What Is Economics?
Economics is a way we can measure our choices.
We make all kinds of choices every day. How much should I spend on gas? What’s the best route to work? Where should we go for dinner? Which job or career should I go for? What are the pros and cons of finishing college versus taking a job or inventing the next, best Internet startup? Which roommate should take care of washing the dishes? Can I get that dog as a pet? Should I get married, have children, and if so, when? Which politician should I vote for when they all claim they can improve the economy or make my life better? What is “the economy,” anyway? What if my personal or religious principles conflict with what people tell me is in my best economic interest?
Many people hear the word “economics” and think it is all about money. And they would be right.
But, Economics is not just about money. It is about weighing different choices or alternatives.
Some of those important choices involve money, but most do not. Most of your daily, monthly, or life choices have nothing to do with money, yet they are still the subject of economics. For example, your decisions about whether it should be you or your roommate who should be the one to clean up or do the dishes, whether you should spend an hour a week volunteering for a worthy charity or send them a little money via your cell phone, or whether you should take a job so you can help support your siblings or parents or save for your future are all economic decisions. In many cases, money is merely a helpful tool or just a veil, standing in for a partial way to evaluate some of the goals you really care about and how you make choices about those goals.
You might also think economics is all about “economizing” or being efficient–not making foolish or wasteful choices about how you spend or budget your time and money. That is certainly part of what economics is about. However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We all know that we can save money or time by being more efficient in our planning. A trip to the supermarket can be coordinated with a trip to take your child to school or to deposit a check at the bank across the street to save on gas. But we sometimes don’t choose the most efficient options. Why not? Economics is also about plumbing the depths of why we sometimes do and sometimes don’t make what seem like the most economizing or economical choices.
Is economics a science (like physics), or is it a social science, or even an art? What is the difference, and what do we know about what we can’t or don’t know for now? Can economic problems be solved by better government, more experts, bigger computers, more engineering, better education, less government, more dispersed knowledge, more markets? How can we make informed choices?
You’ve probably heard that economists disagree about a lot of things. Actually, what economists disagree about is politics or public policy, not economics. Exploring the interface between politics and economics is part of the fun.
On this page are some famous, standard definitions about what economics is all about.
Definitions and Basics
Economics is the study of given ends and scarce means. Lionel Robbins, biography, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics:
Robbins’ most famous book was An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, one of the best-written prose pieces in economics. That book contains three main thoughts. First is Robbins’ famous all-encompassing definition of economics that is still used to define the subject today: “Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between given ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.”…
What is “political economy”? Chapter I, Principles of Economics, by Alfred Marshall.
Political Economy or Economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life; it examines that part of individual and social action which is most closely connected with the attainment and with the use of the material requisites of wellbeing.
Thus it is on the one side a study of wealth; and on the other, and more important side, a part of the study of man. For man’s character has been moulded by his every-day work, and the material resources which he thereby procures, more than by any other influence unless it be that of his religious ideals; and the two great forming agencies of the world’s history have been the religious and the economic. Here and there the ardour of the military or the artistic spirit has been for a while predominant: but religious and economic influences have nowhere been displaced from the front rank even for a time; and they have nearly always been more important than all others put together. Religious motives are more intense than economic, but their direct action seldom extends over so large a part of life. For the business by which a person earns his livelihood generally fills his thoughts during by far the greater part of those hours in which his mind is at its best; during them his character is being formed by the way in which he uses his faculties in his work, by the thoughts and the feelings which it suggests, and by his relations to his associates in work, his employers or his employees.
Isn’t economics nicknamed the “dismal science” because it is all about running out of resources and the inevitable decline of life as we know it? Who coined the phrase “the dismal science”? The Secret History of the Dismal Science: Economics, Religion, and Race in the 19th Century, by David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart. Econlib, January 22, 2001.
Everyone knows that economics is the dismal science. And almost everyone knows that it was given this description by Thomas Carlyle, who was inspired to coin the phrase by T. R. Malthus’s gloomy prediction that population would always grow faster than food, dooming mankind to unending poverty and hardship.
While this story is well-known, it is also wrong, so wrong that it is hard to imagine a story that is farther from the truth. At the most trivial level, Carlyle’s target was not Malthus, but economists such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that it was institutions, not race, that explained why some nations were rich and others poor….
Economics on One Foot, a LearnLiberty video.
Prof. Art Carden, in memory of Ayn Rand’s philosophy on one foot, presents economics on one foot.
