Tag Archives: hayek

2013: The Year in Books

library

Maybe someday.

Continuing this blog’s annual tradition (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012), here are capsule reviews of all the books I read this year. Only books read all the way through are included. Unless stated otherwise, I enjoyed them all and recommend them. Hopefully you’ll find something here that catches your eye; do feel free to share back in the comments or via email.

  1. John Allison – The Financial Crisis and the Free Market Cure
    The first two thirds or so are nuts-and-bolts policy analysis, argued clearly and directly. The final third is more philosophical. This book may not exude charisma, but what it lacks in flash it more than makes up for in substance and clarity. One of the best books about the financial crisis.
  2. Dominick T. Armentano – Antitrust: The Case for Repeal (2nd edition)
    Rather strident in tone for my taste. Even so, this is a concise, clear, and valuable summary of how antitrust laws undermine the competitive process, rather than enhance it; intentions are not results. The link goes to a free PDF version.
  3. Bernard Bailyn – The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675
    This appropriately titled book gives a painstakingly thorough treatment of the first permanent European settlements by region from the Carolinas to the Chesapeake, to New Amsterdam/New York, and on up to New England. It also gives a thorough treatment of the Native Americans they displaced. Almost without exception, people back then lived hard, short, and shockingly violent lives.
  4. Radley Balko – Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces
    An important book by one of my favorite journalists. A long process has given America’s police forces a SWAT team-mentality towards even non-violent offenses. This change was mainly driven by the drug war, but also by seizing on catastrophic events such as the 1965 Watts riots, the 1999 Columbine massacre, and of course, 9/11. The consequences are, on a daily basis, quite literally life and death.
  5. Yoram Bauman and Grady Klein – The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume Two: Macroeconomics
    This is a wonderful approach to popularizing economics, and Bauman and Klein have mastered it. Volume 1 neglected trade in favor of game theory; trade gets its due here. The authors give both spontaneous order and constructivist perspectives a fair say on a range of issues, but they neglect to apply public choice and knowledge problem concerns in their carbon tax cheerleading towards the end. Even so, highly recommended for anyone interested in learning more about economics.
  6. “Joe Biden” – The President of Vice
    The Onion’s 2012 election coverage portrayed Biden as a hard-living, cash-strapped, Trans Am-driving burnout who happened to be vice president. This short e-book is that fictionalized Biden’s autobiography. It’s a one-note symphony, but taken in small doses, it is quite funny.
  7. Lee Billings – Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars
    Lots of good science here for astronomy buffs. What sets Billings apart is that he also writes about the personalities behind the science, at times very poignantly.
  8. Daniel Boorstin – The Discoverers
    An erudite history of innovation, discovery, openness, progress, and science that, as one reviewer put it, reads a bit like an adventure story. The section on sea exploration, discovering the New World, and establishing trade routes to the East is especially vivid.
  9. John Bradshaw – Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet
    Cats are weird. Bradshaw explains the science behind their weirdness in layman-friendly language. The early chapters on feline evolution and domestication are superb. The later chapters explaining many cat behaviors are useful for cat owners, including this reviewer.
  10. Geoffrey Brennan and James Buchanan – The Reason of Rules
    After explaining the important difference between acting within rules and acting to change the rules, they show that rule changes are necessary for reforming everything from deficit spending to the tax code. As a bonus, they build a model in which a flat income tax gives a more equal income distribution than a progressive income tax. The book relies too heavily on homo economicus for my taste, but contains many valuable insights. Both authors are deep and careful thinkers.
  11. Jason Brennan – Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know
    In this quick-reading book, Brennan asks and briefly answers 105 questions about libertarianism, covering everything from the war on drugs to the positive-negative rights distinction to the many different flavors of libertarianism.
  12. Rex Brown with Mark Eglinton – Official Truth, 101 Proof: The Inside Story of Pantera
    Some parts could have come straight from the “Joe Biden” memoir above. Rex is also much more venal than his laid-back image would suggest. Even so, this was a heartfelt, honest read about one of my favorite bands from back in the day.
  13. James Buchanan – Better Than Plowing and Other Personal Essays
    Buchanan, who died earlier this year, published this collection a few years after he won the economics Nobel. It was partially intended as a way to shrug off reporters. Besides the expected autobiographical details–the title alludes to his rural upbringing–it contains many nuggets of economic, professional, and personal wisdom. An example of a life well lived.
  14. James Buchanan – The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan
    Buchanan described this book as his most successful attempt at a one-volume summation of his research program. He distinguishes between constitutional and post-constitutional analysis. The first studies the rules of the game and how they are decided upon, and the second studies how people behave once those rules are in place. Political reforms that fail to account for both phases will turn out rather differently than intended.
  15. James Buchanan – The Logical Foundations of Constitutional Liberty: Collected Works, Volume 1
    A collection of 31 papers spanning Buchanan’s career. The selections cover all of his major contributions: public finance, the importance of constitutional vs. post-constitutional analysis, ethics, contractarianism, subjectivism, and, as always, viewing politics without romance.
  16. James Buchanan – Cost and Choice: An Inquiry in Economic Theory
    Buchanan’s treatment of opportunity costs and how they influence decision-making in market and non-market situations. His subjectivity shines throughout.
  17. James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock – The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy
    One of the founding documents of public choice theory, which applies economic methodology to politics. Buchanan and Tullock emphasize methodological individualism, and reject treating groups as the relevant unit of analysis. They also set unanimity as an ideal decision-making benchmark, as opposed to simple majority rule. Their insight that logrolling (vote-trading) is a market behavior was revolutionary.
  18. James Buchanan and Richard Wagner – Democracy in Deficit: The Political Legacy of Lord Keynes
    When Keynes and his followers ended the old time fiscal religion’s taboo on deficits and inflation, politicians celebrated. Voters like getting stuff from the government, but dislike paying the requisite taxes. Successful politicians could now cater to both of these contradictory preferences through deficit spending and inflation. They won’t stop until the prevailing fiscal ideology changes back, but Buchanan and Wagner also propose institution-level fixes such as a balanced budget amendment.
  19. Christopher Buckley – Boomsday
    A fiscal satire, of all things. The young protagonist jokingly proposes fixing the entitlement crisis by giving tax incentives to baby boomers for voluntarily killing themselves (“transitioning”) by age 70, thus saving younger taxpayers from having to support them. The fun begins when people start taking her idea seriously.
  20. Robert Burton – On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not
    Certainty is a long-time interest of mine. Burton, a medical doctor, goes into the physiological, neurological, and psychological reasons why people are irrationally sure of themselves. The section on the evolutionary benefits of capital-C Certainty is particularly enlightening, but the later discussion of faith-vs.-science is tiresome. The book could have used a treatment of more earthly ideological certainty instead.
