EconomicsFree Enterprise in Action
by David E. OConnor
(Orlando: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich), 1988, 594 pp.
General comments: This hardcover textbook was published in 1988 and,
10 years later, is still in its first edition. The book is attractively produced and the
writing is neither too advanced nor too childish for high school students. However, the
book is quite weak in training the student how to think like an economist. The author
rarely works through economic issues in ways that get the student to think about results
rather than intentions, to weigh all costs and benefits, to consider changes in incentives
and other secondary consequences. Furthermore, the book often advocates solutions that
contradict its subtitle, "Free Enterprise in Action."
Criterion 1: Costs and PricesHow Production is Determined
OConnor starts out well with a broad definition of economics: "The study of
the choices people make in an effort to satisfy their wants and needs is called
economics" (p. 22). However, he does not elaborate upon this definition to show that
economics helps to explain and predict a vast range of human decisions, not just matters
commonly perceived as "economic." He then takes a wrong step when discussing the
"Basic Questions" as aggregate rather than individual matters. For
example, he writes that "the nation must determine who will receive what goods
and services and in what amounts" (p. 27, italics added). But one of the most
important teachings of economists from Adam Smith onward is that the basic questions of
economics do not have to be decided at the national level and indeed should not be. The
spontaneous order of the market will answer the questions of production and distribution.
Unfortunately, the book, here and elsewhere, reinforces the notion that many economic
decisions can only be decided collectively.
The books discussion of Adam Smith and the idea of the "invisible hand"
is not clear. OConnor writes, "Smith argued that the promotion of self-interest
benefits all of society by helping the economy to grow. He attributed the growth to an
invisible hand that leads individuals to unknowingly do what is best for all of society
when they protect their own self-interests" (p. 30). This is somewhat misleading; it
suggests that producing particular goods and services for profitable trade means doing
what is "best for all of society." That is not exactly Smiths point. Smith
was saying that the overall wealth of a nation would rise if people were free to pursue
their self-interest, since doing so would optimize the use of human energy, capital and
The authors presentation of basic market dynamics is good and shows how profits
and losses work to direct resources in the economy. The major weakness of this section is
the end-of-chapter discussion on defenders and critics of the price system. The student
gets two paragraphs in defense of the price system, followed by a lengthy batch of
criticisms (pp. 87-89). These criticisms have been often refuted, but they are allowed to
stand without comment. For example, we hear the old "big business dominates"
argument that is part of socialist folklore, but neither stands up to scrutiny nor, even
if true, would constitute a reason for abandoning the price system in favor of some other
rationing device. Also, while it is true that there can be negative externalities in a
market economy, there can also be negative externalities in any other economic system. The
market can deal with them better than other systems.
Finally, OConnor commits an inexcusable error when he says that "Price
controls are adopted because the price system is unable to reach equilibrium on its
own" (p. 89). Markets always have a tendency toward equilibrium; the problem
is that government often interferes with the market on behalf of people who dont
like the markets results. We dont have rent control, for example, because the
rental housing market "cant reach equilibrium," but because individuals
who are either unable or unwilling to pay the market price for housing give their support
to politicians who will pass such measures.
Criterion 2: Competition and Monopoly
The books discussion of various market structures from pure competition to
monopoly is flawedespecially in the treatment of monopoly. The logic of monopolistic
pricing and profit maximization is not raised, except to say that if prices are too high,
buyers will buy less. Here, marginal cost and marginal revenue analysis would have
simultaneously helped the students economic thinking and would have explained the
point more clearly. Nor does the student learn that monopolies are inefficient suppliers.
Government monopolies are discussed in reverential tones. OConnor writes,
"Government monopolies exist in response to a public need the private sector
. . . has not met. Most enhance the general welfare rather than seek profits. For this
reason, the public generally supports government monopolies" (p. 126). These
assertions are entirely lacking in economic analysis. Government monopolies sometimes
exist because the government has outlawed competition (the Post Office) and sometimes
because government provision crowds out the possibility of private-sector action (e.g.,
unemployment insurance). Moreover, OConnor never discusses the efficiency problems
of government monopolies. Instead of learning economic thinking, the student is handed an
almost indefensible platitude.
Antitrust enforcement is given a brief, non-analytical treatment. The student learns
little except that the intent of antitrust is to protect competition and break up
monopolies. OConnor mentions only one case, the breakup of AT&T. He says nothing
about the tendency of government regulators and some businessmen to bring antitrust suits
that stifle competition; nor does the author discuss how hard it is to secure and maintain
a monopoly without help from the government, AT&T being a good example. In many
states, AT&T faced competing phone companies in the early 1900s, but managed to have
them legislated out of business so it could enjoy a monopoly.
