‘What Have You Read?’

 

Here on Ricochet lately, we’ve been having a number of discussions between and about “Social Conservatives” and “Libertarians.” (Don’t ask.) In this context a question arose which might be summarised as follows: “What have you read?” I should like to ask this question more generally – not least because there are certain books that can be an education in themselves.

But which ones, and why, specifically, should we read them? We’ve all only got so much time, and some of these books aren’t cheap. Without at least something to spark our interest[1] or otherwise inspire us, the way to a vivid world of understanding may remain lost forever in the shadowy Terra Incognita of our minds; an echo of which may now and then reach us, before fading back “into the forest dim.”[2] Sometimes even when we’ve gone and got the book, it sits there on our shelves waiting hopefully for a day that may never come.

Question: What book or books did you really learn something from, or gain a whole new sense of understanding from reading? Please particularly explain why others of us might find it worth making the effort to read them.

Maybe like those of Thomas Sowell, or F. A. Hayek, they explain a lot, or else vividly illustrate some old truth grown forgotten. Sometimes it may be a particular insight or way of looking at things; or some facet of Economics, or History, Philosophy, or even Literature. A book or writer that to you seems sadly neglected; one “well known,” but not much read. A chance to show your gratitude to the trusty ship, or even “little wooden boat,”[3] on which you first set sail for new and unknown lands.

[1] (an Uncommon Knowledge episode, say)

[2] John Keats, Ode to a Nightingale.

[3] Ronald Reagan, Farewell Address, January 11, 1989.

Published in General
Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Join Ricochet for Free.

There are 42 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. 10 cents Member
    10 cents
    @

    Congrats on your first post!!!

    I read Tyranny of Experts by William Easterly. I am also reading a swimming book Total Immersion by Terry Laughlin.

    • #1
  2. user_989419 Inactive
    user_989419
    @ProbableCause

    I found “Leaders”, by Richard Nixon to be fascinating.  In each chapter he discusses a separate world leader, from Churchill to Zhou Enlai, all of whom he met.  And he does so from the perspective of 1982, two years into Reagan’s first term, but before the wall fell in ’89.

    • #2
  3. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    My recommendation would be Is Administrative Law Unlawful? It is  a fascinating book on many levels, not just its central theme.  I would make it mandatory reading for any science fiction author seeking to write a book involving governmental systems.  The book is as much about how to set up governments and legal systems as anything else.

    Seawriter

    • #3
  4. 10 cents Member
    10 cents
    @

    Andrew,

    It is common practice to hit the like button on your commenters to thank them for commenting. Of course if you don’t like the comment you pass on it.

    • #4
  5. 10 cents Member
    10 cents
    @

    Andrew,

    Also you occasionally respond to comments. You do this by clicking on the “COMMENT” and asking a question or adding your 2 cents worth.

    • #5
  6. rah Inactive
    rah
    @rah

    Bastiat’s “The Law”.

    First thing I read in my philosophy of law class as a LUG (Liberal Until Graduation :-)) government-school philosophy major in 1978.

    The last three things were Rawls, Nozick, and Dworkin; Rawls and Dworkin being presented as the apotheosis of All Possible Legal Thought at the time.

    I didn’t even remember reading Bastiat until long after I grew up, became a Hamiltonian Republican, imbibed the pure ethanol of anarchocapitalism as preached on the cypherpunks list in the early 1990’s, had my mind blown, preached the gospel thereof, watched an internet crash, and 9/11, and retired.

    Out walking the dogs one evening, I listened to The Law on my iPhone after hearing it talked up by David Friedman, Murray Rothbard, and Walter Williams, etc. Wasn’t until I was halfway through it that I vaguely remembered the name from that class, long ago.

    To paraphrase Twain, it surprised me how much Bastiat had learned in 35 years. 

    If you haven’t read The Law, go find it now, and read it. It’s short. It’s the kernel of modern libertarian thought. It will blow your mind. :-)

    • #6
  7. rah Inactive
    rah
    @rah

    “The Law” is free and can be found on the web and in pdf. So there’s that. It’s even in epub. All three versions here, it looks like.

    • #7
  8. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    I recently read Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance. Somin powerfully demonstrates that (a) voters are profoundly ignorant, not just of current events but also basic facts regarding how government works and who is responsible for what; and (b) whatever your theory of democracy–including if you subscribe to a liberal framework–this ignorance leads to a strong argument (on both theoretical and practical grounds) for smaller government. Part of what makes the book so good is that he shows how starting from liberal premises still leads to a rationale for libertarianism.