  21. Robert A. Caro – Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson III
    Caro takes more than 1,000 pages to cover Johnson’s 12 years in the Senate. And yet this book is an exciting, dramatic read. Its heart is the fight for the 1957 civil rights act — the first such bill the Senate had passed in 82 years, during Reconstruction.
  22. Robert A. Caro – The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson IV
    Covers Johnson’s vice presidency, the Kennedy assassination, and the first seven weeks of his presidency. Johnson used the assassination crisis to quickly pass almost the entirety of Kennedy’s remaining legislative agenda, and much else besides. An effective, if wholly unintentional rebuttal to Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine.
  23. Rory Carroll – Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela
    Neither a left-wing hagiography nor a right-wing hatchet job. This book is more about painting a vivid picture of Chávez, Venezuela, and its people than constructing a narrative history. While the reader’s sense of chronology suffers, Carroll’s approach also makes the book nearly impossible to put down. Coincidentally, it was released just two days after Chávez’s death was announced.
  24. Ronald H. Coase – Essays on Economics and Economists
    Coase died this year at age 102. This collection opens with Coase’s Nobel lecture and continues with essays on methodology, mathematicization, and the role economics can play in enhancing human understanding. The second half consists of biographical sketches of Adam Smith, Alfred Marshall, Arnold Plant, George Stigler, and other economic luminaries. Coase knew many of them personally.
  25. Ronald H. Coase – The Firm, the Market, and the Law
    This collection includes Coase’s most influential essays, including “The Nature of the Firm,” “The Problem of Social Cost,” and “The Lighthouse in Economics.” The other material is certainly worthy of inclusion, but I wish it had also included “The Federal Communications Commission,” which introduced the idea of wireless spectrum auctions that the FCC currently (sort of) uses. So far as I know, that widely cited article remains relegated to JSTOR.
  26. Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending – The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution
    Evolution did not stop when civilization began. Instead, the authors argue that human evolution has actually accelerated 100-fold since the Agricultural Revolution, and they back it up impressively. They even theorize that natural selection may have played a part in why the Industrial Revolution happened when it did, which is of particular interest to this reader.
  27. Rich Cohen – Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football
    My grandfather lent this to me. Even as a Packer fan, I greatly enjoyed it. The focus is on the 1985 championship team, but it also contains a quality history of the franchise going all the way back to team founder George Halas’ childhood. A good rivalry has two worthy opponents, and this book made me see the Bears in a new light. As Sun Tzu said, know your enemy.
  28. Susan Crawford – Captive Audience
    Not recommended. The author argues that the Internet has become a near-monopoly, and government should regulate it as a public utility, like a power plant or a waterworks. The harried tone borders on conspiracy theorizing, at times almost comically so. In particular, Crawford’s prediction of Netflix’s imminent doom at Comcast’s hands is so far turning out to be rather inaccurate.
  29. Dan Daly – The National Forgotten League: Entertaining Stories and Observations from Pro Football’s First Fifty Years
    An offbeat history of pro football from its small-town 1920s beginnings through the 1960s, when the AFL and NFL both commanded national attention. The main attraction is its collection of humorous stories and anecdotes, and quotes from the game’s most colorful early personalities. But there is also a strong narrative component about the game’s evolution from primitive, run-oriented single-wing offenses run in front of small crowds to the T-formation variations that still dominate today’s pass-happy game in packed stadiums and on national tv.
  30. Frank Dikötter – The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
    I could only read this book in small chunks; it was too much to bear. Dikötter has done more than construct a standard historical narrative. In addition to archival work, he interviewed survivors, giving their names and telling their stories in their own words. The old saying about one death being a tragedy and a million deaths being a statistic is uncomfortably true. This book, in a way that the Black Book of Communism does not, humanizes one of the world’s saddest statistics.
  31. Rolf Dobelli – The Art of Thinking Clearly
    Dobelli, a Swiss novelist and entrepreneur, gives a light-hearted yet thoughtful treatment of common fallacies and mental mistakes. The book has 99 chapters covering 99 fallacies, though each is only a few pages long. Reads quickly, but its lessons are worth thinking over carefully; this book is best taken in small doses.
  32. Donald Driver – Driven: From Homeless to Hero, My Journeys On and Off Lambeau Field
    Something of a victory lap for Driver, a Packer great who retired after the 2012 season. He overcame a rough upbringing to become Green Bay’s all-time leading wide receiver, a Super Bowl champion, and a family man. He also won the popular Dancing with the Stars television show, an accomplishment in which he takes great pride.
  33. David Epstein – The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance
    A look at how nature and nurture interact in elite sports. The two are so tightly intertwined that one cannot exist without the other. An excellent complement to Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. One also learns about the intricacies of everything from high jumping to sled dog racing.
  34. Brian Fagan – Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans
    Fagan is a wonderful popularizer, as capable of painting pictures with words as he is at explaining the latest scientific advances in archaeology. An excellent read about a subject that I very much enjoy, but rarely delve into. Highly recommended.
  35. D.X. Ferris – Slayer’s Reign in Blood
    An in-depth look at the personalities, creative process, context, and larger cultural importance of my favorite album by one of my favorite bands–and one of the few that has stood the test of time from adolescence to adulthood.
  36. Don Gulbrandsen – Green Bay Packers: The Complete Illustrated History – Third Edition
    This book gives in-depth coverage to Green Bay’s three eras of greatness — Curly Lambeau’s six championships in the team’s early years, Lombardi’s five championships in the 1960s, and the current 20-plus-year run that began with team president Bob Harlan, GM Ron Wolf, coach Mike Holmgren, and QB Brett Favre. This edition concludes with the Packers’ record-setting 13th championship under the current Ted Thompson-Mike McCarthy-Aaron Rodgers triumvirate. Just as important, the book also gives plenty of attention to the fallow years in between.
  37. Daniel Hannan – Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World
    Hannan argues that Anglospheric exceptionalism is rooted in institutions such as the common law, representative democracy, and what legal scholar Randy Barnett might call a presumption of liberty. This is mainly a work of history, and a well-done one at that. But Hannan’s perspective makes a familiar story seem entirely new. I recorded a podcast with him about the book here.
  38. F.A. Hayek (W.W. Bartley III and Stephen Kresge, eds.) – The Trend of Economic Thinking: Essays on Political Economists and Economic History
    The third volume of Hayek’s collected works. This volume is a collection of historical essays and lectures with a focus on monetary theory, many of which date back to Hayek’s early years at the London School of Economics in the 1920s and 1930s. Also contains biographical sketches of Richard Cantillon, Henry Thornton, Hermann Heinrich Gossen, Hume, Bacon, Adam Smith, and Bernard Mandeville. The link goes to a free PDF version.
  39. Peter Hook – Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division
