Best Textbooks for a Free-Market University

Free-Market Economics Is Back in the College Classroom


Mark Skousen is an economist at Rollins College, Department of Economics, Winter Park, Florida 32789, a Forbes columnist, and editor of Forecasts & Strategies. He is also the author of Economics on Trial (Irwin, 1993), a review of the top ten textbooks in economics. He is currently working on his own textbook, Economic Logic.

“I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws . . . if I can write its economics textbooks.”

—Paul A. Samuelson

When I majored in economics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were precious few textbooks with a strong free-market bent. My introductory course required Paul A. Samuelson’s Economics, a strictly Keynesian work favoring heavy state intervention. My class in the history of economic thought relied on The Worldly Philosophers, by Robert Heilbroner, a socialist who said that Karl Marx was a good family man. My economic history book was History of the American Economy, by Ross M. Robertson, who wrote that high federal deficit spending got us out of the Great Depression. And this was at Brigham Young University, a conservative institution.

Fortunately, free-market economists have gradually filled a gap by teaching sound principles at every level of economics. There’s still much more to do, but the direction is clear—more textbook writers are producing books that teach market principles.

Here are my choices for the best textbooks in each category:

Introductory Texts: Significant Progress

There are quite a few introductory texts to choose from. Most of my colleagues select The Economic Way of Thinking, by Paul Heyne (University of Washington), now in its eighth edition (Prentice-Hall, 1997). It focuses primarily on the micro foundations of the economy and avoids defective macro concepts such as aggregate supply (AS) and aggregate demand (AD). Economics: Private and Public Choice, by James D. Gwartney (Florida State) and Richard L. Stroup (Montana State), now in its eighth edition (Dryden Press, 1997), is another favorite. It consistently applies market principles to a host of problems, including the environment, taxes, and government spending. It is the only textbook I know that spends several pages on Social Security privatization.

The only drawback is that it begins its macro section with AS-AD, a fundamentally Keynesian concept (the idea that the economy can be stuck indefinitely at equilibrium at less than full employment). Gwartney and Stroup should take a cue from Greg Mankiw’s popular new textbook, Economics (Dryden Press, 1997), which begins its macro section with the classical model (which he terms “the real economy in the long run”) and relegates the short-term AS-AD model to the back of the book. AS-AD is introduced in chapter 8 of Gwartney and Stroup but chapter 31 in Mankiw!

Another free-market textbook that puts classical economics ahead of the Keynesian model is Principles of Economics (Addison-Wesley, 1997) by Roy J. Ruffin and Paul R. Gregory, both professors at the University of Houston. They introduce AS-AD in chapter 27. Economic growth (the long-run classical model) is emphasized over the ups and downs of the business cycle (short-run Keynesian model).

Ruffin and Gregory have many other advantages: They are the only major textbook to cite favorably the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Joseph Schumpeter throughout the textbook, including the first chapter. Most textbooks quote liberally from John Maynard Keynes, Milton Friedman, and Karl Marx, but Ruffin and Gregory break new ground here. The authors focus on four major historical events (“Defining Moments in Economics”) and their impact on economic thinking: the industrial revolution, the rise and fall of socialism, the Great Depression, and globalization. They also devote major sections on privatization, public choice, the gold standard, and economic success stories in Europe and Asia.

Overall, the works by Ruffin and Gregory, and Gwartney and Stroup, are quickly becoming known as the most innovative textbooks on the market today.

Breakthrough in American Economic History

Now let’s turn to economic history. Gene Smiley (Marquette) has written a first-rate textbook for American economic history classes: The American Economy in the Twentieth Century (South-Western Publishing, 1993). It is the only textbook I know that considers all the major conflicting theories for explaining the major events of the twentieth century. It even includes an Austrian interpretation of the Great Depression and the World War II economy. I just wished Smiley covered events prior to the twentieth century; his book is that good.

History of Economic Thought

Many economics teachers have wisely replaced Heilbroner’s Worldly Philosophers with New Ideas from Dead Economists, by Todd G. Buchholz (Plum, 1990). Among other things, Buchholz is much more critical of Marx and central planning. Unfortunately, Buchholz’s book says almost nothing of the Austrian school. One book that does is A History of Economic Theory and Method, by Robert B. Ekelund, Jr., and Robert F. Hebert (McGraw-Hill, 1990). Murray N. Rothbard originally intended to write a one-volume history of economics, but his work gradually developed into a series of tomes, only two of which were completed before his untimely death: Economic Thought Before Adam Smith and Classical Economics (Edward Elgar, 1995). Both books are more appropriate for advanced courses in economic theory and philosophy.

Other free-market books may be helpful in various courses. For money and banking classes, Murray Rothbard’s The Mystery of Banking (E. P. Dutton, 1983) is useful. Dominick T. Armentano’s Antitrust and Monopoly, second edition (Holmes & Meier, 1990) is an ideal supplement in classes on industrial organization. And, of course, there is a wide variety of books on free-market economics to supplement the textbooks—works by Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Israel Kirzner, Henry Hazlitt, George Reisman, Hans Sennholz, and a host of others.

In short, free-market economics is back in the college classroom.

Filed Under : Austrian Economics


December 1997

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