“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
“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
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 Boetie – The 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. McCloskey – Economical 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.
37. Robert Wayne Pelton – Loony Laws that You Never Knew You Were Breaking
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.
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).
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.
And hence it is, that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety.
-Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 25.
That sentence is more important to understanding how markets work than most people realize. The ability to feel empathy is part of what makes us human. It is also what makes market economies possible.
Without empathy, killing the customer would be at least as common as serving him. Mutual exchange — trade — is an act of peace. That wouldn’t be possible without the human ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes and feel for them. After all, it’s a lot easier to hit someone and take their stuff. And yet few people do. Empathy is a big reason why.
Adam Smith was one perceptive guy. Others have filled in gaps in his thought, and proven him wrong on some details. That does not take away from the fact that he was as perceptive as any thinker in history.