Archive for the ‘Book Recommendations’ Category

I have not read something new on the New Deal in some time, so I turned with some anticipation to Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Times as one (of many) books I am reading this summer. It is a wonderfully interesting analysis that devotes a good deal of coverage to the New Deal’s accommodations with Southern Democrats. A sample quote:

“In embracing features of planning that had been identified mainly with the radical program of the Bolsheviks, in supporting features of corporatism that principally had been associated with Fascist Italy, and in backing the delegation of great power to administrative agencies that regulated the private economy in a manner that had a family resemblance to the active economic project of Nazi Germany, the South helped to show that each of these policies could be turned in a democratic, not totalitarian, direction.”

Of course, Southern legislators who controlled the most important committee chairmanships, extracted a high price:

“As economic legislation advanced, they fortified Jim Crow by making certain that southern employers could continue to draw without hindrance on the still-enormous supply of inexpensive and vulnerable black labor. They did so by ensuring that key New Deal bills on subjects sensitive for the South, such as labor relations, would be adapted to meet the test of not disturbing the region’s racial structure. The main techniques by which this goal was accomplished were a decentralization of responsibility that placed administrative discretion in the hands of state and local officials whenever possible, a recognition in law of regional differentials in wage levels, and the exclusion of maids and farmworkers–fully two thirds of southern black employees–from key New Deal programs” (all quotes, pp. 162-63).

The book could be a bit more critical of the performance on the New Deal programs (for those who are interested, Amity Shaes’ The Forgotten Man provides a pretty compelling account). But the Katznelson volume provides the best analysis I have seen of the role of race in shaping the New Deal and the incredible uncertainty faced by policymakers and citizens during the period in question.

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  • Against Fairness by Stephen T. Asma – Frankly, this book has made me more partial to fairness as a moral good. He defends partiality, even “nepotism,” on the grounds that it is essential to human nature, and that excessively “rationalist” approaches to morality like utilitarianism, deontology, and justice-as-fairness set inhuman standards that are impossible to reach and ultimately undesirable. Yet no amount of evidence from psychology and neuroscience can ultimately demonstrate moral truths, and I was frustrated by the lack of any limiting principle to the desirability of partiality. Indeed, Asma opens the book by relating having told a shocked audience at a conference, “I would strangle everyone in this room if it would somehow prolong my son’s life.” He comes nowhere near justifying this kind of radical statement. Yes, favoritism is in some cases inevitable and even desirable, setting a kind of outer bound to the demands of fairness, but it should be possible to justify reasonable favoritism within a broader moral conception that recognizes the value of every human being. Another take on Asma here.
  • The Order of Public Reason: A Theory of Freedom and Morality in a Diverse and Bounded World by Gerald Gaus – Gaus provides a public-reason justification of libertarianism. I’m only about 40% of the way through this long book and have been discussing it, irregularly, with fellow sometime Pileator Mark Lebar. So far he has spent a lot of space on metaethics, arguing that social morality requires justification because of its constraining demands on our freedoms, but that such a justification is possible from its necessity for useful social cooperation. While the justification of social morality is quasi-instrumentalist, morality itself is non-instrumentalist, consisting of rules that must be justifiable on the basis of reasons that all participants in the social-moral enterprise (which would exclude psychopaths, for instance) could acknowledge. It’s a careful and sometimes difficult book, but also useful for helping sort out the conceptual terrain in contemporary moral philosophy. I have a bit of skepticism about the public-reason project, but we shall see where he takes it. I may post more about this book later.
  • The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa – I’ve discussed one of Vargas Llosa’s other novels here; this one isn’t quite up to the standard of the two I’ve previously read by him, but it bears his trademark, matter-of-fact style. It is a light fictionalization of the life of Roger Casement, an Irish liberal who investigated and reported on gross human rights abuses in colonial Congo and indigenous Peru. A true hero of freedom in his courage and determination not to let political pressure and dark circumstances cloud his judgment or resolve, Casement was also gay and left diaries of his sexual encounters, actual or imagined, which the British government used to discredit him after he was sentenced to death for treason following the Easter Rising. Casement’s anticolonialism had led him to Irish nationalism, and during World War I many British people turned against him because of his collaborations with the German government.
  • The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher – At first, it seems as if this book is going to be a paean to localism: staying where you are, especially if it’s a small town, and becoming embedded within that community. But in fact, it eschews the romanticism one often finds from Front Porch Republic types and ends up being much more about, as the subtitle says, “the secret of a good life.” One gets the idea that Rod Dreher’s hometown was special in great part because of what his sister Ruthie helped make of it. This is a book to inspire you to do more for your fellow man, wherever you are.
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass – A logical progression after reading Toni Morrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe. I’ve been trying to understand the antislavery movement better, as well as the role that slavery played in American history. Look for Douglass and Casement both to play a significant role in my NH Liberty Forum talk next month.
  • Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev – a classic of Russian literature I’d long overlooked in my Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy explorations. The personalities are gripping, and their motivations and the situations in which they find themselves ring true. One minor gripe: as a philosophical novel, I wish there were just a bit more exploration of ideas like nihilism on their own terms. The nihilist philosophy of some of Russia’s youth in the 1870s is a prop for exploring the human relationships between generations and sexes, but there’s no engagement with philosophical notions on their own terms; no character actually challenges nihilism on philosophical grounds, even as it outrages some of them. A similar complaint goes for some of Chekhov’s stories that bring in political or philosophical ideas.

