All Commentary
Friday, June 1, 1990

Book Review: Economics: Work And Prosperity by Russell Kirk

A Beka Book Publications, P.O. Box 18000, Pensacola, FL 325239160 • 1989 • 398 pages • $12.10 paperback

The old adage goes, “Those who can’t, teach.” and many a student can testify that those who can’t teach, write textbooks.

The typical elementary- and secondary-school textbook tests the patience and fortitude of every student. Not, of course, because it is challenging, but because it is dull. It is written as if by a machine rather than by a warm, flesh-and-blood human being; and usually that is half true, for most such textbooks are written by committees, in which all the signs of personality die the death of a thousand qualifications.

The substance of most textbooks is no better than their form, and often is worse. Publishers typically find people only half-educated in the fields, and select them because they have shown some ability to get along in committee work as coauthors. As a result, we have American history texts that utterly ignore the role of religion in shaping this nation’s political, social, and economic institutions, civics textbooks that anachronistically saddle the framers of the Constitution with the views of today’s liberal Federal judiciary, and textbooks in all fields that are filled with the most elementary errors.

It is, therefore, a refreshing shock to find an excellent high school economics textbook written by one of America’s finest writers, political philosophers, and historians of ideas, Dr. Russell Kirk. In Economics: Work and Prosperity, Kirk combines his great literary skills with his unparalleled knowledge of history and the ideas that have shaped it to give students a textbook that will challenge them, inspire them, even (sometimes) enter tain them. And those who read it attentively will, upon completing it, understand considerably more about economics, I daresay, than do most students who have just completed an undergraduate degree in the field. (Indeed, I first read the book in manuscript form while working on my own master’s thesis in economic ethics. I quickly recognized that it taught more solid substance in clearer ways than any other book I’d read in the field.)

Kirk begins, in the first five chapters, by introducing students to some of the first principles of economics: work, the nature of economic value, types of goods, the elements of capital, labor, and resources, supply and demand, marginal utility, price, how the market economy processes information, profits and productivity, and the important fact that poverty, not prosperity, is the natural condition of mankind. From the start he alerts readers to the important difference between controlled and free economies and how the former are doomed to failure because they try to function as if there were no economic laws.

Kirk does this not by means of a theoretical discussion but by telling the story of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, who began their venture in the New World as communists, quickly found that this “kind of slavery” bred nothing but poverty and discontent, and then abandoned the “common course and condition” in favor of a free market based on private property, finding in that the secret of abundant productivity, indeed, part of the genius of Kirk’s book is his frequent resort to stories that clearly illustrate the concepts he seeks to communicate. The stories have their origins in American history, great fictional literature, the Bible, and frequently enough Kirk’s own fertile imagination.

In the sixth through ninth chapters, Kirk explains how competition contributes to economic well-being and monopoly harms it; how division of labor, comparative advantage, and scale of production contribute to efficiency of production; the importance, forms, and effects of saving; and the nature and functions of money and banking in the economy.

The 10th through 13th chapters focus on the relationships between civil government and the economy, showing why a very limited role for government better contributes to a productive, just economy than does a broad role. The 11th chapter chronicles the successes and weaknesses of the market economy, answering, along the way, allegations that it falls short of justice, while the 12th explains the inherent weaknesses of command economies, and the 13th addresses various challenges facing all economies: pollution, waste, and especially inflation, with its distorting effects on production and distribution.

Kirk concludes with a chapter on the economic future of the world. He castigates the “prophets of doom and gloom” for ignoring obvious signs that the world is getting richer, not poorer, and for advocating “remedies” for the world’s economic ills that by their very nature cannot fail to exacerbate the problems. At the end of the chapter he has a section on “The Moral Foundation of Economics,” reviving a theme that plays throughout the book. Here Kirk drives home the lesson that “material prosperity depends upon moral convictions and moral dealings.” He explains several virtues on which economic welfare depends: honesty, industry, charity, fortitude, and generosity, and shows how and why Marxism undercuts all such values.

“So long as many people work intelligently, with good moral habits, for their own advantage and for the prosperity of a nation, an economy will remain healthy,” Kirk writes. “But hard work and sound habits may be undone by foolish public policies or by the violent entry of totalist states. There is a strong need for watchfulness on behalf of the economy.”

As one expects from an admirer of Samuel Johnson, Kirk includes a glossary with clear, helpful definitions for all the chief terms in the book. Like Johnson, he doesn’t hesitate to let definitions communicate perspective. Compare, for instance, liberal (“in politics a person who favors change and experiment, as opposed to a conservative”) with conservative (“one who prefers old and tested institutions to new and untried ways; one who believes that there are basic values that need to be conserved”). He equips students to see through the popular distortions of economic facts by giving them straight definitions of often twisted words. Inflation, for instance, which many now equate with rising prices (no thanks to the news media’s unvarying misuse of the word), he defines as “an economic condition in which too much money is in circulation, causing prices to rise rapidly.”

A thorough and helpful index completes the volume, putting useful information at the student’s fingertips whenever he needs it.

Interestingly enough, Economics: Work and Prosperity was rejected by several major publish-ers, in some cases after they had first shown considerable interest in it. Why? Because they judged that it was not sufficiently “value neutral,” that it made too much use of moral and even religious concepts, to be used in public schools. So much the worse for the public schools. Economics: Work and Prosperity has been published instead by A Beka Book Publications, one of the nation’s largest suppliers of textbooks for home and private schools. No doubt it will contribute mightily to the quality of education in those markets, not only in economics but also in moral and political philosophy, and even in students’ understanding of history. I can think of no better textbook by which to introduce students to economics.

E. Calvin Beisner holds an M.A. in economic ethics and is the author of Prosperity and Poverty: The Compassionate Use of Resources in a World of Scarcity (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1988) and Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future (Crossway Books).

  • E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.