    Caustic, yet poignant. Joy Division’s bassist, not always the most sympathetic character, chronicles the band’s unfinished rise. Fortunately, their music lives on.
  40. Arnold Kling – The Three Languages of Politics
    In this short ebook, Kling outlines his three-axis model, which explains why people of different ideologies talk past each other, and rarely to each other. Progressives largely see the world through an oppressor-oppressed axis, conservatives through a civilization-barbarism axis, and libertarians through a  freedom-coercion axis. The three types can look at the same data and draw three completely different conclusions. This deserves a fuller treatment, which I hope Kling will give in the near future.
  41. Lawrence Krauss – The Physics of Star Trek
    A bit of good fun to accompany the release of the new Star Trek movie in May. I unfortunately read the older edition from 1995, which is quite dated in places; physics advances quickly. The link goes to the newer 2007 edition.
  42. Mark Leibovich – This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral, Plus Plenty of Valet Parking in America’s Gilded Capital
    No matter how cynical you might be, there are always people out there even more jaded than you are. Many of them live in Washington and appear in this book. Leibovich is certainly among their number, but he is refreshingly honest about it.
  43. John Locke – Second Treatise of Government
    It’s good to revisit the classics. The tone of this particular classic is much more revolutionary than I remembered. I no longer wonder why Locke had his troubles with the authorities.
  44. Edward Lopez and Wayne Leighton – Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers: The Economic Engine of Political Change
    The first two thirds of the book are a layman-friendly (and highly recommended) tour of political philosophy from Plato to the Enlightenment, and of economics from Adam Smith to James Buchanan. The remainder shows that political change happens much the same way economic change does: a mix of fortuitous circumstances and active, opportunistic entrepreneurship. The authors coin the term “political entrepreneur” to describe effective change agents.
  45. Megan McArdle – The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success
    This might sound like a self-help book, but it isn’t. The publisher sent me a pre-release galley in the mail, and I’m glad they did. Megan takes Schumpeter’s creative destruction and Israel Kirzner’s competition as discovery procedure, and runs with them. Better, she humanizes those abstract ideas and makes them accessible to the layman. It doesn’t come out until February, but this book is worth a pre-order from Amazon. Highly recommended.
  46. Ludwig von Mises – Interventionism: An Economic Analysis
    Written in 1940, after World War II began, but before the U.S. entered the fray. Mises, an Austrian Jew who narrowly escaped the Nazis, argues that Britain, France, and the other Allies would have been in a better position to defeat Germany–or prevent war altogether–if they had not economically weakened themselves in the interwar years with interventionist policies. Some arguments prefigure Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, which came out four years later.
  47. Albert Mudrian – Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore
    A quality oral history of extreme metal. The author interviewed more than 100 people for this book, and it is mostly their words. The book is especially strong on the early days, but loses its way by 2000 or so. It contains no mention of several major bands, including Meshuggah and Lamb of God. Other major bands, such as Fear Factory, have cameos at best. This is a good book for fans of the genre, but it may be time for an updated edition.
  48. Tom G. Palmer (ed.) – Why Liberty?
    Tom accurately describes this book as a “snack tray for the mind.” This quick-reading collection of short essays by a variety of mostly young scholars is the fourth in Students for Liberty‘s annual series. It looks at the idea of liberty from the perspectives of history, philosophy, policy, the arts, economics, and more. The link goes to a free PDF version.
  49. Steven Pinker – The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
    Probably the most thought-provoking book in this list not authored by Jim Buchanan. Pinker shows with abundant data that for several millennia now, humanity has become progressively less violent over time, both in degree and in kind. Despite a 1960s-70s blip with echoes lasting into the 1990s, the trend continues to this day. Pinker’s many theories as to how this came about range from genetic change to the rise of commerce and bourgeois values to an environmentally-caused improvement in abstract reasoning capabilities (and relatedly, empathy).
  50. George H. Smith – The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism
    Smith, a top-flight political philosopher and intellectual historian, surveys the major themes and debates in liberal thought. He also clears up common misconceptions and smears, such as the conflation of individualism with atomism, and Herbert Spencer’s use of the term “survival of the fittest.” Smith treats the usual big names like Locke, Hobbes, and Mill, but also introduces several lesser-known thinkers such as Thomas Hodgskin, William Graham Sumner, and Georg Simmel. This is the kind of book that rewards re-reading, which is a compliment I certainly intend to pay this excellent work.
  51. John B. Taylor – Getting Off Track: How Government Actions and Interventions Caused, Prolonged, and Worsened the Financial Crisis
    When the financial crisis first hit, most people thought the cause was a liquidity crunch, because that is what caused the Great Depression. Taylor was one of the first to show that the crisis was instead caused by too much risk. Liquidity-oriented policies such as ad hoc bailouts and stimulus made the crisis worse by causing uncertainty while leaving the original risk problem untreated. One quibble: at one point he calls a counterfactual analysis “empirical,” which strikes this reviewer as literally impossible. Otherwise highly recommended.
  52. John B. Taylor – First Principles: Five Keys to Restoring America’s Prosperity
    Without rejecting Getting Off Track‘s data-driven approach, Taylor grounds this book more in philosophical principles. The five he emphasizes are limited government, rule of law, strong incentives, reliance on markets, and predictability. He applies them to a wide suite of issues, from monetary policy to cronyism to health care.
  53. Gordon Tullock (Charles K. Rowley, ed.) – The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, Volume 1: Virginia Political Economy
    An introduction to the sheer breadth of Tullock’s work. The 50 or so collected articles are a case study in economic imperialism. They cover the economics of voting, rent-seeking, politics, legal systems, judicial decisions, anarchy, pollution, crime, and even bioeconomics, which applies economic methodology to the study of nature and animal behavior.
  54. Gordon Tullock (Charles K. Rowley, ed.) – The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, Volume 5: The Rent-Seeking Society
    In economics, rents are outsized profits that go above and beyond a normal rate of return. Rent-seeking is using government to unfairly gain these rents, whether through subsidies, favorable regulations, or other special treatment. This book collects Tullock’s pioneering work on the subject. It is a travesty that he has not won the Nobel.
  55. Kurt Vonnegut – Breakfast of Champions
    Vonnegut had a remarkable way of being world-weary and childlike at the same time.
  56. Lawrence H. White – The Clash of Economic Ideas: The Great Policy Debates and Experiments of the Last Hundred Years
    A superb intellectual history of economics. The main focus is WWI-present, but along the way the reader also meets Adam Smith, Ricardo, Mill, the Fabians, and many other earlier titans whose ideas continue to influence today’s debates.
  57. Lawrence Wright – Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
    Wright goes well out of his way to be evenhanded, possibly in part because of Scientology’s litigious tendencies. His just-the-facts presentation actually makes the church come off worse. The parts about the Sea Org and the Rehabilitation Project Force are a uniquely American addition to prison literature.

