Must read books for economics students
If you’re curious about the world around us and want to know more about the production, distribution and consumption of wealth, you may be thinking about studying economics.
But before you enrol on an economics course to learn more, it’s a good idea to get a head start on your reading. Not only will this help you decide whether economics is a subject you really want to take, but if it is, you’ll have an advantage over your peers from day one.
From pocket-sized overviews to thousand-page tomes, there are countless books on economic theory and economic history to suit all academic abilities and curiosity levels. But if you’re struggling to know where to begin, this article on the best economics books might help.
What are the top books for economics students?
Some of the best books on economics include ‘The Armchair Economist’ by Steven E. Landsburg, Michael Lewis’ ‘The Big Short’ and ‘The Undercover Economist’ by Tim Harford.
Books like ‘Economics: A Very Short Introduction’ by Partha Dasgupta and Levitt and Dubner’s ‘Freakonomics’ are ideal for beginners, while one of the best-known economics books, ‘An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’ by Adam Smith, delves into the subject in much more detail.
Read on for our full list of must-read books for people studying economics.
Ten of the best economics books for students
1. ‘An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’ by Adam Smith
It may have been written way back in 1776, but Smith’s classic is still widely read and held in high regard today.
As the very first scientific argument for the principles of economics, his book paved the way for all subsequent economic theory – and it continues to be recommended by many economists, historians and entrepreneurs.
While it may not be the easiest read, it’s the go-to book for students who want to understand the early theories relating to the basic mechanics of economics.
By giving theories of capital accumulation, secular change and growth and breaking down the interactions among labour, stocks, commodities, trade and taxes, Smith provides insights into 18th-century economics that remain influential in modern economics.
2. ‘Economics: A Very Short Introduction’ by Partha Dasgupta
As the name suggests, this book is ideal for those who are just looking for a brief introduction to economics.
Much lighter than Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’, Dasgupta’s book is more accessible, describing the lives of two children who live completely different lives in very different parts of the world – the American Midwest and Ethiopia.
Combining examples from everyday life with a global approach, he provides an accessible introduction to key economic concepts, such as national policies, individual choices, equity, sustainability, efficiency, development, markets, property rights and public goods.
This pocket-sized economics book forms part of an Oxford University Press series called ‘The Very Short Introductions’, which aims to make challenging, yet interesting topics highly readable. Some of the other ‘Very Short’ economics books you might find useful are: ‘Microeconomics’ by Avinash Dixit and Robert C. Allen’s ‘Global Economic History’.
3. ‘The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine’ by Michael Lewis
You may have seen the film adaptation of this book, which was met with critical acclaim when it was released at the end of 2015. Starring Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt, the film won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
This follows on from the success of the book, which spent 28 weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers list, was shortlisted for the 2010 Financial Times Business Book of the Year Award and received the 2011 Robert E. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights Book Award.
‘The Big Short’ is about the build-up of the United States housing bubble during the 2000s. It describes how several individuals, who believed the housing bubble was going to burst, bet against the market and ended up profiting from the financial crisis of 2007-08, making millions when the market crashed.
4. ‘The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations’ by Jacob Soll
In this book, historian and winner of the MacArthur Foundation’s ‘Genius Grant’, Jacob Soll, charts the development of economics from the dawn of accountancy – with a focus on Western finance.
Rather than giving a technical historical account, it’s more about the social and political side of things, meaning it’s entertaining and accessible for casual readers, while still being of use to scholars and industry professionals.
He writes about the role accounting plays in global affairs, covering periods like the Italian Renaissance, the French Revolution and the financial crisis of 2007-08.
5. ‘Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything’ by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Another one to read if you’re still unsure as to whether economics is for you, ‘Freakonomics’ is amusing, while inspiring you to see the world through an economic lens.
A controversial New York Times Best Seller, it’s sold more than four million copies, making it one of the most popular economics books of all time.
