Deirdre McCloskey's The Vices of Economists—The Virtues of the Bourgeoisie (Amsterdam University Press, 1996) is a gem. Though short, it bulges with important insights; though aimed principally at an audience of professional economists, it is relevant for anyone interested in the scientific method as well as policy; and though written by a professional economist, it's prose is splendid. The chapter of the book that strikes me as most important is Chapter 4, "The Arrogance of Social Engineering." The material here isn't simply another sermon on the complexity of the economy and society. It is, rather, a compelling explanation of why economists who make specific predictions about the future ("The price of tech stocks will rise over the next month" or "Megacorp's price-cutting will result in monopoly power") truly should be ignored.
Most of my leisure-time reading during the past year has been of Will Durant's Story of Civilization (originally published by Simon & Schuster). So far, I've read four of the eleven volumes: The Life of Greece (1939), Caesar and Christ (1944), The Age of Faith (1950), and The Age of Voltaire (1967). For someone (such as myself) who knows little history, this sweeping and eloquent survey is wonderfully informative and enjoyable. One of the lessons of history that each of these volumes makes plain is the dependence of culture upon commerce. The more open, expansive, and free is a people's commerce, the richer, more creative, and more profound is that people's culture.
Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies (W. W. Norton & Company, 1997) by Jared Diamond is not primarily about economics, but it should appeal to economists. Diamond makes the very politically correct argument that the large differences in the progress of human societies are not explained by differences in people. Some societies have developed and some have remain primitive not because those who have inhabited the former are superior in any way to those who have inhabited the latter. Diamond develops a detailed and largely persuasive case that it is differences in such things as biology, geography and weather that explain the relative progress of different societies. Although Diamond makes no serious mention of differences in social institutions, which economists will see as a deficiency, they will still be broadly sympathetic with his argument since economics does not explain development as the result of differences in peoples. By explaining differences in social and economic progress as the result of different institutional arrangements (primarily those that facilitate the social cooperation that comes from minimal government and the voluntary exchange of private property) that are the result of the actions but not the design of man, economists, and economics, are just as politically correct as is Diamond. An interesting question is why is economics so widely perceived as a discipline devoid of redeeming social value, and disparaged by most of those who think of themselves as politically correct.
Against the Dead Hand: The Uncertain Struggle for Global Capitalism (John Wiley & Sons, 2001) by Brink Lindsey makes a compelling case that market forces are the best hope for people around the world, while recognizing that there is no guarantee that global capitalism will easily triumph. No matter how successful the decentralized process of the marketplace, there remains a primal longing for the appearance of order and control, the sense that someone is in charge, provided by the dead hand of centralization. It is this longing that has fueled what Lindsey calls the Industrial Counterrevolution in reaction to the disruptions that are the inevitable consequence of the freedom and progress of capitalism. Against the Dead Hand considers from a global perspective the tensions between the desire for both the progress possible only from the decentralization of the market and the sense of order and stability provided by the centralization of government control. While Lindsey's book is not pessimistic, it is realistic. Despite the fact that the advantages of capitalism over the statist alternatives have become increasingly hard to deny, the miracle of competitive markets will never by widely understood and admired. Lindsey sees the long-run movement in the direction of global capitalism, but he see this movement as one of "fits and starts." As Lindsey states in his closing chapter, "when existing institutions break down so badly that change becomes unavoidable, leaders in search of a template for constructive action now turn to the liberal model by default. In this way the dead hand yields, bit by bit, to the invisible hand of the market."
The last book I read of real value was Love and Honor in the Himalayas (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), by Ernestine McHugh. This accessible, objectively written yet intimately personal study in cultural anthropology is timely of late because of the political upheaval in Nepal. The author, originally from California, has spent almost as much of her adult life living in Nepal as in the United States. Her time in Nepal began as an anthropology assignment undertaken on the way toward her Ph.D. (A daydream for many in the 1970s and '80s: but how many actually carried this daydream forward on even a three-week travel visa? It should not surprise us that those who didn't arrive in the expected ways do not have the expected stories to tell.) Over time McHugh acquired beloved family and friends in a small mountain village in Nepal. The difficult lives and complex twinings of the mountain culture remind the reader just how cushioned our own existence is. People sicken and die unexpectedly, often just as the reader—like the writer—gets to know them. Villages a day's walk away make trade and markets a major undertaking. The villages are almost entirely female-centered: the males often go to India to enlist in the army in order to support their families back home. Everything from marriages to architecture matters. While not a book intended to be about economics, it contributes dozens of economic insights in the context of a compelling personal story. The author's travel photos are so artful that she could have a second career shooting photos for National Geographic. The book is written with a delicate touch, and you don't realize until the end how much you, too, have come to know and care about the individuals who people her story, just as she herself has. Plus, there's a stunning ending that you just don't see coming. For McHugh, the ending is just another part in her life, with much more to go. That she has enabled us to see in for even a moment was a gift few can step outside themselves to give.
