Tag Archives: adam smith

2014: The Year in Books

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Continuing this blog’s annual tradition (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013), 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.

  1. Burton A. Abrams – The Terrible 10: A Century of Economic Folly
    Would make a good primer for an undergraduate or recent graduate on the intersection of politics and economics. The chapter on environmental policy is weak, representing a missed opportunity, but the rest of the book is quite good.
  2. Jason Brennan – Why Not Capitalism?
    A rebuttal to G.A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism?, which appears below. Using an amusing parable involving the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Brennan shows that Cohen compares idealized socialism to real-world capitalism, which is a basic analytical mistake. He then makes a true apples-to-apples comparison.
  3. Howard Bryant – The Last Hero: A life of Henry Aaron
    Great men are almost never good men. Henry Aaron is an exception to the rule. He may have been but a baseball player, but the role he played in improving the nation’s racial climate, and what he endured in doing so, as well as who he is as a person, make the word “hero” more than worthy of its inclusion in this book’s title.
  4. Bruce Caldwell – Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom: A Brief Introduction
    This short e-book, priced under $3.00, repackages Caldwell’s introduction to the recently-issued definitive edition of Hayek’s most famous book. Useful for those who own an older edition and don’t want to pony up for the new one, or who do not want to read the whole book. Caldwell not only explains what Hayek thought; he also makes clear what Hayek did not think, which is a valuable service. Hayek’s opponents routinely ascribe to him ideas he never held, which harms both sides of the debate between emergent order and constructivism.
  5. Charles Calomiris and Stephen A. Haber – Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit
    This is a lengthy book (just more than 500 pages), but incredibly edifying. Politics and banking are so tightly intertwined that one cannot exist without the other. Why are countries like the UK and especially the U.S. so crisis-prone, while Canada’s last banking crisis was in 1839? Because they each have different rules of the political game that shape coalitions and incentives differently. The authors also study banking history in autocratic countries such as Mexico and Brazil.
  6. G.A. Cohen – Why Not Socialism?
    This campus favorite uses a parable about a camping trip to illustrate socialism’s superiority over capitalism. As Jason Brennan’s critique above notes, Cohen compares socialism in its best possible theoretical light to capitalism in its worst possible real-world light, which causes serious errors in Cohen’s reasoning and conclusions.
  7. W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm – Myths of Rich and Poor: We’re Better Off Than We Think
    An important book I had never read until this year. Takes a data-heavy Julian Simon-esque look at economic progress, and finds that by almost any measure of human well-being, people are getting better off over time, especially the poor. The prose reads well, and surprisingly quickly (it helps that Alm is a journalist, serving as the Dubner to Cox’s Levitt). Now that it’s 15 years old, hopefully the authors will consider an updated edition.
  8. Diane Coyle – GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History
    An entertaining look at a useful statistic that seems to be unaware of its own limitations. Coyle discusses the uses and abuses of GDP, and touches on some very deep insights, though she could have gone farther with them. She suggests that GDP should not be dumped, but needs to be supplemented with other measures, not all of which are purely quantitative.
  9. William Doyle – The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction
    Less a narrative history than an explanation of the Revolution’s historical context and influence, and how its scholarly interpretations have changed over the years.
  10. William Easterly – The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor
    A powerful and much-needed criticism of the development establishment. The prevailing top-down approach to developing the third world ignores history and individual circumstances. And it abets shocking human rights violations by governments who have successfully curried favor with the World Bank, UN, and other aid establishmentarians. Easterly also documents the West’s disappointing condescension towards the Rest.
  11. D.X. Ferris –  Slayer 66 2/3: The Jeff and Dave Years
    A meticulously documented history of one of the most influential bands in the last thirty years.
  12. Joshua Hall, ed. – Homer Economicus
    A collection of short essays using examples from The Simpsons to teach economics. It starts with the basics and then moves on to more advanced topics, including public choice theory and behavioral economics. This would be a perfect teaching tool for a high school or beginning undergraduate economics course.
  13. Thomas E. Hall – Aftershock: The Unintended Consequences of Public Policies
    Intentions are not results. This book is a brief look at four policies with actual effects almost completely different from their intended effects: income taxes, tobacco taxes, the minimum wage, and alcohol prohibition. A lesson in humility for policymakers.
  14. F.A. Hayek – The Denationalisation of Money
    Hayek’s vision of competing currencies. If people around the world were free to choose among euros, yen, pesos, and dollars as they please, governments everywhere would have more incentive to limit inflation. And if governments additionally allowed privately developed currencies to compete with government currencies, the competitive discipline would become even more intense. Forty years after Hayek wrote this book, Bitcoin and other currency technologies are making him look very prescient. The link goes to a free PDF version from the Institute for Economic Affairs.
  15. David Harsanyi – The People Have Spoken (And They Are Wrong): The Case against Democracy
    Rather more subtle than the shrill title would indicate. Harsanyi is skeptical of populist demagoguery from the right and the left, and reminds the reader to be thankful for checks on pure democracy. Bicameral legislatures, the Electoral College, voting age requirements, and more are all good things. In some ways this is a popularization of Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter, though there are certainly areas where Harsanyi and Caplan do not see eye to eye.
  16. Robert Heinlein – Double Star
    When Heinlein is at his best, both he and his characters are genuinely having fun. This book captures that sense of joy. It’s about a struggling actor who is enlisted to act as a body double for an important, but ailing politician. It quickly escalates from there, and makes an important point about the similarities between actors and politicians.
  17. Alistair Horne – The Seven Ages of Paris
    A history of a beautiful city from its earliest days up to the mid-twentieth century. It greatly enhanced my visit earlier this year. It reads well and teaches much, though it is rather longer than it needs to be.
  18. Philip K. Howard – The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government
    Howard does not impress with the depth of his thought. But his overall approach to law and regulation is right in line with my own: simplicity is beautiful. Today’s complicated legal and regulatory thickets are almost purely ugly. Allowing some discretion on the part of teachers, judges, and bureaucrats is a good thing. They can and will make mistakes, but the overall results will be far more humane than today’s regime of zero-tolerance policies, mandatory minimum sentences, and multi-thousand-page legislation.
  19. Cecil Jenkins – A Brief History of France
