Where does economics fit in within the great body of human knowledge? What can we contribute to the other sciences, like environmental science, medicine, politics, law, philosophy, biology, chemistry, etc, that have given so much to us? In short, why study economics at all?
Economics doesn’t exist unto itself. While it has become a synonym for “business”, “money,” or “finance,” economics is much more than that. Economics is a philosophy, a way of thinking. It is a specialized lens for viewing the world. One which can (hopefully) help other sciences in their thinking.
What can we contribute? Cost-benefit analysis. This may sound like we are mere accountants, but it is so much more than that. Economists, as Don Boudreaux likes to say, make the invisible visible. We are taught right from the get-go to look, not just at the visible and immediate benefits and costs of human actions, but at the invisible and long-term benefits and costs. We look not just at those who have immediate consequences, but on all groups of people. Further, this is not merely number-crunching dollars and cents. We need to look at all consequences: emotional, psychological, financial, personal, etc. All this helps us provide insight that other sciences can use.
The cost-benefit analysis as I described can also help answer difficult questions in other sciences. Questions like “is there such a thing as too much safety?” “Will this new policy be the most effective means of accomplishing a goal? (or, inversely, “will this policy accomplish said goal?”)”, “Is this outcome as bad as it appears on its face?” and, perhaps the single biggest question, “as compared to what?”
I wish to stress that these questions are nothing more than starting points. They are our contribution to the conversation. Economics cannot speak to moral judgments, or even what is “preferable.” These are often personal questions. Economics cannot hope to answer those and it is irresponsible for an economist to pretend he can.
The economic way of thinking has already been applied to several sciences, with great results in helping us more deeply understand them. Two of these areas are specialties here at George Mason: Law and Economics and Public Choice Theory (politics and economics). The economic way of thinking has helped us better understand juries, drug trials, politics, property rights and the environment, etc etc.
I am biased, but economics has a lot to offer the world.