It tells the stories of drug dealers, real estate agents, and covers issues such as abortion and parenting, exploring why people do what they do and how their actions have an impact on the world around them.
The authors’ intent is to encourage readers to consider the data below the surface and look beyond what they’ve been brought up to believe is true about the world around them.
Like ‘The Big Short’, it’s been made into a film, thanks to its relatability with data, human behaviour and lack of business terminology.
6. ‘The Undercover Economist’ by Tim Harford
If you’ve ever wondered why the gap between the rich and the poor is so great, then this book is for you. It reveals how instrumental economics is in our lives and will help you to understand the world around you slightly better.
Relatable and engaging, Harford highlights the relevancy of economics in everyday life, from buying a cup of coffee to sitting in a traffic jam. He exposes coffee shops, supermarkets and airlines from all over the world for the ways in which they convince us to part with our money.
Covering a wide range of economic concepts, such as limited resources, market power, market failure and inside information, this book sheds light on how what’s going on in different industries can shape our everyday lives – without us even realising it.
7. ‘The Armchair Economist: Economics and Everyday Life’ by Steven E. Landsburg
Again, this book explains the economics of everyday life in a relatable and amusing way, making it another one of the must-reads for those who want to study economics.
It goes further into the reasoning why certain things are happening in our day-to-day lives, yet manages to remain easily digestible.
Landsburg highlights the laws of human behaviour, explaining why corporations give failed executives huge pensions and why concert promoters increase ticket prices even when they know the gig will sell out months in advance.
Some of the other issues he covers include why cinema popcorn is so expensive and why drivers of safer cars have more crashes. The average person may find this fact surprising, but he explains how airbags cause accidents because drivers who believe they have safer cars take more risks. Economists understand that this is because people respond to incentives.
8. ‘Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist’ by Kate Raworth
If you feel despairing about the world and how economics has failed to play its part, then Oxford academic Raworth might help you to feel a bit more optimistic.
While she acknowledges that mainstream economics, and its outdated theories, have permitted a world in which the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, she sets out a roadmap for how things can be rectified.
Breaking down what really makes human-beings tick, Raworth highlights the far-reaching implications of ignoring the role of energy and nature’s resources.
Ambitious and radical, this book reframes what economics could be to a new generation of learners.
9. ‘Good Economics for Hard Times’ by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo
Imploring readers to end polarisation and make informed decisions based on data in order to combat the challenges faced by the world we live in, Nobel Prize-winning economists Banerjee and Duflo upend many traditionally-held thoughts, covering subjects like inequality, immigration, climate change and slowing growth.
As well as covering economic efficiency, some of the other topics they tackle include bigotry, extreme political rhetoric and the fluidity and logic of diverse preferences.
The authors demonstrate how we could have the answers to the problems we so often ignore due to our ideologies. They encourage readers to think from a new perspective, which considers the needs of the individual as well as the good of the whole, in appropriate proportions.
Building on cutting-edge research in economics and years of exploring solutions for how to alleviate extreme poverty, their book makes a convincing case for a society built on respect and compassion.
10. ‘23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism’ by Ha-Joon Chang
Chang’s revelatory book identifies some of the biggest myths in society today and turns them on their head, showing us an alternative view of the world.
Some of the concepts he puts forward are that there’s no such thing as a “free” market, poor countries are more entrepreneurial than rich ones, globalisation isn’t making the world richer and higher-paid managers don’t produce better results. He also explains how we don’t live in a digital world, because the washing machine has changed lives more than the internet.
Note that this isn’t an anti-capitalist text, though, with Chang himself stating at the beginning of the book that he believes “capitalism is still the best economic system that humanity has invented.”
Whether you want to dip your toes into the subject before you decide to enrol on a course, or you’ve always known you wanted to be an economics student, there are countless books on economic theories to choose from.
From brief introductions to in-depth volumes, you might feel overwhelmed by the amount of reading material available, but we hope our list of top ten books on economic thought provides you with a good starting point.