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  1. Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov – one of these massive collections of out-of-copyright works available on e-reader for pennies. Chekhov’s short stories are often just sketches of a moment or a state of mind, illuminated in conversation or internal dialogue. But some have sweeping timelines, and their rapid denouements remind me of Maupassant. Compared to Maupassant: somewhat less sex, much less war, more peasants, more deprivation, more authority conflicts.
  2. Home and Beloved by Toni Morrison. Home is a quick read, almost a novella. Beloved is a masterpiece. Elements of magical realism & of postmodern fiction, but completely absorbing and psychologically subtle (and occasionally frightening). Themes of freedom, power, and ownership are central, so a particularly recommended work for libertarians. And I’m not saying this to “signal.”
  3. The Stench of Honolulu by Jack Handey. A silly series of jokes tacked end-to-end into a ridiculous plot. The humor is reminiscent of the Airplane movie and, of course, “Deep Thoughts.”

Nonfiction (considered thoughts to come later on these):

  1. The Order of Public Reason by Gerald Gaus. Doing a “slow read” and discussion with some other classical liberal philosophers and political scientists.
  2. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming by Rod Dreher. Bought this one after reading Damon Linker’s review, haven’t gotten far yet.

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The War of the End of the World is the latest entry on my desert-island list of books. It’s the second book by Peruvian The War of the End of the Worldnovelist, Nobelist, and classical liberal Mario Vargas Llosa that I’ve read (the other is The Feast of the Goat), and easily the better of the two. It is a fictionalized account of the story of the “War of Canudos,” the 1893-1897 attempt by the Brazilian republic to wipe out a utopian, Catholic-fundamentalist, ultra-monarchist city of the poor in the arid back country (sertão) of Bahia state.

Antonio Conseilhero (“the Counselor”) is a wandering lay preacher, who travels among the impoverished villages, towns, and haciendas of the region, gradually picking up a following as he goes. His disciples are the cast-offs of society: the deformed, the sinners, the drunkards, even the gangsters. Inspired by his simple faith and good deeds, they abandon their homes and their former lifestyles and take up the self-abnegating life of a religious devotee (“brushed by the wings of an angel,” they call it). Eventually, they settle on an abandoned hacienda called Canudos, owned by local aristocrat and leader of the Bahia Autonomist Party, the Baron de Canabrava.

The simple, rural, devout folk of Canudos see in the secular republic the beginnings of an atheistic oppression. They forbid census takers, whom they accuse of trying to identify all the former slaves to reinstate slavery (the monarchy had abolished slavery shortly before its overthrow), and tax collectors, and the coin of the republic is banned from circulation.

The Progressive Republican Party sees an opportunity to hang Canudos around the neck of the dominant Bahia Autonomist Party. They allege that it is a monarchist conspiracy to overthrow the republic, supported by the British. Ultimately, Canudos is caught up in political intrigues that sweep beyond Bahia to the capital of Brazil itself, Rio de Janeiro. Several military expeditions attack Canudos and are repulsed with great loss of life. Despite the attacks, the poor and devout from around Bahia and neighboring states move into Canudos in great numbers, hoping to be blessed by the Counselor and to see the kingdom of God on earth. Against great odds, (more…)

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Jonathan Haidt is everywhere these days, giving interviews and TED talks, promoting his working papers in the media, writing for the websites yourmorals.org and civilpolitics.org, and publishing The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012). A moral psychologist by training, Haidt has successfully cleared the jump to public intellectual, now dispensing didactic advice to Americans about what ails their politics. The Righteous Mind reflects those aspirations, not just summing up his own original research on the psychological foundations of political ideology for a general audience, but also shoehorning in some surprising interpretations of moral philosophy and conjuring out of the whole stew some advice for American politicos (and what could be more important than that?).

