As I was preparing for Econ 100 for next term, I came across a piece by Roger Backhouse and Steven Medema on the definition of economics. Or, to put it more bluntly, what exactly is economics anyway?
Backhouse and Medema run through a bunch of textbook descriptions of what dismal scientists spend their time thinking about, and offer up a few choice quotes. The first candidate is from the indefatigable Paul Krugman and Robin Wells from their intro textbook: “Economics is the study of economies, at both the level of individuals and of society as a whole.”
That seems pretty accurate, but I don’t think economics is nearly as exciting as they make it sound. ;-)
Here’s another from David Colander, a man who knows a thing or two about The Making of an Economist. He says “Economics is the study of how human beings coordinate their wants and desires, given the decision-making mechanisms, social customs, and political realities of the society.”
Coordination, indeed. For us market types, scarce resources are generated and distributed via market forces (e.g., prices), and there are all sorts of “agents” running around maximizing this and that — utility, profit, market share, Facebook friends, etc…
Harvard’s Greg Mankiw simply says “Economics is the study of how society manages its scarce resources.” Pithy, to the point, possibly accurate, and consistent with what Robert Heilbronner tells us in The Worldly Philosophers. More on that later.
Or perhaps try the more pro-market friendly Gwartney and Stroup et al.: “[E]conomics is the study of human behavior, with a particular focus on human decision making.”
Couldn’t that describe psychology?
Scarcity, choices, allocation, behavior, decision making — not exactly narrowing down our subject here, are we?
So, for the punch line, here is the classic Jacob Viner quip, “Economics is what economists do.”
Thanks to Mr. T for the tip. You can read the full piece here.
And here is the citation: Roger E. Backhouse and Steven G. Medema. 2009. “Retrospectives: On the Definition of Economics.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 23(1): 221–33.
Backhouse, by the way, is one of the co-authors of our ECON DS-391 and Econ 601 books. So we’ll be hearing more from him in the coming weeks.