An extremely distinguished committee of economists has selected the top 20 articles published in the last 100 years in the American Economic Review, widely recognized as one of the top journals of the profession. All 20 are publicly available, via links from the committee’s report.
The 20 choices are uniformly excellent, and taken together they give a good sampling of the ideas that have changed the way economists think. Of course, many equally influential articles were disqualified by virtue of appearing in journals other than the AER. (The first few that come to mind are Lucas on Expectations and the Neutrality of Money, Coase on The Problem of Social Cost, and Lucas again on The Mechanics of Economic Development).
Some of these are pretty technical. One that’s not is Hayek’s 1945 classic on The Use of Knowledge in Society, which is both one of the clearest and most profound essays in the history of economics. In fact, its clarity tends to mask its profundity; once you’ve read it, you feel sure you must have understood this stuff all along.
The Cliff Notes version comes down to this: Allocating resources efficiently requires vast amounts of information; prices (and only prices) can convey that information. Without prices, you’re sunk. It follows that when prices are distorted (through, say, “equal-pay-for-equal-work” laws) or when we choose to ignore their informational content (on the advice, of, say, a well-meaning locovore), we impoverish ourselves far more than is visible to the untrained eye.
As I said, all 20 articles are available for free, a price that reflects the fact that you can glance them over without consuming substantial resources — and that encourages you to act on that information. I second the encouragement.