Did you know that moral philosophers do not believe in intuition? Did you know that David Hume thought that reason was weak and ineffectual against the tide of passions? Did you know that Bentham and Kant were probably on the autism spectrum, and that that fact explains their moral philosophies? Did you know that Kant was a philosophical rationalist, and that philosophical rationalists think that morality is all about justice and fairness? Philosophical rationalists also think that children learn about morality through experience, just like Lawrence Kohlberg, Haidt’s nemesis in moral psychology — and totally not like Hume.(*)

If you did not know these things, which might especially be the case if you are a moral philosopher, Haidt is here to enlighten you. As he helpfully informs us, he took a couple of philosophy courses as an undergraduate, before he realized that it was all bunkum.

Haidt begins (more…)

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Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics
Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics: War and World Order in the Age of the Crusades by Andrew A. Latham (Routledge, 2012) offers a constructivist interpretation of late-medieval European states and warfare. Latham describes his approach as offering an “explanation-what” or “property” theory rather than an “explanation-why” or causal theory. He is interested in clarifying the nature of the medieval “corporate-sovereign state” and the ways in which medieval European societies conceived of and legitimized war. Rather than studying the late-medieval period merely as a staging ground for the development of the modern state, as Hendrik Spruyt does in his interesting book The Sovereign State and Its Competitors, Latham explores the logic internal to the late-medieval system, perceiving the transition from high-medieval feudalism to early-modern absolutism as a gradual one. (He therefore rejects what he calls “the Westphalian rupture” and explicitly endorses both the stateness and non-feudality of pre-Westphalian polities, whether city-states, empires, or kingdoms.)

Constructivism in international relations refers to a broad research paradigm emphasizing the roles of shared international culture, ideas, and values in constraining state actors. It rejects both the “power politics” theorizing of neorealism and the materialism of Marxism. Of course, in one sense the late-medieval period is a “most likely” case for constructivism, as one could hardly deny the role of ideas in buttressing the power of the Catholic Church or provoking the Crusades. But apparently some have tried. Latham successfully shows that realist views prioritizing interests over ideology in explaining the Crusades (e.g., opportunities for looting) are inconsistent with current historical knowledge.

At other points, though, Latham’s obdurate refusal to consider the role of interests annoyed me. In explaining why the medieval kingdom came to prevail over the city-state, the principality, the bishopric, and the city-league, his account boils down to the claim that medieval political philosophy viewed the kingdom as “more legitimate” (90-91). Technological change plays no role in the explanation, and power politics is only begrudgingly and indirectly acknowledged (96).

Latham could also be clearer about the role that his ontology of war can play in general causal theories of international relations. Defining war as an “institution” composed of “deeply embedded intersubjective beliefs” (48) does nothing to bridge the distance between this kind of project and rationalist approaches to war. Why aren’t “norms” (or if one prefers, “deeply embedded intersubjective beliefs”) best thought of as variables in a utility function? (Realists would still not be happy with this, of course.)

The first 50 or so pages of the book bog down heavily in the IR literature. For someone like me largely uninterested in the paradigm bun-fights, the more interesting part of the book comes later. I learned something about the demise of feudalism (it was remarkably early, 13th century at the latest) and something about how Thomist and other late-medieval political philosophy differed from the prior Augustinian tradition (more optimistic about the state’s ability to promote the common good). Medieval historians are unlikely to find much new here, but for political scientists, Latham’s book does a service in synthesizing the up-to-date historiographic literature on the diplomacy and warfare of the period.

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My sometime coauthor William Ruger has a piece in The American Conservative on Luigi Zingales’ A Capitalism for the People. He compares Zingales to early Chicago School economist Henry Simons in his willingness to consider unconventional remedies to crony capitalism, lack of competition, and “bigness” more generally:

Fast forward to today, and we see another Chicago economist, Luigi Zingales, confronting another economic crisis and likewise trying to put capitalism back on the right path in his book, A Capitalism for the People. The similarities between Simons and Zingales do not stop there. In fact, Zingales’s philippic against the early 21st century’s economic and political trends—including growing income inequality—and in favor of competition over monopoly frequently calls to mind the older Chicago tradition that Simons represented in A Positive Program.

Unlike his predecessor’s, Zingales’s reform measures are far more consistent with the tenets of a free society. In recognizing the danger of bigness—especially big business tied to big government—while hoping to meet the threat with greater respect for markets and freedom, Zingales fuses many of the best parts of the “old” and “new” Chicago Schools.

