June 25, 2022

Why Child Prodigies in Economics Are so Rare

Where are all the child prodigies in economics?

I was recently watching a video titled The test that Tao Terence Aced at age 7. For those who do not know, Tao Terence is a mathematician who started out as a child prodigy. From a very young age he was spotted for his talent and when his peers were struggling with basic math he was already in university.

This got me thinking, where are all the child prodigies in economics?

I can only think of one person who could fit his category: John Stuart Mill. Under the guidance of his equally brilliant father James Mill, whom Murray Rothbard referred to as Laissez -Faire’s Lenin, Mill became one of the most rigorous scholars of the 19th century.

From the age of eight he had already read Herodotus and some of the Dialogues of Plato, and by twelve was able to comprehend the texts of the Greek and Latin writers in their original language. Economics was only one of the many interests Mill had. He studied philosophy, political theory, became a member of parliament and fought for the equal rights of women. His most famous books are: A System of Logic, Utilitarianism, The Subjection of Women, Principles of Economics, On Liberty, Autobiography, and Socialism.

There are some reasons why so few child prodigies exist in economics and the social sciences in general compared to the hard sciences and mathematics. First, economics isn’t intuitive in the same way that mathematics is. If you learn the very fundamental principles of mathematics and have high intellectual skills you can understand the majority of mathematics in a very short time since it rests on logic—and logic is always and everywhere the same. The square of the hypotenuse is the sum of the squares of the other two sides in a rectangle yesterday, tomorrow, and forever and everywhere you go in this universe.

Economics, however, requires sensing the world around you in order to make any meaningful observations. By looking at what is happening in society you start having thoughts and things you meditate about, such as the process of understanding how the economy works. The first task is to see it, the next is to reduce it to its cause. Both parts are difficult. When I say to see something I do not mean just looking at statistics. In order for someone to start making statistics about a topic they have to believe that it is worth the effort of having accurate information about it. You have to find a way to see what really matters in a complex economy and then take it apart to examine it.

There is also another minor point that prevents child prodigies from appearing in economics. In order to become an influential economist, one must have interdisciplinary interests. Mathematics, Philosophy, Politics, Sociology, History, and Law are useful in one way or another in trying to understand the economy. Compare that to mathematics, where the only thing you need to understand Geometry is, well, Geometry.

Someone may argue against my position by saying that this lack of kid geniuses happens because we are not taught economics early in life compared to physics or mathematics. Indeed in many countries lessons in economics start only in highschool, if that. However, even if kids were taught economics early on nothing significant would change. As was said before, economics requires an understanding of the environment that only comes after a certain age. Students in primary school could be taught advanced economics yet they could grasp it only on a surface level.

To sum up, the nature of economics makes it unconducive for child prodigies. It does not have the straightforward nature of mathematics and requires a number of interdisciplinary interests that the young economist needs to also comprehend in order to make progress in his field. And early education is not going to have a significant impact. This is not to say that either the physical sciences or the social sciences are better, just to point out the differences between them.

P.S. Tibees, the YouTuber who published the video mentioned above (see below), has a lot of similar content dealing with physics and mathematics that is worth checking out for those interested.

This article, Why Child Prodigies in Economics Are so Rare, was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education and appears here with permission.  Please support their mission.