by Mario Rizzo
It is no exaggeration to say that if a bright undergraduate wants to get into a top Ph.D. program he needs to take a good deal of mathematics. Many advisors will recommend a minor in mathematics or even a double major in mathematics and economics.
As a result of all this, many of the best undergraduate economics students are mechanical problem solvers. They are in a kind of self-referential bubble, but to a much lesser degree, of course, than are top-department Ph.D. students. They expend tremendous amounts of energy with very little payoff in understanding how real economies work.
However, things would not be so bad if students also took courses that emphasized the broader, historical, institutional, and, dare I say, philosophical aspects of economics. But the intellectual opportunity cost is wrongly perceived as being too high. (Perhaps the career opportunity cost is high, but that is a separate question.)
Absorbing a broader perspective would encourage tolerance for a variety of methods and a greater appreciation for the complexities of economic policy. It would also increase respect for economists of a previous age who knew so much.
So enter my course, “Policy Ideas in the History of Economic Thought.” (See link above.) My goal in creating this course was to stress both live and practical (that is, policy-relevant) issues from the history of economic thought. We can learn valuable things for today’s world from this intellectual history.
I also wanted to stress those ideas that students are unlikely to have covered in their core – especially Principles courses. To that end, a few of my goals are to demonstrate that:
1. The classical economists did not think that markets operated in an ethical vacuum. For many decades economists have ignored this. Today it is being rediscovered.
2. Laissez-faire or similar policy maxims were seen by classical economists as a means to “democratize” economic activity and to eliminate government-sanctioned privilege.
3. Say’s Law of Markets was not an argument against the possibility of depressions (an absurdity if it were), and pre-Keynesian business cycle theory was quite sophisticated.
4. The continuing contribution of the socialist calculation debate is to shape a comprehensive understanding of markets.
5. The legal and political implications of comprehensive (and not-so comprehensive) economic planning are as important as the economic.
Of course, it will take more than one course to overcome the narrowness imparted by standard economics today. We must start somewhere.