Does economics help us ask the "right" questions?

Ask an Economist

I read somewhere that economics helps us ask the right questions, what does this mean?


Economics provides a framework for understanding aspects of individual and collective behavior.  In particular, economics focuses on how individuals and societies allocate resources.  Economists also offer important insights about how different circumstances -- legal systems, political arrangements, etc. -- affect the level and distribution of well-being that arises from any particular allocation, and how this might vary with different allocations of resources.  The theory, methods and data used by economists suggest a way of making sense of complex systems; and in that sense economics provides a tool box of questions.

                To make this a bit more concrete, consider a contemporary policy question: should public transit be provided fare-free, or should riders have to pay?  An economist approaching this question would begin by asking what goal is such a policy designed to accomplish.  Is the objective: To reduce congestion? To facilitate the mobility of low-income residents? To reduce pollution? Etc?  Having identified the objective, economics suggests looking at how this change in the cost of public transit would affect rider behavior--by how much would demand for public transit increase? How would this response differ by income, etc.?  What happens to the supply of public transit?  Answers to these and related questions would then allow an assessment of the impact of the policy change on the desired objective.

                Are these the "right" questions to ask?  I suspect my colleagues in sociology, political science or history might offer a somewhat different list of questions and would be equally inclined to view them as the "right" questions. What is true in each case is that each discipline offers a framework for thinking about the world; each illuminates different perspectives; and collectively they help us to understand our surroundings.  As an economist I lean toward the questions economists ask, but you need to consider the disciplinary perspective with which you feel most comfortable. 

Answered by:
Dr. Joshua Rosenbloom
Department Chair
Last updated on August 26, 2022