I'd like to recommend three books. The first is William Easterly's The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics (MIT Press, 2001). This is a wonderful survey of how little we know (unfortunately) about how to spur growth in poor countries. I have also greatly enjoyed Lawrence Lessig's The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World (Random House, 2001). Lessig argues that court decisions are pushing us toward a more regulated and less spontaneous order with respect to the Internet and other new technologies. A very provocative read. Finally, if you have lots of beach time, consider Master of the Senate (Knopf, 2002), the third volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. I'm halfway through number two. The writing is superb and it is a riveting and unflinching look at one man's pursuit of power. While Caro has a little too much love of the New Deal for my taste, the books are worth reading for their portrait of political life in the middle of the 20th century.
The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World by Bjorn Lomborg presents a data-rich but readable analysis of the major claims of the environmental movement, and finds that many, though not all, of those claims are overblown or misleading. Lomborg approaches his subjects as a sympathizer to the cause of environmental protection (Lomborg was a member of Greenpeace and a progressive Social Democrat in his native Denmark), but a sympathizer who realizes that in order for that protection to be effective, it must be based on the best scientific evidence available rather than on the relentless pessimism of what often passes for environmental research. Although much of the media attention surrounding The Skeptical Environmentalist has focused on how Lomborg's findings contradict many of the doom-and-gloom scenarios painted by contemporary environmentalism, economists may appreciate more the questions he asks after the real magnitude of a particular problem is described. He attempts to lay out what the proposed solutions to the problem are, how much they will cost, how much the solutions will actually improve things, and most importantly, on what else people can spend their resources. Only with answers to these questions, Lomborg convincingly asserts, can we begin to intelligently discuss what the priorities of environmental policy can and should be. His acknowledgment of the importance of trade-offs in an area frequently described in absolutist terms, along with his emphasis on poverty as the largest barrier to environmental progress in the developing world, make Lomborg's book a valuable and gratifying resource for economists concerned about environmental issues.
There may be days in the coming months that are too hot (or too cold, depending on where you live) to sit outside with a good book. On those days, online texts can be a welcome alternative. Below are a few sentences on three works in the Econlib library that address topics of economics and liberty in a lighter, perhaps more fanciful manner than some of our other classic works, making them particularly good summer fare.
Essays (1831) by Jane Haldimand Marcet begins with the line "In the time of the Fairies things went on no better than they do at present," setting the stage for a series of five vignettes tracing the doings of poor laborer John Hopkins, his family, his neighbors, and even a magic fairy who grants John wishes that he soon comes to regret. In each of these delightfully-told tales, we see John being confronted by issues still relevant today, including class envy, population pressures, and welfare, and subsequently coming to understand a little better the economic world in which he and we live.
Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1852) by Charles Mackay offers accounts in a journalistic style of over a dozen separate examples of entire communities, even nations, succumbing to fantastic beliefs or unusual obsessions. Economists may be most drawn to his descriptions of three historic business bubbles, including the famous Tulipomania episode, but Mackay's other chapters introduce readers to an entertaining panoply of additional irrational popular behaviors from a variety of times and locales.
I, Pencil (1958) by Leonard E. Read is a brief, charming essay in which a pencil describes to readers how it came into being, from the harvesting of a cedar tree in America's Pacific Northwest through all of the steps in the production process. Along the way, the pencil convinces the reader of how amazing it is that so many specialized tasks can be necessary for the production of such a seemingly simple item, and more incredibly those tasks get coordinated without any centralized planning. In just a few pages of crisp, lucid writing, I, Pencil will restore your awe in the power of unhindered markets to generate spontaneous order.