David R. Henderson  

Good Short Book in Economics

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Tyler Cowen, in asking for advice on what short book one should read for a good introduction to economics, quotes one of his regular readers as saying, "Henry Hazlett [sic] is out of date."

Not so. I gave a talk on this at the latest APEE conference in Nassau last month, drawing on my piece on Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson in the Freeman. Here's an excerpt in which I discuss his explanation for why economics is often so hard to grasp:

In chapter 1, "The Lesson," Hazlitt notes that the inherent difficulties in understanding economics are multiplied a thousand times "by a factor that is insignificant in, say, physics, mathematics or medicine--the special pleading of selfish interests." No group is out lobbying for us to doubt whether gravity exists, some California bumper stickers to the contrary. But slick, well-paid, plausible-sounding lobbyists do try to make us doubt whether we're better off buying goods cheaper from foreign countries, because these spokesmen represent powerful interests whose jobs and wealth depend on persuading us that free trade causes losses.

Here's an excerpt from my closing paragraph:
Although professional economists might be tempted to dismiss a book that claims to teach economics in one lesson, the fact is that few professional economists have ever read Hazlitt's book. More's the pity. Even some professional economists who pick it up might, I suspect, dismiss it as obvious and unsubtle. But what it really is is obvious and subtle--obvious because Hazlitt makes things so clear; subtle because his clarity helps him untangle otherwise complicated issues.

I note that in his comment on Arnold's post on this subject and also on Tyler's post, Dan Klein recommends my book, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey. Not surprisingly, so do I. I wrote it to lay out economics with stories (all true) because I've learned as a teacher that that's how students tend to remember things. Shortly after the book came out (it came out about 2 weeks after 9/11), one of my students who had bought a copy told me that he slipped into his wife's bag when she was going to an all-day event at which she would be sitting at a table. She had had no previous interest in economics and had thought it was boring because it was about money, GDP, interest rates, and equations. She came home that evening having read the whole thing.

The bad news is that it's out of print. Also, about 80 of my remaining 120 or so copies were destroyed in my fire. The rights have reverted to me but I have been too busy to put out another printing or edition.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (14 to date)
PeterI writes:

It was not Tyler who wrote this. He quoted from a letter.

Blackadder writes:

The economic insights of One Lesson remain timely, but the book is out of date in that the examples, numbers, etc. belong to another era. Someone really ought to do a book along the same lines for today's society (much like One Lesson was an updated version of Bastiat).

Eric Hanneken writes:

. . . I have been too busy to put out another printing or edition.

It might be easier to self-publish it as an ebook (how easy depending on what format the source is in). Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble will allow you to upload directly to them.
Blackadder writes:

If you do put out an ebook version I would be interested in purchasing it.

David R. Henderson writes:

Correction made. Thanks.
@Eric Hanneken and Blackadder,

ThomasL writes:

I didn't really care for Economics in One Lesson. It was OK, but I thought Bastiat presented the arguments more concisely, with greater (wry) humor, and in a timeless way.

For modern introductions my favorite is Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom.

Wallace Forman writes:

Knowledge and Decisions! A bit dry but great.

The Man Who Is . . . writes:

For those whose intuitions go against markets, Joseph Heath's Filthy Lucre: Economics For People Who Hate Capitalism is great. He is tender with people anti-market intuitions, but then shows why they are usually wrong.

Todd Kuipers writes:

Just thirding the ebook suggestion - it's how I've bought Caplan's, Kling's and Russ Roberts' books. And, your margin on the sale will be roughly 3-10 times higher than paper publishing.

You might find an Odesk or similar type that would do the layout/prep for you for a nominal amount.

Guy in the veal calf office writes:

A book is like sitting down in a silo and listening to a monologue. I rather chase information that interests me a bustling, sunny library that is open 24 hours a day: blogs, articles linked therefrom, and corresponding/meeting with economic minds. I've never read an economics book (unless PJ O'Rourke's abridged Wealth of Nations or Defoe's A Plan of English Commerce count). But, I think I understand as well as anyone who reads a single book or took some college courses.

(A broad liberal arts education helps. You'd be surprised how many Greeks and historians touch on what economists later restated in more detail, with more mathematical evidence.)

David R. Henderson writes:

@Todd Kuipers,

Andy Hallman writes:

This is a quibble, but is it necessary to point out the person misspelled Hazlitt, first by repeating the misspelling and then writing [sic] after it? And no, I was not the person who wrote to Cowen.

Bill Conerly writes:

I had an aptitude for math, but thought it boring. I was interested in politics, but thought it lacked a foundation. I read a couple of articles in The Freeman and purchased Economics in One Lesson (age 16, with very little discretionary income).

I've been studying economics since then. (Ph.D., professor, corporate economist, now consultant.)

The examples in the book are, in fact, dated. But the great value of the book is its simplicity and straightforward writing. An updated version would be great.

When asked for suggestions for reading, I can't recommend Sowell because of his writing style. Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom is good, but also dated. I like Nariman Behravesh's Spin-Free Economics, though it's more mainstream and less libertarian than I'd prefer.

Evan writes:

I'm taking your and Klein's recommendations. I just ordered a copy of The Joy of Freedom on Amazon. Even though it's out of print some of the independent booksellers still had it for a ridiculously low price.

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