All Commentary
Thursday, November 1, 2001

Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy by Thomas Sowell

Like a Collection of Incomplete FEE Articles

Basic Books · 2000 · 432 pages · $30.00

Reviewed by Roger Meiners

Thomas Sowell is one of the fine scholars of our time. He has written on a wide range of important topics, is an excellent writer, and has provided some original insights into some difficult issues.

Teaching economics is difficult, as Sowell notes. He intends this book to be a primer on economics for the (intelligent) masses. Alas, I fear that he falls short.

I will spend little time discussing the content of the book because there is little new in it for the readers of Ideas on Liberty. Indeed, the book reads like a collection of incomplete articles from the magazine. As such, it is not as instructive or well written as most articles in this journal. The book is something of an organizational mess. Sowell notes in the preface that each chapter is to stand alone. Why that should be a goal, when a book is to be instructive on a topic as broad and difficult as economics, is unclear, but it does not work. Assuming readers were quite ignorant of economics, they would have to be quite literate about institutions, history, world events, and public policy to follow Sowell’s (correct) analysis of the many topics covered.

Each chapter contains interesting tidbits, some of which were new to me and will be good to use in the classroom. But the chapters rarely stand alone as a solid overview of a topic. For example, Chapter 15, National Output, which is eight pages long, is to explain national income accounting and the like. What is there is fine (and clearly written), but, as in other chapters, Sowell cannot stick to the topic at hand. Within a page, he states that the fall in the money supply caused the Great Depression. That’s another difficult story that needs to be laid out, not mentioned in passing to a neophyte. Similarly, in the same chapter he discusses the difficulty of comparing GDP across countries and gets into the problem of official exchange rates. That is far too complicated to explain in a paragraph.

If the chapters cannot stand alone very well, then the book should at least hang together in sequence, but it does not. There are 25 chapters. After every two or three chapters, the next chapter is called “An Overview.” These tend to be a rehash of material just covered in the previous couple chapters; they are not summaries. These do not seem effective instructive devices and, if chapters are to stand alone, the overview chapters are irrelevant.

Perhaps it was intentional, but Sowell brings up the same examples repeatedly. The stories of Sears, Montgomery Ward, and A&P come up at various times, but do not have a thread that ties them together effectively across topics. Some stories are simply repeated almost word for word (such as the story about a factory in the USSR that is told on page 43 and then again in a footnote on page 75). Meanwhile, crucial topics are blown past in a page or two. In two pages he explains that foreign aid is bad, but one who doesn’t already believe that will not be convinced by the statements made in the book.

Some of the author’s discussions are so incomplete as to be nearly useless. We read, for example, that pollution is an externality that requires government intervention. Paul Samuelson, call your office. No mention of property rights. On the next page, Sowell moves on to say that pollution is a public good (or bad) like national defense. Two pages later the evils of central planning are noted, and on the next page the nitwittery of price controls is noted. This shotgun approach won’t do for people who are just coming to these issues.

Sowell says he will not use graphs or jargon. There are no graphs, but “asymmetrical outside interests,” “an empirical question,” and “volitional pricing” seem to be jargon. The use of “widgets” to talk about production is jargon—and students don’t like it. It’s better to use real goods and services.

The book also has assorted typos, errors in the index, and incomplete references that were supposed to be filled out but never were. Since Basic Books does not edit its books, authors should beware! Overall, the book reads like a, um, second draft of a dictated manuscript. There are excellent tidbits from an author with deep knowledge, but the book needs major editing on all fronts.

As one who teaches economics at all levels, I constantly search for fresh ways to instruct the uninitiated. The textbooks on the market never seem quite right to me. But Sowell’s book, which I had hoped to use in place of another text at some level, shows us how hard it is to perform that trick. The market for economics textbooks is highly competitive, and there are significant rewards for one who does a better job. Textbook market aside, a lot of bright people have attempted to teach economics to some large audience. I hope Mr. Sowell will give it another shot.

Roger Meiners is professor of economics at the University of Texas at Arlington.