It's Still Summer...
By Amy Willis
If you are anything like us, you are busy trying to maximize these last glorious days of summer. And you are probably also desperately trying to find the time to finish the pile of summer reading you planned for yourself at the beginning of summer. We are not here to help.
As summer winds to a close, in lieu of our typical column illuminating particular economic concepts, we sought out the summer reading suggestions of many of our contributors. If you are looking for some more great reads, or are simply interested in what Econlib contributors like to read in their own free time, then we hope you will enjoy this compilation. And of course we hope you enjoy the rest of your summer!
EconLog blogger, economics professor at Bentley University, and Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at George Mason University
I look forward to reading three books this summer, The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, The Case Against Education by EconLog’s Bryan Caplan, and Inadequate Equilibria by Eliezer Yudkowsky. These books are written by people who are very good at dealing with big questions, and at utilizing material from a wide range of disciplines. It may seem premature to recommend books that I have not yet read, but a good bit of this material has already appeared in blog posts, and I’m confident that all three books will be quite interesting. It will be nice to have the arguments all in one place.
For fiction, I look forward to completing My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami. Knausgaard convinced me that I am not alone. For those who like science fiction, I recommend The Three Body Problem trilogy, by Cixin Liu. I almost gave up after the first volume, and am glad that I persevered. The next two volumes are excellent.
EconLog blogger and Director General of Istituto Bruno Leoni in Milan
The Moral Basis of a Backward Society was published by Edward Banfield some sixty years ago, in 1958. It is most famous for a felicitous expression, “amoral familism”, and for paving the way to a number of studies on “social capital”. But it is, in itself, a most interesting book. Banfield with his wife visited a small town in the South of Italy and used the empirical material at his disposal to attempt to understand why “a backward society” was desperately so. The book is full of interesting ideas, including reflections on why the little town, being a rare occurrence of Hobbes’s state of nature, with everybody having little regard for everybody else, developed a belief in government as an “external” problem-solving force. Now we have a wider appreciation of the importance of culture for economic development than sixty years ago, but reading Banfield can still be a very useful exercise.
Nationalism by Elie Kedourie is the best book I’ve read in years. Actually I feel almost guilty I bought it a few years ago, and left it on my bookshelves. It is a thorough exploration of nationalism, undertaken from an imaginative historian who sees many interplays between ideas that most of us are likely to miss. In this age of rampant nationalism, often covered up as something else, this is the book people with liberal sentiments should go back to, to remember what a tremendous threat to individual liberty nation states are. This is a first class work from a first class mind.
My Early Life by Winston Churchill. Sure you’ve enjoyed “The Darkest Hour” and thought with nostalgia at those times in which statesmen were genuinely great men, and character was king. But Winston Churchill’s political life, save 1944-1945, was a constellation of failures. Yet he never gave in and was ready for those crucial days when he was to be the indispensable man to keep Europe from Nazi rule. Reading on Churchill, you grow fonder and fonder of his weaknesses and peccadillos. You end up liking him because he was great, and greatly human. He was a splendid writer: this books is a story of his early life and evidence that indeed he “got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence—which is a noble thing”.
EconLog blogger and economist with Université du Québec en Outaouais
Jean-Baptiste Say, A Treatise on Political Economy. This classic book is interesting not only from the point of view of the history of economic thought, but also because it remains a good book of economics. The reader will discover—or rediscover—many crucial economic concepts such as relative prices and opportunity cost. Say does not use the term “opportunity cost,” which would be coined more than a century later, but he shows that he understood it: “[T]he charges of war would be very incorrectly estimated,” he writes, “were we to take no account of the havoc and destruction it occasions; for that one at least of the belligerents, whose territory happens to be the scene of operations, must be exposed to its ravages.” The books even contains elements of Public Choice theory. The reader will also discover in the Treatise the original formulation of “Say’s Law,” according to which supply creates its own demand.
Douglas A. Irwin, Clashing over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy. This books offers a comprehensive history of US trade policy from the War of Independence to our times. Since trade policy is related to everything, Irwin’s book also provides a review of general American history. The reader will discover how American policy has been generally protectionist, how real (unilateral) free trade was never on the agenda, and how absurd protectionism is. After the Civil War, open immigration fortunately compensated for its deleterious effects. One of the many fascinating facts reported by Irwin, is how, in 1872, Rep. Samuel Cox (D-NY) described how protectionism favors parts of the country at the expense of other parts. As Cox put it, protectionism steals from consumers from somewhere in the country to give to producers elsewhere: “Michigan steals on copper; Maine on lumber; Pennsylvania on iron; North Carolina on peanuts; Massachusetts on cotton goods; Connecticut on hair pins; New Jersey on spool thread; Louisiana on sugar, and so on.”
Econlib Editor, Owner of Technique Typesetting, and Director of the ESOL Associates of Rochester, NY
This has not much at all to do with economics. It’s more aligned with interests of mine about inventors, electronics, physics, etc. But, I’m planning on reading two quite different biographies of Hedy Lamarr plus possibly her autobiography as well. She was an extraordinary inventor who changed the course of modern electronics (while researching and solving a problem in submarine warfare at the reclusive retreat of Howard Hughes alongside other inventors!) as well as her more famous profession as an actress. I’m curious to sort out the several different perspectives about her. The two I’m planning on are Richard Rhodes’s Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World and Stephen Michael Shearer’s Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr’s autobiography is Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman.