    A useful survey of French history I read in preparation for a Paris vacation. The narrative is very good, but late in the book the author spends too much time describing the then-current (read: ephemeral) political situation and defending France’s dirigiste economic system.
  20. Zachary Karabell – The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World
    Highly recommended, despite the occasional slip in Karabell’s economic reasoning. Going all the way back to the Domesday Book, William the Conqueror’s post-1066 census of his new kingdom, Karabell also covers the fascinatingly politicized birth of modern GDP, inflation, and trade statistics, and looks forward to a future of customizable “bespoke indicators” that Google and other new technologies make possible.
  21. Ronald Kessler – The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents
    Kessler is a guilty pleasure. His books do have substance; this one is full of criticisms of the Secret Service’s management practices, and offers reform ideas. But really, I read Kessler because he’s the National Enquirer for the federal government’s upper echelons. There is juicy stuff in this book about very powerful people.
  22. Tim Layden – Blood, Sweat, and Chalk: The Ultimate Football Playbook: How the Great Coaches Built Today’s Game
    If you want to learn about offensive strategy in football, this is a good place to go. It starts around 1910, when Pop Warner came up with the single wing offense, and moves on through through the Wing-T, I-Formation, and today’s spread-based passing attacks. Later on, there is good discussion of defensive schemes, from the cover two to the zone blitz. It also provides an entree into the fraternity of football coaches. The book is too technical at times for a football layman like myself, but was still very enjoyable.
  23. Michael Malice – Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il
    This darkly funny book (opening line: “I remember the day that I was born perfectly.”) has the serious humanitarian purpose of exposing the north Korean government’s atrocities to a wide audience. It is also a historiographical innovation, being the world’s first unauthorized autobiography. Malice traveled to north Korea and came back with a suitcase full of English-language propaganda. The book is written in the first person in Kim’s voice, drawing from that propaganda.
  24. Deirdre McCloskey – The Vices of Economists, The Virtues of the Bourgeoisie
    The three vices of modern economists are a laser-like focus on statistical significance (as opposed to real-world significance), too much blackboard economics, and a fondness for social engineering. The first two of these can often be good and useful things in moderation, but science- and math-envy have turned these useful tools into vices. Social engineering, with its hubristic roots, is simply vice, at least in my view. Most of the book is about economic methodology, but it is filled throughout with other nuggets of wisdom, some of which prefigure Deirdre’s brilliant Bourgeois trilogy, the third volume of which should come out in 2015.
  25. Nina Munk – The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty
    Sachs, a leading proponent of top-down economic development, does not come off well. On one hand, his capital-C Certainty has been his source of incredible fundraising success and celebrity glamor: $50 million grants, heads of state, Bono, and Angelina Jolie all make appearances. On the other hand, such Certainty is also at the root of the Sachs model’s reluctance to adapt and learn from its mistakes. Remember, the goal is for the developing world to actually develop, not to vindicate this or that method or ideology. Pairs well with Bill Easterly’s latest book, listed above.
  26. Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo – Baseball Confidential
    In 1987, the authors sent a detailed survey to hundreds of major league players about the insidery parts of the game. What do pitchers and hitters do to try to psyche each other out? How do players deal with hostile umpires and vice versa? What goes on in locker rooms and bullpens? This book shares the results, along with humorous stories about every aspect of the game, on and off the field.
  27. Alex Nowrasteh and Mark Krikorian – Open Immigration: Yea and Nay
    A neat little two-in-one book. Nowrasteh, a former colleague, takes the Yea position, while Krikorian takes the Nay side. Nowrasteh has the better arguments. But Krikorian’s half is a good look into the mind of someone who believes that one man’s well-being can be worth more than another man’s well-being simply because they come from different countries.
  28. Tom G. Palmer, ed. – Peace, Love, and Liberty
    A collection of essays on the horrors of war and the beauties of peace and cooperation. Joining Palmer are Steven Pinker, Radley Balko, Emmanuel Martin, Sarah Skwire, and others. It also includes Mark Twain’s moving short story “The War Prayer” and poetry by Wilfred Owen, who died in battle just one week before the World War I armistice was signed.
  29. James Piereson – The Inequality Hoax
    This short book is shrill in tone, which seems to be a common theme in the Encounter Broadsides series, of which it is a part. While this unfortunate choice of tone means Piereson is unlikely to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with him, he still offers some valuable insights on inequality and Thomas Piketty’s Capital.
  30. Thomas Piketty – Capital in the 21st Century
    The rare economics bestseller. Piketty argues that growing inequality is a structural feature of capitalism, and proposes an annual wealth tax to prevent large fortunes from accumulating. For a book ostensibly about helping the poor, he never asks some obvious questions: how are poor people actually doing? What policies would improve their living standards over time? Piketty is so focused on income ratios and statistics that he forgets about helping the poor. I have more to say about this common analytical mistake in a forthcoming paper.
  31. Steven Pinker – The Blank Slate
    In the ongoing nature-nurture debate, many academics deny the very existence of human nature; environment is everything. This is mainly for politico-ideological reasons, as well as simple campus fashion. Pinker, through science, logic, history, art, and more, shows that there is nuance in the debate. Environment matters, yes. But human nature does, too.
  32. Mary Roach – Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
    Roach has a sharp and surprising naughty sense of humor, which made this book much livelier than I expected. This is mostly to to the good, though some parts are rather gross; sensitive readers be warned.
  33. James Romm – Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero
    Ostensibly a biography of the Stoic philosopher Seneca, but also much more. Romm makes the reader genuinely fear Nero, who also gets thorough biographical treatment. He also pauses often to ponder the troubled relationship between philosophy and power, and the morality of dissent and compliance. An excellent read.
  34. Russell Roberts – How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness
    In a way, it’s a popular-level treatment of Adam Smith’s “other book,” the Theory of Moral Sentiments, and Russ once again shows why he is one of economics’ best popularizers. It reads easily and quickly, and any layman can read this book without difficulty. But it’s more than that. History remembers Smith as a cold, calculating, selfish man. When I actually sat down and read Smith’s books a few years ago, I was shocked to discover a warm, friendly person with an uncanny insight into human nature, and who cared deeply about others. This book is  about the real Adam Smith. Along the way Russ offers some excellent Smithian life advice, all along Smith’s eternal theme: be kind to others.
  35. Carl Sagan – Contact
    Sagan’s novel about the discovery of extraterrestrial life, which inspired the movie of the same name in the 1990s.
  36. Carl Sagan – Cosmos