Some of his policy recommendations seem a bit contrived or poorly thought through, but others are genuinely interesting:

Zingales focuses on education as an antidote to the increasing inequality that accompanies globalization. Unfortunately, as he points out, “perhaps the most destructive cronyism that uses lobbying to extract money from the American people in exchange for a product that doesn’t meet their real needs is in the public school system.” Sounding a lot like his fellow Chicagoan, Zingales repeats Milton Friedman’s argument for publically funded school vouchers as a means to increase equality of opportunity. He adds the twist that there should be “higher-value vouchers for people who start from less privileged conditions” and “match-specific vouchers” to incentivize good schools to “rescue poorer-performing students at risk.” To allow individuals to take risks and invest in themselves “when the consequences of failure are very harsh,” Zingales also supports a safety net of forgiving bankruptcy laws, unemployment insurance, and job retraining.

Zingales wants to reinvent antitrust, with regulators focusing not just on the economic advantages of mergers but the political consequences that arise from large corporate combinations. Where the political results would likely be “welfare-reducing,” Zingales would have the government prevent such mergers or limit the lobbying those corporations can engage in. As he admits, “This would be a radical departure from the status quo”—indeed, one reminiscent of Simons’s anti-monopoly program. Further steps he recommends to revive a competitive market include better balancing our patent and copyright regime, empowering shareholders in corporate governance (even by quotas), and enacting progressive taxation on corporate lobbying.

He supports a number of other critical institutional reforms to the tax and finance system: simplifying corporate taxes, ending expiring tax provisions, applying legal rules to the government (which creates them in the first place), instituting a reward system for whistleblowers, and increasing data transparency through disclosure requirements. Financial regulation, he says, should be parceled out to three agencies, each responsible for meeting only one key goal: price stability, protection against fraud and abuse, and system stability. Zingales disapproves of using the tax system for “massive” redistribution of wealth and income. Instead, he favors Pigouvian taxes (which “correct distorted incentives”), such as levies on lobbying or on potentially destabilizing short-term debt.

More here.

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In Free Market Fairness, political philosopher John Tomasi sets forth a new research program in normative political theory that he calls “market democracy.” Market democracy triangulates orthodox libertarianism and social-democratic, egalitarian liberalism and, Tomasi hopes, provides a principled moral grounding for a moderate classical liberalism that has room for both a modest welfare state and a vigorous, competitive, free-market economy. Tomasi’s book is innovative — and, I should note, more readable than most contemporary political philosophy. The arguments he develops here pose important challenges to both “left” (social democrats) and “right” (traditional libertarians), and so it should be widely read.

The book is most effective in making the case that “justice as fairness” and a robust concern for basic economic liberties are not necessarily contradictory. At the same time, the book’s sketch of market democracy–and more specifically, “free market fairness,” the justificatory edifice for market democracy that Tomasi endorses–leaves many details unexplored and is unlikely on its own to persuade traditional libertarians and Rawlsian/egalitarian liberals to abandon their long-held commitments. Tomasi views the book’s purpose as an ice-breaker, opening up new waters for exploration, and it should be read in that light, not as a comprehensive treatise.

I. Approach

Tomasi directs most of his arguments toward left-liberals, not libertarians. He aims to persuade them of two things: a) that some economic liberties are fundamental rights that every just society must guarantee to all; b) that at the level of ideal theory, market democratic regimes (he identifies two ideal types, “democratic limited government” and “democratic laissez faire”) are on a level with Rawls’ egalitarian regimes (“liberal socialism” and “property-owning democracy”) when it comes to their capacity to realize legitimate, egalitarian social goals, such as the maximization of the wealth of the representative poorest worker. Tomasi does not claim anything so facile as, “The free market is the best way to realize Rawlsian objectives.” Rather, Tomasi argues that Rawlsian objectives are flawed insofar as they ignore fundamental rights to own property and engage in exchange that are critical to authorship of one’s own life plan. Further, once we have sussed out the true requirements of justice as fairness, we find that free-market regimes can be designed plausibly so as to aim at meeting those requirements.

Tomasi also claims not to be merely splitting the difference between orthodox libertarianism a la Nozick or Rothbard and Rawlsian egalitarian liberalism (xix). On the question of methodology, Tomasi comes down firmly on the side of Rawls. (more…)

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Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School is the latest collection of essays from Ralph Raico, published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Ralph was kind enough to send me a print copy.

The introductory, eponymous essay concerns the relationship between Austrianism as an economic methodology and classical liberalism as a political program or ideology. Raico disputes Mises’ contention that Austrian methodology (methodological individualism) is clearly separate from the normative claims of classical liberalism (2-3). Raico builds a persuasive case that Austrianism as traditionally understood is indeed naturally related to classical liberalism; however, I would argue that this implication is not entirely to the credit of traditional Austrianism.

