Quote Origin: I Don’t Care Who Writes a Nation’s Laws ... If I Can Write Its Economic Textbooks

Paul Samuelson? Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun? Percy Bysshe Shelley? Mary Shelley? Sylvia Nasar?

Quote Investigator®
5 min readJan 11, 2023

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Illustration of currency and economics from geralt at Pixabay.
Illustration of economics
from geralt at Pixabay

Question for Quote Investigator: The cultural impact of economic thought has been enormous. Apparently, a famous economist once said something like this:

I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws if I can write its economic textbooks.

Would you please help me to identify this economist and find a citation?

Reply from Quote Investigator: Nobel-Prize winning economist Paul Samuelson published the perennially popular textbook “Economics” beginning in 1948. Twenty editions have appeared during subsequent decades.

In 1990 Samuelson wrote the foreword to “The Principles of Economics Course: A Handbook for Instructors”, and he employed the quotation. Boldface added to excerpts by QI

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.” It was a poet who said that, exercising occupational license. Some sage, it may have been I, declared in similar vein: “I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws — or crafts its advanced treaties — if I can write its economic textbooks.” The first lick is the privileged one, impinging on the beginner’s tabula rasa at its most impressionable state.

Paul Samuelson’s phrasing was humorously tentative, but QI believes that he deserves credit for the remark under examination. When Samuelson crafted his remark he was deliberately alluding to a family of previous remarks about the powerful cultural influence of music and poetry.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1704 Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun published “An Account of a Conversation Concerning a Right Regulation of Governments for the Common Good of Mankind”, and he attributed a pertinent remark about music to an anonymous wise man. This remark used the same template as Samuelson’s comment:²

. . . a very wise man . . . believed if a man were permitted to make all the Ballads, he need not care who should make the Laws of a Nation. And we find that most of the antient Legislators thought they could not well reform the manners of any City without the help of a Lyric, and sometimes of a Dramatic Poet.

In 1821 prominent poet Percy Bysshe Shelley penned an essay presenting “A Defence of Poetry”. His wife, Mary Shelley, published the essay posthumously in 1840. The poet used the expression that Samuelson referred to in 1990:³

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

In 1889 the book “The Poets of Essex County, Massachusetts” by Sidney Perley printed a rephrased version of Fletcher’s remark that referred to “songs” instead of “ballads”:⁴

If we believe the words of Fletcher of Saltoun , when he says , “Let who will make the laws of a nation if I may write its songs,” there must be some power in poetry stronger than the judiciary itself in the control of that nation.

In 1906 an editorial in the “Oakland Tribune” of California printed an anonymous version of Fletcher’s remark:⁵

“I care not who writes a nation’s laws if I may write its songs,” is a historic epigram that suggests the irresistible strength of the appeal to the emotions and imagination made by. the wedding of musical numbers to lyric poetry.

In 1980 “The Washington Post” published an article about Paul Samuelson and his popular “Economics” textbook. Samuelson referred to a version of the remark ascribed to Fletcher while contemplating the social influence of his book:⁶

“Whenever I’ve taken one of my numerous children into Mass General Hospital after a football accident, there’s always an intern who’ll say, ‘I used your book at Yale’ — so you get a leg up on the triage process. Besides, who was it who said, ‘I care not who writes a nation’s laws as long as I can write its songs’?”

In 1990 Samuelson used the quotation under scrutiny when he wrote a book preface as mentioned at the start of this article:⁷

Some sage, it may have been I, declared in similar vein: “I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws — or crafts its advanced treaties — if I can write its economic textbooks.”

In 1995 journalist Sylvia Nasar published a piece in “The New York Times” about a competing economics textbook. The following was the epigraph of the article:⁸

“I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws — or crafts its advanced treaties — if I can write its economics text-books.” — Paul A. Samuelson

In 2006 James Surowiecki of “The New Yorker” printed the quotation with an ascription:⁹

“I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws — or crafts its advanced treaties — if I can write its economic textbooks,” Paul Samuelson, a Nobel-winning M.I.T. economist and the author of the most durable economics textbook ever written, once said.

In 2011 Sylvia Nasar published “Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius”. She included the quotation together with a footnote pointing to the 1990 book.¹⁰

In conclusion, Paul Samuelson deserves credit for this quotation. The template of his statement was based on a rephrased version of a remark made by Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun in 1704.

Image Notes: Illustration of currency and economics from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to twitter handle jp18113 whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to “The New Yale Book of Quotations” compiled by Fred R. Shapiro which included citations for Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

[1] 1990, The Principles of Economics Course: A Handbook for Instructors, Edited by Phillip Saunders and William B. Walstad, Section: Foreword by Paul A Samuelson, Date: October 1988, Quote Page ix, McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans)

[2] 1704, An Account of a Conversation Concerning a Right Regulation of Governments for the Common Good of Mankind: In a Letter to the Marquiss of Montrose, the Earls of Rothes, Roxburg, and Hadington, from London the 1st of December, 1703, Author: Andrew Fletcher, Quote Page 10, Printed in the Year 1704 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Google Books Full View) link

[3] 1840, Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Edited by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Volume 1 of 2, A Defence of Poetry by Percy Bysshe Shelley, (Written in 1821), Start Page 1, Quote Page 57, Edward Moxon, London. (Google Books Full View) link

[4] 1889, The Poets of Essex County, Massachusetts by Sidney Perley, Preface, Quote Page 3, Sidney Perley, Salem, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link

[5] 1906 June 22, Oakland Tribune, America’s Greatest Song Writer, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Oakland, California. (Newspapers_com)

[6] 1980 March 2, The Washington Post, Section: The Washington Post Magazine, The Passing Show: Samuelson XI by Garrett Epps, Quote Page 31, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)

[7] 1990, The Principles of Economics Course: A Handbook for Instructors, Edited by Phillip Saunders and William B. Walstad, Section: Foreword by Paul A Samuelson, Date: October 1988, Quote Page ix, McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans)

[8] 1995 March 14, New York Times, A Hard Act to Follow? Here Goes by Sylvia Nasar, (Epigraph of article), Quote Page D1, Column 2, New York. (Newspapers_com)

[9] 2005 October 30, The New Yorker (Online), The Financial Page: Class Action by James Surowiecki, Published in hardcopy issue of November 7, 2005, Conde Nast, New York. (Accessed newyorker.com on January 10, 2022)

[10] 2011, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius by Sylvia Nasar, Chapter 16: Instruments of Mastery: Samuelson Goes to Washington, Quote Page 409, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)

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Quote Investigator®

Garson O'Toole specializes in tracing quotations. He operates the QuoteInvestigator.com website which receives more than 4 million visitors per year