    Science popularization at its best. Highly recommended, regardless of your native discipline, for the delivery as much as the content. The companion volume to Sagan’s PBS series of the same name, which was successfully revived this year by Sagan’s wife Ann Druyan and host Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Some of the science is dated now, but the sense of wonder he conveys is timeless.
  37. Carl Sagan – Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
    Opens with a beautifully written account of the Voyager satellites’ journeys, then goes into the science and philosophy of spreading out to other worlds.
  38. Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors
    Deductive reasoning taken to its extreme, in a good way. It starts on the biggest possible scale with the birth of the Cosmos itself. The focus then continually narrows until it reaches little old us. The book ends with the birth of our species, and why we differ from other animals in degree, but not in kind. As an economist, I especially enjoyed the middle third on how the natural selection process works. The parallels to spontaneously ordered social processes are legion. The final third on primates and anthropology is similarly excellent.
  39. Peter Schweizer – Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets
    When it comes to politics, almost nobody is cynical enough. Schweizer is here to help. He outlines the strategies many politicians use to make themselves rich in office, and gives real world examples. He also names names. Leadership from both parties come off as especially venal. As he points out, that venality may explain how the worst got on top in the first place.
  40. Peter Schuck – Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better
    A self-described “militant moderate,” Yale law professor Schuck’s book goes into the institutional and structural reasons why so many well-intentioned government efforts fail. The Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank come off especially poorly. He is well-versed in public choice theory, and as such his reform ideas are much better than typical political science pap. A note on style: Schuck writes clearly, but the amount of signposting he does borders on the ridiculous (p. 51: “Here are fourteen such principles…”). This made me chuckle out loud more than once while reading on the subway, drawing looks (and a few smiles) from fellow passengers.
  41. Lenore Skenazy – Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)
    An excellent antidote to fear-based helicopter parenting, as well as the ultra-competitive attitude many parents have (I put more restrictions on my kids than you do on yours, and am therefore a better and more attentive parent than you are!). Many of you know my wife and I are expecting a daughter in the spring. This book isn’t for newborns, so it doesn’t apply to our family just yet, and it won’t for a few years. But its basic philosophy (and a re-read) should come in handy once she’s old enough for playdates, running around outside, biking to friends’ houses, and walking to school. All of us adults did such crazy things when we were kids, and we turned out just fine. Our own children deserve that same basic respect.
  42. Adam C. Smith and Bruce Yandle – Bootleggers and Baptists: How Economic Forces and Moral Persuasion Interact to Shape Regulatory Politics
    Thirty-plus years after the original Regulation magazine article, we finally have a book-length treatment of Yandle’s Baptists and Bootleggers model. Moralizing Baptists and conniving Bootleggers both favor shuttering liquor stores on Sundays, but for very different reasons. These strange bedfellows are everywhere in politics and regulation. Yandle’s co-author, Smith, is both his grandson and an old friend of mine from grad school, as well as a fine economist. A question I pose to them both: is it possible to use Bootlegger-Baptist coalitions for good, and not just evil?
  43. Francis Spufford – Red Plenty
    A beautifully written kind-of-novel about both real and fictional characters gradually moving from idealism to disillusionment. Their journeys are microcosms of the Soviet Union’s own progression from early revolutionary spirit to cynicism and sclerosis. Highly recommended, and difficult to put down.
  44. Bram Stoker – Dracula
    Bedtime reading during October. It was fun.
  45. Kathryn Tempest – Cicero: Politics and Persuasion in Ancient Rome
    While Anthony Everitt’s superb Cicero biography emphasized the greater historical context of Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire, Tempest focuses inward. Cicero’s political career, oratory, and family life take center stage. She makes Cicero come alive as a real person with a distinct personality. He was more than a little arrogant, and had a tendency to vacillate during critical moments. But on balance he seems to have been a caring and decent person.
  46. Gordon Tullock – The Politics of Bureaucracy
    Tullock applies the economic way of thinking–incentives, tradeoffs, scarcity, etc.–to the study of bureaucracy. His generalized model applies to government departments, committees, presidents, large corporations, local governments, national governments, and more.
  47. Gordon Tullock – Economic Hierarchies, Organization, and the Structure of Production
    Mostly a refinement of The Politics of Bureaucracy, written with an additional 27 years of research and thought. But it also contains a devastating (and under-appreciated) argument against central economic planning every bit as powerful as Mises’ calculation problem, Hayek’s knowledge problem, or the public choice incentive problem. Suppose a head of state or a corporate CEO has three people reporting to him. Each of them has three people reporting to them, and so on. Even with such small supervisory responsibilities, it is literally impossible to directly oversee any more than a few levels of hierarchy. There just isn’t enough time. There simply has to be some independence at the bottom which economic planners can’t plan for, or control. This simple fact of organization can thwart even the best-laid plans.
  48. Gordon Tullock – The Organization of Inquiry
    A public choice approach to the process of scientific advancement. A basic tenet of economics is that people respond to incentives; Tullock applies this insight to scientists and their professional behavior. Along the way, Tullock anticipates Google (in 1966!) and is skeptical of tenure for college professors. The link goes to a free PDF version.
  49. Neil DeGrasse Tyson – Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries
    A collection of Tyson’s monthly essays for Natural History magazine. It’s a little scattershot, as many essay collections are. But this is an entertaining read, with plenty of quality science to go along with Tyson’s occasionally curmudgeonly sense of humor.
  50. Kevin Underhill – The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance: And Other Real Laws that Human Beings Actually Dreamed Up, Enacted, and Sometimes Even Enforced
    A hilarious collection of weird statutes covering ancient times, modern times, and federal, state, local, and international statutes. There is at least a laugh per page. A useful example for illustrating the difference between legislation and law.
  51. Kathleen Walker-Meikle – Medieval Cats
    A fun little book I picked up in the Musée de Cluny‘s gift shop in Paris. There are beautiful illustrations of illuminated manuscripts on nearly every page, and there are some insights on how man’s relationship with animals has evolved over the years. We’re much kinder now.
  52. Luigi Zingales – A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity
    An attempt at libertarian populism. I am wary of populism in all its forms, from Ancient Roman populares to William Jennings Bryan, right on up through John Edwards and John McCain. But if Zingales’ approach succeeds at making thorough illiberals a little more liberal at the margin, he will have done a valuable public service.