Criterion 3: Comparative Economic Systems
OConnors discussion of comparative economic systems is very weak.
Under the "Origins of Socialism," he gives the long outdated view that in the
Industrial Revolution "the quality of life for workers deteriorated" (p. 443).
Using data on infant mortality, diet, life expectancy, and other measures, historians and
economists now know that the quality of life rose for the working class. Life was indeed
hard, but it had always been hard for workers and peasants; they had never enjoyed
"adequate sanitation and medical facilities" before the Industrial Revolution,
but many began to enjoy these things as a result of the rising productivity and incomes
brought about by the Industrial Revolution.
OConnor portrays Sweden in rosy terms as the "model" democratic
socialist state. After a list of all the social programs of the welfare system, students
are told that "The standard of living in Sweden is one of the highest in the
world" (p. 444). This implies a cause and effect relationship. What is omitted from
the text is Swedens stagnant GDP, crushing tax rates, and high rates of alcoholism
and suicide. Many economists who have studied Sweden argue that its relative prosperity is
not because of, but in spite of its welfare system. The authors illusion about
Sweden is hopelessly outdated and befuddled.
OConnor then lavishes several pages on a history and description of communism. He
fails to give an accurate picture of the mass starvation, terror and murder that were
necessary for the Soviet and Chinese regimes to implement their programs. The main
weakness here, however, is not in the history, but in the weak analysis of central
economic planning. Students are told that "The process of creating annual economic
plans is complex," (p. 452) but that is a far cry from explaining to the student how
and why it is virtually impossible to make efficient use of resources in without a price
system, profit motive, or private ownership.
Criterion 4: The Distribution of Income and Poverty
The book says little about the distribution of income, poverty, and the various
programs to assist the poor.
OConnor presents students with a list of some government programs, but he has no
analysis of the effects of those programsnothing to encourage economic thinking
along the lines of costs, incentives, or alternatives. He seems to think that as long as
the intentions of government are good, the outcome of its handiwork must be good too. This
is not thinking like an economist.
The "case study" on Social Security is wholly inadequate (p. 184). It
contains no analysis of the future financing problems, the negative effect on savings and
work, the redistributive effects, or the incidence of the Social Security tax.
Two pages are devoted to government job-training programs (pp. 182-83), but the
material is almost entirely descriptive and focuses on intentions, not results.
Criterion 5: The Role of Government
OConnors book is very deficient in analyzing the economic effects of
government action. Instead, he gives students what sounds like a sales pitch:
"Despite fears by some Americans that governmental tampering with the free-enterprise
system would be harmful, most government policies have met with success" (p. 189).
Economists have filled libraries with volumes disputing this conclusion. Shouldnt
students be able to read some of this evidence in OConnors text?
The author first tries to argue that government had to expand as population expanded.
But he never explains why a growing population necessitates a larger and more intrusive
state; nor does he explain (or observe) a much faster rate of growth for government
spending than population. Second, OConnor states that "disadvantaged
groups" make up a larger percentage of the population now than in the past. Yet, many
members of "disadvantaged groups" are very prosperous and today a smaller
percentage of the population is below the official poverty line than 50 years ago. Third,
OConnor cites "changing attitudes." He writes that the governments
"success in ending the Depression" convinced many people that bigger government
was desirable. While it may be true that there are people who believe that the government
"ended the Depression," economists in increasing numbers are finding that the
policies of Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt deepened and prolonged it. (This point is made
in other reviews within this report). Putting that point aside, however, popular attitudes
have almost nothing to do with the proposing and passing laws, as Public Choice economists
have shown. Fourth, OConnor says that national emergencies have led to the growth of
government. If so, why does it continue to grow even when there is no emergency?
OConnor merely gives the students his opinions, not analysis.
On the functions of government, students are told that the government regulates
economic activity and protects competition, workers, and consumers. OConnor gives no
economic analysis, however, of the effects of all those laws and regulations. He merely
encourages the mistaken notion that intentions always square with results. There is no
hint that regulations have costs, or that those costs could outweigh the benefits.
The books definition of public goods is also wrong. Economists do not define them
as "goods and services that are provided for everyone by the government" (p.
179). National defense and highways are (or probably are) public goods because the market
would under-provide them on its own. But many things the government provides are clearly
private goods (e.g., job training, retirement income, passenger rail service). Having the
government provide such goods and services has consequences for economic efficiency;
consequences OConnor fails to explore.
