The Study of Human Well-Being

It is not sufficient that policy-makers rely on those trained in economics (and other fields) but that they be well acquainted with the relevant material and basic arguments themselves. After all, economics is the study of human well-being.

Slapped on the home page of the Mercatus Center, whose mission is to “bridge the gap between academic ideas and real-world problems,” is this fantastic Hayek quote: “Nobody can be a great economist who is only an economist – and I am even tempted to add that the economist who is only an economist is likely to become a nuisance if not a positive danger.”

Recently Robert Skidelsky, a notable economist and biographer of John Maynard Keynes noted this as well, asserting the need for a broad scope of study as advocated by John Stuart Mill, “the great nineteenth-century economist and philosopher, who believed that nobody can be a good economist if he or she is just an economist.” This theme of encouraging a broad course of study continues to the founding of economics itself.

Adam Smith, who arguably founded economics as a study, was not an economist, but a moral philosopher. His two main treatises are works of moral philosophy, his first work was focused on “moral sentiments.” His more famous, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” is a treatise on human nature and the conditions that encourage greater well-being. Properly understood, one may say, economics is a study of human well-being. To understand human well-being one must make general assumptions, which at times, may differ and lead to varied conclusions. However, as Hayek and Skidelsky advocated, it should not be limited to mere calculation or a narrow definition of economics, but should instead encompass broader questions of moral philosophy, law, political philosophy, and anything that sheds light on the broader questions of human behavior and hoped for well-being.

However, this disapprobation is not reserved only for economist. Lurking elsewhere is a similar danger by those who are untrained in economics yet dabble in the lives of others through policy-making and legislation. As a lawyer by profession I believe there is a greater need for economic familiarity within the legal community. I doubt the legal profession is alone. Anyone in a position to lend expertise where public policy and their respective fields meet should have a basic understanding of economics and other relevant branches of study.

Any lawyer seeking to “change the world” should be familiar with Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” Coase’s “The Problem of Social Costs,” Bastiat’s “That Which is Seen and That Which is Unseen,” or Buchanan and Tullock’s “The Calculus of Consent” to name only a few.  Without this basic understanding policy makers and world-changers are more of a nuisance than a help.

Our capitols are teaming with those trained in law yet may lack a basic understanding of economics. It is unfortunate. Specifically since they are the ones most likely to engage in the “art of economics.” Which as Hazlett summarized: “consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.” It is then imperative that those charged (and paid) with instituting these policies be familiar with this art and the underlying philosophy. It is not sufficient that policy-makers and lawyers rely on those trained in economics (and other fields) but that they be well acquainted with the material and the basic arguments themselves. After all, this is the study of human well-being.

James Devereaux is an attorney that tries not to be a nuisance. He can be found on twitter at jcdevereaux1 and blogs at this site. All views are his own and not of any affiliate or employer. This post was in part inspired by an old Econtalk podcast with Peter Boettke on his book “Living Economics.”

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