Lans Bovenberg on Economics Education

Lans Bovenberg on Economics Education

Economics as a conceptual subject

Economics presents students with a coherent story: Cooperation is valuable, but it doesn’t happen automatically. Regulating trust in reciprocity is difficult in complex collaborations where the parties cannot immediately cross borders. Fear of being cheated and robbed often paralyzes the party that should come first. To give that party more confidence that others will also honor their agreements, society has rules of the game, also known as institutions. In this way, young people learn not only the how and what of institutions, including values ​​and social norms, but also the reasons for them. With one concept, the importance of reciprocity, several contexts are illustrated and communicated. This is the power of economics as a conceptual subject.



Fifteen years I am a judge
This contribution is part of the Jubilee series in the context of the fifteenth anniversary of Me Judice. The editors asked fifteen prominent economists: “Which debate should (more) be held in the future?” In the coming weeks, a contribution to this series will appear on Monday mornings where the author will highlight a topic of his choosing (minus the exposure). Articles in the series can be found here.


By focusing on the economic narrative of the importance of cooperation and the challenges associated with it, civic education is given a solid normative, scientific, and practical foundation. In terms of normativity, it is rooted in the pragmatic goal of creating material value through collaboration. In addition, economic science ensures that citizenship does not lose itself in wishful thinking, but remains anchored in the observed behavior of people in daily practice.

The added value of citizenship

Citizenship education also has much to offer the education of economics, i.e., a relational view of humanity based on a broad concept of prosperity. Current economics teaching in secondary education still assumes that people are mobile. Even if everyone contributes to a collective good such as the environment, it’s still in your best interest not to do so: you’ll benefit from the collective good without having to contribute to the costs. But empirical research from the past three decades shows that most people are not mobile but citizens. Natives differ from wanderers in one crucial point: they like to be reciprocated. Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, called these moral sentiments. Citizens derive connection and meaning from contributing to groups with which they identify and for which they feel (in part) responsibility.

Empirical research from the past three decades shows that most people are not mobile but citizens. Natives differ from wanderers in one crucial point: they like to be reciprocated.

But citizens are not unconditionally. They only take into account the interest of the group if they have sufficient confidence that the group will also take their interests into account. Good deeds are, as it were, conditioned by the belief that your interests are secure. Therefore, trust in cooperation is the most important capital of society. Social capital measures citizenship as the team spirit of those who live in a particular place.

citizen image

The human view of the citizen is what economics education needs to be better linked to scientific developments. Instead of focusing only on the half-truth of the individual self-interest (the first rational), economics education also develops the second stop, which is the value group interest (we – the rational). This prevents the economics lesson from destroying the social capital of citizenship.

As evidenced by the increasing importance of civic education, society’s demand for people with moral skills is increasing. These are the people who can handle conflicts of interest and who dare pick the underdog out of our interest, even if it goes against the interest of me. Because of the increasing complexity of society, the conflict of interest between self-interest and collective interest can no longer be removed by state coercion and financial incentives alone.

In addition to the demand, the supply of moral skills is also growing. Due to the growth of material prosperity, young people are placing more and more value on non-material goods such as connection and meaning. This should also encourage economics education to discuss citizen opinion as well as the freeride view of humanity. The formal curriculum already provides plenty of incentives for this. But it is up to method setters, test makers, educators, schools and educators to embed these formal rules into the actual economics education culture.

Lance Buffenberg is Professor Emeritus of Economics. This is an abridged version of the speech he gave at his farewell from Tilburg University on 10 March

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Lans Bovenberg, “Lans Bovenberg on Economics Education,” my judgeMay 29, 2023.

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