Economics for Helen is an introductory economics book that Hilaire Belloc wrote for his niece, Helen. In many ways it is very good. The first section, which covers basic economic theory, runs about seventy pages and doesn’t leave out any useful thing out that I can think of. The second section, even shorter, discusses the social implications of various approaches to economic activity.
Economics is a dangerous discipline to study, I think, because it is easy to get caught up in technical details that have very little bearing on everyday life. It is good, for example, to know that inflation is the result of a debased currency, and that in effect someone (either the governments or the banks) is stealing from you when money is inflated. But studying the technical details of the mechanics of inflation and how it might be controlled makes the pragmatic mistake of conceding that inflation is a legitimate phenomenon—akin to discussing policy changes that might reduce the number of abortions peformed. Better to know what is right, and how a particular government policy fails to exhibit righteousness, and leave it at that.
For the most part Economics for Helen treats economics at that level. It explains the fundamental concepts—wealth, economic value, exchange, money, property—and shows how they interact, always using simple and concrete examples. One big plus for the book is that Belloc is both anti-capitalist and anti-socialist, and so he gives clear explanations why things we take for granted are in fact fairly novel and very wrong.
One minus, sort of, is that a number of his predictions were not borne out. Belloc saw capitalism as being on its last legs, given how badly things were going in the capitalist West in 1923. But Belloc was not wrong about the weaknesses he saw in capitalism, so it is worth pondering what it was about subsequent history that allowed capitalism to continue thriving. The seed of a study project for an older homeschooler, maybe.
Belloc discusses distributism, of course, in contrast to what he calls the capitalist and servile (slave) states. But I didn’t learn much new about distributism, and I’m thinking now that distributism is so straightforward that there isn’t much else to learn about it besides that it calls for control of property, e.g. the means of production, to be widely distributed among the populace. Agrarians will agree that this is true, although they will probably differ on legitimate ways to get there from today’s ultra-capitalist state. (Interesting to note that Richard Weaver also thought that widespread private property ownership was the key to reclaiming the good life.)
One thing I learned from this book was a good argument for protectionism. Belloc points out that although free trade tends to maximize the total wealth in the region where it is practiced, that wealth will not be distributed equally within the region. Which means that if we have global free trade, the amount of global wealth will increase, but in the process the wealth in any particular area (e.g. country) may quite possibly decrease. And what country should feel compelled to run that risk simply for the sake of increasing the world’s wealth?
If Cumberland Books were going to offer an introductory economics book, this might be the one. On the other hand, the longer I look for an introductory economics book, the more I wonder about the worth of spending time studying the topic, at least as its own topic. Better maybe to learn these concepts in a more practical context.