An Economics Course in a Public Administration or Law Programme

Exploring the relation between the economy and the state

Courses for Non-Economists

The book so far has mainly focused on how economists should be prepared for their future roles in society. Economists are, however, not the only ones who receive an economics education. In fact, the majority of people who are taught economics will never become an economist or even take a specialisation in the topic. While these students will never call themselves economists, they do take in economic ideas and will apply these in their later work and personal life. Thus, economics education to non-economists still has a large impact on the world.

Example Courses for Non-Economists:

An Economics Course in a Public Administration or Law Programme

Required background knowledge:


Nominal workload:

Equivalent of 6 ECTS (180 hrs)

Course goals:

This course provides public administration and law students with a basic, intuitive understanding of the main theories about the roles of the state, including the legal system, in the economy. It provides them with an overview of the economic system and the various types of organisations in it such as commercial, cooperative and non-profit entities, as well as various forms of government which interact with the private and civic sectors. It empowers them to enter the domain of economic thought and gives them the knowledge to continue this independently after the course.

Course outline:

The course is divided into the following three parts:

  1. Political-economic systems
  2. The composition of the public sector
  3. Economic theories about the state

Part 1: Political-economic systems

The first part of the course focuses on giving students a basic understanding of what the economy is, why it is relevant and how it is connected to systems of politics and governance. Students are introduced to the economy as a concept and its interconnections with the larger social and ecological world. They also gain some conceptual understanding and factual knowledge of the major economic challenges of our time, such as climate change, economic instability, aging populations, and growing economic inequality. 

The course then turns to the inner workings of the economic system, investigating political-economic systems. In our time, these are mainly varieties of capitalism. Students also learn some basic political-economic history, helping them realise how the current forms of capitalism emerged out of earlier formations like feudalism and tributary systems. 

Connecting these two strands of knowledge, students explore various societal values with respect to the economy, such as equity, productive efficiency, justice, competitiveness in the global economy, inclusivity and sustainability. They also learn about various guidelines and possible directions for the economy, such as the sustainable development goals and mission-driven economic policy, focusing on the role the state can play in furthering these. Through a few brief episodes of economic history, they also learn about the ways utopian economic policy can overshoot its goals and do more harm than good. 

For more details, teaching materials and practical advice on teaching these topics, see the following building blocks:

  • Building Block 1: Introducing the Economy
  • Building Block 6: Political-Economic Systems
  • Building Block 10: Economics for a Better World 

Part 2: The composition of the public sector

The second part of the course delves into the public sector, a major part of the economic system that often goes unacknowledged in theory and public discourse. It starts with a descriptive, knowledge-intensive component, providing students with an overview of the various ministries, local government agencies and other public bodies that constitute important parts of the economy, either in a productive or a coordinating function. 

It then turns to a more analytical, theoretical side, providing students with a framework to understand the different types of economic organisation, such as private firms, cooperatives, various types of government bodies and NGOs, as well as the different coordinating mechanisms, such as hierarchy, market transactions and commons. 

Using the healthcare sector as a case study, which contains nearly all of these forms in various constellations, the course takes students through the main differences between these organisational forms, in terms of internal power structure, main goals, size and relations to their surrounding field. This case study also provides a powerful demonstration of the ways market and state are not side-by-side entities, but form a fundamentally interwoven system.

For more details, teaching materials and practical advice on teaching these topics, see the following building blocks:

  • Building Block 2: Know Your Own Economy
  • Building Block 5: Economic Organisations & Mechanisms

Part 3: Economic theories about the state

The third part of the course takes students through the main economic theories on the economic roles of the state. The state is often at the heart of public and intellectual debates about the economy, as the amount of contrasting perspectives below shows. This should be no surprise: governments are the biggest single actors in the economy, whether measured in employment or in total budget. 

How should these economic giants behave? Should they sit back and allow the economy to unfold on its own, merely providing an efficient level playing field for private actors through rule-based policy? Or should the state play a more active role to stabilize the economy, take an entrepreneurial role to spur innovation, and/or pursue social policies to ensure the wellbeing of its citizens?

A key debate concerning the state is between (post-)Keynesian economists, who argue for discretion in economic policy, and neoclassical economists, who argue for rule-bound policy. Keynesian economists argued the state has a role to fulfill in the economy because it is the only actor that can successfully solve economic problems such as mass unemployment. The state can provide stability and freedom by creating and adjusting policies in a discretionary manner, mainly with regard to fiscal policy to influence effective demand. 

Neoclassical economists, on the other hand, argue that the state should simply provide a framework in which private actors can operate. Policy should be rule-bound, also known as commitment policy. Instead of relying on expert and political judgement of the specific situation, a predescribed mathematical model should be followed. As such, only the factors included in the model have an influence on decisions. This is important because neoclassical economists, and more specifically public choice theorists, are afraid of government failures, which is assumed to arrive from self-interested behaviour of voters, politicians and bureaucrats and/of imperfect information. 

For more details, teaching materials and practical advice on teaching these topics, see the following building blocks:

  • Building Block 8: Economic Theories, section Governments


50% of the assessment consists of a written exam, testing their theoretical understanding and concrete knowledge of political-economic systems, the composition of the public sector, and the economic roles of the state. The other 50% consists of a practical assignment, where students advise a government agency on its policy regarding a specific economic question. For instance, if healthcare costs are getting out of hand, students write a report on how to rein these in, while sticking to a clear moral framework and remaining within the bounds of the practically possible.

For more details, teaching materials and practical advice on teaching these topics, see the following building blocks:

  • Building Block 9: Problems & Proposals