Some Sins of Textbook Economics

By Boudreaux, Donald J. | Freeman, January/February 2012 | Go to article overview

Some Sins of Textbook Economics


Boudreaux, Donald J., Freeman


People who are ignorant of economics are susceptible to all sorts of misunderstandings. Fortunately knowledge of even just the basics of sound economics is a powerful inoculant against many dangerous falsehoods and half-truths.

This fact, however, does not imply that exposure to more economics is necessarily good. The sad reality is that economists too often present their analyses of markets in ways that confuse not only unsuspecting noneconomists but also - and too often - economists themselves.

A frequently encountered instance of this confusion is economists' discussion of competition. What introductory economics textbooks describe as "perfect" (or "pure") competition resembles nothing that occurs in the real world. In the world of the textbooks, firms don't differentiate their products from those of their rivals. Firms never try to win more customers by improving the quality of their products. Also, firms don't advertise. Indeed they don't even cut prices because each "perfectly competitive" firm is a "price taker": It's too small to affect the market price and so can sell as much as it wishes at whatever price prevails in the market.

These and other problems with the model of "perfect competition" have been pointed out repeatedly, especially by economists steeped in the Austrian tradition - see, for example, Hayek's essay "The Meaning of Competition." Yet the typical economist still clings to the notion that "perfect competition" is perfect competition. This typical economist, it must be admitted, does understand that the conditions necessary for "perfect competition" to prevail in actual markets can never exist. But the model remains the ideal against which real-world markets are judged. The closer real-world markets appear to be to textbook "perfectly competitive" markets, the more competitive real-world markets are assumed to be.

And competition being a good thing, this typical economist presumes that policies advertised as moving real-world markets closer to the "perfectly competitive" ideal are desirable.

Assumed Conclusions

But such a presumption is unwarranted, in part because many of the conclusions of the analysis are snuck into the model's initial assumptions.

Most important among this model's foundational assumptions is that competitive forces play out only in the form of price cuts. Therefore anything that prevents prices from being cut (down to levels that the model specifies as appropriate) is regarded as an obstacle to competition - indeed, as an element of monopoly that prevents the economy from operating more efficiently.

To this day, many mainstream economists describe any firm that can raise, even modestly, the price it charges for its product without driving away all of its customers as possessing some monopoly power.

Note the confusion: A pest-control producer that aims to increase its sales by making a better mousetrap is regarded by this model as behaving monopolistically! Competing for customers by doing something other than simply cutting prices is, according to the model, not competitive.

You can't make this stuff up.

Another example of how economists commonly confuse themselves (and others) involves the issue of "market failure." That same introductory economics textbook that teaches the model of "perfect competition" explains a few chapters later that markets perform suboptimally whenever some groups of people act in ways that affect other groups of people without the consent of these third parties. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Some Sins of Textbook Economics
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.