2012: The Year in Books

library strahov theological hall

I wish.

As is now tradition on this blog (2009, 2010, 2011), here are capsule reviews of all the books I read this year. The usual rules apply: only books I actually finished made the list, and I recommend them unless stated otherwise in the review. My approach is less extreme than Tyler Cowen‘s, but I still tend not to finish a book unless I feel it’s worth the time and effort; hence the mostly favorable reviews. If you see any that interest you, I hope you’ll check them out. A good book is one of life’s genuine joys, and one well worth sharing.

  1. Daron Acemoglu  and James A. Robinson – Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
    Why are some countries rich while others are poor? According to this book, institutions are the answer. Countries with extractive political and economic institutions are poor and despotic. Countries with more inclusive institutions prosper.
  2. Tom Bethell – Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher
    Hoffer was a dockworker and philosopher who wrote the massively influential The True Believer. This biography does a good job of blending Hoffer’s personal and intellectual lives, and reveals that he may have been an illegal immigrant from Germany. Which, of course, only reinforces my pro-immigration views.
  3. Peter Boettke – Living Economics: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
    An insightful collection of 22 articles about teaching economics, and what economics can teach us — and what it can’t. The economist should see himself as a student of society, not its savior. Humility, not certainty.
  4. Daniel J. Boorstin – The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination
    A lengthy history of the arts spanning 3,000 years, told mainly through biography. Almost all of its 70 chapters tell the life story of one or more great artist, and describes their works. Poetry, prose, painting, sculpture, architecture, theater, photography, and more all get their moments.
  5. Donald J. Boudreaux – Hypocrites & Half-Wits: A Daily Dose of Sanity from Cafe Hayek
    I sometimes give a lunch seminar to CEI’s interns about writing, and assign them to write letters to the editor. Don taught me much of what I know in that department. This excellent book, which collects 100 or so of his best letters, shows why I learned from the best. My personal favorite is the final one.
  6. Jim Bouton – Ball Four
    A baseball classic. A tell-all diary/memoir/autobiography of Bouton’s 1969 season pitching for the Seattle Pilots. It’s as funny as it is cynical.
  7. Michael Breen – Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Dear Leader, Revised and Updated Edition
    Unimpressive, but still valuable. Breen’s use of bad pop psychology to analyze Kim Jong-il’s character wastes valuable pages, and he is an awkward prose stylist. But he has gathered a lot of valuable inside information from his years as a journalist covering North Korea, and shares it eagerly.
  8. Robert Caro – The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 1
    The first of four lengthy volumes published so far. The series is a study of power as much as it is of LBJ himself. Caro, while ideologically sympathetic to Johnson’s Great Society, is unafraid to paint him — accurately — as power-obsessed, manipulative, and often just plain mean.
  9. Robert Caro – Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 2
    Glad I read this during an election year. The heart of the book is the story of Johnson’s 1948 Senate race against Coke Stevenson. The two men could not be more different, which alone makes it interesting. But the lengths to which Johnson went during the campaign reveal much about the politician’s mindset. Johnson stole the election all but openly; the rest is history.
  10. Kenneth Clark – Civilisation: A Personal View
    The companion book to Clark’s masterful BBC art history documentary, which I also recommend. Clark never does define “civilization,” but he shows 280 examples of it in this lavishly illustrated book.
  11. Bill Clinton – Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy
    Quick-hit book of progressive policy ideas. Recommended for young economists learning about opportunity costs, comparative advantage, and other Econ 101 concepts. Lots of places to apply them here. I also reviewed it for RealClearBooks.
  12. Benjamin Constant – Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments
    Published in 1815, the same year as Waterloo. Constant was a French political philosopher heavily influenced by Enlightenment ideals. But this is a world-weary work; Constant lived through the French Revolution, the Terror, and Napoleon’s wars. Above all else except for human freedom, he yearned for peace and quiet. I can get behind that.
  13. Martha Derthick and Paul J. Quick – The Politics of Deregulation
    Dry as dust, but informative. Tells the story of how a perfect storm led to airline, trucking, and telecom deregulation under Ford, Carter, and Reagan. In a bit of disciplinary squabbling, The political scientist authors repeatedly go out of their way to disparage by name economists such as Anthony Downs, Bill Niskanen, and Mancur Olson. But their Homo economicus-based criticisms reveal that they probably haven’t read them, and certainly don’t understand them.
  14. Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu – The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet
    This ad hominem-free deluge of data and arguments made me feel embarrassed for buy-local activists such as Michael Pollan. Like watching a cat play with a mouse.
  15. Peter K. Diamandis and Steven Kotler – Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think
    Diamandis founded the X Prize Foundation. He has excellent insights into our biological predilection towards pessimism, and gives a tour of innovations that could change the world and end poverty over the next few decades.
  16. Paul Dickson: Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick
    Veeck was a baseball innovator and showman who also had a healthy sense of humor. He put the ivy in Wrigley Field, last names on players’ jerseys, set off fireworks after home runs, and once sent 3′ 7″ Eddie Gaedel to bat during a regular season game. He also played a major role in baseball’s racial integration.
  17. Brian Doherty – Ron Paul’s rEVOLution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired
    This book is more about Ron Paul supporters, warts and all, than it is about Paul himself. A fun read, if not terribly edifying. Could stand to be a little more critical.