Last, OConnor argues that another function of government is giving subsidies:
"Each year governments grant subsidies totaling billions of dollars to private
businesses and public agencies to ensure continued service or production of certain
goods" (p. 181). But he never encourages the student to ask whether such subsidies
are cost-effective, whether they are really needed to "ensure continued
service," or what impact they have on the economy as a whole. The asking of such
questions is the whole point of economics.
Criterion 6: Public Choice
OConnor ignores public choice theory probably because he almost never doubts the
ability of government to solve problems. Nowhere will the student read that government
officials have personal goals that may and often do conflict with "the public
interest." Of the standard public choice topics, only interest groups are treated at
all. Even here, however, OConnor never notes that interest groups lobbying for
benefits have an advantage in the political arena over disorganized consumers and
taxpayers who will bear highly diffused costs. Indeed, special interest groups are
depicted as forces for good (e.g., AARP works "on behalf of the elderly" and
Public Citizen works for "all consumers") without any suggestion that such
groups might be promoting the interests of their own members at the expense of others.
Accepting the motives of lobbyists at face value does little to teach students about
Criterion 7: The Role of the Entrepreneur
Entrepreneurship is treated surprisingly well. There are several profiles of successful
entrepreneurs throughout the book and the author even includes a good discussion of why
venture capital is important. (Unfortunately, the fact that government policy has a
dramatic impact on the availability of venture capital is omitted.) OConnor includes
an excellent feature on "The Entrepreneurial Explosion" (p. 119), which points
out that entrepreneurs have created much of the wealth, employment, and progress in the U.
S. in recent years. He also notes that entrepreneurship is risky, but fails to point out
that people will accept high risks only if they think they can earn and keep high rewards.
Criterion 8: Taxation
The books section on taxation is all description and no analysis. Students learn
about the kinds of taxes levied and that they enable the government to pay for its various
outlays, but there is nothing on the costs and effects of taxation.
Taxation has its opportunity cost, namely foregone private-sector activities that
generate wealth and employment. The author never brings out this fact, but does manage to
get the student to worry about how much tax breaks "cost" the government (p.
203). The tax cuts of the 1920s, 1960s, and 1980s, however, actually generated more tax
revenue by spurring entrepreneurs to invest in factories instead of hiding their income
from the government in tax-exempt bonds. Also missing is any consideration of the costs of
tax enforcement, compliance with tax laws, and how taxes alter incentives.
Finally, OConnor never raises the problem of tax incidence. With respect to
Social Security, the book reiterates the long-discredited idea that employers match
employee "contributions." The "employer contribution" to Social
Security actually comes out of the workers pay, but the student gets no inkling of
Criterion 9: The Business Cycle
The treatment of the business cycle and government policy to deal with it is extremely
First, OConnor ignores the debate between economists who believe that business
cycles are inherent in a market economy and those who argue that they are induced by
government policy that upsets an otherwise stable market. Only a single paragraph mentions
the changes in the availability of money and credit, which many economists see as the key
to economic fluctuations.
Second, the standard Keynesian theory of fluctuating aggregate demand is presented in
glowing terms (Keynes General Theory is called a "monumental work"
that "revolutionized economic thinking" [p. 360].) The heated economic
controversy over the Keynesian theory is never discussed. Students read that "many
economists" accept the Keynesian view, but never learn that many economists
(including Nobel Prize winners) do not accept it.
OConnor does describe a few of the difficulties involved in using fiscal policy
to smooth out the business cycle (timing problems, the difficulty of economic forecasting,
and political considerations). But the most serious drawback in the minds of many
economiststhat government spending and borrowing merely crowds out private spending
and borrowingnever appears. OConnor devotes a page to the "multiplier
effect," but never asks, "If government spending has risen, but private-sector
spending has fallen, how can there be any multiplication of income?"
The discussion of supply-side theory is both lengthy and misleading. For example, the
author writes that "The first assumption of supply-side economics is that economists
can identify where the economy is placed on the Laffer Curve" (p. 376). This is not
true. The purpose of the Laffer Curve is not to locate the current state of the economy at
any point on the Curve, but to illustrate a relationship between the level of taxation and
the amount of revenue collected by the government. OConnor says that supply-side
policy was expected to produce sufficient new tax revenue to balance the budget, the
implication being that supply-side economic theory didnt pan out. He fails to give
the other side of the argument: That tax cuts in the 1920s helped produce large budget
surpluses during that decade, and that the tax cuts of the 1980s also produced huge
windfalls of revenuewindfalls that were eaten up by a Congress that hiked spending
far beyond what the extra revenue could buy.
