Commentary

The Gift of Economics

This article appeared on Townhall.com, December 9, 2005.
I was first turned on to economics in 1962 by an enthusiastic teacher who made the subject exciting, Ernest Buchholz at Santa Monica College. I quickly began reading everything I could get my hands on, just so that I could argue with him. We stopped arguing a long time ago (we’re friends), but I kept on reading anyway. Today, economics is as much a hobby for me as it is a job. If you enjoy mysteries and puzzles, you should love economics. And if you hate math, that’s no problem.

In the fall of 1971, an enthusiastic 14-year-old came to meet me where I worked, at J.C. Penney in Sacramento, Calif. He was reading National Review, where I had just published my second article, and wondered what books he should read. I suggested Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt, The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek and Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman. That young man was John Fund, who has since become a celebrated member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

If another eager youngster asked that same question today, I would start with those same concise and wonderful books. But I would add Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose. For those in high school or college, I would strongly suggest The Economics of Public Issues by Roger Leroy Miller, Daniel Benjamin and Douglass North. This book began in 1971 and is now in its 14th edition. I own the first, third and 11th. The last one had chapters on Sex, Booze and Drugs, Smog Merchants, Getting Scalped and Killer Airbags. As I said, economics doesn’t have to be boring. And there are many more electrifying economics books today than there were in 1971.

Thomas Sowell, for example, provides a lucid and fascinating introduction to the broad principles of economics in Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy. Follow that with Common Sense Economics: What Everyone Should Know About Wealth and Prosperity by James Gwartney, Richard Stroup and Dwight Lee. Lee was also co-editor (with James Doti) of an outstanding collection of 44 pithy essays, The Market Economy: A Reader. It includes classics from Adam Smith, Fredric Bastiat and John Stuart Mill.

The Lee-Doti collection also introduces readers to contemporary masterminds such as Gordon Tullock, one of the first to apply “public choice” economic logic to politics. Two first-rate introductions to this influential school of thought are Government Failure: A Primer in Public Choice by Tullock, Gordon Brady and Arthur Seldon and also To Promote the General Welfare by Richard E. Wagner.

I shun trendy books like Freakonomics for a few years for the same reason I prefer well-aged port. Amazon.com asked the authors of that book to suggest 10 other books on economics, but they came up with only two I could heartily endorse, both by Nobel Laureate Gary Becker. One is The Economics of Life: From Baseball to Affirmative Action to Immigration, How Real-World Issues Affect Our Everyday Lives, which offers a terrific selection of Becker’s timeless columns from Business Week. The other is his equally marvelous Economic Approach to Human Behavior.

Another very readable book that illuminates an amazingly wide range of topics is David R. Henderson’s masterwork, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey. Henderson, a great teacher with the great website davidrhenderson.com, is the entrepreneurial editor of the amazing Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, which is amazingly free at www.econlib.org.

When it comes to taking an economic approach to specific issues, there are several books that stand out from the pack.

On a variety of perennial hot topics, such as education, the environment and race, you might start with More Liberty Means Less Government by Walter Williams. Then, to grasp the dubious philosophy behind the political impulse to take money from those who earned it and give it to those who didn’t, everyone should grapple with Part Two of philosopher Robert Nozick’s award-winning Anarchy, State and Utopia. Follow that with many little-known facts from Myths of Rich and Poor: Why We’re Better Off Than We Think by W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm.

When it comes to debunking European views about America (which are similar to those in Hollywood or Boston), the German economic journalist Olaf Gersemann did a great job in Cowboy Capitalism: European Myths, American Reality. If you want to understand abusive lawsuits and self-interested antitrust suits, take a look at Shakedown by Robert A. Levy. Perhaps the single best book on how and why to reform the tax code is Untangling the Income Tax by David Bradford.

An impressive companion volume on how and why to slash federal spending is Downsizing the Federal Government by Chris Edwards. When it comes to the endlessly misunderstood genesis of supply-side economics, I keep going back to An American Renaissance by Jack Kemp and Seven Fat Years by the late, great Robert Bartley.

I haven’t bothered to mention publisher names or dates because it is now so easy to find such information online. I surely must have forgotten many worthy books — and plan to post them at reformclub.blogspot.com as they come to mind. But if you still remain convinced that economics is deadly dull, then you must have been reading too many of my dull columns (for which I thank you all) and none of these exciting books.

Alan Reynolds is a nationally syndicated columnist and a senior fellow at the Cato institute.