Donald J. Boudreaux’s March 4 list “Books on Liberty That You Haven’t Read but Should” inspired me to create my own list of books you probably haven’t read but should. Here’s the list, with links where available. The books on this list have had a considerable effect on my worldview, and with only one exception I read them all for the first time after I earned my Ph.D.
One lesson you should take from that is that as much as this sounds like the takeaway point from a bad high school commencement address, the end of your formal schooling is just the beginning of a life of sustained inquiry.
Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions. Sowell is my intellectual hero, and you can put pretty much anything by Sowell here. He includes this as the third in an informal trilogy that includes The Quest for Cosmic Justice and The Vision of the Anointed. Conflict discusses the differences between what he calls the constrained vision of people as morally and intellectually limited, exemplified by Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman, and the unconstrained vision of people exemplified by William Godwin, George Bernard Shaw, Karl Marx (when he was looking forward, anyway), and others who see humanity as something that can be changed and perfected by intellectual, political, and moral surrogates. Here’s my sort-of-annotated bibliography of Sowell’s works.
Robert Higgs, Depression, War, and Cold War. Boudreaux mentioned Higgs’s classic Crisis and Leviathan. I think Depression, War, and Cold War is as good if not better as it applies some of his ideas to two important myths: First, Higgs refutes the claim that the New Deal helped us get out of the Great Depression. Second, he shows that World War II did not end the Great Depression. Even if you don’t have the inclination to read the entire book, you can find his 1997 article “Regime Uncertainty: Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed After the War” here.
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It is my humble opinion that one cannot really understand The Wealth of Nations without Smith’s first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The cartoon version of the Smithian person is vain, selfish, and ambitious only to fill his own belly. That’s not the Smithian person of Wealth of Nations, and it’s certainly not the Smithian person of Theory of Moral Sentiments.
Henry Hazlitt, Time Will Run Back. Hazlitt, the author of the classic Economics in One Lesson, wrote a dystopian novel titled Time Will Run Back, which discusses how a totalitarian socialist society “discovers” the market process as a way of determining whether the economy is using resources wisely. Here are Bryan Caplan’s thoughts.
Lawrence White, The Clash of Economic Ideas. What were the important economic ideas in the 20th century? Who were the main characters? Who were the German Ordoliberals? Lawrence White takes readers on a fascinating tour of the early 20th-century struggle over “the commanding heights” of the economy — and the commanded lows.
Douglass North, Understanding the Process of Economic Change. This was North’s most ambitious book, and I worked as his research assistant during its writing from 2002 to 2005. North explored the relationship between cognition, mental models, and institutional change, and the last decade-plus of work on behavioral economics and psychology has convinced me that North is onto something very important. Identity matters. Moral systems matter. Moral sentiments matter. Understanding the Process of Economic Change was an incomplete analysis, and North would be the first to say so, but it provided a useful foundation for further inquiry. It is, I think, a book that will age well. At a conference in early 2018, Price Fishback of the University of Arizona (also a student of Douglass North, though his advisor was actually Robert Higgs) suggested that every North student’s favorite North book is the one he was working on when they were in grad school. In his case, it was Structure and Change in Economic History (which you should also read). In my case, it is Understanding the Process of Economic Change.
Jason Brennan, Why Not Capitalism? Jason Brennan is a publishing machine who will probably have finished writing a new book by the time you finish reading this article and an exemplar of the rare scholar who produces outstanding quality in great quantity. Why Not Capitalism? is his response to G.A. Cohen’s short Why Not Socialism? I outlined my disagreements with Cohen in a review for the Foundation for Economic Education in 2010. Brennan offers what I think is a decisive refutation of Cohen’s claims through the use of a thought experiment that is similar and, I think, superior to Cohen’s imagined camping trip. Through an explanation of the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse — an example that will be immediately relevant to the parents of small children — Brennan shows that “utopia is capitalist.”
Hans Rosling, Factfulness. Too much of the world’s chatter is based on the factually false. Rosling points out that a lot of development ideas are based on decades-out-of-date understandings of poverty and progress. Embracing Factfulness and what it teaches us about economic, political, social, and cultural progress will, I think, lead you to a new hopefulness about what the rest of the century has in store.
Eugene Richter, Pictures of the Socialistic Future. The tragedy of Pictures of the Socialistic Future is that it was published well before the Bolsheviks took power in Russia. Richter explained how the “socialistic future” would operate with chilling and tragic accuracy.
Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist. Ridley is, with Deirdre McCloskey and others, a recipient of the Julian Simon Award from the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The Rational Optimist shows precisely why he is so worthy of the award. Ridley discusses how innovation happens and what exchange and division of labor have to do with it. After reading The Rational Optimist, I suspect you will join Ridley as an optimist about what the future brings.
William Easterly, The White Man’s Burden. This was Easterly’s follow-up to his excellent The Elusive Quest for Growth and the predecessor to his also-excellent The Tyranny of Experts. As Easterly argues, a lot of international development effort is rooted in a breathtaking overconfidence in the ability of Western intellectuals and do-gooders to fix systems, structures, and societies and a profound disrespect (bordering on contempt) for the objects of our charity. Easterly will make you question the presumption that the world’s poor are only a little more foreign aid or a few more matching-t-shirt-clad church youth groups away from health and prosperity. Reading Easterly will convince you of two things: First, you’re not as smart as you think you are. Second, the people you want to help are a lot smarter than you think they are.
A flood of new books hits the market every day. Hardly any of them, sadly, are worth reading, but there are some that are worth reading, pondering, considering, engaging, and then reading again. So it is with the books on this list.