First, let us take methodological individualism. Modern neoclassical economics is as thoroughly methodologically individualist as Austrianism ever was. But note that both neoclassical and Austrian economists depart from methodological individualism when convenient to do so, for instance when deploying the firm as a rational actor. The firm is a collective entity. Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia has a brilliant insight into when methodological individualism “might go wrong” (22):

If there is a filter that filters out (destroys) all non-P Q’s, then the explanation of why all Q’s are P’s (fit the pattern P) will refer to this filter. For each particular Q, there may be an explanation for why it is P, how it came to be P, what maintains it as P. But the explanation of why all Q’s are P will not be the conjunction of these individual explanations, even though these are all the Q’s there are, for that is part of what is to be explained… The methodological individualist position requires that there be no basic (unreduced) social filtering processes.

The filtering process for the firm is profit maximization. We can know that firms try to maximize profit even if we do not have a good explanation for why each individual firm tries to maximize profit, or why individuals have chosen so to organize themselves. The answers to the latter question were developed by Coase and Williamson, by the way (Chicagoites, not Austrians, though fully taken on board by contemporary Austrians).

Second, (more…)

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I am working on a book on socialism this summer, and my preparations for it have led me to read quite a bit of interesting material. Here are a few noteworthy titles, in no particular order:

1. How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life, by Robert and Edward Skidelsky (New York: Other Press, 2012). They press an old—very old—objection to capitalism, namely, that it unleashes and even encourages base motives and unbecoming goals. They claim in particular that capitalism has two kinds of “defects”: the first, the “moral defects,” are that it “relies on the motives of greed and acquisitiveness, which are morally repugnant,” and it allows the “coexistence of great wealth and great poverty,” which “offends our sense of justice.” The second kind are “capitalism’s palpable economic defects,” which are that it “is inherently unstable,” as well as “inefficient, wasteful and painful” (pp. 5-6). “We know,” they assert, “prior to anything scientists or statisticians can tell us, that the unending pursuit of wealth is madness” (8). The book contains some interesting history of both objections to and defenses of capitalism, and it does a good job rehearsing some standard objections; its treatment of the connection between happiness and wealth, for example, is particularly well done. Its treatment of the alleged injustice of capitalism is frustratingly cursory, however—the authors seem to believe it is self-evident that inequality is bad per se, and thus give little further discussion—and they, like many other commentators, are guilty of assuming that their schedule of values is the one everyone should have. Still, if the simple life of yesteryear, with a vision of tranquility and contentment, appeals to you, then this book might as well.

2. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael J. Sandel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). I had high hopes for this book. Its author is an eminent philosopher at Harvard who has done important and careful work, and the putative topic—namely, that not all aspects of human social life should function like markets—is one to which I was already sympathetic. But this book ultimately disappoints. The level of argument is too often superficial, and the points he makes are often gratuitous. He refers repeatedly, for example, to something he calls “market triumphalism,” which he apparently thinks is what drives most of American politics, economics, and culture. Yet his evidence for this is only anecdotal, and it does not coalesce into a clear notion of exactly what this “market triumphalism” is supposed to be. Criticism of free markets and capitalism have not exactly been absent over the last thirty years (the time frame Sandel mainly discusses), and it is at least arguable that governments at all levels—local, state, and federal—have expanded, not contracted, their reaches during that time. Sandel finds “distasteful” many things that people are willing to pay for (as do I, even if his and my preferences do not exactly coincide), but nothing follows from that—certainly not any particular political policy. He doesn’t like that people pay others to stand in lines for them, for example; well, okay, but so what? He also does not like that people often consider things like tradeoffs and opportunity costs when making decisions; he thinks that means that the market is “crowding out” other motives. But some, like Pete Boettke for example,might argue that that is simply the “economic way of thinking”—and we could use a lot more of it. A more systematic presentation of Sandel’s position, along with a more careful defense of it, could, I think, have made this book much more powerful.

3. The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, by Joseph E. Stiglitz (New York: Norton, 2012). I have not finished reading this book yet, so I will reserve final judgment until I do. I can say, however, that it is a bit surprising to discover a Nobel Prize-winning economist so thoroughly distrustful of markets and so thoroughly trusting of government regulation. At times it seems that he thinks that if we would just put people like him in charge of “running the economy,” things would go so much more smoothly. One aspect of his argument is a reprise of Charles Murray’s main point in his recent book, Coming Apart, namely that there are growing cultural divides in America that threaten to have serious repercussions in the not-too-distant future. Stiglitz’s contribution to this discussion is to claim that these divides are primarily the result of bad economic policy, as opposed to various other factors like politics, culture, demographics, etc. Stiglitz also treats too lightly the inequality-entails-unfairness claim, seeming to believe that merely pointing out that a set of institutions allows inequality is enough by itself to condemn it. But perhaps Stiglitz deepens the discussion of this point in the latter parts of the book. If so, I will make the proper notice.

There are several other books on my list, including works by Fr. Robert Sirico, Peter Boettke, Alan Kahan, Allan Meltzer, Tyler Beck Goodspeed, and by Nicholas Capaldi and Theodore Roosevelt Malloch. Perhaps I can write mini-reviews of them in future posts.

In the meantime, are there other books or articles I should be reading? I would be most grateful for suggestions.

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This post is about three books I’ve polished off recently, all quite different from one another:

  • Timothy Besley & Torsten Persson, Pillars of Prosperity: The Political Economy of Development Clusters – nothing to do with industrial districts or network externalities; this is a (mostly) theoretical exploration of the reasons why rulers might choose to invest in fiscal and legal capacity, generating a strong state and good conditions for economic development
  • Ralph Raico, Great Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Critique – an excoriation of wartime leaders beloved by those whom Rothbard called “court intellectuals”
  • Mark Pennington (our very own!), Robust Political Economy – a defense of classical liberalism as being more institutionally robust to imperfections in markets & governments than various alternatives

Besley & Persson‘s work is a dense slog, if you read the math. Its contribution should be seen as mostly theoretical, rather than empirical – although there are some simple empirics along the lines of demonstrating cross-national correlations. The central aim is to try to understand why GDP per capita tends to correlate positively with other things like tax take as a share of GDP, income tax and VAT take as a share of total tax take, years in external war, and executive constraints, and negatively with things like expropriation risk and years in civil war. The basic story is that there are three types of societies: common-good societies in which political leaders focus on providing collective goods to the entire population, long-run redistributive societies in which political leaders invest in fiscal capacity because they expect to be in power for a long time and want to redistribute funds to their favored constituencies, and kleptocratic societies in which political leaders steal as much as they can in a short period of time. In common-good societies, expected tenure in office is irrelevant to investments in fiscal and legal capacity: leaders invest whether or not they expect to stay in power, because they are interested in doing good things for their citizens. In long-run redistributive societies, leaders also invest in fiscal and legal capacity in order to grow the pie and their take from it. In kleptocratic societies, leaders’ pillaging keeps the economy in an underdeveloped state. Ethnic diversity is bad (in a sense) because it makes societies more redistributive (more internal rivalries), but this is not necessarily a critical failure so long as leader tenures remain long. External war is good (in a sense) because it brings people together and helps create a common-good society.

The book advances some new arguments, and the theoretical framework alone is impressive. However, I have at least two fundamental concerns as well. First, I question how many societies really fall into the “common good” category. In the strict economic sense, there are hardly true collective goods for an entire political society. National defense, for instance, is a collective bad for pacifists. The fact that external war correlates with tax take does not imply to me that war is good for bringing people together and fostering development, but that war is the health of the state, sharpening the competitive blade that pares away “inefficiencies” in governments’ extractive capacity. Second, the modeling of fiscal and legal capacity as simply being a matter of leaders’ past decisions to “invest” is so simple as to be a gross distortion. There’s no politics here, no grappling with influential prior arguments from North, Weingast, and others that leaders must be forced to limit their own power, because it is impossible for them to make credible commitments to private property rights on their own initiative.

Raico‘s book isn’t for the faint of heart or for someone looking for an impartial academic account of “great” historical figures like Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, and Harry Truman. On the other hand, it is blood-pumping red meat to the contrarian libertarian, as Raico moves from exposing the bizarre authoritarian fantasies of Wilson and his cronies to calling Truman out as a war criminal and mass murderer of innocent men, women, and children in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (I’ve addressed in slightly more depth Raico’s criticisms of Churchill in these virtual pages.) Raico stands firmly in the Rothbardian tradition of focusing critical revisionism on the actions of one’s own government and its allies. I wouldn’t assign this work on its own to students; I would include alternative perspectives. Nevertheless, (more…)

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My first book, Secessionism: Identity, Interest, and Strategy, has been released by McGill-Queen’s University Press. Secessionism is the first comprehensive, empirical study of the causes and consequences of contemporary secessionist movements worldwide. It also has a normative component, as I interpret from the empirical results a case for “legalizing secession” in order to reduce the incidence of violence.

Anyone who orders the book before August 31, 2012 should do so at the press’ website and use the coupon code “SORENS12″ at checkout for 20% off.

