Four Books for Social Distancing
By Pierre Lemieux
You are headed for your cabin in the woods and, like Indiana Jones at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, you have thrown your revolver in your travel bag. You still have room for four books to provide stimulation and, in more than one sense, assist in social distancing. What to choose? Here are my recommendations.
First, I strongly suggest that you read or reread Anthony de Jasay’s The State (Liberty Fund, 1997 ). Written by a creative economist and philosopher, this book will, I believe, be recognized as a major work of the 20th century. Its basic idea is that, since individuals are different, the state’s interventions cannot but help its clients while harming the rest of the population. I have a review of this crucial book on Econlib, but there is nothing like reading the real thing. Actually, the whole book is available in Liberty Fund’s Online Library of Liberty, so you can download it, print it, and throw the printout in your bag.
My second choice is James Buchanan’s The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan (Liberty Fund, 2000 ), which is a sort of anti-Jasay, although the Nobel laureate has expressed much respect for the obscure Anglo-Hungarian philosopher living in Normandie. As a young libertarian, I found this book as troubling as it was attractive when I first read it in the early 1980s. Buchanan argues that, as much as Leviathan is dangerous, individuals need the state to respond to some common preferences and to implement the bargaining decisions they make in an idealized social contract. I wrote a review on Econlib, but the whole book is also available on Liberty Fund’s website.
The third book I recommend to read or reread is F.A. Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (University of Chicago Press, 1988). If it is not on your bookshelf, then Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 1: Rules and Order (University of Chicago Press, 1973) would do. Hayek defends a theory of society and law that allows, as it were, less social distancing than de Jasay’s and Buchanan’s ideas, but it offers another vision of individual liberty.
In some ways, Hayek is close to de Jasay (through David Hume), but they reach very different conclusions. In some other ways, de Jasay is close to Buchanan, but again they reach different conclusions. Hayek and Buchanan may be the most different in the trio, yet they both emphasize the centrality of social institutions. It is useful to reflect on what makes the three economist-philosophers reach different conclusions, even if they all claim to be in the (classical) liberal tradition. Lot of food for thought while the wolves are howling.
The fourth book I recommend is on a different plane and would be mainly useful for those who have not learned formal economics, which is useful, if not essential, to understand de Jasay, Buchanan, and Hayek. The best introduction I know is David Friedman’s Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life (HarperBusiness, 1996).
Of course, there are many more good books to read if you are quarantined for longer. If you have a satellite dish at your cabin, bring your laptop. But play it safe with a couple of hard books: Trump may shut down satellites to disorient the coronavirus.