Honorable-ish Mentions: Parenting Books

I haven’t read these two cover-to-cover, but am following along as my wife’s pregnancy unfolds.

  1. Armin A. Brott and Jennifer Ash – The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be
    A guide to pregnancy aimed at men. Offers advice on how to provide emotional support, be engaged in the process, and more. There is an overcautious, scaredy-cat vibe in places that I don’t care for, and at times I feel the authors think men are oafs (in their defense, this is often true). It still has plenty of useful information.
  2. Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel – What to Expect When You’re Expecting: 4th Edition
    Again, quite useful, but flawed. At times the reader feels like the authors are judging him/her. If you don’t do everything just so, you are a failure as a parent. This is a common theme in the parenting literature. Giving confidence to people who need it seems to me a healthier approach than shaming and fearing, but that’s just me.

Back to Work


Over at RealClearPolicy, I review Bill Clinton’s latest book, Back to Work.

One of the book’s main themes is contrasting the philosophies of “you’re on your own” and “we’re all in this together.” This is, of course, a false dichotomy.

This immediately made me think back to that bible of “you’re on your own” free-market thought, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. It spends over 1,000 pages proving that if man were on his own, he would starve. People need to cooperate and exchange to prosper. Free trade, division of labor, and other Smithian concepts are inherently “we’re all in this together.” People can only achieve great things by working together. I have yet to see anyone actually argue “you’re on your own,” ever.

The review is mostly about the book’s philosophy and rhetoric. I have further thoughts about its suggested economic policies, which I will post about soon.

The Compassion of Adam Smith

It’s much more fashionable to attack Adam Smith these days than to read him. Yes, he favored economic liberalism, which wasn’t exactly in style in his time. Nor is it in ours. History remembers him as cold and calculating. But in real life, he was neither.

There are two main drivers behind Smithian liberalism, neither of them cold or calculating. One is that man is a social animal. The foundation of Smith’s moral theory is the impartial spectator theory. People figure out the right thing to do by asking themselves if an impartial third party would approve of their actions. Empathy — thinking of others and feeling for them — is at the very heart of Smithian morality.

Take trade, for example. Smith is well known for being an ardent free trader. But why? Because trade is an inherently peaceful act. It is moral.

If you have something I want, I’m not going to hit you over the head and steal it. No impartial spectator would approve of that. Instead, I’ll trade it to you for something you value even more. Everyone wins.

If you don’t think you’ll gain from the exchange, then nobody can force you to make it. And no one will trade with you unless you treat them with civility and dignity. Trade is much more moral than the alternative.

These are not the thoughts of a selfish, atomistic, cold-blooded economist. And yet this warmth is the very stuff of economics. We liberals (in the correct sense of the word) get a bad rap.

The second driver of Smith’s brand of market capitalism is compassion for the poor. Liberalism properly understood — free markets, free trade, free migration, etc. — creates more wealth more quickly than any other economic system. And not just for the top one percent, as in other systems.

