I did not become interested in economics until I was well-immersed in the liberty movement. I suppose even now my understanding of economics comes second to my political and philosophical opinions. If I had been more eager in my study of economics I might have made less of a fool out of myself for so many years, but unfortunately my mind was warped in my formative years like so many of my peers, and it took a slow process of readjustment to strip me of my misconceptions about the nature of economics.
Economic illiteracy is rampant in our society, and it might be the greatest impediment to the growth of the cause for human freedom. Scratch most people a little and you’ll discover they are almost always confused Keynesians of some kind. Usually this isn’t their fault. It’s all they’ve ever known. Occasionally you might find a crypto-Marxist. The message of free markets sans any coercion challenges assumptions most people are not even aware of harboring.
For example, almost everyone you might happen to talk to about prices takes for granted that goods and services have some kind of objective or intrinsic value – either based on the amount of effort involved in making a product, or the equality in value of the goods being exchanged (it absolutely blew my mind when I discovered this was not the case). Nobody knows why they believe this. For most people it is an unsupported axiom.
A lucky few react well enough to the logic of freedom that their economic foibles eventually resolve themselves, but many (rightly, perhaps) are too afraid that unregulated capitalism will lead to rampant unemployment, poverty, and abuses of human rights to think outside the comfortable box of government regulated “mixed” economies.
And why shouldn’t people be ignorant of economics? They’re ignorant because they have never actually studied it. And they’ve never studied it because, like mathematics or physics, they are profoundly and hopelessly bored by it.
Pick up a standard High School economics textbook and tell me that they’re wrong to be bored! They are bored because they have never discovered for themselves what economics really is, and basic (government-run) education reinforces this.
As a senior in High School I was forced by the State of California to take an economics class. I already styled myself an anarchist, but I had not yet signed off on the capitalist half of “anarcho-capitalism” nor become a full-fledged Austrian. During this time I flirted with Distributism and other so called “traditional” economic models. Needless to say, I hadn’t a clue what I was talking about and was bored and confused the entirety of the semester. It wasn’t until I understood what economics actually studies that I became passionate about it.
If I Google the word “economics”, the first definition I read is “the branch of knowledge concerned with the production, consumption, and transfer of wealth”. This is fine as far as it goes, and the inclusion of the word “transfer” implies a certain truth, but it’s certainly not a definition which invites further inquiry from the average person.
Far more concerning is the Wikipedia definition, which is similar to the definitions in most High School textbooks: “a social science concerned chiefly with the description and analysis of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services”. A definition like that, with grey, academic language like “social science”, “description” and “analysis” conjures up pictures of Beltway talking-heads on the television, congressmen writing incomprehensible volumes of economic policy, stuffed shirts bidding on stock options and other such dreary things.
Under such illusions, most people brush off economics as a pursuit for the obsessed few which they are free to ignore. This is tragic. Our teachers and prevailing wisdom have taught us to believe that economics is primarily a method for determining the best public policy which will maximize growth.
But economics isn’t about that. It’s not about policy or GDP or prices or supply and demand or fractional reserve banking. And it certainly has nothing to do with what happens in Washington, D.C. of all places. Economics is about the sovereign You. It is about You, a free individual, and the exchanges You make with other free individuals to maximize happiness. Economics is the mechanics, the logic, of human choice.
For this reason it is not primarily a financial question, nor even an anthropological one. Like scholastic theology, epistemology, and metaphysics, it is a philosophy – the love of wisdom. To contemplate the laws of economics is to contemplate the Truth, which Aristotle calls the highest of all activities. To know the Truth is to fall in love. What other choice do we have?
When I understood that economics was about the very nature of reality, and specifically my place in reality, and my own freedom of choice, it suddenly became a matter of vital importance. I understood that every aspect of my life was economic, not just the parts involving money. No longer was it the boring haunt of musty textbooks and compulsory government education; it was exhilarating. It was exhilarating because it was about Love.
All things worth pursuing are about Love. And yet those charged with teaching economics have turned it into a list of memorized vocabulary words. Imagine if we were all taught that music is merely the succession of differing frequencies of sound in time! Who would be interested? This is the message we need to promote if we want more people to support economic freedom. We need to break the conditioning, and let people see what economics truly is: life itself.