Economics and the Liberal Arts – Studying Monetary Policy and Economics As Part of a Liberal Studies Program

Economics student's work at desk

Economics is one of those technical, math-focused areas of study that people are always surprised to find is a particularly good fit in liberal studies programs.

Taking economics courses as part of a broader liberal arts education provides you a different and more powerful lens with which to see and interpret the world and its economies—not to mention the behavior of individuals and organizations within them.

Economics helps us:

Economics is a study in the concept of scarcity, incentives and how people use resources that are available to them. In that sense, it’s also about what it takes to get people up out of bed and off to work each morning, keeping economies humming along by providing for the needs of themselves and their families.

Rational Economics Students Will Always Choose to Take Liberal Arts Classes

But what does it mean to study economics in the context of a liberal arts education?

There is no clearer way to understand the impact of liberal arts on economics than considering a brief history of homo economicus, the fabled rational economic actor.

Earlier economists sought to explain how finance and commerce worked by putting together thought experiments revolving around the economic agents involved in transactions. A company is one such agent; a consumer is another.

Theorists such as John Stuart Mill attempted to explain various economic phenomena through individual agents who evaluate and think through their actions entirely focused on singular, measurable economic outcomes.

"It is concerned with him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging the comparative efficacy of means for obtaining that end."

~ John Stuart Mill

Of course, you don’t have to spend too much time in a typical liberal arts curriculum before you see how complex real human motivations are. And accounting for those irrational, but very real, behaviors is one key reason to bring liberal studies into your economics training.

Micro vs Macroeconomics – Studying Economics as Part of a Liberal Arts Program is Still About those Basic Perspectives

Almost every course of study in economics, whether taken as part of a liberal arts degree or not, revolves around the foundational pillars of macro- and micro-economics.

Microeconomics looks at individuals and communities. It introduces the basic concepts of supply and demand, competition and monopoly, theories of individual behavior, and welfare economics. It is the unique and personal experiences of economics.

Macroeconomics studies the broader national and global economy. It looks at monetary policy and interest rates, national productivity, unemployment, and inflation. Broadly, it explores the strengths and limitations of the market economy. It is the broader perspective of economics that doesn’t directly impact our lives but has an influence on our daily living. It is the war overseas that raises gas prices.

Studying economics in this combination:

Microeconomics Courses and How They Intersect with a Liberal Arts Curriculum

Poverty, Inequality, and Social Policy: In this class, you will be able to distinguish the determinants of inequality in market earnings as well as wrestle with the philosophical and economic reasons for redistributing income. You will analyze and critique the issues in measurement of inequality and poverty and complete a thorough examination of major social insurance and welfare programs.

The Economics of Gender and Race: In this course, you will investigate the various theories and evidences on gender and race in labor market outcomes. You will have the opportunity to analyze the labor supply and the role of family formation as well as evaluate the effect of human capital and discrimination on earnings as related to government policies.

The goal of studying economics as part of a liberal arts degree is to offer you the opportunity to take a wider range of courses than you would as a business economics major.

You’ll also have plenty of courses in fields that the study of economics relies on. Some of those liberal arts classes that will offer a foundation for your studies include:

You’ll also have the opportunity to take electives in almost every economic specialty imaginable.

As an economist with a liberal arts degree, you will have a unique perspective to not only see how policies effect communities, but understand how that change in community impacts the human spirit.

Macroeconomics Coursework and How They Intersect with a Liberal Arts Education

International Economics: The global economy offers some of the clearest ties between traditional liberal studies and the principles of economics. Geopolitics and culture have real consequences at this level. You will look at how broken deals have sparked wars and produced famines. You will source economic realities back their root causes.

Environmental Economics and Policy: If you’ve never heard of externalities before, this is the class where your eyes will be opened. Global climate change has become increasingly clear as the number one failure of economic policy and political theory in dealing with existential issues too broad for a single actor to accommodate. You’ll see how the system of global trade effectively pushes traditional risks into the future, so current actors don’t account for the costs. And you’ll examine possible public policy responses to this market failure, from carbon taxes to green energy subsidies.

A liberal arts education in economics will remind you that at the heart of economies are people. Where other economists see numbers and theory, you’ll gain the ability to go deeper and see the hopes, dreams, fears, and daily lives that make up the great engines of commerce. Classes that promote humanity and free thinking also emphasize skills in communication, analysis, and critical thinking. Together, you will obtain a holistic, well-rounded education in not only how humans behave, but how economic forces drive that behavior.

Most Economic Theory Incorporates Liberal Arts Standards, From History to Sociology

Woman eating messy burgerMost economic theory rests strongly on liberal arts strongholds like history, psychology, and society and cultural studies. The much-cited economic agent is, in practice, an individual or entity that brings all the cultural biases, behaviors, and goals of their society to the table in their market actions.

