Don Boudreaux on Externalities

I have long held the belief that a reasonably educated person — regardless of his professional specialization or occupation — should be familiar with the basic principles of the natural sciences (physics, biology, etc.), the social sciences (psychology, economics, etc.), know how to do arithmetic, know something about law and history, philosophy, etc.

I confess that I was not “reasonably” educated when I graduated from engineering school. Other than what I was minimally required to learn — the basics of science, engineering and math — I knew hardly anything else. Today I would judge my 20-something year old self as a barely educated, mostly ignorant person. Fortunately for me, I am naturally thoughtful, curious and quite intelligent, which allowed me to overcome some of my deficiencies. I was doubly fortunate in being able to learn economics — first neoclassical and eventually Austrian. Now I consider myself a reasonably educated person. And getting more educated by the day. Continue reading

Hayek on the Impossibility of Designing Society

This week in my online classHow the World Works – an Introduction,” I introduced a few basic economics concepts — starting with the easy to understand law of demand and supply. We call it a law but it is not the same sort of thing we call laws in the natural sciences. Social sciences are qualitatively different from the physical sciences like physics and zoology. Societies are not machines made of inert matter engineered by designers; societies are ecosystems of organisms that have minds which have volition and act purposefully to achieve their goals.

Social engineering — the deliberate transformation of an entire society according to some design — is doomed to failure because people are not inanimate objects that can be manipulated at will. The basic difficulty boils down to a lack of knowledge and the open-ended nature of the future. Nobody has the required knowledge of the present conditions of every person in society and the future state of the society. Continue reading

Tom Sargent on a Few Lessons of Economics

Here’s a graduation speech that won’t tax your time and, without taxing your brain, will remind you of what is worth remembering. In 2007, Thomas J. Sargent, one of the two winners of the 2011 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, delivered a graduation speech to UC Berkeley (my alma mater) undergrads. Here’s the entire speech — just 355 words. Continue reading

Don’t Ask me About the Economy

When people get to know that I am an economist, for instance on a flight, I often get asked about the economy or even the stock market. I just make up some stuff if the mood strikes me but sometimes I tell them that I don’t know. You tell me, I say.

As it happens, I am not interested in the economy per se. I am a serious student of economics but am only marginally interested in the economies of countries. What’s reported in the media regarding macroeconomic variables such as inflation, unemployment, GDP growth rates , etc., are to me mostly noise that can be profitably ignored. News is mostly noise anyway. It’s literally noise in the case of TV news but also figuratively speaking news is noise because the signal is hard to discern in the meaningless drivel that gets shoveled around. Continue reading

Two Kinds of Capitalism

Ayn Rand is thoroughly despised in leftist circles. The leftists are justifiably incensed because Rand tirelessly criticized government control of the economy, while the coercive power of the government is the primary instrument leftists rely upon to achieve their Utopian dreams.

One does not have to agree with every aspect of Rand’s philosophy. Decent people can reasonably disagree with her on many of her positions. But it is impossible to deny the force of her arguments against government’s interference in the economy. Countries that don’t understand her point are doomed to be poor. Indians suffer because they are incapable of understanding the evil consequences of government — even well-meaning — control of the economy. Continue reading

Goods, Property and Externalities

Basic economics partitions goods into private goods and public goods, and property into private property and public property. Private goods are defined as those goods that are rival — one person’s consumption of the good  reduces the amount available for others to consume — and excludable — a person can be prevented from consuming the good. Thus a cookie is a private good. A cookie eaten reduces the stock of cookies, and cookies can be locked up.

In contrast to private goods, public goods are non-rival and non-excludable. The services of a lighthouse is an example of a public good because one person’s use of the lighthouse signal does not affect the use of the signal by others, and people cannot be prevented from seeing the lighthouse signal. Continue reading

Autarchy and Individual Liberty

“Auto means self. Archy means rule. Autarchy is self-rule. It means that each person rules himself, and no other…. As I will use the word, autarchy will signify total self-rule. It will presume a system or social arrangement in which each person assumes full responsibility for himself, proceeds to control himself, exercises control over himself, exercises authority over himself, supports himself, takes initiative, joins with others or not as he pleases, and does not in any way seek to impose his will by force upon any other person whatever.”

The above from the essay Autarchy by Robert LeFevre. See the Rampart Journal of Individualist Thought  (Summer 1966) (free pdf download). Continue reading

China and Economic Freedom

The relationship between economic freedom and prosperity is empirically verifiable. Countries that are relatively economically free — meaning free markets and private ownership of capital — do better than countries that are not economically free.

South Korea, for example, is a rich country and North Korea is a disaster zone; Chileans are better off than Venezuelans; capitalist West Germany was richer than socialist East Germany. Continue reading

Have the Laws of Economics Changed?

The correlation between economic freedom and economic prosperity is well-established and robust. Economics explains why this relationship exists and also the causal direction — economic freedom is the cause and prosperity the effect.

I am by nature in favor of freedom of all flavors, not just economic freedom. I value freedom as an ultimate good, although it fortunately happens to be an instrumental good too. Even if material prosperity did not follow from economic freedom — meaning that it was not instrumental in creating wealth — I would still value economic freedom for itself. Philosophically I am not a utilitarian.

These musings are provoked by a comment to the piece on Economic Freedom and Well-being last week. Here’s the comment:

Continue reading

Ask Me Anything — Is Economics Hard?

There’s a funny story in Robert Heilbroner’s 1953 book The Worldly Philosophers (which has been republished dozens of times):

One evening Keynes was having dinner with Max Planck, the physicist who was responsible for the development of quantum mechanics. Planck turned to Keynes and told him that he had once considered going into economics himself. But he decided against it – it was too hard. Keynes repeated this story with relish to a friend back at Cambridge. “Why, that’s odd,” said the friend. “Bertrand Russell was telling me just the other day that he’d also thought about going into economics. But he decided it was too easy.” Continue reading