Professors James Gwartney (Florida State University), Richard Stroup (Montana State University) and Dwight Lee (Georgia University), three longtime colleagues of mine, have recently published "Common Sense Economics." It's a small book, less than 200 pages, that addresses a serious economist dereliction of duty: making our subject understandable to the ordinary person.
Public misunderstanding of basic economic principles leaves us easy prey to political quacks, charlatans and assorted hustlers. Part I of "Common Sense" focuses on 10 key elements of economics that I'll only briefly describe.
The first is incentives matter. During the 1970s, gasoline prices rose dramatically. Immediately, people did more carpooling and eliminated unimportant trips. Gradually, they shifted to more fuel-efficient cars. During the 1980s and 1990s, gasoline prices fell. Again, people altered their behavior by buying more SUVs and more powerful cars.
Incentives matter under socialism, too. In the former USSR, managers and employees were compensated by the number of tons of glass they produced. Factories produced glass so thick one could hardly see through it. The rules were changed so that compensation was made according to square meters of glass produced. Factories produced glass so thin that it broke easily.
The second element is there's nothing that's free. Politicians talk about "free education," "free medicine" or "free housing," but that's nonsense. Resources are required to produce each of them. Of course, some people received these goods at a zero price, but that doesn't mean they didn't cost someone, usually a taxpayer, something.
Their third element is we don't make all-or-nothing decisions such as choosing between eating or wearing clothes, that is, dining in the nude so we can afford food. Instead, we choose between having a little more food at the cost of a little less clothing.
Their fourth element is that trade promotes economic progress through encouraging specialization. That's true whether the trade is between individuals, regions or countries. Specialization and trade make us dependent upon one another, but not to worry. The world's poorest people are far more independent than we. Check out Darfur. You might see families building their own shelter, gathering their own food and heating supplies, and making their own clothing. The flip side of the idea that trade promotes progress, and their fifth element, is the idea that obstacles to trade stymie progress. Among these political obstacles are taxes, licenses, regulations, price controls, tariffs and quotas.