Teach the Timeless Verities

by Don Boudreaux on August 26, 2014

in Economics, Education, Seen and Unseen

In just over three hours I will meet for the first time my Fall 2014 ECON 103 students.  These are the 288 students – mostly 18-year-old freshmen who have, as of this moment, no earthly idea what economics is – who’ll file into room 80 (an auditorium) of Enterprise Hall at George Mason University to take from me the all-important Principles of Microeconomics course.

I’m biased, of course.  (Who’s not?)  But I sincerely believe – believe to the point that I can say that I know – that principles of microeconomics is the most important economics course any student can ever take.  Ever.  By far.  If taught properly, and learned with an open and critical and attentive mind, a principles of microeconomics course will impart to the student more understanding of the operation of economies than will all other economics courses combined – and I include here even well-taught PhD econ courses.

Too many academic economists, in my experience, are bored with microeconomic principles.  Such principles are so basic.  No genius is required to understand them or to teach them well.  Teaching microeconomic principles provides no opportunity to showcase great cleverness or to push out the frontiers of understanding.  It is, instead, to repeat timeless verities – and verities the majority of which have been known and understood by wise economists for nearly 250 years, and nearly all of which have been known and understood by wise economists for the past 50 years.

As I said above, most of my ECON 103 students will have had zero exposure to formal economic reasoning – to what is properly called “the economic way of thinking.”  A tiny handful of them, however, will have had a truly great econ teacher (such as my dear friend Alice Temnick) in high school; sadly, another tiny handful of these students will have had a truly bad econ teacher in high school.

But no matter: there is absolutely nothing that I enjoy more than teaching principles of microeconomics.  I live to do it.  And I always, in the hours leading up to the first meeting of each such introductory class every semester, feel the surge of excitement that I felt (and still recall as if it were yesterday) when I first encountered the power of supply-and-demand reasoning in my first economics course as a student (back in early 1977).

My goal in teaching Principles of Microeconomics is not to launch my students on a path to earn a doctorate in the subject, or even for them to become econ majors.  While I’m always pleased when a student, after taking my class, switches his or her major to economics, I teach the course as if it is the only economics course these students will ever take.  (Empirically, this assumption of mine is true.)  So unlike many other intro-econ courses, I do absolutely no mathematics; I even draw no cost curves.  I define a handful of esoteric terms (such as the “law of diminishing marginal utility”) but never mention many others (such as “perfect competition” or “marginal rates of substitution”) that are typical fare in many other principles-of-microecon courses.  I wouldn’t even dream of doing indifference-curve analysis in such a course.

I open the course with some economic history.  (“Have you any idea how materially prosperous you are compared to the vast majority of your ancestors?!”)  I spend a lot of time on supply and demand.  I devote two whole sections to international trade, another to public choice, and one to public goods and taxation.  (Each section is two-and-a-half-hours long.  And I cover some other topics in addition; I mention these only to give a flavor of my course.)

My goal – by teaching basic, foundational, principles of microeconomics – is to inoculate students against the bulk of the common economic myths that they’ll encounter throughout their lives – myths such as that the great abundance of goods and services available to us denizens of modernity is the result of a process that can be easily mimicked or understood in detail by smart people or planners – that the market value of goods or services can be raised by price floors (such as a legislated minimum wage) or lowered by price ceilings (such as rent control) – that benefits can be created without costs – that government is an institution capable of rising above the realities that ensure that private institutions never perform ‘perfectly’ – that intentions are results – that destruction of property is a source of prosperity – that exchange across political boundaries differs in economically meaningful ways from exchange that takes place within political boundaries – that the only consequences that occur or that matter are those that are easily anticipated and seen.

If I have a calling in life, that calling is to teach principles of microeconomics.


My colleague Pete Boettke, inspired by the great Frank Knight, reflects here on the role of principles in economics.  (HT Alice Temnick)

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