  18. Susan Dudley and Jerry Brito – Regulation: A Primer, Second Edition
    Highly recommended. Excellent overview of the different types of regulation, their rationales, and the regulatory process. The link goes to a free PDF version.
  19. William Easterly – The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good
    The title, drawn from Kipling, refers to the West’s haughty condescension towards the Rest. Easterly draws a dichotomy between Planners — top-down, grandiose, and bureaucratic — and Searchers, who take a more bottom-up, humble, and effective approach to aid.
  20. Robert Heinlein – The Man Who Sold the Moon
    A collection of sci-fi stories and a novella. As dated as some Heinlein stories are, the better ones have a simple joie de vivre that both leavens and complements his usual anti-authoritarianism.
  21. Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe – The Sufferings of Young Werther
    A work of much passion and emotion, and little sense. Reminds me of what it was like to be 19 years old. From an aesthetic standpoint, though, it is simply beautiful.
  22. Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni – Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar
    This book weaves together three themes. The first two, tightly intertwined, are Cato’s life story and the end of the Roman Republic, in which he believed strongly enough to die for. The third is his legacy, which endured all the way from St. Augustine to Dante to Addison to Trenchard and Gordon to today’s Cato Institute.
  23. Blaine Harden – Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
    The story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, who is believed to be the only person born in a North Korean prison camp to ever escape alive. Besides describing the unimaginable hardships he endured, it tells of his new life as a human rights activist, and the difficulties he has faced adjusting to life on the outside. Shin also receives 50 percent of this book’s royalties, if you need further incentive to buy it.
  24. F.A. Hayek (Stephen Kresge and Leif Wenar, eds.) – Hayek on Hayek: An Autobiographical Dialogue
    Hayek’s easiest read. He spoke much more clearly than he wrote. Still, it’s not a good introduction. A basic prior knowledge of his major works is essential to get much out of it. A valuable read, but Hayek neophytes are better served by the relevant parts of Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism.
  25. Gene Healy – False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency
    An update to 2008’s superb Cult of the Presidency, this short e-book looks at the abuses and expansion of executive power over the last four years. Obama doesn’t deserve the blame, though. The public’s unrealistic expectations for the office are what drive its constant expansion. I wrote more about the book here.
  26. Christopher Hitchens – Why Orwell Matters
    Hitchens waxes eloquent on why Orwell was a principled opponent of all kinds of totalitarianism, whether from the right or the left. He is not afraid to criticize Orwell’s regrettable prejudices (women, gays, Jews), but he paints an overall picture of a an archenemy of arbitrary power, and a master of language.
  27. Christopher Hitchens – Mortality
    Hitchens’ account of dying of esophageal cancer. Difficult to read.
  28. Mike Kim – Escaping North Korea: Defiance and Hope in the World’s Most Repressive Country
    Kim, a Korean-American, gave up a career in finance to move to the Chinese-North Korean border and help refugees. The stories he tells about the people he met and helped are harrowing, yet ennobling.
  29. Mark Kurlansky – Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man
    Clarence Birdseye was the fellow who invented frozen food. He was also a colorful character. An enjoyable look at how innovation happens, and filled with random facts about food, Labrador, the physics and chemistry of freezing, and much else.
  30. Robert E. Litan and William D. Nordhaus – Reforming Federal Regulation
    Published in 1983, so some parts are dated. But it contains useful discussions of numerous reform ideas, including an entire chapter on the regulatory budget, a personal favorite. If there’s a budget for how much government can spend, there should be one for how much it can regulate, too.
  31. Steven Malanga – Shakedown: The Continuing Conspiracy Against the American Taxpayer
    A public choice-influenced book that examines rent-seeking from public sector unions, community organizers, and allied politicians at the state and local levels. The picture Malanga paints is not a pretty one for taxpayers, especially in California and New Jersey.
  32. David Maraniss – When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi
    Lombardi is something of a god in the football world. Maraniss brings him down to earth while confirming his legendary stature. Lombardi’s drive and personality never allowed him to achieve Machiavelli’s preferred balance of fear and love, though he did try.
  33. Michael L. Marlow – The Myth of Fair and Efficient Government: Why the Government You Want Is Not the One You Get
    Hayek wrote that “Nobody can be a great economist who is only an economist.” Marlow, at least in this book, is only an economist. Still, this would make a decent free-market policy primer for an undergraduate. The trouble is that Marlow’s monomaniacal focus on efficiency leaves out all the other reasons markets are preferable to their alternatives.
  34. Allan Massie – The Royal Stuarts: A History of the Family That Shaped Britain
    Follows Scotland’s royal family from its murky origins as stewards (hence Stewart, or Stuart) to earlier Scottish monarchs, to the family capturing the crown for itself, on through James VI and I’s unifying the Scottish and English crowns, Charles I’s 1649 “shortening,” the Glorious Revolution that made Parliament supreme, to the line’s extinction after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s failed plot to reclaim the crown. Good stuff.
  35. Dierdre McCloskey – Crossing: A Memoir
    Deirdre, one of my favorite economists, was once Donald. This is the story of her transition. It makes one appreciate just how hard it can be to feel comfortable in one’s own skin. As with all of her books, it is superbly written.
  36. Ludwig von Mises – Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis
