When I tell people that I work at the Foundation for Economic Education, they sometimes ask: “What economic ideas should people understand?”
We at FEE have thought about this quite a lot for our articles, courses, seminars, and videos. We have distilled “economic thinking” into 12 key concepts. The following list has guided us internally for a few years, and I figure it’s now time to share it with the world.
1. Gains from trade: In any economic exchange, freely chosen, both parties benefit–at least in their own minds.
2. Subjective value: The value of any good or service is determined by the individual human mind.
3. Opportunity cost: Nothing is free, and the cost of anything is what you give up to get it.
4. Spontaneous order: Society emerges not from top-down intention or planning but from individuals’ actions that result in unplanned outcomes for the whole.
5. Incentives: Individuals act to maximize their own reward.
6. Comparative advantage: Cooperation between individuals creates value when a seller can produce a given item or service at a lower cost than the buyer would spend to produce it himself.
7. Knowledge problem: No one person or group knows enough to plan (and force) social outcomes, because information necessary for social order is distributed among its members and revealed only in human choice.
8. Seen and Unseen: In addition to the tangible and quantifiable effects, there are quite often invisible costs and unmet opportunities to any action or policy.
9. Rules matter: Institutions influence the decisions individuals make. For example, property rights extend from the reality of scarcity which demands that ownership must be vested in individuals and not a collective.
10. Action is purposeful: Each person makes choices with the intention of improving his or her condition.
11. Civil society: Voluntary association permits people of all backgrounds to interact peaceably, create value, cultivate personal character, and build mutual trust.
12. Entrepreneurship: Acting on an opportunity to gather underused, misused, or undiscovered resources and ideas to create value for others.
You might think about all the ways and places these principles appear–as you shop, socialize, and plan your future. As we like to say, economics is everywhere!