In the News and Examples
Diane Coyle on the Soulful Science, EconTalk podcast.
Diane Coyle talks with host Russ Roberts about the ideas in her new book, The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do and Why it Matters. The discussions starts with the issue of growth–measurement issues and what economists have learned and have yet to learn about why some nations grow faster than others and some don’t grow at all. Subsequent topics include happiness research, the politics and economics of inequality, the role of math in economics, and policy areas where economics has made the greatest contribution….
Isn’t economics all about supply and demand? Richard McKenzie on Prices, EconTalk podcast. June 23, 2008.
Richard McKenzie of the University California, Irvine and the author of Why Popcorn Costs So Much at the Movies and Other Pricing Puzzles, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about a wide range of pricing puzzles. They discuss why Southern California experiences frequent water crises, why price falls after Christmas, why popcorn seems so expensive at the movies, and the economics of price discrimination….
Isn’t economics all about Adam Smith and the invisible hand? Adam Smith: The Invisible Hand, a LearnLiberty video.
Prof. James Otteson, using the ideas of Adam Smith, explains how the division of labor is a necessary and crucial element of wealthy nations.
Don’t all economists disagree? Henderson on Disagreeable Economists. EconTalk podcast, July 30, 2007.
David Henderson, editor of the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about when and why economists disagree. Harry Truman longed for a one-armed economist, one willing to go out on a limb and take an unequivocal position without adding “on the other hand…”. Truman’s view is often reflected in the public’s view that economic knowledge is inherently ambiguous and that economists never agree on anything. Henderson claims that this view is wrong–that there is substantial agreement among economists on many scientific questions–while Roberts wonders whether this consensus is getting a bit frayed around the edges. The conversation highlights the challenges the everyday person faces in trying to know when and what to believe when economists take policy positions based on research. Is it biased or science?
Humorous essay. Zero-sum games like income redistribution are more exciting than economic fundamentals like the gains from trade. Why is Economics So Boring?, by Donald Cox. Econlib, November 7, 2005.
Stan: Ollie, you know the worst part about being an economist? You meet someone at a cocktail party, you tell them you teach economics.
Ollie: …and they say “Oh, yeah, I took that in college. I hated it. It was sooo boring!”…
… getting the credit for Equation 14 is a zero sum game. And we care about zero sum games. There’s drama. There’s tension. There’s a loser for every winner. It makes for good TV, doesn’t it? But it’s not very common in reality. What common in reality is both sides are better off. The buyer and the seller of the car in the ad. That’s reality. No violence, no theft. Boring balloons. Boring happy people. Economics is boring….
Is economics just a fuss about language? The Economy: Metaphors We (Shouldn’t) Live By, by Max Borders.
“Argument is war.” That’s what cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write in the opening chapter of their influential 1980 Metaphors We Live By. In that seminal book, Lakoff and Johnson offer a number of powerful lessons about figurative language: Metaphor is more than mere literary window dressing; metaphor is a fundamental aspect of human thought and language; and metaphors help us navigate the real world with a degree of efficiency that literal language can’t offer. It can even–for better or worse–change our perceptions of things….
A Little History: Primary Sources and References
Economics is sometimes called catallarchy or catallactics, meaning the science of exchanges. Where did this term first come from? Lecture I, Introductory Lectures on Political Economy, by Richard Whately.
It is with a view to put you on your guard against prejudices thus created, (and you will meet probably with many instances of persons influenced by them,) that I have stated my objections to the name of Political-Economy. It is now, I conceive, too late to think of changing it. A. Smith, indeed, has designated his work a treatise on the “Wealth of Nations;” but this supplies a name only for the subject-matter, not for the science itself. The name I should have preferred as the most descriptive, and on the whole least objectionable, is that of CATALLACTICS, or the “Science of Exchanges.”…
Is Economics All About Scarcity?, by Arnold Kling. Blog discussion on EconLog, January 17, 2007.
… I am two-handed on this issue. On the one hand, just because food, say, has become more abundant does not mean that we can ignore scarcity. At any moment in time, for a given state of know-how, the conventional definition of economics as dealing with the allocation of scarce resources among competing ends applies.
On the other hand, some of the most interesting economic observations concern relative abundance. Look at our standard of living compared to 100 years ago. Look at South Korea compared with North Korea. Robert Lucas famously said that “The consequences for human welfare involved in questions like these are simply staggering: Once one starts to think about them it is hard to think of anything else.”…