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Economics has been recognized as a special area of study for over a century. Virtually all four-year colleges offer courses in economics and most allow students to major in the subject. Economists maintain high profiles in governments and they have been well-represented among the highest appointees in the federal government of the United States. The press reports on their doings and sayings, sometimes with praise and admiration, sometimes with ridicule and scorn. Economics and economists are words that almost everyone has heard of and uses. But what exactly is economics? Very few people can give a good definition or description of what this field of study is all about.
If ordinary citizens cannot give a good definition or description of economics, they can be excused because economists long struggled to define their field. In addition, the subject matter that economists study is not well-defined. In recent years, for example, economic journals have published papers on topics such as sex, crime, slavery, childbearing, and rats. It is not surprising, then, that one economist, in a lighter moment, suggested that economics can be defined as "what economists do."
Defining economics as "what economists do" does not tell us anything we did not already know. A good definition must explain what it is that makes economics a distinct subject, different from physics or psychology. One should not expect to find a short definition that conveys with absolute clarity all there is to know about economics (or else there would be no reason to spend hours learning about it). Neither should one believe that there is only one correct definition possible. Many good definitions are possible, and each will focus on some important aspect of the subject. To use an analogy, there is not one spot from which one can best view Niagara Falls. Each viewpoint obscures some features and emphasizes others. There are, of course, some spots that are clearly superior to others, but people can disagree about which is the very best spot.
This group of readings examines definitions of economics and explains what those definitions mean.
After you finish this unit, you should be able to:
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