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Teaching Tomorrow's Economists

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03/09/2012Robert P. Murphy

I am happy to announce that the Teacher's Manual is now available for my introductory textbook, Lessons for the Young Economist. For those readers who are unfamiliar with it, let me explain that the student text was designed with junior-high students in mind, but it is applicable for younger, precocious students, and also even for adults who never got a solid grounding in free-market economic principles.

The newly available manual is intended to guide the teacher through the course, giving the broader context of the material in the student text, as well as offering suggested test questions and further activities. It can be used by classroom teachers, but is also ideally suited to homeschooling instruction by parents who may not be confident in their own economics knowledge.

A Teaching Plan

Here's how the manual works: First, before introducing a particular chapter (or lesson), the teacher needs to read it in the student text. Then, the teacher should read the accompanying material in the manual. For each section of each chapter, the manual may give the historical context, clarify the relationship between what the student is learning from the text compared to a typical college textbook, warn about possible confusions the student may encounter, give links for the teacher's own edification (not necessarily to be assigned to the student), and so forth.

After walking through the main body of the student text in a given chapter, the manual then provides thorough answers to the study questions found at the back of each lesson. The manual then lists optional supplemental materials, which are free online videos, audio lectures, and readings, along with instructions as to their level of difficulty and relevance, helping the teacher determine which (if any) to assign.

Next the manual will list one or more suggested activities, which are applied ways to illustrate the concepts from the chapter. Some of the activities will be suitable for classroom use, while others will be more relevant for homeschooling families where the teacher and student will be out in the "real world" together on a regular basis.

Finally, each chapter of the manual ends with a sample test, which can be printed out (if the teacher is using a PDF version) or copied (if using a physical book).

Sample Activities

In this section I'll summarize some of the suggested activities listed in the manual, to motivate teachers to consider it. (The book can be perused for free in PDF form.)

Lesson 2 from the student text is entitled "How We Develop Economic Principles." It lays out the rudiments of Ludwig von Mises's conception of human action and the nature of economic law, and in particular how we do not "test" economic laws the same way we test laws in chemistry or physics. In the Teacher's Manual, the suggested activity is

Get the student comfortable with the distinction between purposeful action versus reflexive (mindless) behavior by working with extreme examples. For example, does the sun "want" to rise in the east every morning? Does a plant "want" to gradually move its leaves toward the sunlight? Does a dog perform a trick for a treat "on purpose"? Are the zombies in movies using means to achieve ends?

In Lesson 3, one of the principles the student learns is that only individuals act. The student text explains the danger in statements such as, "Germany attacked France." In reality, of course, it is more precise to say that certain individuals in the German army obeyed orders to invade the borders of France, and launch attacks on French military targets. To motivate these ideas, the suggested activity in the Teacher's Manual for this chapter is "Have the student browse a newspaper or watch the nightly news, and note how many times a collective entity (such as a country or government) is reported to have taken a purposeful action."

Lesson 4 of the student text is devoted to "Robinson Crusoe" economics. The chapter explains the various categories or concepts of economics, such as scarcity, goods, consumer goods, producer goods, saving, investment, and so on. The book emphasizes that these concepts exist in the mind of the individual; economics is subjective, in other words.

To make these abstract ideas a bit more concrete, the suggested activities in the Teacher's Manual include:

  1. Ask the student to think of situations in which typically non-scarce goods can become scarce and hence subject to economic analysis. For example, deep sea divers must purchase tanks of oxygen, and we could imagine space travelers buying gravity-generating devices for their ships.

  2. Ask the student to come up with scenarios in which changing beliefs can alter which physical things are considered scarce economic goods. For example, if a certain root is believed to have medicinal properties, people will pay others to collect it. But if it turns out that the man publicizing the claims is a fraud, then the root might lose its status as a good.

