We are now beginning to appreciate the complexity of the Earth system, and we are faced with controlling that complexity.
This quote is evidence that Billings does not, in fact, appreciate the world’s complexity. Nothing can fully understand something more complex than itself. A human could not possibly understand, let alone control, something so vastly larger, older, and more complicated than he is.
As with the physical world, so with the social world. Peter Boettke counsels economists, who study social processes, to be students, rather than saviors. Bad things happen otherwise. Similar advice applies in this case to natural scientists.
This quibble aside, Billings has written an excellent book that is as well-written and personable as it is informative. I recommend it highly.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Christopher Hitchens – Mortality
Hitchens’ account of dying of esophageal cancer. Difficult to read.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Peter Boettke describes Gordon Tullock’s public choice approach on p. 134 of his new book, Living Economics:
Politics is about concentrating benefits on well-organized and well-informed interest groups, and dispersing costs on the unorganized and ill-informed masses.
That’s precisely why non-political solutions to social problems are desirable wherever possible. When the universal human impulses of self-interest, rationality, and maximizing utility find themselves in an institutional environment like Congress or City Hall, corruption and special privilege are the results almost every time.
Markets respect no special interest. This is why failing companies swarm to Washington; government exists to cater to them.
The first project from EconStories. tv debuted today. It’s a rap video starring John Maynard Keynes and F.A. Hayek, called “Fear the Boom and Bust.” Amusing and deadly serious at the same time.
On a related front, Pete Boettke and Steve Horwitz have a new paper out applying a Hayekian view to the latest boom-and-bust cycle. It’s titled “The House that Uncle Sam Built,” and it’s worth reading.