After reading the first chapter of Thoreau’s “Walden” I had a lot on my mind about economics that I wasn’t used to. Being an economics major, I was actually excited to read Thoreau’s chapter to see if it conflicted with modern economics thought that is mainly derived from Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”. The first passage I noted that really drew on my economics education was the quote: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone.” Thoreau is using the word “rich” as spiritually or intellectually rich. In the economy today, rich would be defined as having a house, a car, and hopefully a 401K retirement plan that will allow you to retire in your late sixties. Thoreau is clearly against the accumulation of monetary wealth as what really makes one “rich”. In my mind, this makes Thoreau more of a philosopher than an economist, which he is.
Compared with Thoreau’s ideas, modern economic thought and capitalism state that workers are incentivized to gather monetary wealth and consume more goods as they move up in social class. These ideas are macroeconomic views and aim to generalize every person into a system rather than as an individual. Thoreau’s views on economics were not macroeconomic thoughts, but microeconomic thoughts that were much different than what is thought today. Thoreau focuses on the individual and says that men should become rich by focusing on reading and intellectual advancement and by no means should they measure wealth by the amount of goods they can amass.
Thoreau does touch on a key economic concept that is accepted, opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is the next best alternative that is given up when a person chooses an option. For example, since I chose to write this blog post, I am giving up eating dinner with my roommates. Thoreau encompasses this by using the train example to show opportunity cost. One can either work a few days in order to pay for a train ticket or walk those days and not have to work those days to afford the ticket. This is not exactly opportunity cost but it brought some interesting thoughts to the front of my mind. I wondered if society would be better off if Thoreau’s train of economic/philosophical thought influenced society more than Adam Smith’s thoughts. Society may have never reached capitalism and society may value wisdom and knowledge more than material goods. Maybe then we could “learn what [life] has to teach, and not, when [we] come to die, discover that [we] had not lived”.