Serious economics is fun with a good guide

I’VE been reading Economics Made Simple by the Adam Smith Institute’s Madsen Pirie. The book is a short, well-written and accessible overview of basic economics and serves as an excellent primer. It is accompanied by several witty YouTube videos that I heartily recommend.

Many consider the rise of popular economics books to have originated with Freakonomics. The 2005 bestseller, co-authored by University of Chicago’s Steven Levitt and the New York Times’s Stephen Dubner, was a phenomenal success. It sold millions of copies and spawned countless imitators. It brought economics to the masses and I am a big fan.

However, I have reservations about the possible trivialisation of the discipline. The Freakonomics model is about driving counterintuitive results from a heavily mined (and highly original) dataset. It demonstrates that economic insights are not obvious, and that economics is a form of sociology. But it risks presenting these ideas as quirky findings, as opposed to a body of scientific discovery. In the words of Israel Kirzner:

“Economics is not an intellectual game. Economics is deadly serious. The very future of mankind – of civilisation – depends...on [the] widespread understanding of, and respect for, the principles of economics. Economics is not simply a matter of intellectual problem solving, like a challenging crossword puzzle, but...a matter of the life or death of the human race.”

I often get asked which economics books I’d recommend to a novice, and – in addition to Economics Made Simple and Freakonomics – here are my top five:

1. Economics in One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt. The original and still the best. Published in 1946, Hazlitt presents some of the most famous fables and parables in economics that all build on Frederic Bastiat’s distinction between the “seen” and the “unseen”. He is also a sophisticated critic of Keynesian policy.

2. The Armchair Economist, by Steven Landsburg. Landsburg is a provocative writer, looking for extreme examples to illustrate the logic of his arguments. His books pre-date Freakonomics and his more recent work includes Fair Play and More Sex Is Safer Sex.

3. The Undercover Economist, by Tim Harford Harford is a journalist and perhaps the best writer on this list. This book is less contrarian than Landsburg, and contains more principles of economics than Levitt and Dubner. It is the standard for this type of literature, and I have used it instead of a textbook for some of my economics courses.

4. The Economic Naturalist, by Robert Frank. In this collection of submissions to Frank’s microeconomics class, he asks students to shed light on economic explanations for everyday observations. The analysis can be repetitive, but if this doesn’t get you thinking like an economist, nothing will.

5. Discover Your Inner Economist, by Tyler Cowen. Cowen is a famous blogger, macroeconomist, food critic, and collector of Haitian painting. His eclectic tastes and sophistication shine through as he grapples with the subjectivist foundations of economics.

Any of these books will be worth your time. Students of economics that find their A-Level or undergraduate studies abstract and boring should use them as a reminder of why economics is both important and fun.

Anthony J. Evans is associate professor of economics at London’s ESCP Europe Business School.