The Backstory of Ballve’s Masterpiece
The enduring power of Essentials of Economics is due to the persuasive power of economic logic itself. If it is done well, it applies in all times and places. And this book does economics extremely well. In times when economics is subject to vast political manipulation, when people have abused the science to push political agendas contrary to everything economics stands for, this book stands out as a clear, objective, and rational statement of the core of what economics teaches.
In his outstanding introduction, Art Carden speaks of the scandal that it is not better known. He means, of course, in our own time. This edition helps to rectify the problem.
But let’s take a step back to the early years when it was first published. Professor Ballve was teaching in Mexico when he heard Ludwig von Mises speak. They struck up a correspondence. After Ballve felt that he had most of his questions answered, he sat down to write this short book. It was published in Mexico in 1956. It sold very well and went into several editions.
Two additional names deserve special mention in the tale of how it came to the English-speaking world. The William Volker Fund, administered by its founder’s nephew Harold W. Luhnow, funded a translation. This was one of thousands of incredible projects pushed by the Volker Fund in those years. Without this act of benevolence, this book would have likely been forgotten.
But there is another important act of entrepreneurship behind this work. Leonard Read (1898–1983) was head of the Foundation for Economic Education. His passion was finding literature that propagated economics to the intelligent layman. He had a remarkably independent mind and a good eye for literary value. He read through Ballve’s work and decided that he would use the extremely scarce resources of the foundation to promote and distribute the book as widely as possible.
This was a risky decision. Ballve was an unknown in the United States. He had no academic position in the United States. He had no champions, money, or connections. There was no quid pro quo at work. Read would not be able to sponsor lecture tours by the author or otherwise turn him into a big star. He saw the high quality of the work and decided to push it. It was piety for truth that drove the decision. There was nothing more to it than that.
It was an excellent decision. FEE distributed many thousands of copies, perhaps even many tens of thousands of copies. It was a widely read primer on economics in the 1960s, read by champions of free enterprise who wanted to understand and promote that understanding. What Read had seen in this book others saw as well. The book does not require a great deal of time, but it covers a vast scope of topics.
It is, in many ways, the perfect tutorial in what economics is and what it implies about our world. It is completely free of the tendency toward political posturing. Its lessons are broad enough to apply in all times and all places. For this beleaguered generation of freedom-minded individuals assaulted on every side by trends toward centralization, this tutorial is truly the light.
Falling in Love with Economics
Permit me a personal note. When I was 17, I had a sudden realization that I wanted to study something new, something fresh, a discipline that I had not yet encountered, something that would appeal to all my interests (history, philosophy, arts) but allow them be applied in a new way. I looked through university catalogs randomly.
Finally I stumbled on this thing called economics. I wondered what it was. I walked into the head of the department’s office at Texas Tech University and asked him point-blank: What is economics? He said just as pointedly: It is the science that seeks the causes for why civilizations rise and fall and the material forces that are ultimately behind these great events.
That’s all I needed to know. I was in. Then he gave me a book. It was a tutorial that covered the essentials of Keynesian theory. This was a disappointment. Rather than dealing with recognizable forces at work in the word, it dealt with unreal mechanical postulates that abstracted too far from anything to do with human choice.
Still, I stuck with the discipline until I finally bumped into the works of Hans Sennholz, Ludwig von Mises, and the whole Austrian tradition. I wish now that the first book I had been given was Ballve’s Essentials of Economics. This is a book that gets to the core of what makes economics wonderful.
I would finally like to say a special thank-you to Sheldon Richman, former editor of the Freeman, for having suggested this title for republication.
The Economics of Life Itself : Beautiful Anarchy is the writing platform of Jeffrey Tucker, in which he covers economics, art, popular culture, and politics from a pro-liberty, anti-state point of view.