In Smith’s time, the average person worldwide made around $3 per day. In richer countries like England or the Netherlands, it was something like $5 a day. Today, in countries that have embraced liberalism, you can make $100 a day and consider yourself middle class. That’s a 30-fold increase, and arguably the most significant development in human history since the Agricultural Revolution. Prosperity is no longer a privilege for the few. Everyone can share in it now. Deirdre McCloskey calls this the Great Fact.

Meanwhile, countries that have rejected liberalism are still struggling to escape the $3 trap. Rejecting liberalism means forcing the poor to miss out on the Great Fact.

Smith favored liberalism because it is not only moral, it makes life better for the poor. On that second point, Yeshiva University economics professor James Otteson has more (click here if the video below doesn’t work):

Adam Smith on the New Tone

“The furious behavior of an angry man is more likely to exasperate us against himself than against his enemies.”

-Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments

Individualism Doesn’t Mean Isolationism

Don Boudreaux hits a home run.

The Wealth of Nations Turns 235

Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations was published 235 years ago today.

Over at Cafe Hayek, Russ Roberts links to a few short resources about that long, long book (which I nonetheless recommend reading). Worth checking out.

What “International Tax Harmonization” Means

“There is no art which one government sooner learns of another, than that of draining money from the pockets of the people.”

-Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, p. 929.

2010: The Year in Books

Since last year’s reading list was one of this blog’s most popular posts, I’m reprising it for this year. Following Plutarch’s advice, I put a special emphasis on reading biographies this year. The life stories and personalities of great individuals are not only interesting for their own sake; reading about them is also one of the most effective ways to learn history. I also took care to branch out into a few new genres that I haven’t explored before, such as Greek tragedy and science fiction.

I also got a Kindle this year, and a smart phone with a Kindle application. They are not a replacement for paper books. But they make a great complement. I also find that I’m reading more now that I have them, without blocking off any more time for it. They make it easy to sneak a page or two when I’m taking out the trash or walking to the store.

As with last year, books that I started and didn’t finish are not listed. I liked almost all the books, or else I wouldn’t have taken the time to read them through. If you have any bibliophiles on your holiday shopping list, you might find some good ideas:

1. Marcus Aurelius – Meditations
Stoicism’s finest hour. Marcus comes off as a kindly soul, an even rarer quality in an emperor than his philosophical bent. Re-reading the first chapter has become a source of calm and comfort whenever stress is getting the better of me.

2. Phil Barber – The Official Vince Lombardi Playbook: His Classic Plays and Strategies; Personal Photos and Mementos; Recollections from Friends and Former Players
A good introduction to the X-and-O aspect of football. Lombardi’s schemes were simple compared to today’s offenses. They make a good step towards understanding today’s spread formations, multiple tight end sets, unbalanced lines, and other esoterica. Colorful stories also abound about Lombardi and his players.

3. Yoram Bauman and Grady Klein – The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume One: Microeconomics
Bryan Caplan recommended it, and I liked it. I share his criticism that Bauman and Klein emphasize the wrong things — too little time on trade, and too much on game theory, for example. But overall, not only is this book (graphic novel?) a creative way to explain the economic way of thinking to the masses, it is well-executed. I eagerly await volume 2.

4. Boethius – The Consolations of Philosophy
At once the last work of classical philosophy and the first work of medieval philosophy. Boethius had a moving life story, which pervades the book. He was a senator who rose all the way consul (the Roman equivalent of prime minister) before he was falsely imprisoned and executed by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric around 525 A.D. The Consolations of Philosophy, written in prison, was Boethius’ way of searching for hope during his despairing last days.

5. Etienne de la BoetieThe Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude
Very much the product of a young mind. Its 22-year old author asks an obvious question that everyone has pondered at least once: if there is only one king, and millions of subjects, why do people obey him? Why does nobody overthrow him? There is strength in the peoples’ numbers! Before his death at age 33, Boetie would go on to a lucrative career as a judge and a member of the Bordeaux Parlement; this may be one answer to his question.

6. Jerry Brotton – The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction
Takes a much more global approach to the period than other texts. Its short length makes that an especially tall task, and the book suffers a bit for it. I was especially left wanting in terms of art and philosophy. But it’s a fresh way of thinking about the Renaissance, which is of some value.

7. Albert Camus – The Stranger
From the very beginning, Meursalt, the protagonist, is impossible to sympathize with. But he is intended to personify Camus’ then-fashionable alienated existentialism, not to be likable. An occasionally grating look into an utterly foreign mindset.

8. Susan Dach – Donkeys Can’t Sleep in Bathtubs, and other Crazy Laws
Not exactly a weighty tome; a ten-year old could read this book and enjoy it. But it’s given me ideas for a few Regulations of the Day, and there’s a laugh on almost every page.

9. Lance S. Davidson – Ludicrous Laws and Mindless Misdemeanors
More source material for silly regulations.

10. Devra Davis – Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family
Not recommended reading. According to Davis, cell phone radiation causes everything from cancer to infertility to Lou Gehrig’s disease (!) to plain old grouchiness. None of which, of course, is true. What puzzles me about Davis is her oddly selective understanding of public choice theory. She understands very well the corporate side of rent-seeking. But she blithely assumes that government regulators are immune to their own self-interest. She is also more eager to impugn the motives of those she disagrees with rather than argue against them on the merits.

