Summer Books

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.

4 thoughts on “Summer Books

  1. Jim, it’s been years since I’ve read it, but my impression is that Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice makes many of the points Sandel makes, but more carefully. Also Debra Satz’s The Moral Limits of Markets in the same vein. Both may have more going for them than Sandel’s.

  2. James,

    Have you read / considered any works by Wilhelm Roepke? I think particularly of “A Human Economy”? It’s on my summer-reading list.

    Speaking of Fr. Sirico, here’s the discussion of Roepke from Action:

    And Mises:

    and TIC: (by Russell Kirk).

  3. Mark, I agree with you about Walzer’s book, which I think is rightly one of the books people should still read. I also agree with you about Satz’s book, at least as it compares to Sandel’s. If I had to pick one, I’d probably take Walzer’s, but Satz’s is a serious and careful effort. (I think one reason I didn’t mention Satz’s book is because I read it shortly after I read Terry Eagleton’s dreadful Why Marx Was Right, which is anything but serious. It took me a while to recover from reading that book [and trying to wrap my head around the notion that an allegedly respectable press–Yale–would publish something so awful], and it poisoned my impression of everything I read for about a month afterwards.)

    Disgruntled Lawyer, thank you for the suggestion. I have indeed read Roepke; I have even taught A Humane Economy, which I think is perhaps one of the top ten books ever written on political economy. I heartily second your recommendation.

  4. James,

    (Oddly, I think my first attempt at a follow-up seemed to vanish – I hope this isn’t repetitious.) Thank you for the recommendation of Roepke. He will definitely be at the top of my summer reading (along with Nisbett, Weaver, etc.).

    I am curious – what will be the thrust of your book on socialism? That might help me to make more recommendations.

    Oh, and I read the first chapter of this book – – recently. I am not sure of the topic of your book, but I think the chapter is excellent.

    Also, check out my blog, if you have a moment –

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