Why ECON 0110 Should Be a Part of the Political Science Concentration

ECON 0110 at Brown

Senior Lecturer Rachel Friedberg delivers a lecture for ECON 0110: “Principles of Economics” at Brown University.

As the teaching assistant in my bargaining theory class worked through an example of an electoral competition model, I realized just how closely political science and economics are related.

Consider two candidates running for office. Each candidate must decide on an ideology, or how far left or right to be. In this model, we assume that voters will cast their votes for the candidate whose views most closely match their own. How can a candidate determine the stance that will win the election for her, given the other candidate’s position? With the mathematical power of economics, we can determine the optimal ideology that will garner the candidate the most votes. If voters only care about how close a candidate’s views are to their own, then each candidate’s incentive is to be slightly farther left or right than the other candidate, depending on whether the left or right side of the other candidate’s ideology contains more voters. Economics provides a useful model to frame the answer to this political science question. Because economics aptly explains political phenomena, ECON 0110: “Principles of Economics” should be a required course in Brown’s undergraduate political science degree.

While Brown’s public policy and American institutions degree requires a microeconomics course, Brown’s political science concentration does not require any economics courses. Granted, public policy classes use economics — specifically econometrics — as a tool to analyze the outcomes of government policies. But in understanding what incentives to create when crafting a policy, microeconomics proves to be an essential modeling tool.

From a political science standpoint, economics is useful because it provides the tools for modeling political scenarios, much like the electoral competition model described above. Incentives, the backbone of economics, can be used to aptly explain and model the decision-making process of a senator or president, for example.

And in a policy-oriented sense, a working knowledge of economics is helpful. When studying why certain laws do not get passed in Congress, one may want to analyze the macroeconomic implications of those laws and what incentives politicians are following. It could be the case that a policy would shrink output, and no politician wants an economic contraction on his record. Cost-benefit analysis — implicit in many areas of economic reasoning — is an appropriate framework to use when analyzing governmental actors’ considerations. For example, is taking up a certain position politically beneficial or costly, and under what electoral conditions would a representative adopt the position?

For those political science concentrators dreaming of a future in politics, economics is essential. A future politician who plans to sponsor free-market policies in his elected office should know how the invisible hand works and what the micro- and macroeconomic pros and cons of a free market are. Similarly, it would be hard to criticize the function of the Federal Reserve or the good and bad aspects of government spending without any knowledge of macroeconomics. And even for those political science concentrators who are interested in policy but do not want to run for elected office, knowing the macroeconomic consequences of any policy is important for understanding how that policy works.

Finally, and most importantly, economics is inherent in the nature of government. In Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman writes that “The citizen of Great Britain, who after World War II was not permitted to spend his vacation in the United States because of exchange control, was being deprived of an essential freedom no less than the citizen of the United States, who was denied the opportunity to spend his vacation in Russia because of his political views. The one was ostensibly an economic limitation on freedom and the other a political limitation, yet there is no essential difference between the two.” He sees the economic and political definitions of freedom — a relevant topic in a political science course — as one and the same.

Why “Principles of Economics,” then, and not ECON 1110: “Intermediate Microeconomics” or ECON 1210: “Intermediate Macroeconomics”? “Principles” is an overview of important micro- and macroeconomic concepts, and knowing a bit of both will enrich political science concentrators’ understanding of government. “Principles of Economics” by N. Gregory Mankiw, the book the class uses, is a good introduction to economic modes of thinking. “People respond to incentives,” Mankiw’s wisdom in the first chapter, has stayed with me ever since I took the course. Furthermore, “Principles” is a prerequisite for both micro- and macroeconomics, and if a political science concentrator were to take either micro- or macroeconomics, she would have to take the other one, which adds two requirements to the concentration. It would be best to start small with one economics class to generate interest in economics among political science concentrators.

The relationship between political science and economics is as clear as the one between supply and demand. Perhaps that’s why there is considerable overlap between concentrators in the two departments.


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About the author

Olivia Conetta is a co-editor-in-chief at The Spectator. She is majoring in public policy and economics and hails from Roslyn, New York.

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