Basic Economics (Thomas Sowell)

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Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy by Thomas Sowell is a general introduction into the study of economics. The book was first published in 2000.



Ch. 1 : What is Economics?

  • Economics is not simply a topic on which to express opinions or vent emotions. It is a systematic study of what happens when you do specific things in specific ways. In economic analysis, the methods used by a Marxist economist like Oskar Lange did not differ in any fundamental way from the methods used by a conservative economist like Milton Friedman. It is these basic economic principles that this book is about.
  • While there are controversies in economics, as there are in science, this does not mean that the basic principles of economics are just a matter of opinion, any more than the basic principles of chemistry or physics are just a matter of opinion.

Ch. 2. The Role of Prices

  • Prices play a crucial role in determining how much of each resource gets used where and how the resulting products get transferred to millions of people. Yet this role is seldom understood by the public and it is often disregarded entirely by politicians.
  • There is perhaps no more basic or more obvious principle of economics than the fact that people tend to buy more at a lower price and less at a higher price. By the same token, people who produce goods or supply services tend to supply more at a higher price and less at a lower price. Yet the implications of these two simple principles, singly or in combination, cover a remarkable range of economic activities and issues— and contradict an equally remarkable range of misconceptions and fallacies.
  • The gains and losses are not isolated or independent events. The crucial role of prices is in tying together a vast network of economic activities among people too widely scattered to all know each other. However much we may think of ourselves as independent individuals, we are all dependent on other people for our very lives, as well as being dependent on innumerable strangers who produce the amenities of life. Few of us could grow the food we need to live, much less build a place to live in, or produce such things as computers or automobiles. Other people have to be induced to create all these things for us, and economic incentives are crucial for that purpose.

Ch. 3 : Price Control

  • Nothing makes us understand the many roles of electricity in our lives like a power failure. Similarly, nothing shows more vividly the role and importance of price fluctuations in a market economy than the absence of such price fluctuations when the market is controlled.
  • Simple as basic economic principles may be, their ramifications can be quite complex, as we have seen with the various effects of rent control laws and agricultural price support laws. However, even this basic level of economics is seldom understood by the public, which often demands political “solutions” that turn out to make matters worse. Nor is this a new phenomenon of modern times in democratic countries.

Ch. 4 : An Overview of Prices

  • Newton was not the first man who saw an apple fall. His fame was based on his being the first to understand its implications.
  • Just as a poetic discussion of the weather is not meteorology, so an issuance of moral pronouncements or political creeds about the economy is not economics. Economics is a study of cause-and-effect relationships in an economy. Its purpose is to discern the consequences of various ways of allocating scarce resources which have alternative uses. It has nothing to say about social philosophy or moral values, any more than it has anything to say about humor or anger.
  • Although the basic principles of economics are not really complicated, the very ease with which they can be learned also makes them easy to dismiss as “simplistic” by those who do not want to accept analyses which contradict some of their cherished beliefs.

Ch. 5. The Rise and Fall of Business

  • One of the great handicaps of economies run by political authorities, whether under medieval mercantilism or modern communism, is that insights which arise among the masses have no such powerful leverage as to force those in authority to change the way they do things. Under any form of economic or political system, those at the top tend to become complacent, if not arrogant. Convincing them of anything is not easy, especially when it is some new way of doing things that is very different from what they are used to. The big advantage of a free market is that you don’t have to convince anybody of anything. You simply compete with them in the marketplace and let that be the test of what works best.
  • Economic changes include not only changes in the economy but also changes within the managements of firms, especially in their responses to external economic changes. Many things that we take for granted today, as features of a modern economy, were resisted when first proposed and had to fight uphill to establish themselves by the power of the marketplace. Even something as widely used today as credit cards were initially resisted.
  • Neither individuals nor companies are successful forever. Death alone guarantees turnover in management. Given the importance of the human factor and the variability among people— or even with the same person at different stages of life— it can hardly be surprising that dramatic changes over time in the relative positions of businesses have been the norm.
  • No economic system can depend on the continuing wisdom of its current leaders. A price-coordinated economy with competition in the marketplace does not have to, because those leaders can be forced to change course— or be replaced— whether because of red ink, irate stockholders, outside investors ready to take over, or because of bankruptcy. Given such economic pressures, it is hardly surprising that economies under the thumbs of kings or commissars have seldom matched the track record of economies based on competition and prices.
  • To those who run businesses, profits are obviously desirable and losses deplorable. But economics is not business administration. From the standpoint of the economy as a whole, and from the standpoint of the central concern of economics— the allocation of scarce resources which have alternative uses— profits and losses play equally important roles in maintaining and advancing the standards of living of the population as a whole.
  • Knowledge and insight need not be technological or scientific for it to be economically valuable and decisive for the material well-being of the society as a whole. Something as mundane as retailing changed radically during the course of the twentieth century, revolutionizing both department stores and grocery stores— and raising the standard of living of millions of people by lowering the costs of delivering goods to them.
  • What is important is not the success or failure of particular individuals or companies, but the success of particular knowledge and insights in prevailing despite the blindness or resistance of particular business owners and managers. Given the scarcity of mental resources, an economy in which knowledge and insights have such decisive advantages in the competition of the marketplace is an economy which itself has great advantages in creating a higher standard of living for the population at large. A society in which only members of a hereditary aristocracy, a military junta, or a ruling political party can make major decisions is a society which has thrown away much of the knowledge, insights, and talents of most of its own people. A society in which such decisions can only be made by males has thrown away half of its knowledge, talents, and insights.
  • Under both capitalism and socialism, the scarcity of knowledge is the same, but the way these different economies deal with it can be quite different. The problem is not simply with the over-all scarcity of knowledge, but also with the fact that this knowledge is often fragmented into tiny bits and pieces, the totality of which is not known to anybody in any economic system.
  • Often the knowledge that is economically crucial is highly specific to a particular location or a particular group of people— and is therefore unlikely to be widely known.
  • Highly specific knowledge of particular groups of people can prove to be just as economically decisive as knowledge of particular places.

Ch. 6. The Role of Profits— and Losses

  • The perennial desire to “eliminate the middleman” is perennially thwarted by economic reality. The range of human knowledge and expertise is limited for any given person or for any manageably-sized collection of administrators. Only a certain number of links in the great chain of production and distribution can be mastered and operated efficiently by the same set of people. Beyond some point, there are other people with different skills and experience who can perform the next step in the sequence more cheaply or more effectively— and, therefore, at that point it pays a firm to sell its output to some other businesses that can carry on the next part of the operation more efficiently. That is because, as we have noted in earlier chapters, goods tend to flow to their most valued uses in a free market, and goods are more valuable to those who can handle them more efficiently at a given stage.

Ch. 26. The History of Economics

  • Unfortunately, little of the knowledge and understanding within the economics profession has reached the average citizen and voter, leaving politicians free to do things that would never be tolerated if most people understood economics as well as Alfred Marshall understood it a century ago or David Ricardo two centuries ago.

Ch. 27. Parting Thoughts

  • Some of the economic policies which have led to counterproductive or even catastrophic consequences in various countries and in various periods of history might suggest that there was unbelievable stupidity on the part of those making these decisions—which, in democratic countries, might also imply unbelievable stupidity on the part of those who voted for them. But this is not necessarily so. While the economic analysis required to understand these issues may not be particularly difficult to grasp, one must first stop and think about the issues in an economic framework. When people do not stop and think through the issues, it does not matter whether those people are geniuses or morons, because the quality of the thinking that they would have done is a moot point.

See also