Criterion 10: Wages, Unions and Unemployment
"Supply and demand interact to determine wages just as they determine
prices," OConnor writes (p. 148). Alas, after this good beginning, the rest of
the treatment of employment issues is flawed.
For example, the book defends the minimum wage and "comparable worth" issues
with superficial arguments. On the minimum wage, OConnor says nothing about its
historical tendency to price low-skilled workers out of the labor market.
The book takes a brief look at affirmative action, saying that this policy "has
been established to overcome past injustices to women and minorities" (p. 147).
Whether it is possible to overcome past injustices through "affirmative action"
in the present is a matter much in the public debate today, but OConnor never says
so. Far later in the book, at the end of the chapter on the business cycle, he includes a
page from Thomas Sowells Markets and Minorities in which Sowell observes that
discrimination imposes costs upon those who practice it. (p. 335). This sheds some light
on labor market discrimination, but why is it not placed where it is most relevant?
The books treatment of unions covers their history, their professed objectives,
and their work in passing labor laws. But we never get to the key economic questions: To
what extent, if any, are unions able to increase worker compensation above the market
level? If so, under what conditions? What impact do unions have on productivity? If union
workers gain, does that come at the expense of others?
Criterion 11: Trade and Tariffs
OConnor begins well in discussing international trade. He explains it as a micro
phenomenon: "International trade is the voluntary exchange of goods and services
between people in different nations" (p. 386). But when he proceeds to explain the
law of comparative advantage, he lapses into macro language ("A nation determines
its areas of comparative advantage. . . .") Students should be encouraged to think
about how individuals and firms find their own areas of comparative advantage.
Next, the author discusses "Balancing Payments and Trade." The trouble is
that he does not correct the common misconception that if the balance of trade or payments
is "unfavorable," the economy must somehow suffer for itand the government
should take action. A good economics text should straighten out the old mercantilistic
notion that aggregate trade statistics correlate with national wealth.
Arguments in favor of trade restrictions are presented in a cursory "Some say
this, but others say that" fashion. OConnor never teaches the student to think
The worst part of this section is the "case study" on MITI (p. 391), which is
not a study at all, since it (and industrial policy in general) is subjected to no
critical analysis. Many economists have pointed out that some of the major Japanese
success stories have occurred where MITIs advice was ignored. Honda, for example,
went ahead and built cars despite MITIs contrary advice. More generally, economists
have attacked the idea that government policy-makers have any special ability to predict
the future direction of the market. Entrepreneurs and capitalists, who have their own
resources at stake, have more reason to invest thoughtfully. But OConnor makes
central economic planning seem entirely beneficial and non-controversial: "Many
nations are using MITI as a model for similar agencies in their nations," (p. 391) he
Criterion 12: Money and Banking
The book is good at explaining the functions of money, but not at how it evolved on the
market. Moreover, the student reads very little discussion of the pros and cons of
commodity money versus fiat money. OConnor says that the gold standard "failed
to provide for an efficient way to regulate the amount of money circulating in the
economy" (p. 228). That is a conclusion rejected by many economists, who note that
inflation was lower and the business cycle more stable while the gold standard was in
OConnor discusses banks and other financial institutions at some length (pp.
230-31), but the student does not learn much about the problems that have beset the
banking industry. Continental Illinois did suffer a "near collapse" in 1984, but
the student who wonders why will have to look elsewhere. The role of government
regulation, especially deposit insurance, in promoting risky lending is never mentioned.
The "case study" on the S&L crisis gives no hint of the governments
role in making possible the huge losses and taxpayer liabilities.
The structure and operation of the Federal Reserve are presented well, and the book
includes a brief treatment of the debate between those economists who favor a
discretionary monetary policy and those who favor fixed rules. There is a brief allusion
to the Feds responsibility for the Depression, but no in-depth analysis.
When OConnor discusses inflation, he argues that "Profit-push inflation
occurs when producers raise prices in order to raise their profits" (p. 317). This is
illogical. Producers always desire to maximize profits and search for the prices
that do so. Once they are charging those profit-maximizing prices, raising them further in
search of higher profits is counter-productive. Thats what "profit
maximization" means. If most or all producers raise prices together, how can
consumers with limited incomes afford to buy as much? Many economists have thoroughly
criticized the profit-push explanation for inflation, but readers of this book would never