How to increase the economic knowledge of Americans
Religion & Liberty Online

How to increase the economic knowledge of Americans

Imagine you receive an email from the Secretary of Education saying that you’ve been randomly selected for a test pilot program.

In an attempt to democratize the educational system, 20 citizens have been selected to develop a curriculum that will be added as a graduation requirement for every high school student in America. The only limitation is that the curriculum must pertain to a subject that is already covered in high school, must not be tied to religion or theology, and must take no longer than a total of 3 hours (half a school day) to implement.

For the typical student in America, the school year typically lasts for 180 days at 6-hour for 13 years (K-12). That’s roughly 14,040 hours of time they’ll spend in school. You now have three of those hours to change the course of their education. What would you do?
Here’s my proposed program:

Have every student read and discuss Frederic Bastiat’s “That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen.”

College-bound students would be required to read the entire essay while those who struggle would read only excerpts, perhaps only the first 400 words. The students would then briefly explain the point of the essay in their own words, discuss the essay amongst themselves, and then provide three to four examples of how they think it might be applied in their own lives and in the realm of public policy.

And that’s it. That’s the entire program.

Not everyone would benefit from such reading and discussion, of course. Yet if even a fraction of American’s students grasped the concept it would quite literally change the future of our nation’s politics and policy.

“No single essay or article in economics is more vital than Frederic Bastiat’s ‘What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen,’” says Don Boudreaux. “The fact that its simple but widely missed point is made crystal-clear by a writer intent on communicating in an easy and accessible style should not cause this essay to be viewed as an exercise in mere pop-econ.”

Unfortunately, I’m not likely to get an email from the Education Secretary offering to put my program in place. But I can do the next best thing: Encourage you to read the essay and encourage you to encourage others to read it. As Boudreaux adds,

So if you’ve not yet read Bastiat’s brilliant essay, do so. Do so ASAP. Then re-read it. Ponder it. Keep pondering it. Never forget it or its lesson. Let it prompt you always to ask about the visible that all-important question that probes the ever-present invisible: “As compared to what?” By doing so you will thereby become a better economist than thousands of econ-PhD-sporting people today.

After you read Bastiat’s essay be sure to read Boudreaux’s brief explanation of the “different ‘levels’ of the not-seen.”

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).