    Also, in light of current events in Syria/Iraq and Europe, I keep returning to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s two books, Infidel and Nomad. It is a firsthand account of a woman’s life in tribal and Muslim societies. The books provide invaluable context for understanding current events. They are compelling and easy to read, too.

    • #8
  9. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    10 cents:

    Andrew,

    It is common practice to hit the like button on your commenters to thank them for commenting. Of course if you don’t like the comment you pass on it.

     It is also common to ignore the sock puppet.

    Parcel out your Likes carefully. If you are a promiscuous Liker, you will devalue your currency and end up like Dime.

    • #9
  10. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    In no particular order, a small selection, all of which happen to be related to conservative/libertarian thought:

    Anything written by philosopher, scientist, economist, and general polymath Michael Polanyi, especially on epistemology. He is the first philosopher I’ve run across who accurately describes the process of knowing, in particular, scientific knowing. I haven’t yet completed his great work, “Personal Knowledge”, but his “Science, Faith, and Society” is superb – and a short read, too – a real gem!

    Ronald Coase’s “The Firm, the Market, and the Law”. A breakthrough in economic thought, presented with dry, British wit. Are you curious about externalities? How property rights really work? Why firms even exist? Then this is the book for you.

    David Friedman’s “Law’s Order”. A wider-ranging exploration of law and economics than Coase’s groundbreaking work. Great for explaining why laws are the way they are from an economic perspective.

    Hernando de Soto’s “The Mystery of Capital”. What keeps poor societies poor? Perhaps lack of well-defined and easy-to-use property rights? How do people develop property rights among themselves? How can legally acknowledging those rights move millions out of poverty?

    • #10
  11. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    10 cents:

    Andrew,

    Also you occasionally respond to comments. You do this by clicking on the “COMMENT” and asking a question or adding your 2 cents worth.

     Unless you are a sock puppet. Then your comments are not worth a full 2 cents. That’s why 10 Cents works hard to generate hundreds of comments.

    • #11
  12. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Also, “From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State”

    Before the rise of the welfare state, even very poor people banded together into mutual aid and insurance societies. These societies provided many social services, such as sick pay, unemployment relief, and health care, all within an environment of close-knit community and mutual accountability.

    These days, we tend to treat social capital and financial capital as if they were enemies, as if the two could not be combined in an orderly fashion to help the poor get ahead safely. But before the welfare state, the poor had already figured out for themselves an effective way to combine the two. Alas, the welfare state has done a lot to crowd out these self-help efforts.

    • #12
  13. rah Inactive
    rah
    @rah

    I also liked David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom.

    • #13
  14. andrewmiller88@virginmedia.com Member
    andrewmiller88@virginmedia.com
    @AndrewMiller

    anonymous:

    My views have been strongly shaped by:

    All of these are available as free downloads from the literature library of the Ludwig von Mises Institute through the links above.

    Many thanks for the various thoughtful and interesting answers thus far, and thank-you to all those who have kindly taken the trouble to comment and to explain their suggestions; I look forward to reading more of them.   

    One book that I would highly recommend is Thomas Sowell’s ‘A Conflict of Visions’; which looks at the roots of the struggles between, and the ‘underlying assumptions’ of, what he calls the ‘Constrained’ and the ‘Unconstrained’ Visions[1]. It is one of those books which really does “explain a lot.”  

    There is also an episode of Uncommon Knowledge which is a useful introduction, and which helped inspire me to read the book:

    http://media.hoover-stage.org/multimedia/uncommon-knowledge/26789

    [1] (and which also may be of particular interest to those following the discussions briefly alluded to above).

    • #14
  15. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Andrew Miller:

    One book that I would highly recommend is Thomas Sowell’s ‘A Conflict of Visions’; which looks at the roots of the struggles between, and the ‘underlying assumptions’ of, what he calls the ‘Constrained’ and the ‘Unconstrained’ Visions. It is one of those books which really does “explain a lot.”

    Sowell’s “Knowledge and Decisions” explains even more, in my opinion. And that’s saying something!

    • #15
  16. andrewmiller88@virginmedia.com Member
    andrewmiller88@virginmedia.com
    @AndrewMiller

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Andrew Miller:

    One book that I would highly recommend is Thomas Sowell’s ‘A Conflict of Visions’; which looks at the roots of the struggles between, and the ‘underlying assumptions’ of, what he calls the ‘Constrained’ and the ‘Unconstrained’ Visions. It is one of those books which really does “explain a lot.”

    Sowell’s “Knowledge and Decisions” explains even more, in my opinion. And that’s saying something!

     

    I think so, too; and indeed it is.
         
