Surviving Econ 101

Brad DeLong is revising his syllabus for Principles of Economics. DeLong might assign No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart by Tom Slee as a counterpoint to Free to Choose by Milton Friedman. I like this idea. So does Mike Huben but with a caveat. In the comments, Huben is concerned that too few undergraduates will bother to unpack Friedman’s loaded assumptions. Selections from No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart would add some complexity, but even Slee’s fine book may not be enough. Huben fears the siren simplicity of Free to Choose is too alluring.

Yet, the best counter to one intuition may be another, and I think there is a simple elegance in this lesson from economist Abba Lerner:

Thousands of habits of behavior and of enforced laws had to be developed over millennia to establish the nature and the minutiae of property rights before we could have buying and selling, instead of each man just taking what he wanted if only he was strong enough. Basically, what needed to be done was to disentangle sets of rights from the buzzing chaos of the universe and designate each such set of rights as a commodity that an individual (or a group) could exchange for another set of rights. We have got so used to such groups of rights that we tend to think of them as simple “things,” but every “thing” is a set of rights.

Each set of rights begins as a conflict about what somebody is doing or wants to do which affects others. Some of the others are pleased and some object. With or without a fight, there is a settlement or compromise in which the rights are defined. Those who benefit from the activity gain the approval of those who object by giving them something to get them to agree. What I want particularly to stress is that the solution is essentially the transformation of the conflict from a political problem to an economic transaction. An economic transaction is a solved political problem.

The essential point is that these settlements are political artifacts; they are not some natural or providential order. I suspect most of DeLong’s students will acquire some sense of this reality, but legions of students in other intro econ courses will not. DeLong is unique, because he has probably forgotten more about economic history and the history of economic thought than many professors ever knew.

So, to any student who finds themselves in one of the more blinkered courses, but who still wants to study economics, I suggest you pick up a copy of Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution by Samuel Bowles. Bowles gathers a staggering range of material in one book. It will enrich anyone’s knowledge of political economy. It is also a copious resource for any bright young student who chooses to question a flippant Friedmanite.

One comment

  1. Sounds like an excellent book. Maybe DeLong should use this as a text, and assign debunking passages of Free To Choose based on it.

    Tried and tested propaganda such as Free To Choose will work on most people who are unprepared. I don’t think DeLong takes that seriously enough. Even very sophisticated people such as Cosma Shalizi can be tricked by it. See: Libertarian framing

Comments are closed.