining the course of the Ottoman Empire in the light of his analysis in August 2017. Widening the circle of those acquainted with his thought is laudable.

Overstating the case, however, is not. Such as claiming that he is the real originator of economic thinking: particularly via his Muqaddimah (1377) (sometimes also called his Prolegomena). Now, apart from the piece being an instance of the unlovely contemporary habit where people cannot be just factually wrong, or have made some analytical error, they must be morally delinquent, the claim is misconceived.

That Ibn Khaldun was a serious and perceptive economic thinker is clearly true, as is discussed in this 1988 contribution explicitly suggesting he was "the father of economics". But a key characteristic of any sort of father, metaphorical or otherwise, is that they have intellectual progeny, as is pointed out here. In this case, intellectual progeny specifically in the field of economic analysis. Within the Muslim world, Ibn Khaldun failed to do so.

It is not that Muslim intellectuals were not aware of his work. In The Muslim Discovery of Europe, Bernard Lewis instances Ottoman officials attempting to analyse European states via use of Ibn Khaldun's model of the path of states. It is simply that they failed to follow in his intellectual footsteps.

What makes Adam Smith (1723-1790) the father of economics, and originator of modern economic thinking, is not Adam Smith or even The Wealth of Nations (1775), it is Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832), David Ricardo (1772-1823), Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi (1773-1842) and all those who followed on after. It was that Adam Smith had intellectual progeny, and, in the matter of economic analysis, Ibn Khaldun didn't.

It is worth noting that one reason that The Wealth of Nations had such an impact (apart from a book in the world of printing having a profound advantage over a book in the world of scribes) was that Great Britain was a parliamentary state, with the government by discussion that involves, and Smith's ideas rapidly became part of the political and policy debate. Conversely, Finnish priest and politician Anders Chydenius's (1729-1803) pamphlet The National Gain (1765), which preceded The Wealth of Nations and apparently advocated very similar ideas, was likely hampered in having an effect by Sweden being a more peripheral state, that Chydenius himself was a controversial political figure and Gustav III's coup of 1772, which abolished Parliamentary rule until it was restored in 1809.

If it turned out that Ibn Khaldun's ideas influenced Adam Smith, that might make him the Grandfather of Economics (vaguely possible, but not terribly likely; especially as the first complete scholarly edition of the Muqaddimah in Europe was not until 1858, part of the long-term scholarly impact of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798), but the temporal distance to intellectual progeny would still preclude him from being, in any useful sense, the Father of Economics or the originator of modern economic thinking.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]


  1. I am happy to acknowledge Ibn Khaldun as somebody who has had an influence on me. So can we at least call him the Great Uncle of Economics?

    Brad DeLong

  2. So it is not 'the' father since it did not affect the european states? Is it your argument? How about other centers? He also should have been accepted as the father of sociology if it needs one