I’m putting finishing touches on my notes for today and thinking about whether students are nearing the finishing line or the starting line or whether race metaphors and high-school graduation address cliches are even appropriate. It’s the last day of classes in Econ 323 (Classical & Marxian Political Economy) and Econ 100 (Introduction to Economics). This evening is the penultimate session of my Mises Academy course EC700 (Capitalism & Socialism). As I near the end of my time as a probationary faculty member at Rhodes–I’m up for tenure next year–I’m thinking a lot about the place of economics in learning, which just so happens to be the title of chapter 38 of Human Action. Here are a couple of thoughts. First, the Rhodes Vision, which is my institution’s mission statement:
Rhodes College aspires to graduate students with a life-long passion for learning, a compassion for others, and the ability to translate academic study and personal concern into effective leadership and action in their communities and the world.
The economic way of thinking is not merely a good thing to have if you are going to pursue a life of “effective leadership and action.” It is indispensable. Here’s Mises, from chapter 38 of Human Action (pp. 879-880):
The public discussion of economic problems ignores almost entirely all that has been said by economists in the last two hundred years. Prices, wage rates, interest rates, and profits are dealt with as if their determination were not subject to any law. Governments try to decree and enforce maximum commodity prices and minimum wage rates. Statesmen exhort businessmen to cut down profits, to lower prices, and to raise wage rates as if these matters were dependent on the laudable intentions of individuals. In the treatment of international economic relations people blithely resort to the most naïve fallacies of Mercantilism. Few are aware of the shortcomings of all of these popular doctrines, or realize why the policies based upon them invariably spread disaster.
These are sad facts. However, there is only one way in which a man can respond to them: by never relaxing in the search for truth.
The consequences are severe. Here’s Mises again, from the last paragraph of Human Action:
The body of economic knowledge is an essential element in the structure of human civilization; it is the foundation upon which modern industrialism and all the moral, intellectual, technological, and therapeutical achievements of the last centuries have been built. It rests with men whether they will make the proper use of the rich treasure with which this knowledge provides them or whether they will leave it unused. But if they fail to take the best advantage of it and disregard its teachings and warnings, they will not annul economics; they will stamp out society and the human race.
For the spectacular disagreements between Keynes and the Austrians, it cannot be denied that Keynes could turn a phrase. Here’s my favorite:
To the economists–who are the trustees, not of civilization, but of the possibility of civilization.
If you’re reading this and you’re studying economics (or anything), I want to encourage you to follow Mises’s advice: never yield and never relax in the pursuit of truth. Why? Because nothing less than the possibility of civilization hangs in the balance.