11. Barbara Demick – Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
A very emotional read. It starts with a bit of exposition: the Korean War, the North-South split, and the rise of the North’s Juche regime. Very helpful for neophytes like me. But this book is about six real people who escaped North Korea. It tells their stories of hardship, hunger, loss, and oppression, and what they went through to escape. The sheer hellishness of it all is hard to take in. But it was actually harder to find out that most of the six were unable to find happiness on the outside.

12. Bob Dorigo Jones – Remove Child before Folding: The 101 Stupidest, Silliest, and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever
Recommended reading for anyone who is thinking of becoming a lawyer, or who has a positive view of lawyers.

13. Will Durant – Transition: A Mental Autobiography
An intellectual’s coming of age story, lightly embellished. Durant flirted with radical socialist anarchism in his youth before meeting his wife Ariel, settling into a more mature, nuanced, and kindly (if skeptical) view of the world, and, finally, becoming a father. The Durants would go on to write the 11-volume Story of Civilization together. That series did much to give this young thinker what little wisdom he has.

14. Alan Ebenstein –Friedrich Hayek: A Biography
I’m told Bruce Caldwell’s Hayek biography is better. But Ebenstein does a fine job telling the story of Hayek’s life, summarizing his major works and ideas, and showing how the two were often related.

15.   Akbar Ganji – The Road to Democracy in Iran
Ganji has a different take on human rights than the Lockean view familiar to most Westerners. He is no doctrinaire libertarian. But his ideas seem more compatible with his native Iran’s situation, and would mark a positive step on the long journey towards a truly liberal Iran. This is valuable. Because institutions are sticky, a sudden transition to Lockean liberalism would almost certainly fail. Something must come in between; hence Ganji. He was imprisoned for several years for the crime of putting his ideas on paper, and as a result won the 2010 Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty. He was a controversial choice. But overall, I think he was a good one.

16. Ann Louise Gittleman – Zapped: Why Your Cell Phone Shouldn’t Be Your Alarm Clock and 1,268 Ways to Outsmart the Hazards of Electronic Pollution
Not recommended reading. Think Devra Davis’ Disconnect with half the IQ. The opening chapter delves into homeopathy and The Body Electric, and goes downhill from there. One chapter even includes recipes(!) intended to minimize the harmful effects of electromagnetic radiation. Some friends and I made the roasted asparagus and the grass-fed beef steak with garlic, wine, rosemary, and exotic mushrooms. They were quite tasty, so Zapped was not a complete waste of time.

17. Leland H. Gregory, III – Great Government Goofs: The Unofficial Guide to the Wacky Mistakes Our Leaders Don’t Want Us to Know About
If you need a few laughs and a dose of skepticism, this has plenty of both.

18. Daniel Hannan – The New Road to Serfdom: A Letter of Warning to America
Tocqueville meets Hayek. Hannan strikes me as hyperbolic about the EU’s threat to liberalism. Then again, as a member of European Parliament, he knows far more about the situation than I do. The central theme of the book is a warning to America not to Europeanize its political system, and to stay true to its founding ideals.

19. F.A. Hayek (ed.) – Capitalism and the Historians
A compilation of essays by different scholars about the early Industrial Revolution. Contrary to the conventional Dickensian view, the data show that even the early proletariat were better off in the factory than the farm. Besides, they would have gone back to the farm if they weren’t.

20. Robert Heinlein – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
My first venture into science fiction. The American Revolution reprises itself on a lunar colony. Also features musings on anarchism, alternative family arrangements, and a supercomputer with a sense of humor.

21. Robert Heinlein – Stranger In a Strange Land
I liked The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress enough to give this one a try. It was worth it. If libertarians loved that one, this one was a hit with 1960s countercultural types. A human born on Mars, the lone survivor of a failed colonization attempt, is raised by Martians and returns to Earth as an adult. He tries to understand human nature, which is understandably alien to him. As he adjusts, he dabbles in free love (one reason why hippies devoured this book), skewers one religion, and founds another.

22. Paul Johnson – Churchill
Johnson clearly has a great affection for his subject. Churchill’s accomplishments justify that, though Johnson’s hero worship makes the reader wonder what was omitted. Could have used more examples of Churchill’s famous wit.

23. John J. Kohut – Stupid Government Tricks: Outrageous (but True!) Stories of Bureaucratic Bungling and Washington Waste
More Regulation of the Day fodder.

24. Donald Kagan – Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy
It is a difficult task to reconstruct the personality of a man who died in 429 B.C. The sources are just too limited. And those that survive have their biases. Kagan tries to give a flavor of what Pericles was like as a person, but there is only so much he can do. So he turns mostly to narrative instead, and writes about Pericles’ many accomplishments as a statesman in troubled times.

25. Robert D. Kaplan – Mediterranean Winter: The Pleasures of History and Landscape in Tunisia, Sicily, Dalmatia, and Greece
A well-traveled neighbor was kind enough to lend this to me. It isn’t quite history, and it isn’t quite travel narrative. By not fitting into either genre, Kaplan carves his own niche. And he does a good job of it.

26. Jeff Koon and Andy Powell – You May Not Tie an Alligator to a Fire Hydrant: 101 Real Dumb Laws
Yet more Regulation of the Day source material.

27. Jeremy Lott – The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency
Books about presidents are everywhere. Vice presidents, not so much. As with everything Jeremy does, the prose reads well. His, ahem, unique sense of humor also shows itself throughout. Full disclosure: the author is a friend and former colleague.