    Originally published in 1922, and very prescient. The prevailing thought at the time was that a planned economy would be wealthier than an unplanned market economy; Mises showed this not to be true. People thought socialism would free people; Mises showed why the total state would enslave them.
  37. David Nasaw – The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy
    The Kennedy patriarch was a remarkable man, if not always a pleasant one. Nasaw’s biography is Caro-esque in its level of detail. This is mostly for the good, though it spends entirely too much time on his ambassadorship in London and his alliance with Neville Chamberlain.
  38. Bruce Nash and Alan Zullo – The Football Hall of Shame
    Not the most intellectually stimulating book, but it is laugh-out-loud funny. The literary equivalent of a blooper film.
  39. Tom Palmer (ed.) – After the Welfare State
    A collection of essays about the welfare state and its alternatives. The historical essays about mutual aid by David Green and David Beito are especially valuable. You can download a free copy at the link.
  40. Roger Pearson – Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom
    The author needs a remedial lesson in comma usage, but this is still a wonderful book. One can’t help laughing along with Voltaire as he crushes l’infame.
  41. Martin Redfern – The Earth: A Very Short Introduction
    Part of Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series. A densely packed geology primer written in an engaging and occasionally humorous style. Good for anyone from a high school student to an interested layman like this writer.
  42. Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men
    Nature is good and civilization is bad, according to this early work of Rousseau’s. His later works reached the same conclusion, but fortunately with more nuance. Voltaire wrote to Rousseau about this book, “Reading your book fills one with the desire to walk on all fours.” Like Voltaire and unlike Rousseau, I would rather be man than animal.
  43. Steven Saylor – Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome
    Historical fiction that does justice to both words. Follows the ebbs and flows of a single line of descendants over 1,000 years. Different personalities and common themes both shine through. Pre-Romulus and Remus mythical times, the Age of Kings, the entire life of the Republic, and the rise of Caesar and Augustus are all covered in vivid detail.
  44. Peter Schweizer: Throw Them All Out
    No one will be surprised by this book’s thesis: most politicians are corrupt, and it is a thoroughly bipartisan problem. Most people would be surprised by the many details that Schweizer reveals.
  45. William L. Shirer – The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
    Long, but very good. The hardback edition I have is a two-volume set. The definitive history of Nazi Germany. A weakness is that it focuses on diplomacy, political maneuvering, and military strategy at the near-total expense of social history.
  46. Thomas Sowell – A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles
    Very insightful. Sowell compares the constrained and unconstrained visions of the world, and shows why they tend to talk past, instead of to each other. The unconstrained vision believes in the unconstrained power of intellectuals to achieve desired social results. The constrained vision believes the world is too complicated for such plans to work, and prefers ever-evolving, bottom-up processes.
  47. George J. Stigler – The Intellectual and the Marketplace: Enlarged Edition
    Stigler, a Nobel-winning economist, was as well known for his wit and his sharp sense of humor as he was for his technical excellence. This surprisingly funny book shows that wit in full flower.
  48. John Stossel – No They Can’t: Why Government Fails – But Individuals Succeed
    I don’t care for the unsubtle title, but Stossel is one of today’s better popularizers of libertarian ideas. Not much original material here, but well-suited for people interested in classical liberal ideas but unwilling to slog through the primary sources.
  49. Sean Trende – The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs – and Who Will Take It
    I’m not much on the political horse race, but this was a good read. Trende persuasively argues that there are no permanent majorities, and that most pundits are pattern-seeking, hyperbolic windbags. I’ve long thought the same thing myself.
  50. Bob Uecker – Catcher in the Wry: Outrageous but True Stories of Baseball
    In true Uecker fashion, I bought this book for one cent. Better, I paid nearly 400 times that — $3.99 — for shipping. It was well worth it. Uecker’s self-deprecating brand of humor is always good for a smile.
  51. Bryan Ward-Perkins – The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization
    A darker counterpoint to Peter Wells’ sunnier take on post-classical Europe. Not as pessimistic as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, but he emphasizes across-the-board declines in living standards, population, trade, literacy, architecture, and the quantity and quality of consumer goods.
  52. Peter S. Wells – Barbarians to Angels: Reconsidering the Dark Ages
    A mostly successful attempt to improve the Dark Ages’ dismal rehabilitation. Surviving texts are mostly from the declining Romans’ pessimistic perspective; hence the dominant view. Wells prefers a different historiographical perspective: archaeology. In his enthusiasm he oversells his case, but he makes an excellent point. I blogged about the book here.
  53. Roy Wenzl, Tim Potter, Jurst Laviana, and L. Kelly – Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of BTK, the Serial Killer Next Door
    Not a biography. This is the story of how Wichita detectives caught Dennis Rader, the BTK killer. It took them 31 years. Kudos to them for their patience and persistence in tracking down a particularly elusive monster.
  54. David Wessel – Red Ink: Inside the High-Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget
    Very little here in the way of original thought. But it’s a good primer for the layman on the ticking fiscal time bomb. Wessel is studiously non-partisan, a huge plus in my book. Though he does favor fiscal stimulus, which makes me question his economic acumen; broken window fallacy and all that.
  55. Richard Wrangham – Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
    Absolutely fascinating, and highly recommended. Cooking food makes it easier to digest, and allows otherwise indigestible nutrients to be absorbed. This is what made the large, energy-intensive human brain possible. We are literally evolved to cook.

