Friday, March 26, 2010

Daniel's Top Ten Books

Several prominent bloggers have been publishing a list of the top ten books that influenced them most. Recently, Greg Ransom at "Taking Hayek Seriously" has produced a similar interesting list of F.A. Hayek's biggest influences (many of which are available for free online). I thought this whole exercise was kind of dumb when people started doing it, but ever since whenever I've thought of a book I've liked I've had a nagging desire to publish a list, so I put most of this together this weekend. I'm still pretty young, and I hope my ideas are still being formed - so I hope this list changes over time. But for now, here it is, in no paritcular order:

1. The End of Laissez Faire, by John Maynard Keynes: I like to tell people that The End of Laissez Faire is a geneaology of Liberalism. Over the years I've been familiarized with tidbits of a lot of political philosophy, but this book pulled them all together for me and showed me the big picture: how the various strains of liberalism are connected, and how many intellectual movements in the late 19th century bastardized liberalism (primarily Marxism and laissez faire fundamentalism).

2. Micromotives and Macrobehavior, by Thomas Schelling: This showed up on a couple bloggers' lists, and I agree. I didn't really get the importance of macroeconomics before this book (which is pretty impressive, since it's not even about macroeconomics proper). Schelling opened my eyes to the pervasiveness of the "fallacy of composition"/"ecological fallacy" in economics. You simply cannot generalize from individual to group behavior.

3. Durable Inequality, by Charles Tilly: Strongly influenced the way I think about inequality and discrimination. I'm eternally grateful to Deirdre Royster (formerly of William & Mary) for introducing me to this book.

4. The Elusive Republic, by Drew McCoy: Shaped my understanding of the founding fathers. Convinced me that (1.) they viewed the world in a completely different way than we do today, (2.) they were not of one mind - there is no position of "the founders" on anything, and often individual founders changed their positions over time, and (3.) the Hamilton-Jefferson dichotomy we always think of today is caricatured almost to the point of uselessness.

5. Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, by Garry Wills: Shaped my understanding of Jefferson and human liberty. It goes line by line through the Declaration of Independence, and discusses the intellectual origins and background of each position taken in the document. It ends up being a history of the revolutionary period, an account of Jefferson's own thought, and an intellectual history of the Scottish Enlightenment all in one volume.

6. The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, by John Maynard Keynes: Doesn't get everything right, but provides the basic framework for how I think about the economy. Keynes made many technical innovations on the classical model, but he also emphasizes the importance of caution and empiricism, as well as common sense in economic policymaking. Easily the greatest economist since Adam Smith. Possibly greater than Adam Smith (if for no other reason than Keynes innovates where Smith synthesizes... although Keynes synthesizes some too).

7. The Origins of Virtue, by Matt Ridley: I learned Dawkins through Ridley. This has powerfully shaped my understanding of evolution and the human condition, particularly as it applies to human social organization. I know evolutionary psychology isn't accepted in all quarters, and I don't take Ridley's arguments hook, line, and sinker. But I do think they are generally good arguments.

8. Marxism: For and Against, by Robert Heilbroner: A big influence on how I think about intellectual movements that I disagree with. Heilbroner demonstrates the right way to dispute a position without villifying the proponent of that position, and how to acknowledge good arguments while maintaining a more foundational disagreement. On top of all that, it simply helped me to understand Marxism better.

9. A Leap in the Dark, by John Ferling, and Washington's Secret War and The Perils of Peace, both by Thomas Fleming: These are all histories of the revolutionary period and aren't notable in and of themselves, but Ferling and Fleming both write about history in a way that has strongly influenced the way I think about history: specifically, they take seriously the fact that historical actors don't know what is going to happen in the future, and that this has an enormous impact on their decision making. It seems simple, but when it gets pointed out to you in specific instances, you realize how often we analyze things with 20/20 hindsight. More historians need to think like this. Ferling highlights this phenomenon more explicitly than Fleming (you can practically derive that thesis from his title - A Leap in the Dark).

10. Underwriting Democracy, by George Soros: Soros, for all the combustibility of his political and financial activities, taught me a lot about how humans think and how that shapes society - specifically, what he calls "reflexivity". It's not a concept original to him, but I think he explains it especially well (I believe Robert Merton has written a lot on it, and Soros specifically cites Kurt Godel and Karl Popper as his influences - he studied under Popper at the London School of Economics). The idea is essentially that markets and society in general tend towards disequilibrium and reorganization because prediction and action can lead to changes in market or social fundamentals that alter what is being predicted or acted upon. You can think of it as Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle applied to society. Others have remarked on it, I learned it first and best from Soros. Soros himself wrote about reflexivity more exlcusively in his 1987 classic, The Alchemy of Finance, which I haven't read. But he does devote a good third of Underwriting Democracy to the theory. Much of the rest of the book is about how he's supported civil society in Eastern Europe.

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