You spend your money at In-and-Out for a complicated set of reasons: you were raised eating burgers, the logo design appeals to you more than the one Five Guys uses, you and your friends don’t like to stay in and cook, you have enough disposable income that it is affordable.

Deciphering all those very human motivations draws on traditional liberal arts fields like psychology, sociology, and media. So, a liberal arts education offers you practical tools to figure out economic motivations.

Economic analysis also runs in the other direction, offering a set of theories and models that explain social interactions in traditional liberal arts fields.

The Freakonomics book series/documentary/podcast franchise has famously put societal issues front and center using economic theories, digging into things like the economic reasons why most drug dealers never became rich and why real estate agents aren’t motivated to get the highest selling price.

When you see it from that perspective, it becomes pretty clear how economics relates to a liberal arts education.

Liberal Studies Bring a More Humanistic Perspective to Economics

Economics students in classroom

The Sociocultural Foundations of Modern Education

An essential skill of any economist is the ability to review data, observe patterns, and draw logical and accurate conclusions. This course will provide an opportunity for you to review the American educational system as a whole, seeing how it has evolved over the centuries, and analyzing the historical discourses that have impacted it the most. As a future economist, you will wrestle with questions such as, “What are the social, political, and economic goals of the dominant educational practices in our society?” And most importantly, are they working? 

Learning, Memory, and Cognition

Human memory is a constant point of discussion. How we best retain our memory, the effects memory has on our interpretations of the world, and the debate of is our memory is even trustworthy are all essential to understanding humanity and learning. In this course, you will cover topics such as short-term memory, encoding and retrieval of memory, memory distortion, and the effects of drugs on our memory.

American Literature/World Literature

Be it through the eyes of American or non-American writers, these classes will analyze the perceptions of writers as they wrestle with world and local issues, ranging from the rise of corporations, the surge of migration and colonization, the expansion of power, war, and the loss or empowerment of culture. Under the umbrella of liberal arts education, literature courses will be a required course as they delve deeply into the mind and history of humanity.

Digital Storytelling

Storytelling is as old as humanity and has expanded and adapted to the age and development of man. Within the 21st century and the rise of technology, a variety of digital tools have emerged that have opened the door to yet another new avenue of self-expression. The implications of these new tools are wide-ranging, for educators and students alike. Understanding the methods, tools, and implications of storytelling in the digital age is essential for teachers across the educational spectrum.

Philosophy, Politics, and Economics

An essential component of a liberal arts degree is understanding humanity, who we are and how we operate. Courses in philosophy, politics, and economics will provide you an opportunity to think critically about societal values, political institutions and practices, and economic systems. These classes will also help you develop and refine your analyzing, reasoning, and communication skills.

Why Add a Concentration in Economics to Your Liberal Studies Degree?

Earning a liberal arts degree provides you an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of humanity.  Adding a concentration in economics to a liberal arts degree not only provides you a better understanding of our world, it also provides you with more opportunities to find a unique niche in your career.

ecnomics statistics

Business

Economics majors have ample opportunity to work in the business world, competing well against most business majors. Because of the nature of an economics degree and its broad analytical training – especially those who have studied within the context of a liberal arts degree – future employers are confident that you will have the knowledge and ability to not only make wise and ethical decisions, they trust you will be prepared to help them make sense of the changing economic environment, and more importantly, adapt to it.

Government

The opportunity to land a job in government is as vast as the governmental landscape. As an economist, you will be prepared and able to work in the fields of agriculture, business finance, labor, transportation, utilities, urban economics, and international trade – just to name a few. There are also opportunities in U.S. Government Agencies such as the Federal Reserve System, Treasury, Commerce, and the Environment Protection Agency. State and local government agencies also look to hire economics majors in areas such as labor, economic development, budget analysis, and more.

Education

Many schools throughout the country and world require economics as part of their curriculum, especially at the college level. Earning your graduate degree in economics can open more doors, allowing you an opportunity to teach economics at the college level, almost anywhere in the world.

Internationally

As an economist, you will have the skills and abilities to evaluate markets, corporations, and unions, and you will be able to evaluate how those markets continually affect the world. Coupled with a liberal arts degree, you will be heavily qualified to work in environmental organizations, research institutions and think tanks, White House Fellows, and Intelligence an National Security, just to name a few.

The World Economic Forum estimates that 65% of students who graduate in the coming years will find themselves applying and fighting for jobs that don’t even exist yet.

Given the speed with which technology continues to change and advance, the only sure thing about our career and technical markets is that they don’t stand still for long. What is here today will be gone tomorrow. You can bet on that.

But people will still be here. And so too will our deep desire to understand and invest in society. Understanding how our actions and reactions impact the world and local communities and investing in the best ways to provide a better and safer world is something economists will always be involved with.