John H. Schnatter Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise at Ball State University
I have just finished Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West, which I recommend highly. Jonah locates the struggles of 21st century America in a return to tribalism that has come from a loss of confidence in, and indeed an ingratitude toward, the Western institutions that created what he calls “The Miracle” of the last 300 years. Much of his thesis is too complex to summarize quickly, but the key part for me is his sustained, and Hayekian, claim that capitalist modernity is “unnatural” while tribalism (and romanticism) are much more in tune with evolved human nature. If we do not constantly strive to understand, appreciate, and defend the institutions that have given us the peaceful and prosperous world we live in, it will become corrupted in that word’s original sense of “letting nature take its toll.” Jonah argues that much of what see in both the Trumpian right and progressive left is a revolt against those institutions which is letting the ancient demons of tribalism and romanticism back in, with a grave threat to what the West has accomplished. I think he’s onto something really important here, especially the idea that modernity is “unnatural.” As always with his work, you can expect a book that combines humor and serious thought and that is written in a very accessible style. It is also remarkably even-handed in its criticisms of both the right and left. Well worth a read.
Professor of Economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University
“The poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition…” So opens Adam Smith’s parable of the poor man’s son, consisting of three paragraphs, the first the longest paragraph in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ask three Smith scholar what the underlying message is, and you are apt to get different answers. Did Smith fail to make himself clear? One common interpretation of the parable has fed into what German authors spoke of as Das Adam Smith Problem. But perhaps Smith brewed conundrum. In The Wealth of Nations “sympathy” never appears, “sentiment” appears only twice, and likewise “spectator” (near the very beginning and the very end). Was it deliberate? The closing words of the parable of the poor man’s son—”and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for”—still inspire fresh commentary. (Did you know that Smith, here, has in mind a particular beggar?) The parable of the poor man’s son is an example of what Arthur Melzer’s calls pedagogical esotericism, in his landmark work Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (University of Chicago Press 2014; paperback 2017). Beyond the more obvious interpretation of the author’s meaning, the exoteric message, there is a less obvious interpretation, an esoteric message, one the reader has to work for. What else are summers for?!
Thomas W. Smith Presidential Chair in Business Ethics, Professor of Economics, and Executive Director of the Eudaimonia Institute at Wake Forest University
I have two book recommendations that both give me optimism about the future, in the spirit of Matt Ridley’s 2011 The Rational Optimist (which I also highly recommend). The first is Hans Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World—And Why Things Are Better than You Think (Flatiron Books, 2018). This was Rosling’s final book before he died, and it reflects his characteristic flair for presenting data in a way that is both compelling and understandable. It presents the current state of how the world is improving in nutrition, longevity, reduction of poverty, environmental sustainability, and much else. It is written in language accessible to the layperson, and it contains lessons along the way about how to interpret, and how not to interpret, data and statistics. It demonstrates the enormous progress we have made in recent decades, and, though there is still much work to be done, it corrects the false impression many have that things have been getting worse. In fact, by almost every measure, things are getting better in the world.
My second recommendation is Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking, 2018). Pinker is a masterful writer, and in this book he traces how central ideas from the Enlightenment—including markets and trade, democracy, human rights, and science—have led to improvements in human life that are historically unprecedented. He draws on thinkers like Montesquieu, Hume, and Smith to show that their skeptical, empirical approach to understanding human nature and the human condition has made us freer, more prosperous, and happier. It is a wide-ranging and sweeping analysis, filled with facts, data, and argument. Even when he doesn’t fully persuade, one learns something new on every page and gains a new and fresh appreciation for humanity’s achievements. It also provides a cautionary warning about some contemporary movements that seek to curtail the freedoms of speech, association, and trade, and makes a compelling argument for extending, rather than limiting, these freedoms.
Edward J. Lopez
BB&T Distinguished Professor of Capitalism at Western Carolina University and President of the Public Choice Society
Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of Modern Economy, Princeton University Press, 2017. I read this book as representing the next big extension of economic history from incorporating institutions via Douglass North and ideas via Deirdre McCloskey and others, and now to culture via Mokyr. This is his next in a long line of important books like The Lever of Riches, The Enlightened Economy, and now A Culture of Growth.
Richard Wagner, James M. Buchanan and Liberal Political Economy: A Rational Reconstruction, Lexington Books, 2017. Just as Buchanan’s body of work began receiving an unexpected onslaught of attention in the summer of 2017, Richard Wagner quietly released this intellectual biography of his professor and long-time co-author. Followers of Buchanan’s work—and readers who have recently become curious, alike—will benefit from Wagner’s deep yet accessible treatment of Buchanan’s work, showing clearly how Buchanan’s arc of thought over his 50-year run of scholarship has its roots in his earliest papers from the late 1940s.
*Amy Willis is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Library of Economics and Liberty at Liberty Fund, Inc.