Economics is not an education. Economics is a state of the mind!

Some of the most clever economists I have encountered are actually not formally educated economists. In fact a number of Nobel Prize winners in Economics are not formally educated economists. One of my big heroes David Friedman is not formally educated as an economist, but to me he is certainly an economist – one of the greatest around. Another example is Gordon Tullock  who was trained as a lawyer, but he is certainly an economist – in fact to me Gordon Tullock is one of the most clever economists of his generation and it is a complete mystery to me that he has not yet been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. The way I perceive people’s skills as economists has nothing to do with their formal education. To me Economics is not an education. Economics is a state of mind.

Therefore, you can easily be an economist without having a formal education as an economist. As a consequence there are also people who have been able to attain a formal title as an economist without reaching that higher state of mind that a real economist has. I have unfortunately also encountered many of this kind of “economists” – economists by title, but not in mind. Many of these people are unfortunately high ranking policy makers.

Unfortunately many universities around the world today do not educate economists to be economists. They primarily educate them in technical skills – math and econometrics. And they educate them in “soft” skills and on different applied issues. A shocking amount of formally educated economists would not be able to explain comparative advantages or marginal utility to you (don’t get me stated on monetary theory). But they might be able to tell you about VAR, ARCH or GARCH – at best. Many – especially in Europe – are just educated to become government bureaucrats.

So what is the state of mind of an real economist? If you need to have that explained you are not yet an economist, but you might still become one by trying to figuring out what Gordon Tullock and David Friedman have in common. You might also read my favourite book on the topic – James Buchanan’s What Should Economists Do? 

PS This post is dedicated to all economists without formal education in economics (I miraculously became a formally educated economist in 1995, but it was not the official curriculum at the University of Copenhagen that made me an real economist – I became that by reading Gordon Tullock and David Friedman and other real economists)

PPS Yes, it is fair enough if you call me a sectarian or a cultist when it comes to Economics as a science.

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  1. My father’s standard example of your point was Leo Szilard, a physicist who was also at Chicago. Apparently Szilard would come into my father’s office with ideas in economics. Generally they were things economists had worked out much earlier–but they were right.

  2. David, thank you for dropping by. I actually have the same experience with certain physicists. I for example recently had a very interesting discussion with a professor in physics about Free Banking.

    And thank you for the reference to Szilárd – I was unaware that he had knowledge of economics. Did you father write about that anywhere?

  3. It was actually a physicist friend of mine that first nudged me toward economics. He probably still understands economics better than me, though that probably isn’t saying much.

  4. I don’t know of anything my father wrote about Szilard–I’m going by memory, but I’m almost certain I have the right physicist.

    Another example he mentioned was a famous self-taught astronomer, Simon Newcomb. Newcomb is most remembered today for having had the misfortune to argue that heavier than air flight was impossible with the then existing technology shortly before the Wright brothers did it. But he was apparently also an able amateur economist.

    Then, of course, there was a retired stock market speculator with an interest in economics, by the name of David Ricardo.

  5. David, interesting you mention Newcomb. He is actually quite interesting from a market monetarist perspective as Irving Fisher attribute the equation of exchange to him and David Selgin argues that Newcomb favored what David termed the productivity norm, which of course is a version of NGDP level targeting.

  6. Don’t forget Steven Landsburg as another great economist without a PhD in the field. These three make me think the last thing I need to learn economics is a PhD in it. Then again, I can’t just sit in on econ courses at Chicago…

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