In "Co-ordinated Specialization," Arnold Kling meditates on the problems of teaching economics from an emergent perspective. He departs from a quote taken from the textbook, The Economic Way of Thinking, that he lauds as progress from Samuelson's seeing-like-a-state textbook. In the quote, the authors, Paul Heyne, Peter Boettke and David Prychitko, argue that economics is a theory of choice that studies the unintended outcome of purposive action within the market order:
I prefer something more Smithian and less Misesian. I would be inclined to start with something like this:
The most striking economic feature of modern society is that we can consume the products and services requiring millions of tasks while performing only a few tasks ourselves. Obviously, this requires some form of coordinated specialization. How can this coordination take place? Consider three possible extremes.
1. Decentralized decisions, but with no prices and profits. People just spontaneously decide on their own what would be most useful to society.
2. Centralized decisions, made by an expert planning bureau.
3. Decentralized decisions, guided by prices and profits, and regulated by competition.
The problem with (1) is that you will get imbalances. Suppose that getting milk to urban consumers requires both dairy farmers and truck drivers. If too many people would rather be truck drivers than dairy farmers, then there won’t be enough milk to transport. If too many people would rather be dairy farmers, then the milk will spoil on the farms. More generally, the jobs that no one wants to do will tend to go undone. Computer programmers will all work on video game hacks, not on inventory control systems. Basically, (1) only works when there are very few tasks to be divided among a small number of people who all get along.
Returning to Heyne-Boettke-Pryhitko, I would prefer not to put as much emphasis on the methodological dogma that people choose in response to expected benefits and costs. Instead, I prefer to emphasize the question of how a society can operate with each individual performing a few tasks while consuming the products of vast multitude of tasks.
I lean towards Mr. Kling's sentiments on this matter. Unlike orthodox Austrians, such as Boettke, I don't see economics first and foremost as the study of human choice. Rather, I think that the scope of economics is the study of economic order first and foremost.
Economics is about the study of human choice insofar as that choice is a cause of economic order, but we shouldn't let the focus on the emergent order, which cannot be expressed from the point of view of any single maximizing agent, drift from view. The ecological features of economics are most pronounced in this study of coordinated specialization. Just as species adapt to the different niches that other species have taken in an ecosystem, so do people adapt to the different specializations that people have taken in a commercial society. Here, the effects of variation and selection, be it market or natural, are to be emphasized above individual choice.
The Smithian emphasis on the concatenation of activities within the market order, as illustrated by his parable of the workman's coat in The Wealth of Nations, must come before the Misesian emphasis on the logic of human action, as illustrated by the first hundred pages of Human Action.