  3. The next time you and the student are at a store, ask about the status of the items on the shelf, from the point of view of the store owner and the customer. For example, the student could say that all of the items on the shelves are producer goods to the owner, because he or she looks at them as a means of earning money. But from the point of view of the customer, some of the items (such as a loaf of bread) could be classified as a consumer good, while others (such as a drill) could be classified either way, depending on how the student frames the situation. (Note that in one sense, a drill doesn't confer direct happiness on the consumer, except in a Tim Allen-macho-man fashion.) Furthermore, even "obvious" consumer goods could be classified as producer goods, depending on how the student frames the issue. A woman might buy expensive clothes in order to fit in with a certain group of people, for example, even though she would rather wear sweatpants; in this sense the items are a means to an end, i.e., producer goods.

Lesson 5 of the student text explains the social function of the institution of private property. It follows the approach of Hans Hoppe, arguing that property rights are necessary to peacefully resolve potential conflicts over the contradictory uses of scarce resources. The Teacher's Manual suggests the following activities for thoughtful students:

  1. Especially if the student is an animal lover, you could ask whether it's really correct to say that Crusoe was the only intelligent mind on his island, appraising the scarce goods. For example, what if Crusoe's activities destroyed bird nests? There is no preferred answer here, but you should point out the difficulties in actually assigning property rights to birds, monkeys, etc. Note too that just because someone has the legal right to use an object (i.e., is its owner), doesn't relieve him or her of moral or religious responsibilities. For example, even if we can agree that Crusoe is the effective owner of everything on the island, we can still consider it deeply immoral for him to commit wanton cruelty to the animals on it.

  2. One of the most difficult problems in applying the concept of private property in the real world, is understanding the boundaries between various property rights. A discussion on these issues might be fruitful. The classic expression of this idea is to say, "Your right to extend your fist ends where my nose begins," but there are many other examples. For example, does a homeowner have the right to throw a noisy party on his own property at 3 a.m., or do his neighbors have the right to exclude disturbing sound vibrations from entering their property? These subtleties lie outside the scope of this course, but they could provoke interesting discussions. Murray Rothbard laid out a particular view of property rights in his book The Ethics of Liberty. Note that not all libertarian or even Austrian scholars would necessarily endorse Rothbard's views, but the book at least provides an example of a serious attempt to answer the question of assigning actual property titles.

As a final example, let's jump ahead to Lesson 17, which discusses the problems with price controls, including the minimum wage. Here the suggested activities are well suited for homeschooling families:

  1. Often a good way to introduce the problems with the minimum wage — especially with someone who initially thinks it's a good idea — is to ask, "Why not set a minimum wage of $100 per hour, so everyone would be rich?" (The same thing could be done for rent control of $10 per month.) Another way to approach the issue is to ask, "Why doesn't every worker — including brain surgeons and star quarterbacks — get paid the minimum wage?"

  2. While on an interstate road trip, have the student find out the minimum wage levels applicable in each state along the route using Wikipedia. Then pay attention to how many workers the various restaurants have along the way, trying to hold other factors constant (such as time of day, weekday versus weekend, size of the crowd, etc.). For example, as of this writing the minimum wage in Washington State was $8.55 for workers 16 and older, whereas in adjacent Idaho it was only $7.25. Other things equal, we would expect to see fewer workers at fast-food restaurants in Washington. (Be careful if stopping at a fancier restaurant, because minimum wage laws usually make exceptions for workers who earn tips.)


Whether a homeschooling parent or a professional educator, anyone who teaches economic principles to students in the junior-high through high-school level should consider adding the new Teacher's Manual as a resource. And if the teacher hasn't already done so, he or she should review the original student textbook, Lessons for the Young Economist, to see if it is appropriate to incorporate into the curriculum.


Contact Robert P. Murphy

Robert P. Murphy is a Senior Fellow with the Mises Institute. He is the author of numerous books: Contra Krugman: Smashing the Errors of America's Most Famous Keynesian; Chaos Theory; Lessons for the Young Economist; Choice: Cooperation, Enterprise, and Human Action; The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism; Understanding Bitcoin (with Silas Barta), among others. He is also host of The Bob Murphy Show.