Humor and Satire from the Online Books and Essays

Even economists have a sense of humor!

In the middle of a serious economic work, a humorous essay can seem all the funnier by contrast. If you are looking for a smile, a chuckle, and even an occasional laugh-out-loud moment, consider these suggestions.

Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850)

    "A Petition," from Economic Sophisms. Incomparable satire on the age-old collaboration between lobbyists and members of the government, using the bypassed candle-making industry as a metaphor.

    So many of Bastiat's writings in Economic Sophisms and Selected Essays on Political Economy are memorably witty that it's hard to pick just one.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

    "Letter IX. Blackstone Considered," from Defence of Usury. Rip-roaring spoof taken from the renowned Justice Blackstone's views on interest rates, using Blackstone's own example of horse-trades as a foil. Just to make it clear to the good Justice (today considered the founder of much of the basis of modern law), Bentham added insult to injury by including trivial footnotes.

Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay (1800-1859)

    "Southey's Colloquies on Society." The humor in this eye-popping diss stems from Macaulay's surgical use of language to rout his target, the poet-laureate Robert Southey, whose misfortune was to step outside his area of expertise and dabble in social issues. As a bonus, half-way through this essay you will also find some incisive economic analysis.

Charles Mackay (1814-1889)

    "Popular Follies of Great Cities," in Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds describes the faddish comings and goings of slang, specifically in cities. The instant popularity, overuse, and then disappearance of expressions is as true—and as entertaining to read about—today as in the 1800s.

    Mackay is best remembered for the first few chapters of his book; and most particularly for his description of tulipomania as an example of an asset-market bubble. He was a reporter and journalist, and as such, not all things he heard or saw necessarily bore out as documentably general facts when subjected to later scientific scrutiny. All the same, he had a reporter's unerring eye for what was provocative to think about and fun to read!

Jane Haldimand Marcet (1769-1858)

    "The Rich and the Poor," in John Hopkins's Notions on Political Economy is only one of many great "fairy tales" in a work replete with delicious spoofs. What would happen if we actually achieved by the stroke of a wand our longings for income equality with Bill Gates, great jobs at high pay, or an end to unfair competition from monopoly, foreign trade, and outsourcing?

    Marcet's parables educate with light-hearted charm. They read as easily today as when she wrote them in the early 1830s. Marcet's ploy is to explore prevalent economic wishes by taking them to the extreme. However desirable the simple cures may sometimes seem, the actuality results in side-effects that are worse than the original ills.

Leonard E. Read (1898-1983)

    "I, Pencil" (1958) is a timeless and unforgettable tale, light-heartedly illustrating the division of labor. Consider an object as low-tech and common as a pencil. Now ask how you came to hold it. How was it created? Could you make a pencil yourself? The answers hold surprises and delights for every age and sophistication level, from elementary school to high school, from AP classes to college, from graduate school to the workplace, and beyond.

Eugene Richter (1838-1906)

    Pictures of the Socialistic Future (freely adapted from Bebel) is Richter's 1891 satire of what would happen to Germany if the socialism espoused by the trade unionists, social democrats, and Marxists was actually put into practice. It is thus a late 19th century version of Orwell's 1984, minus the extreme totalitarianism which Orwell had witnessed in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia but which was still inconceivable to 19th century liberals.