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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Read these books!”

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In my column for the July 9th, 2008, edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, I recommended some good books [2]. You can read my recommendations, with a link added and typos corrected, beneath the fold.

Read these books!

I recently wrote of the role that ideas play [3] in forming an economy’s character. The ideas I speak of aren’t chiefly formal economic ones. My mother, for example, knew nothing about economics, but her deeply held idea that private property is sacred led her to act in ways — and to teach her children to act in ways — that promote enterprise and economic growth.

Most ideas come from parents. And whether you applaud or condemn this fact, any attempt to change it is a recipe for tyranny. But in all modern societies there is always some scope for a portion of people’s ideas to be conveyed from the larger world — especially from the popular media.

Books, of course, are one of the most familiar devices for delivering such ideas. Not surprisingly, my being a wooly-headed academic means that I’ve absorbed (for better or worse) more than my share of ideas from books.

And although the most vital ideas that I tote around in my brain remain ones that my parents taught me, I share here a list of those books that have had the biggest impact on my view of the world. I list them in order of increasing importance:

• Ira Levin, “This Perfect Day” (1970). This novel portrays vividly the horrors of a collectivist tyranny. It’s in the same genre as the more famous “1984” and “Animal Farm” by George Orwell and “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley. Each of these books is, deservedly, widely hailed. But Levin’s book, although less well known, is the best of this bunch.

• Paul Heyne [and Peter Boettke and David Prychitko], “The Economic Way of Thinking” (11th edition, 2005). Too many economics books are dry as bleached bones. Not this one. It is an eloquently written introduction to economics by a learned and talented scholar who, before his untimely death in 2000, was one of my profession’s most celebrated classroom teachers.

• James Buchanan, “What Should Economists Do?” (1979). This collection of very readable essays by the 1986 Nobel laureate economist (and my colleague at George Mason University) makes clear that the best economists are not technicians but philosophers with a keen and creative sense of reality.

Buchanan also demonstrates that real scholarship does not involve making hard and fast assertions but, rather, involves being part of an ongoing intellectual discussion among people with open minds. (One line in particular from this book struck me like a thunderbolt when I first read it: “Man wants freedom to become the man he wants to become” — rather than wanting freedom to fulfill someone else’s preconceived notion of what the outcomes of a free society should look like.)

• Harold Berman, “Law and Revolution” (1983). A massive history of medieval European law, this book makes clear that competition for sovereign power — for example, competition between church and state — promotes freedom. It also shows beyond doubt that most law, and the best law, is not [a set of] rules dreamed up by leaders or councils but emerges from expectations that develop over time and embed themselves in the minds of ordinary people.

• Geoffrey Brennan & Loren Lomasky, “Democracy and Decision” (1993). Want to know why the same person who rationally and wisely chooses a career or which car to buy often is an irrational buffoon in the voting booth? Read this book.

• Joseph Schumpeter, “Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy” (1942). This is one of the most important books ever written by an economist. The second part of this book is especially noteworthy; in it, Schumpeter explains that the essence of capitalism is “creative destruction” — by which he meant the constant, innovative substitution of newer goods, services and production processes for older ones.

• Henry Hazlitt, “The Foundations of Morality” (1964). This book offers an impressively levelheaded discussion of ethics. One of Hazlitt’s most important conclusions (as I read him) is that natural rights are real but they’re not divinely ordained. They are those rights that, given human nature, best promote human cooperation.

• Frederic Bastiat, “Economic Sophisms” (mid-19th century). Bastiat is history’s finest popularizer of economics. His wit and eloquence bring economics unforgettably to life.

• Richard Dawkins, “The Blind Watchmaker” (1987). This book beautifully explains the logic of natural selection — a logic at the heart of economics.

• F.A. Hayek, “Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Volume 1 (‘Rules and Order’)” (1973). In less than 200 learned pages, this greatest of all 20th-century social scientists explains that civilization and prosperity require people to follow rules that they don’t understand and that, far from being designed by great lawmakers, evolved through practice over generations.