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So I finally read Atlas Shrugged (I haven’t seen the movie yet). I’d heard about the novel in libertarian circles for a long time, of course, but I’d never read it. I had read some of Rand’s nonfiction, and I knew going into Atlas that I disagreed with Rand’s philosophy on several fundamental points. Indeed, Rand seems to have misread so much of the Western philosophical canon that I have had trouble taking her seriously as a philosopher. Nevertheless, I put aside my doubts and decided to find out what all the fuss was about.

First, the bad.

I agree with critics who say that Rand’s characters are one-dimensional and unrealistic. Especially by the latter half of the book, as sympathetic but not-fully-enlightened characters “wake up” to “reality,” all the good guys sound like clones of Rand herself, while all the bad guys sound like clones of each other. She is desperate to link together (what she regards as) intellectual failures, moral failures, and personality types – and even physical characteristics. (If someone has an angular jaw and cruel, blue eyes, he is definitely a good guy; paunchy guys with receding hairlines are invariably baddies. I don’t know why Rand chose to use these unfortunate Aryan motifs given their obvious potential to mislead, as evinced in Whittaker Chambers’ infamous “gas chamber” line.) If someone is (more…)

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Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk has been one of my favorite authors since I read Snow a few years ago. Snow is an atmospheric novel set in ethnically mixed eastern Turkey (the city of Kars). The novel paints a picture of a “frontier” city’s characters, political and religious intrigues, dilapidated architecture, climate, and topography. While the novel is political, even featuring a comic-opera municipal coup d’état, it is not ideological. Pamuk seemed to put ironic distance between himself and every one of the ideologies running through the city’s overheated atmosphere: Kemalism, Islamism, Kurdish nationalism, even the protagonist’s confused “Westernism.”

Lately I’ve been reading Istanbul, a nonfictional meditation on Pamuk’s home city cum memoir. So far the memoir parts are rather dull, but the analysis of Istanbul’s spirit and history is interesting. It is in this book that Pamuk declares his localist sympathies (5-6):

I’ve never left Istanbul, never left the houses, streets, and neighborhoods of my childhood… [F]ifty years on I find myself back in the Pamuk Apartments, where my first photographs were taken and where my mother first held me in her arms to show me the world… Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul–these are writers known for having managed to migrate between languages, cultures, countries, continents, even civilizations. Their imaginations were fed by exile, a nourishment drawn not through roots but through rootlessness. My imagination, however, requires that I stay in the same city, on the same street, in the same house, gazing at the same view. Istanbul’s fate is my fate. I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am.

This passage reminds me a great deal of Bill Kauffman’s arguments for local patriotism in Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette, an account of the people and goings-on of Batavia, New York. Dispatches is actually a more entertaining read than Istanbul, and its politico-economic analysis of a city’s decline is more compelling. Of course, there are vast differences between Istanbul and Batavia. Istanbul is home to more than 13 million people and former capital of a great empire. Batavia is a small town of less than 20,000 in upstate New York. Istanbul has been rapidly growing, while Batavia has been static. But both cities have experienced the loss of aesthetic and “spiritual” treasures that define them – Istanbul with its cobblestone streets buried under asphalt and old mansions burnt down and Batavia with its decimated, “urbanly renewed” Main Street. To no small degree both cities are defined by what they’ve lost, and both writers constantly refer to these losses in explaining the present.

There is something to the idea that the cultural diversity prized by cosmopolitans is wholly dependent upon the continued existence of people like Pamuk and Kauffman: people rooted in the local knowledge and customs of one place.

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This semester I will be teaching a political philosophy course for the first time since graduate school, and have just finalized my syllabus. For all the ethicists and political philosophers out there – what do you consider to be the most underrated works of political philosophy for each period (ancient, modern, contemporary)? To elaborate, I’m essentially asking what you consider to be the best political philosophy in terms of originality and persuasiveness of argument, which one would not expect to find in standard readers.

Not really being a political philosopher, I haven’t read all that widely in the field, but, off the top of my head, here are a few works that I believe are underrated:

Early Modern

  • Immanuel Kant, Philosophy of Right (often overlooked part of Kant’s oeuvre, and admittedly maddeningly poorly argued at times, such as when Kant argues that no matter how terrible the state, it can never do wrong or be justly resisted, but the first few chapters are a succinct deduction of formal principles of liberty from Kant’s general ethical system. You can’t argue with this: “Freedom is Independence of the compulsory Will of another; and in so far as it can co-exist with the Freedom of all according to a universal Law, it is the one sole original, inborn Right belonging to every man in virtue of his Humanity.”)

19th Cent.

Early 20th Cent.

  • Franz Oppenheimer, The State (perhaps more anthropology than political philosophy, but relevant all the same)


UPDATE: I should note that most of these are not in my syllabus for this class, mostly b/c it’s an intro class, and I want students to be acquainted with the well-known classics first. However, I do recommend them to readers who are already familiar with the “big names.”


