Economists Have No Defense

A Critical Review of National Defense in Economics Textbooks

Originally published in Journal of Private Enterprise

National defense is the textbook example of a public good. To understand how economists present public goods to undergraduates, we analyze fifty texts from across three widely taught undergraduate economics courses: principles of eocnomics, intermediate microeconomics, and public finance. We find that textbooks overwhelmingly present national defense as a public good and rarely mention the possibility of government failure. This presentation leaves students with an incomplete and biased exposure to the government provision of public goods. We reconsider some of the main assumptions associated with the standard treatment of national defense as the quintessential public good and discuss opportunities for educators to better prepare students as economists and citizens.