28. Jeremy Lott – William F. Buckley
A different take than the usual biography, and well-written as usual. This book focuses on how Buckley’s Catholicism influenced his thought, and how Buckley embraced a big-tent approach to conservatism, which he called fusionism. Jeremy takes special delight in sharing colorful stories, and he loaded this book with plenty of them. I interviewed Jeremy about the book here.

29. Deirdre N. McCloskeyEconomical Writing, 2nd Edition
Most semesters, I give a lunch seminar to CEI’s interns about writing and communicating effectively. McCoskey’s little guide is at the top of my recommended readings. Her advice is sound, and she also practices what she preaches.

30. Joel McIver – To Live Is to Die: The Life and Death of Metallica’s Cliff Burton
McIver is a clumsy writer at times. But he took the time to interview just about everyone who knew the late, lamented bassist, from family members to former roadies. Burton comes across as a laid-back, high-IQ guy who loved what he did and was unafraid to work hard at it. The bus accident that killed him at age 24 was a huge loss for music.

31. Joel McIver – The Bloody Reign of Slayer
This was ok. Slayer has put out so many albums, that half the book consists of album reviews. McIver is very opinionated, and his favorite songs differ from mine. He would have done well to spend less time opining and more on the band’s personalities and history.

32. Ludwig von Mises – Liberalism: The Classical Tradition
Liberalism in its original sense. It sure doesn’t read like it, but this was Mises’ attempt at a popular-level work. Written in 1927, Mises had seen the horrors of World War I, and knew a second war was coming. This was his warning, and his way of trying to show how economic and political liberalism might avoid another world war.

33. Dave Mustaine with Joe Layden – Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir
I have always heard that Mustaine is an unpleasant person. His autobiography confirms it. One also wonders how he is still alive after the massive drug use he describes in this book. It was uncomfortable reading at times.

34. Albert Jay Nock – Our Enemy, the State
Paranoid mid-20th century right-wing anarchism. Even though I’m neither right-wing nor anarchist, I found myself nodding in agreement more often than I thought. I cringed at other parts, and also at the general angry tone. Of historical interest: Nock was one of the first journalists to use economics to buttress his arguments, though his grasp of the subject was very basic.

35. P. J. O’Rourke – Driving Like Crazy
A collection of O’Rourke’s articles about cars over the last 30 years or so. I’m not a car guy, but his enthusiasm is contagious. His hijinks racing down the rugged Baja peninsula make for especially good reading. Other chapters, not so much.

36. P. J. O’Rourke – Don’t Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards
Love the title, even if it isn’t actually true. Parliament of Whores is better; if you’re new to O’Rourke, read that instead.

37. Robert Wayne Pelton – Loony Laws that You Never Knew You Were Breaking
Comedy gold.

38. D. D. Raphael – The Impartial Spectator: Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy
Tom Palmer recommended this to help me through Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Raphael is a philosopher, not an economist, so he has a different perspective than the average Smith scholar. The impartial spectator theory is at the heart of Smith’s moral thought. People try to treat others in ways that they think an impartial third party would approve. Some call this impartial spectator God; some call it conscience; some just call it a variation on the golden rule.

39. Tom Reiss – The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life
Another Tom Palmer recommendation, and one of the best books I read this year. On its face, it’s a biography of the writer Lev Nussinbaum. He was an Azerbaijani Jew who escaped both Nazis and Communists by adopting the persona of an Easterner named Kurban Said. He was also a writer who gained worldwide fame, if only briefly, in his Eastern persona. Nussinbaum’s life – and Azerbaijan itself —  exemplify the porous, overlapping boundaries of East and West. This book also put the Azeri capital, Baku, on my to-visit list. Highly recommended.

40. Matt Ridley – The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves
Ridley believes trade is the key to prosperity. Trade is what allows the division of labor to become more and more specialized over time. That increases productivity, which increases wealth. In a way, this is Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations as written by an evolutionary biologist. I really enjoyed this book. If there’s a drawback, it’s that Ridley at times comes across as a free-market cheerleader. The world could use many more like him, but this has the effect of turning some people off, including, strangely, Bill Gates.

41. Kurban Said – Ali and Nino
Azerbaijan’s national novel, written by the subject of Tom Reiss’ The Orientalist. An East-meets-West, Muslim-boy-meets-Christian-girl love story, which fits religiously mixed  Azerbaijan perfectly. A wonderful way to learn about a country that few Americans give much thought to, especially when paired with Reiss’ book.

42. Harvey A. Silverglate – Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent
In 1787, America had four federal crimes. Today, there are over 4,500. Many of them are so vague, and so abused by prosecutors, that Silverglate argues that the average American commits three felonies in an average day. He proves his point by telling the stories of several ordinary people who did nothing wrong, but got railroaded by politically ambitious prosecutors. Chilling.

43. Cindy Skrzycki – The Regulators: Anonymous Power Brokers in American Politics
A bit of gold I found in the office library. Skrzycki is a Washington Post columnist. This is a compilation of her columns, plus plenty of additional content. This is a high-quality, non-ideological, look into the regulatory process. As a journalist, Skrzycki’s prose is more readable than most regulatory writers. If anything, this book helps the reader realize that intentions and results are often very different things.

44. Adam Smith – The Theory of Moral Sentiments
Man as social animal. That is this book’s central theme, as well as the more famous Wealth of Nations. Man forms his various moral systems by taking others’ feelings and actions into account. Empathy is what makes us human. It seems as though every page has at least one keen insight into what makes people tick. For a man with a reputation for social awkwardness, Smith understood human nature extremely well.

