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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “10 good books”

In May 2nd, 2007, column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I offered my list of top ten books for introducing people to sound economics. Just in time for your holiday shopping, you can read my recommendations beneath the fold.

10 good books

Historian Will Durant wrote that scholars “should accept the moral obligation to be intelligible or silent.” Very true. Unfortunately, in today’s highly specialized academy, most scholars write only for each other. The result is an inability among too many of society’s most learned people to express themselves clearly to broad audiences.

For this reason, intelligible and engaging books on economics are especially valuable. As a proportion of the vast number of economics books published, these accessible ones are small — but they do exist. Here’s my list, along with short summaries, of my 10 favorite books that introduce people to economics and to vitally important economic issues. I list these books alphabetically according to their authors’ last names:

  • Todd Buchholz, “New Ideas From Dead Economists” (1989). Exploring the evolution of economic thought from Adam Smith to today, this book makes clear that the best economists were thinkers driven by a passion first to understand and then to improve the real world.
  • Tyler Cowen, “In Praise of Commercial Culture” (1998). No book more vividly uses basic economic reasoning to explain something — art — that seems initially to be largely outside of economics. Reading this book teaches not only how to think like an economist but how better to appreciate the rich commercial culture of which we are all a part.
  • David Friedman, “The Machinery of Freedom” (1973). The most radical of the books on this list, this slim volume uses elementary economic reasoning to explore the most foundational aspects of society, including law and the nature of government. Even if you finish the book unpersuaded by many of Friedman’s policy recommendations, confronting his reasoning will enrich your understanding of reality.
  • Milton and Rose Friedman, “Capitalism and Freedom” (1962). A path-breaking classic book by one of history’s greatest economists, this work shows how straightforward economics can inform specific proposals for changing public policies in ways that promise benefits to ordinary people.
  • James Gwartney and Dwight Lee, “Common Sense Economics” (2005). This book offers a crystal-clear and direct introduction to basic economics — and does so with such impressive depth of understanding that even professional economists will learn a thing or two by reading this fun book.
  • Henry Hazlitt, “Economics In One Lesson” (1947). This book is the classic introduction to economics for the non-economist. Its author is perhaps the finest economic journalist ever to write in English; he understood economics more profoundly than do most Ph.D. economists. And although some small aspects of this book are outdated, the vast bulk of it stands up well today.
  • David Henderson, “The Joy of Freedom” (2001). This book is part autobiography of one of today’s finest economists who specializes in writing for the popular audience, and part tour de force of elementary economics applied to public-policy issues.
  • Steven Landsburg, “Fair Play” (1997). Fast-paced and sparkling prose join with razor-sharp logic to make this book — at least for me — un-put-downable. Using not only brilliant economics but also classical-liberal political philosophy, Landsburg compellingly demonstrates that the same rules of behavior that we expect our children to follow are the ones that we should (but, alas, don’t) expect government officials to follow.
  • Russell Roberts, “The Choice” (third edition, 2007). Formally a ghost story (!), no book explains the nature and great benefits of free trade — and the nature and awful costs of protectionism — more beautifully than does “The Choice.” And it’s such a concise and smoothly written little volume that you can read it in one sitting.
  • Russell Roberts, “The Invisible Heart” (2001). I buy this book by the case and give a copy to anyone and everyone I encounter who is interested in learning more about the economic way of thinking. As with Roberts’ other book, “The Choice,” this book is formally a work of fiction. Also as with his earlier book, Roberts here uses dialogue between different characters in the book to teach economics to his readers. Unlike the earlier book, however, “The Invisible Heart” ranges beyond trade to discuss environmental questions, the economics of work and labor unions, the dangers of legislating morality, and many other issues that are never far from the headlines.

Each of the above books not only teaches economics and teaches it well, each also conveys the morality of markets. As Roberts has the main character in “The Invisible Heart” say:

“Capitalism makes us rich. …. But that’s not why I love it. The marketplace, unfettered by government regulation but fettered by competition, gives each of us a chance to transform the world in the way we wish.”