Why Economic Education Is Dangerous for Politicians

Article excerpt


This paper explores reasons why pre-college economic education is not more widespread. Although survey data suggest that adults think that economics is important in the pre-college curriculum, the study of economics tends to be delayed until the last possible moment in schooling, if it is included at all. We argue that if voters took seriously such basic economic concepts as scarcity, opportunity cost, and incentives and applied them to public issues, it would make life more difficult for politicians who prefer a world in which people think they can get something for nothing. The paper analyzes aspects of public choice theory to help explain why politicians are adverse to widespread economic education. We conclude with thoughts regarding how things could be different.

JEL Codes: A12, A13, A21

Keywords: Pre-college economic education; Public choice theory

I. Introduction

"The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics." Thomas Sowell (1993, p. 131)

Inspired by Thomas Sowell, the purpose of this paper is to explore reasons why economic education is not more widespread at the precollege level. "Economic education" commonly involves teaching college students the basic principles of economic by professors with PhDs in the discipline. But a significant amount of economic education takes place at the K-12 grade levels, most often at grades 11 and 12, with students enrolling in one-semester economics courses usually taught by a teacher with a background in general social studies. However, state and national curriculum standards generally call for some economic concepts to be included in the earlier grades as well.

Much has been written on why economic understanding is not more widespread. Public choice theorists often explain this outcome as a result of special-interest effects and rational ignorance. Others come at the problem differently. Caplan and Stringham (2005), for example, analy2e the debate by reference to the ideas of Ludwig van Mises and Frederic Bastiat. Caplan (2007) suggests that the public has a built-in tendency to underestimate the value of markets in such areas as international trade and as substitutes for "make work" programs.

We wonder why schools do not teach more economics at the ?? 2 level. Curriculum matters. A pre-college curriculum, rich with economic principles that are taught early and often, might influence how responsive voters are to the traditional appeals made by politicians wishing to gain support for this or that new government program. A review of the economic education literature (Miller and VanFossen, 2008) reveals that research dating back several years shows that children as well as adolescents can learn basic economics. Research indicates that even elementary-age children can learn economics through direct and purposeful instruction. Studies show further that students who take a high school economics course score significantly higher on tests of economics than do students who had not taken an economics course.

This paper is structured in the following fashion. In Section I, we describe the status of economic education at the precollege level. In Section II, we explore why politicians might fear facing voters who are economically literate. Here we provide an overview of three basic economic concepts that, if widely understood, would send chills down the spines of politicians. In Section III, we expand on this analysis by applying these concepts to such issues as health care, family medical leave, and the environment. In Section IV, we discuss how basic ideas from public choice theory might help explain why politicians are adverse to widespread economic education. In Section V, we discuss the relationship between economic education and the interests of politicians by examining the role of market failure and government in the school curriculum. …