    I really hope that Mr. Robinson might do an episode of ‘Uncommon Knowledge’ on ‘Knowledge and Decisions’
     

     
     
     
      
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
      
      
      
      
      
      
      

    • #16
  17. rah Inactive
    rah
    @rah

    Another nod for “Conflict of Visions”.

    Also Hayek’s “Denationalization of Money”. Heh.
    And Mancur Olsen’s “Power and Prosperity”.

    Okay. I’ll stop now.

    • #17
  18. user_554634 Moderator
    user_554634
    @MikeRapkoch

    I highly recommend Roger Scruton’s new book The Soul of the World, both for its philosophical insights, and also as a look at the heart and mind of a conservative. The book both requires and rewards close reading, and there are sections that require some level of philosophical knowledge. But it can be read simply as a reflection of the nature of the human world, and what must be done to both restore and safeguard that world. Scruton’s unity of thought comes through as he reflects upon every aspect of the human: thought, art, architecture, music (fantastic), politics, the place of the individual, the communion of men, and God. I have significant disagreements with Scruton, particularly has emphasis on Kant and Hegel, but the book still captures the essence of the conservative struggle to conserve.

    • #18
  19. user_554634 Moderator
    user_554634
    @MikeRapkoch

    I’ve also just finished Kevin Williamson’s The End Is Near and It’s Going to be Awesome. He’s much more optimistic than am I, but the book is deeply insightful, plus Williamson is very funny.

    • #19
  20. Ralphie Inactive
    Ralphie
    @Ralphie

    “God of the Machine” by Isabel Paterson (free download at von mises), early libertarian book.
    “The Unheavenly Cities”  by Edward Banfield (free pdf can be found, don’t have site on hand)
     still relavent today, observations concerning problems and solutions to inner city problems.
    William Grahm Sumners’ essay “The Rich are Good Natured”, also free on internet with search.
    “A Message to Garcia” by Elbert Hubbard written a the end of the 19th century about taking action. Hubbard died on the Lusitania that was sunk by a torpedo.

    • #20
  21. Byron Horatio Inactive
    Byron Horatio
    @ByronHoratio

    Someone mentioned Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  Indeed one of my intellectual heroes.  “Infidel” is probably the single best insight into tribal Muslim society. On a similar subject, “The Closing of the Muslim Mind” by Robert Reilly.  The only book I know of that delves into the early violent debates within Islam about the role human reason should play in faith. (Spoiler: the good guys lost)

    As for military related books, the best memoirs are of General William Slim who commanded the 14th Army in Burma and saved India from Japanese conquest. “Defeat into Victory.”

    For broader war history, Andrew Roberts and Antony Beevor are first class.  “Storm of War” and “The Second World War” introduced me to the Chinese theater of war that I was wholly ignorant of.  

    And while known for his later work, George Orwell penned a gripping memoir of the Spanish Civil War in which he was also a combatánt, “Homage to Catalonia.”  All the themes of political violence and totalitarianism he experienced first hand by the Soviets in Spain.

    • #21
  22. user_75648 Thatcher
    user_75648
    @JohnHendrix

    Currently reading “Constructing Civil Liberties; Discontinuities in the Development of American Constitutional Law“, by Ken Kersch.  

    Recently read the following:

    “Fragile By Design; The Political Origins of Banking Crises & Scarce Credit“, but Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber. 

    “Faithless Execution; Building the political case for Obama’s Impeachment”, by Andrew McCarthy.

    “The War for America; 1775-1783“, by Piers Mackesy.

    “Seeing Like A State; How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed“, by James Scott.

    All of these are worth reading.  Fragile By Design is particularly noteworthy if you want to understand the underlying causes of our financial crisis. Because both Fragile By Design and Constructing Civil Liberties builds on concepts introduced in Seeing Like A State I recommend reading Seeing Like A State first.

    I recommend Seeing Like A State because it taught me about how modern states emerged from feudalism by, essentially, colonizing their own realms, which required pioneering institutions that made it possible for bureaucrats to administer and tax both their populations and their subject’s land.

    Fragile By Design taught me:

      1. the history of banking, which developed concurrently with the emergence of the modern state;
      2. some of the history of the emergence of the modern state;
      3. why the U.S. has suffered from an unstable banking system for almost 200 years (chronic episodes of bank failures & financial panics);
      4. why Canada enjoyed a stable banking system (almost no bank failures or panics)
      5. how the urban activists (including Obama, back in the day) contributed to setting up the conditions leading to the financial panic that swept Obama into the Oval Office. 

      I score Fragile By Design as the most valuable out of this list.

