By Gor Mkrtchian

Of all the natural and social sciences, economics1 is the most crucial for the intelligent laity. This is because economic understanding among the public makes the difference between barbarism and a healthy society. While the other sciences are important, they only require a small minority of specialists with a deep understanding of those topics for the fruits of those disciplines to spread throughout society. But good public policy frequently depends on a sound understanding of economics, and thus depends on the public’s understanding of it.

When passengers are sitting in coach, flying from the Bahamas to New York, it doesn’t matter whether any of them understand the laws of aerodynamics, or anything about the mechanical engineering of the plane they’re flying in. The successful operation of the plane goes on, so long as a small, specialized group of people understand. When millions of people take their medicine every night, it doesn’t matter whether they understand the chemistry underlying their pills and syrups, so long as a relatively small number of chemists who produced the medicine knew what they were doing. A cruise ship does not get lost at sea on the way to, say, Alaska, based upon the sailing expertise of those playing laser tag on its deck, if the captain and his crew know what they’re doing. A country, on the other hand, is a boat that only floats if those inside it understand how to operate it successfully.

Even a Non-Voting Majority Affects Policy

Accepting the key role of the economic system on a society’s wellbeing, it’s straightforward why representative republics or other forms of democratic government with populations that favor free markets have free markets, and those with populations that favor interventionism have interventionism. Politicians seek election, and if voters en masse really demand certain policies, politicians will pursue those policies. But why should non-democratic states care at all what their populations think? Doesn’t the dictatorship have all of the guns? Can’t they let the people pointlessly pass around their issues of The Austrian while the overlords continue about their business, undisturbed behind their battalions? As Mises stated in Human Action:

In the end the philosophy of the majority prevails. In the long run there cannot be any such thing as an unpopular system of government. The difference between democracy and despotism does not affect the final outcome. It refers only to the method by which the adjustment of the system of government to the ideology held by public opinion is brought about. Unpopular autocrats can only be dethroned by revolutionary upheavals, while unpopular democratic rulers are peacefully ousted in the next election.2

Emphasizing the strength of public opinion in the face of the state’s military might, Dr. Robert Murphy explains:

And if you think that’s naïve, well then if you were right, that means the most totalitarian states where the leader can just have somebody disappeared at night . . . then there they should have free and open internet access, they can let the schools teach whatever they want . . . if anyone gets out of line they just kill them. But no, it’s precisely in those totalitarian societies where they can just kill people at will where they want the most strict control over information.3

Indeed, in virtually every case, the most militarized and totalitarians states, those most willing to use force against their own people, are those most concerned with controlling the education, speech, and thought of their subjects. The reasoning behind such efforts is clear in light of two facts. First, the people are many and the state is few. Second, the constituent agents of the state itself, including members of the police and military, are not immune to infection by dissent, and can come to support regime change. Inverted pyramids of force are built upon the base of opinion. Even if, as Lenin said, one man with a gun can control one hundred without one, opinion can make that one man turn around onto his masters.

In some significant ways, dictatorships and monarchies face even stronger popular opinion constraints than democracies do. While elected officials are typically voted out of office in one piece, strongmen and their loved ones often face grotesque deaths when ousted. Additionally, the understanding among the public that democratic politicians can be voted out peacefully every few years can breed patience until the next election, whereas subjects of strongmen know change won’t come unless and until people take action. Thus, dictators have more personally at stake in the battle over popular opinion than do democratic politicians, and do not have the hope of periodic peaceful regime change to allay unrest among the masses.

Of all of the natural and social sciences, it’s most important that the intelligent layperson have a solid hold of economics, because their understanding of economics will shape the operation of the most powerful organization in every country in the world: the state. “The flowering of human society depends on two factors: the intellectual power of outstanding men to conceive sound social and economic theories, and the ability of these or other men to make these ideologies palatable to the majority.”4

1. Humanities such as theology, philosophy, and history are not included in this claim.
2. Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, The Scholar’s Edition, p. 859.
3. Robert P. Murphy, “Economics of the Stateless Society,” misesmedia, July 28, 2016.
4. Mises, Human Action, p. 860.