Is Economics a Liberal Art?

(kasto80/iStock/Getty Images)
Why economics should be included in liberal-arts curricula.

What is the relationship between economics and the liberal arts? This question has pestered me for years, especially given the politicization of the discipline. Both the Left and Right increasingly use economics as a cudgel in political battles. You have to wonder whether partisans misunderstand what the “political” in “political economy” really means.

Then again, if economics is so easily appropriated as an ideological weapon, perhaps this suggests an answer: There’s a gulf between economics and the liberal arts. The liberal arts are supposed to help us understand humanity, not control it.

But the rough-and-tumble of partisan politics is rarely, if ever, a proving ground for truth. We need to broaden our horizons. I believe economics is a liberal discipline at its core.

In labeling economics as “liberal,” I don’t mean political or social liberalism. The historical connections between economics and the various European liberalisms are already well-known. Take, for example, the publication of Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776 — a watershed moment for both economics and liberalism. The rise of Manchesterism, with its advocacy of free markets both domestically and abroad, was another. Similar examples exist for France, Italy, and Germany, although they proved less definitive than those in England and Scotland.

Instead, my interest is the relationship between economics and a liberal outlook or worldview. A good education, sometimes called a liberal education, should cultivate such a worldview. Although seldom appreciated, economics is liberal in this sense, too.

Readers may be skeptical. Edmund Burke, the founding father of Anglosphere conservatism, was an exemplary liberal in the sense I mean. His works still occupy a place of honor in many liberal-arts curricula. Yet despite holding his contemporary Adam Smith in high regard, Burke had serious reservations about economics. Consider the following passage from his Reflections on the Revolution in France:

 [T]he age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprize, is gone!

Russell Kirk, who contributed so much to the Burkean revival in post-war American conservatism, thought similarly. Kirk’s main concern wasn’t politics, but arts and letters — the intellectual life. He too was an admirer of what a liberal education could do for our minds and characters. In a foreword to one of the few works by an economist he admired, Kirk wrote, “I have regarded with some suspicion many practitioners of the Dismal Science… In general, I have found economists a blinkered breed, worshipping the false god Efficiency.”

Interestingly, Kirk authored an introductory economics textbook. One of his goals was to humanize (one might say liberalize) the discipline. Kirk was clearly more comfortable with the moral outlook of Smithian political economy than the model-and-measure technocracy of university economics, which certainly would not be granted a place in Kirk’s scholarly pantheon.

It is common to cast economics as an illiberal discipline. Perhaps a well-rounded education contains a bit of economics, as a concession to the distasteful reality of our calculating, commercial society, but it doesn’t approach the importance of, say, literature or philosophy.

There are two kinds of responses to these criticisms. The first would challenge the “distasteful reality of our calculating, commercial society” by arguing that there’s nothing shameful about the theory or practice of business. Call this the doux commerce category of counterarguments: Exchange relations civilize and humanize us, and economics can better help us understand how this happens. Deirdre McCloskey is the most capable defender of this approach. Her works seriously challenge the idea that economics is inherently illiberal. Her insistence that economics is not opposed to humane studies deserves serious consideration.

The second way is more radical: It strikes the root, rather than pruning branches. If a liberal worldview is the product of a liberal education, then showing economics belongs with the humane disciplines, for the same reasons that these disciplines are essential for a liberal education, also shows economics is an indispensable component of such a worldview. This is an intriguing possibility. But it comes with serious difficulties. It requires demonstrating not only that economics belongs with humane studies but that it is a humane study.

This requires nothing less than bringing economics to bear on classic texts in liberal-arts curricula. Few have tried it; fewer have succeeded. One important attempt was David Levy’s book chapter on rational choice in the Homeric epics. Levy’s perspective is important, because it uses the workhorse model of economics not as a standard for judging imaginative literature, but as a tool for understanding it. This is precisely the move teachers and scholars must make for economics to claim a spot at the humanists’ table.

Those who really believe in economics, as I do, are fond of saying that economics might not be able to say everything about something, but it can say something about everything. It’s time for us to prove it. Perhaps Hesiod’s Works and Days and Xenophon’s Estate Manager deserve a spot on our syllabi alongside Mankiw’s Principles of Economics.

Editor’s Note: This piece is adapted from a July 2020 blog post. 


The Latest