      Faithless Execution is useful for getting up to speed on the arguments you might need to be conversant in, say, next year.  I score this book as having the lowest value with respect to the others because:

        1. it has a fairly narrow subject matter; 
        2. it has only an ephemeral value; Obama is going to be out of office in a couple of years anyway.  

        So far I’ve only read about 40% of Constructing Civil Liberties. I think you like like it if you’re a fan of the Law Talk podcast, as I am.  Constructing Civil Liberties gives an additional and useful perspective on the era covered by Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism and Richard Epstein’s How Progressives Rewrote the Constitution.

        • #22
      1. user_280840 Inactive
        user_280840
        @FredCole

        anonymous:
        For a New Liberty by Murray N.. Rothbard

        I second For a New Liberty.  That really opened my eyes.

        For a New Liberty is like Libertarianism 101.  If you want to get an understanding of libertarianism, read that.
        Like John said, it’s available online for free.  There’s also an awesome audio version available for free read by Jeff Riggenbach, a man who has a perfect voice for audio books.

        • #23
      2. Pony Convertible Inactive
        Pony Convertible
        @PonyConvertible

        “The Guns of August”‘ by Barbara Tuchman is the best book I have read in awhile (and I read a lot of books).  It describes in detail how Europe went from peace to all out warfare in August of 1914.   I do recommend that you get a pre-WWI map of Europe before reading the book.  

        • #24
      3. Nick Stuart Inactive
        Nick Stuart
        @NickStuart

        One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Got me reading the rest of his work.

        The two consequences of reading Solzhenitsyn were it set me on the path to becoming a Christian, and it thoroughly disabused me of there being any merit to Communism or Socialism.

        • #25
      4. Tom Meyer Contributor
        Tom Meyer
        @tommeyer

        I second John’s recommendation of The Fatal Conceit; I may be biased simply from having read it earlier this year, but I think it’s more important than The Road to Serfdom. The Rational Optimist is a fun follow-up to it, with a lot more pop science (I mean that in a good way).

        Also, The True Believer by Eric Hoffer. It’s an examination of the psychology of mass movements, and one of the most insightful essays I’ve ever read.  It’s just a little over 100 pages.

        • #26
      5. Fricosis Guy Listener
        Fricosis Guy
        @FricosisGuy

        Here are a few pieces that have stuck with me long after I read them:

        1. The Use of Knowledge in Society” — Hayek. It’s “only” a journal article; but boy what a journal article it was. It is perhaps the most focused argument for free markets I’ve seen.
        2. American Pastoral — Philip Roth. IMO by far his best work. It evokes the possibilities of the American Dream, the paradoxes of social mobility, and the disaster that the Sixties was for both.
        3. Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self — Claire Tomalin. Pepys’ diaries are considered the greatest diaries in the English language. Tomalin brings alive a thoroughly modern man. If nothing else, this should encourage you to dip into the diaries.

        Finally, I really encourage folks to read and study Liberal Fascism. Yeah, I’m shilling for Jonah; but it lays out a systematic history and theory of modern progressivism in a way that will make you go “Aha”! It was so insightful that Tyranny of Cliches was a let down for me (I knew a lot of the material already so it read like a collection of columns).

        • #27
      6. Son of Spengler Contributor
        Son of Spengler
        @SonofSpengler

        Fricosis Guy: I really encourage folks to read and study Liberal Fascism.

        Seconded.

        Separately, WRT Hayek, I think many people miss the import of The Road to Serfdom. The significance of the book is not the economic insight, but the political one: The road. How well-meaning politicians undermine institutional constraints for benign motives, and thus pave the way for autocrats, who inevitably use the unconstrained institutions to advance their power for their own ends.

        • #28
      7. tabula rasa Inactive
        tabula rasa
        @tabularasa

        Books that have shaped how I think about politics:

        A Conflict of Visions (Thomas Sowell)

        The Conservative Mind (Russell Kirk)

        The Road to Serfdom (Hayek)

        First Things (Hadley Arkes)

        Any book by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, C. S. Lewis, or Christopher Dawson (English historian).

        Novels:  Death Comes for the Archbishop (Cather), Gilead (Robinson).

        • #29
      8. tabula rasa Inactive
        tabula rasa
        @tabularasa

        Pony Convertible:

        “The Guns of August”‘ by Barbara Tuchman is the best book I have read in awhile (and I read a lot of books). It describes in detail how Europe went from peace to all out warfare in August of 1914. I do recommend that you get a pre-WWI map of Europe before reading the book.

         I’m currently reading The War that Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan.  Think of it as a prequel to The Guns of August.  Well written account of how WWI came to be.  She makes it clear that it wasn’t just an accident.  It was the inevitable result of a host of bad decisions.

        • #30
      Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.