Understanding Spontaneous Order

Spontaneous order is one of the most important concepts in the social sciences, and also one of the most maligned. It’s most closely associated with Hayek, but it has roots going back to at least the 18th century English and Scottish Enlightenments. Thinkers like Bernard Mandeville, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and David Hume all used some kind of spontaneous order framework. They knew that not every design requires a designer.

Nobody designed languages, for example. They emerge and continually evolve on their own, with nobody deliberately directing the process. The economy is also a spontaneous order, even though most people think it has to be be consciously directed. Nobody is in charge of food distribution for New York or Paris, and yet those great, farmless cities are still fed every day. It’s an everyday miracle if you think about it.

The reason that a lot of non-economists are skeptical or unaware of spontaneous order is that it’s a difficult concept for the human brain to comprehend. We’re not wired to.

Back in our hunter-gatherer days, the traits that evolutionary biologist Michael Shermer calls patternicity and agenticity had a great survival advantage. Find a pattern in everything, and know that some agent is probably behind it. There’s a rustle in the bush. A hungry tiger must be causing that rustle. Run. Hide. Survive.

Even if most rustles are false alarms, people with strong patternicity and agenticity tended to outlive their fellows who didn’t. We are their descendants, and our brains haven’t changed to match our new surroundings.We think that there are patterns and agents behind everything, even though there aren’t, really. We’re still looking for that tiger, but he isn’t there anymore.

To this day, a lot of people think the president runs the economy. His policies do have some effect, but literally he runs very little. The global economy has so many variables, so many nooks and crannies of specialized, dispersed local knowledge, that even if a president were to try and take charge of the economy, he simply couldn’t. The result is that presidents, like quarterbacks, get far too much credit when times are good, and far too much blame when times are bad. Patternicity and agenticity strike again.

Hayek has a well-deserved reputation as a poor prose stylist. But he did come up with a very clear way to explain how spontaneous orders can emerge in everyday life:

The way in which footpaths are formed is such an instance. At first everyone will seek for himself what seems to him the best path.  But the fact that such a path has been used once is likely to make it easier to traverse and therefore more likely to be used again; and thus gradually more and more clearly defined tracks arise and come to be used to the exclusion of other possible ways. Human movements through the region come to conform to a definite pattern which, although the result of deliberate decisions of many people, has yet not been concsiously designed by anyone.

-F.A. Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason, pp. 70-71.

And when a regulator comes along and tries to design a straighter, more orderly path, the results will rarely be what he intends. In a way, you can blame his hubris on tigers.

Hayek and Conservatives

F.A. Hayek is an unlikely conservative hero. After all, this is a man who titled one of his most famous essays “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” He self-identified as a liberal – in the original sense of the word, which more or less means what we would today call libertarian. Since liberalism took on an entirely different meaning during the 20th century, Hayek wrote that he would settle for being called an Old Whig. But he could not stand to be called a conservative.

For one, he believed that “the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not be too much restricted by rigid rules.”* Sounds an awful lot like the Bush years.

Sure, No Child Left Behind will radically grow federal involvement in education, which is properly a state and local issue. But we have good intentions! Sure, the PATRIOT Act could easily be abused. But it’s ok, because our guys are in charge! They’d never overstep their boundaries.

Conservatism, Hayek argued, is not a rigorous philosophy. It is “essentially opportunist and lacks principles.”**

That’s why I was surprised to see that the Heritage Foundation, a proudly conservative think tank, published an abridged edition of Hayek’s classic 1944 book The Road to Serfdom. Heritage’s economic policies are reasonably free-market, at least when Democrats are in power. So it makes sense that they would be Hayek fans, even though they aren’t ideological soulmates. But I am wary that they are promoting him as a conservative thinker; he was not.

Still, popularization is one of the most important tasks a think tank can perform. It is also one of the most neglected. Kudos, then.

