By James Kwak
Matthew Klein of Alphaville called out the “Council of Economic Education” for a supposed “economic literacy” quiz that wrapped up free market ideology in the trappings of universal economic truth. The quiz is full of questions like this one:
If you know a little bit of economics, and you know how to answer multiple-choice tests, it’s clear that you’re supposed to choose “C”—the point being that trade helps consumers, and limits on trade help domestic competitors. But, as Klein shows, these types of simple, first-order answers may or may not apply to the real world. For question 7, for example, you would have to know why the United States stopped importing automobiles from Country X.
What the Council of Economic Education really came up with here is a push poll: a set of questions intended to convey a certain message. The message is that complicated policy issues can be reduced to multiple choice questions which, in turn, can be answered using a handful of simple models from an Economics 101 class. But you can only answer the questions “correctly” if you assume that those models accurately depict the behavior of individuals and firms in the real world. Then everything becomes easy: trade is always good for all parties, taxes and regulations (like rent ceilings) are always bad, and competition is always good for consumers.
This idea that all questions can be answered using a few diagrams from introductory economics has been pushed by business organizations since World War II. That was the principle behind the Foundation for Economic Education, which helped sponsor Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek; behind 1950s’ economic education programs in the sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers and large corporations (often to captive audiences of employees); and behind business-sponsored teaching kits distributed to thousands of schools. (For the full story, see Selling Free Enterprise, by Elizabeth Fones-Wolf.) In each case, the motivation was the same: teach people a streamlined, fact-free version of the competitive market model, and they will understand why free markets are always good and government intervention is always bad.
The problem, of course, is that the real world is rarely so simple. But if you can get lots of people to learn a little bit of economics, you can convince them that trade agreements are always good (comparative advantage!) and that the minimum wage is always bad (price floor!). I’m all in favor of education—I’m in the business, after all. A lot of what the Council for Economic Education does may be valuable. But multiple choice is not the right answer to real problems.