Introducing Myself in 10 Books (Part 2)
This post is a follow-up to my previous post on ten books that have had an oversized impact on my thinking and reading. I’d recommend reading that first post if you haven’t already, to get an understanding of what I mean by that – that said, this is the second half of the list.
The Art of Living by Epictetus
This is a classic work by one of the big names in Stoic philosophy, chiefly about how to live a good life. And its reputation is well deserved – you can find wise advice on every page. But what I most took from this book is an appreciation of how little the human condition has changed. This book was written thousands of years ago – yet its contents are as applicable to modern life as when it was initially written. For example, Epictetus writes “The flourishing life is not achieved by techniques. You can’t trick yourself into a life well-lived. Neither is it achieved by following five easy steps or some charismatic figure’s dogma…The untrained brood about the constituent elements of their lives. They waste precious time in regret or wishing their particulars were different (‘If only I lived in a better house or town, had a different spouse, a more glamourous job, more time to myself …’)…When we succumb to whining, we diminish our possibilities.” These struggles Epictetus describes thousands of years ago are immediately relatable today – how many articles and books have you seen arguing that if you just follow this easy five step process you can achieve success, happiness, or perfect six-pack abs? How many people do you know who lose sight of just how good their life really is, because they’re caught up in obsessing over their relative status? How much potential happiness is wasted because someone holds no gratitude about how much they have, because they’re too busy being upset that someone else has even more? This consistency in the things that trouble us helps you understand just how real, strong, and persistent human nature is.
The Ethics of Voting by Jason Brennan
There have been many books written about the epistemic shortcomings of voters, but Jason Brennan’s book does something more than this. Brennan argues powerfully that voting carries strong ethical obligations – it’s not always better to vote than to not vote. Indeed, most of the time and for most people, it’s probably better not to vote. The outcomes of elections have a powerful effect on people’s lives, wealth, and prospects for a better future. To attempt to influence the outcome of this process when you’re not deeply informed about the policies in question and the outcomes they are likely to create is no different from attempting to influence how a bridge will be built despite lacking any understanding of construction or engineering. If you don’t know the first thing about engineering, any attempt to influence bridge construction will almost certainly make things worse – and endanger people’s lives in the process. This is no less true of uninformed voting. Prior to reading this book, I held something like the common view of voting and democracy, and to the extent that I gave any thought at all to the epistemic problems of voting, my usual glib response was to say that all I really needed to know in order to cast a vote was to decide who to vote against. While this isn’t literally the dumbest view I’ve ever held, it’s for some reason one of the ones I find most embarrassing to have ever believed – probably because I experience a lot of second-hand embarrassment because I still hear it so often from people who imagine, like I once did, that its some kind of insightful, useful, or clever approach.
Governing Least: A New England Libertarianism by Dan Moller
Dan Moller’s Governing Least was the first book I came across that gave a complete and systematic examination of the fundamental disposition that drew me towards libertarianism and classical liberalism. There are many roads to libertarianism, of course. Some come to libertarianism due to a deontological worldview. Many others come to libertarianism for utilitarian or consequentialist reasons. But what a lot of writers from these traditions left out, or at least failed to emphasize, is something Moller puts front and center. As he puts it, libertarian policies come not from an overly strong emphasis on our rights as individuals, but instead from a modesty about what we can appropriately demand from other people. I have struggled with various hardships in my life, some due to poor choices and others due to bad luck. But it’s just never been obvious to me why that would make it appropriate for me to forcibly transfer the costs of my misfortune onto other people. All this brand of libertarianism requires is a sense that it’s wrong for us to compel others to bear the costs of our misfortunes. I could never look someone in the eye and say, “I’m struggling terribly right now, therefore it’s okay for me to use force to make you worse off for my benefit.” That’s not the kind of person I want to be. Moller unpacks this line of thinking, and anticipates and refutes various objections, in a way that few scholars manage to equal.
Dialogues on Ethical Vegetarianism by Michael Huemer
This is a bit of a slippery entry on the list, because it wasn’t exactly the book that had the kind of impact I’m talking about – but this book was written as a direct result of what did. Several years ago, Bryan Caplan and Michael Huemer debated on EconLog about the ethical treatment of animals. Prior to the start of that debate, to the extent that I had given the matter any thought at all, I was solidly in the same camp as Caplan, and my diet was so meat centered that I was essentially living on a perpetual Atkins diet. However, I found Huemer’s arguments much more compelling, and Caplan’s arguments, despite defending a view and lifestyle I also shared, struck me as very weak. I clearly remember reading one of Huemer’s final replies to Caplan on my phone, then setting it down and informing my then fiancé and now wife that I was going to become a vegetarian. And just like that, I stopped eating meat and the next year moved on to being vegan. This book by Huemer was written as a result of that debate and the discussion that followed. In the years that have followed, when people ask me why I stopped eating meat, I just reference them to the Huemer-Caplan debate – and several other people I know have made the same choice I did after reading that exchange. While I’ve learned a lot from many books over the years, it would be hard to name that many that have caused me to change my behavior in such a significant way due to the moral force of the argument. For example, Huemer’s excellent book The Problem of Political Authority changed my mind in favor of philosophical anarchism (though not political anarchism), but nothing about that change of mind caused me to act very differently in my day-to-day life. But his writings on what would later be made into this book definitely had a huge impact on my life, for the better.
One of the things I enjoy most about bookstores over shopping for books online is the ability to browse rather than search. One of the great joys in that experience is stumbling across something you weren’t even looking for. The best browsing experience I had came from perusing a Borders Bookstore (remember those?) in 2007. I had received transfer orders from Camp Pendleton, California to Cherry Point, North Carolina, so I had quite a long drive ahead of me. I wanted to pick up some books to read during breaks and in the hotels at night during the drive. While browsing, I stumbled across and bought two books to read over my travels – Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature and Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter. By that point my interest in economics had been on the rise, but I devoured Caplan’s book and completely fell in love with the subject. My decision to pursue an economics degree at George Mason University was due in no small part to this book. That book also led me to discover this very blog, which I spent years reading before eventually becoming fortunate enough to be able to write here myself. While I have plenty of disagreements with Caplan, of course, I still hold The Myth of the Rational Voter up as one of the best and most insightful books on economics and politics of all time, and its impact on my life would be difficult to exaggerate.