45. Fred L. Smith, Jr. – The Quotable Fred
(Link goes to free online pdf file) An entertaining collection of excerpts from Fred’s many, many articles and speeches. This collection is about 15 years old, and I hear a sequel of sorts may be in the works. Disclosure: Fred is my boss.

46. Sophocles – Antigone, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Philoctetes
Only seven of Sophocles’ plays survive. The four listed above were my first foray into Greek tragedy. They will not be my last. What strikes me most about Sophocles is his moral ambiguity. His heroes are flawed. His villains have redeeming virtues. Often, it is unclear who the audience is supposed to root for. I think that was by design. It is an invitation to think for oneself; reading Sophocles is a wonderful way to practice that lost art.

47. Thomas Sowell – Economic Facts and Fallacies
Like physics, many (but not all!) economic questions have correct and incorrect answers. While few people get into heated arguments with physicists, they feel no such compunctions when it comes to economics. Sowell tries to set the non-economist straight, and largely succeeds.

48. George J. Stigler – The Citizen and the State: Essays on Regulation
Stigler was a Nobel-winning economist from the University of Chicago. This book is a collection of his most influential journal articles. Their connecting theme is one that Washington badly needs to hear: intentions are not the same thing as results.

49. Richard L. Stroup – Eco-nomics: What Everyone Should Know About Economics and the Environment
The economic way of thinking is essential to understanding environmental issues. This is true regardless of one’s views on global warming, resource depletion, or any other environmental issue. This short primer is the best of its kind.

50. Joyce Tyldesley – Ramesses: Egypt’s Greatest Pharaoh
Not nearly so vivid a portrait as Norman Mailer paints in Ancient Evenings. But Tyldesley’s less bombastic performance somehow feels much more true to life.

51. Marc Van De Mieroop – King Hammurabi of Babylon: A Biography
The sources are scanty when it comes to anything other than Hammurabi’s military achievements or his famous law code. Van De Mieroop teases out what he can, though the book often lapses into a conventional narrative of Babylonian history. It’s written at slightly too high a level for a novice like me, but I still learned a lot.

52. Jack Weatherford – Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
There have been some attempts to rehabilitate Genghis Khan’s fearsome image in recent years. This is one of them. Without ignoring his cruelty, Weatherford points out that Genghis opened up new trade routes between East and West, and fought to keep them open. Without Genghis Khan, Europe might never have left its isolationist Medieval period.

53. E.G. West – Adam Smith
When West wrote this book in the early 1960s, Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments was practically a forgotten work. This biography puts special emphasis on that book, and has played a role in reviving it for today’s scholars.

54. Lewis Wolpert – Six Impossible Things before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief
This book sat on my shelf for a good two years before I read it. That was about two years too long. This was one of the deepest, most rewarding reads I’ve had in a long time. It puts forth evolutionary explanations for everything from religious belief to racism, to why people believe in conspiracy theories and alternative medicine.

55. Andrew Young- The Politician: An Insider’s Account of John Edwards’s Pursuit of the Presidency and the Scandal That Brought Him Down
If you lack cynicism about politics, this book can help. John Edwards always struck me as a very pure politician. He never did anything but try to appeal to the median voter so he could gain power. Devoting one’s life to such an ignoble quest is an indication of severe character flaws. So I wasn’t surprised by his scandal. Andrew Young (no relation) was Edwards’ personal assistant, and this is his side of the story. Not exactly objective, but he was there through all of it, and pulls few punches.

A Bit of Smithian Wisdom

“[T]he law ought always to trust people with the care of their own interest, as in their local situations they must generally be able to judge better of it than the legislature can do.”

-Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book IV, Ch. 5.

This sentence must have had a tremendous influence on Hayek’s thought.

Joe Biden vs. Adam Smith

Vice President Joe Biden recently said that every great idea of the last two-plus centuries came from government. My colleague Alex Schibuola and I rebut him over at The Daily Caller using Adam Smith’s book The Theory of Moral Sentiments as our weapon of choice. Biden, it turns out, is an almost perfect example of what Adam Smith described as the “man of system.” This is not a good thing.

As Smith put it:

The man of system … is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it … He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.

The problem, of course, is that human beings are not chess pieces. They have their own wants and desires. They move on their own. The man of system does not take this into account. This is why his plans fail time after time, even if he has the best of intentions.

Read our whole article here.

For those of you interested in learning more about Adam Smith, I couldn’t recommend him more highly. Don’t be scared off by his 18th-century prose style. Sit down with either of his books for less than an hour and you’ll develop an ear for it.

I don’t agree with everything Smith said; he invented the labor theory of value. But he was a keen observer of human nature. He was also a kindly soul, who wanted man to be free, happy, and prosperous. The overarching theme of his thought is mankind as social creature.  Our social instincts color how we form our notions of morality (the impartial spectator theory), and explain why economies function the way they do (peaceful exchange, as opposed to simple theft).

The Theory of Moral Sentiments is available for free at the Online Library of Economics and Liberty. You can also get a hard copy or a Kindle edition from Amazon.

For help wading through and digesting Smith’s arguments, I recommend Russ Roberts and Dan Klein’s six-part podcast series about the book, and D. D. Raphael’s short and readable The Impartial Spectator: Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy.

Other quality secondary sources on Smith include E.G. West’s short-yet-thorough biography, and P.J. O’Rourke’s On the Wealth of Nations, which pairs Smith’s economic theories with O’Rourke’s mordant wit.