The heart of The Road to Serfdom is Hayek’s version of a slippery slope argument. It is an easy charge to level at the current administration, which could be another motivation for Heritage.

Hayek and Heritage would agree: government intervention tends not to get the results it seeks; intentions are not results. Frustrated economic planners believe the only solution is more intervention. When that fails, still more meddling ensues. And on, and on. Then one day the people wake up to find they have lost their freedom.

The lesson is to not give in to the urge to use the hammer of government to drive home the nails of social problems. There are better ways, and less destructive hammers with more precise aim.

That’s the popular understanding of The Road to Serfdom. But Hayek pointed out in 1973 that there is more nuance to his book:

What I meant to argue in The Road to Serfdom was certainly not that whenever we depart, however slightly, from what I regard as the principles of a free society, we shall ineluctably be driven to go the whole way to a totalitarian system.  It was rather what in more homely language is expressed when we say:  “If you do not mend your principles you will go to the devil.”

The Bush and Obama administrations have joined together to double the size of government in one short decade. Their spending and regulating has driven debt through the roof, slowed economic growth, and kept millions of jobs from being created.

Worse, this bipartisan binge of government activism is showing no signs of slowing down. Many people think we’re already well down the road to serfdom. It looks bleak. But it isn’t really. It is reversible; the road to serfdom is a two-way street. We can go back, so long as we remember the principles of a free society.

The trouble is that conservatives seem to forget the libertarian portions of their philosophy every time they win an election. That’s why I’m glad that Heritage is popularizing Hayek with an abridged, easy-to-read version of The Road to Serfdom. I just hope they don’t portray him as a symbol of an ideology he publicly rejected.

More people of all political stripes need to read Hayek and be exposed to his arguments. More people need to learn why government does harm, even when it tries to do good. More people need to learn how easy it is to go down the road to serfdom — and that our cars can go in reverse, too.

The more people realize this, the higher the odds that they will keep conservative politicians in check post-election. If the Bush-Obama disaster has taught us anything, it’s that the seduction of power makes even good men go to the devil.

I hope Heritage’s popularization of Hayek sends that important lesson far and wide — while acknowledging that he doesn’t fit into the progressive/conservative spectrum; Hayek was nothing if not an independent thinker.

*F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, p.401.

**Ibid.

The DOJ’s Antitrust Seers

Today, the Department of Justice sued to stop the proposed AT&T-T-Mobile merger. They claim to know in advance how the merger will affect the mobile market for years to come. It’s an example of F.A. Hayek’s fatal conceit. Of course, most people haven’t read Hayek. So over in the Daily Caller, I use a better known thinker to make the same point:

The philosopher Yogi Berra once said that “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Let’s apply his lesson to the proposed $39 billion AT&T-T-Mobile merger…

Competitors are also surprisingly confident in their ability to predict the future. A Sprint spokeswoman said that “Sprint applauds the DOJ for conducting a careful and thorough review and for reaching a just decision … Today’s action will preserve American jobs, strengthen the American economy, and encourage innovation.”

This translates roughly to “We think the merger would make the market more competitive. We were scared that we’d have to work harder to innovate and cut costs to keep our customers happy. Whew.”

Most mergers fail. Nobody knows if a merged AT&T and T-Mobile would offer a better, cheaper product line. The only way to find out is trial and, often, error. The Justice Department’s astounding claim that it knows the merger’s effects in advance is either proof of its superior enlightenment, or else the height of hubris. I’m guessing the latter.

Read the whole thing here.

Soros on Hayek

George Soros spoke about Hayek at a Cato forum today. I didn’t attend, but I did read this excerpt that Politico put up an hour or two before the event. Soros does a pretty good job of slaying a straw man. Hayek’s actual ideas, however, remain intact. As it turns out, the two have a lot in common.

Soros points to Hayek as a believer in perfect competition, and perfect knowledge. That is, buyers and sellers have perfect knowledge of market conditions, can buy and sell in unlimited quantities with zero transaction costs, etc.

Economists commonly assume perfect competition in their models for purposes of simplicity. Soros rightly points out that this is thoroughly unrealistic, and should not be taken too seriously.

The trouble is that Hayek spent almost his entire career pointing out that, just like Soros, he believes perfect competition is a fiction. In Individualism and Economic Order, he points out that if such conditions came true, the world would be static. Nothing would ever change.

Markets change and adapt every day because people are finding out new information and acting on it. If everyone already knew all relevant information, nobody could find out new information. They’d already have it. Perfect competition means a permanent, unchanging equilibrium.

The real world is anything but equilibrated. Therefore, perfect competition does not exist. Case closed.

Hayek’s most enduring contribution is the Knowledge Problem, which is the very opposite of perfect competition. For Hayek, the economy is so complex and so dynamic, that no one person can possibly understand it well enough to direct it.

Distant regulators, no matter how smart, can never have a good enough command of the facts on the ground to come up with a better outcome than the people actually buying and selling in the economy.  Everyone has a tiny sliver of specialized knowledge that nobody else has, and they act on it.

The best policies are the ones that let people act freely. Shortages and surpluses are revealed faster. Resources flow more quickly to the people who need them the most. That’s why Hayek supported free markets. He never said they were perfect. He did say they worked better than top-down alternatives because of the Knowledge Problem.

Soros and Hayek completely agree in rejecting perfect competition as a useful guide to policy, and on the chronic instability of markets. Where they differ is that Hayek actually rejects perfect competition more strongly than Soros does.

Hayek vs. Keynes, Round Two

Russ Roberts and John Papola are at it again. Last year they made a rap video starring F.A. Hayek and John Maynard Keynes. It garnered over 2 million views, many of them in economics classrooms. Today, they release the sequel. Check it out.