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I have three improbable book recommendations for weekend reading, and one book I recommend passing on.

The three “ups” I received as gifts, and I must admit I was not hopeful given their rather unpromising titles. I am happy to report I was pleasantly surprised. (A disclaimer: as with every book recommendation I make, I do not claim to agree with everything–or, indeed, with anything–in them, but that is not the point; I recommend them instead because they are provocative, stimulating, and, in my judgment at least, worth the opportunity cost.)

So, here are my three recommendations, in no particular order:

1. John Derbyshire,  We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism (Crown Forum, 2009). A sober, and indeed sobering, analysis of the extent to which our contemporary American politics–including in particular educational policy, immigration policy, foreign policy, and fiscal policy–are informed by a naive, even childish optimism. There is a real world out there, and it is fraught with difficulties and dangers that cannot be overcome by the “vaporous happy talk” that pervades our public discussions. Derbyshire argues that the real world requires the judgment of serious adults who realize that human failings and vices cannot be eradicated but only managed, and he makes the case that this mature seriousness is, or should be, the hallmark of a proper “conservative pessimism.”

2. James Delingpole, Welcome to Obamaland: I Have Seen Your Future and It Doesn’t Work (Regnery, 2009). Delingpole is a British columnist and journalist for the Telegraph of London, and has been one of the leaders exploring the ramifications of “Climategate” (a term I believe he coined). The thesis of this book is that the ascendance of Barack Obama in the United States is an eerily similar replay of the earlier ascendance of Tony Blair in the the U.K. Since, as Delingpole argues, Tony Blair’s effect was baleful, he warns of similar baleful consequences in America under Obama. It is a provocative and intriguing thesis. Delingpole writes, moreover, with an uncommon wit, and with a verve and confidence that somehow manages to avoid being off-putting. (This last is quite surprising for a book with chapter titles like “Barbecue the Polar Bears” and with another chapter arguing on behalf of traditional English fox hunting in seductive, even erotic, terms.)

3. Harry Stein, “I Can’t Believe I’m Sitting Next to a Republican”: A Survival Guide for Conservatives Marooned Among the Angry, Smug, and Terminally Self-Righteous (Encounter, 2009). Stein is a conservative journalist and writer who has lived and worked in and around New York City for decades, and he has suffered his share of lost friends when they discovered his politics. The book recounts story after story, both in his own life and in others’, of discrimination, bigotry, social ostracism, character assassination, and even downright nastiness at the hands of the left-of-center majority in this part of the world. As its title suggests, the book is written with humor and many of the stories told are downright comical. Yet as someone who has experienced his own share of unpleasantness because of his politics–as a non-left-wing humanities academic who lives near and works in New York City, I face a double-whammy–I found myself alternately nodding and shaking my head as I read Stein’s book.

The book I cannot recommend is Cass Sunstein’s recent Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide (Oxford, 2009). This is an eminently silly book, evidence, perhaps, that if you write as much as Sunstein does, some of it is bound to be below the mean. The book’s thesis, which is reasonable enough, is that when people of like minds spend their time talking only to one another, they tend to reinforce each other’s beliefs, hardening them and rendering them less willing to engage in charitable consideration of alternative positions. As I say, reasonable enough; but Sunstein’s book is replete with problems. They include: (1) that thesis is not exactly novel (the notion of groupthink has been around quite a while now); (2) he apparently has a hard time finding much groupthink in politics other than in the Bush Administration (a prime target, I admit; but there are many, many others); and (3) the social science studies he cites, which include some polling and “experiments” he himself helped construct, do not approach any dispositive rigor.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Sunstein’s book, however, is that he somehow, incredibly, fails to discuss one of the most talked-about and studied examples of (alleged) groupthink in America today: academia. Sunstein is himself an academic, after all (even if he is now President Obama’s “regulation czar“), so surely he must be aware of the studies showing the political one-sidedness of the professoriate. It is no secret that Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians constitute in many departments in many top colleges and universities only 10% or less of the faculty. (See Dan Klein’s work, for example.) Given those lopsided numbers, this would seem a capital instance to apply and test Sunstein’s hypothesis. Now, perhaps Sunstein thinks the complaints or worries from right-of-center critics and academics are overblown, exaggerated, inconsequential, etc. Fair enough, but then he needs to show that–or at least bring it up! But a book that is ostensibly on the very topic, written by a person in that profession, that nevertheless pretends that the issue does not even exist simply cannot, in my judgment, be taken seriously. Indeed, one might be inclined to suspect that Sunstein’s blindness is a result of exactly the problem his book proposes to address.

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