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.

Read Full Post »

  • 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.

Read Full Post »


  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.

Read Full Post »

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…)

Read Full Post »

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…)

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: