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Economics for the Humanities Student


Maybe you always wanted to learn economics but weren’t sure where to start. Or you were already juggling two majors, and a third would have required bidding farewell to a social life.

Like many subjects, economics may sound overwhelming. Or morbidly dull.

We put our heads together with Art Carden, professor of economics at Samford University, and Jeffrey Tucker, director of content at FEE, to compile the following books and essays. Read these and you’ll have acquired a rudimentary understanding of economics and how markets work.


#1. “I, Pencil”

Leonard E. Read

When was the last time you used a pencil? During the SAT? Underlining those outstanding sentences in Ideas Have Consequences? You’ve probably thought little of the lean implement, because it’s as common as squirrels. Well, think again. This excellent essay by Leonard E. Read tells the pencil’s story: where its materials come from, how it’s made, and the kinds of employment it provides to hundreds of people. “I, Pencil” is an excellent introduction to how economics factors into the production, distribution, and consumption of even the most basic of household items.  


#2. “The Candlemaker’s Petition”

Frederic Bastiat

In this satirical essay, a candlemaker urges French elected officials to pass legislation to ban sunlight in order to protect his trade. Bastiat wrote it for the French Parliament to make a point: government attempts to control trade and competition are not only unjust; they are absurd.  


#3. “That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen”

Frederic Bastiat

This work explores the unseen consequences of economic choices and legislation on blue-collar workers, military, even the arts. Bastiat eloquently demonstrates the fragile nature of economics: move one lever and the whole economy—from taxes to production of goods and services to employment—shudders.


#4. “The Use of Knowledge in Society”

F. A. Hayek

Economics, Hayek says, is “a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know.” Hayek shows the severe ideological limitations under which economic planners work while claiming to solve all problems with one all-encompassing system. Complete knowledge is impossible, and so is complete planning.


#5. The Path from Poverty to Prosperity

Jay Richards

What does a society need in place to have a strong economy that helps everyone, especially the poor? The more of these ten keys to prosperity a society has, writes Jay Richards, the better off all of its citizens will be. Many of these keys may surprise you.


Further Reading

Are you still with us? Excellent! Here are three more titles to further refine your economics literacy:

Liberty & Property

Ludwig von Mises

In this sweeping yet relatively easy read, Mises guides you through the history of liberty in the West, from the days of military conquest to the development of the “individual” free to choose, think, and act. And note that freedom to choose in the marketplace is also freedom to choose in politics.

The Law

Frederic Bastiat

Once you’ve enjoyed his satire, read his rich and solemn perspective on the source and nature of law. Bastiat argues that everyone has a right to defend his person, his liberty, and his property, and that these fundamentals are the origins of law, not the other way around.

A Student’s Guide to Economics

Paul Heyne

Last but certainly not least is Paul Heyne’s summary of economics. Economics, he argues, isn’t complete until you take all of society into account. This little book is indispensable for any student who wants truly to understand the rudiments of economics.    


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