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Proof You Shouldn't Judge a Book by its Cover
January 16, 2015
What sets Thomas Sowell apart from many economists and intellectuals is his ability to present complex ideas with both clarity and simplicity. As he himself once noted, "If academic writings were difficult because of the deep thoughts involved, that might be understandable, even if frustrating. Seldom is that the case, however. Jaw-breaking words often cover up very sloppy thinking." For Sowell, economics is no exception.
In Basic Economics, he reminds you that economics is the study of the use of scarce resources which have alternative uses. And with this fundamental truth in mind we see a master expositor at work. He derives many economic principles from this easily forgotten fact, offering you real-life examples along the way. This book was, of course, written for the layman. In fact, no prior knowledge of economics is needed before you read it. Yet the book is of such breadth and depth that economist Dr. Walter Williams says "it provides an understanding of some economic phenomena that might prove elusive to a Ph.D. economist."
As you read and become familiar with how Sowell thinks, you will yourself begin to think like an economist. You will learn to judge policies not by their proposed goals, but by the incentives they are likely to create, which may have the opposite effect of their intended goals. You will learn to think about not only a policy's immediate effects, but also its effects in the long run, and not only its effects to a specific group of people, but to everyone. In the process, many of your long-held cherished beliefs may be challenged.
Consider, for instance, minimum wage laws. Sowell explains why increasing the price an employer must pay his employees--though put into law for benevolent reasons--can have unintended bad effects, like an increase in unemployment. He also explains why, for similar reasons, rent control decreases the quality of apartment buildings, or why lowering the price of gas can cause a shortage.
This 5th edition of Basic Economics includes a new chapter on international disparities in wealth. An insightful chapter, Sowell explains why some countries enjoy luxury while others suffer poverty, pointing to such commonly overlooked factors as geography and culture. Another addition is that this book ends with a section of questions covering important economic issues. If you don't know the answer to a question, it tells you where in the book you can find it. This is especially helpful for someone forgetful like me, who must regularly return to refresh on economics. It's also helpful for quizzing yourself to see how well you understood the information.
To say that Sowell's books have boring covers and titles is an understatement. But they provide strong evidence for the claim that "you shouldn't judge a book by its cover." I recommend this book as a must-read to everyone, not just to aspiring economists. (I also highly recommend Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson.) However, I would be remiss if I did not include in this review any drawbacks, and there's a big one. Basic Economics will leave you more pessimistic for your country than before you opened it.