What I’ve Been Reading

The following is a short list of some of the non-technical books I have been reading over the past few months:

The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Adam Smith): A classic of classical liberal philosophy

The Man and the Statesman (Frederic Bastiat): The collected correspondence and several articles by the noted French economist and statesman

The Firm, the Market, and the Law (Ronald Coase): A collection of the famous essays and notes/responses by Coase on their receptions and interpretations

The Calculus of Consent (James Buchanan & Gordon Tullock): The foundations of public choice theory

Human Action (Ludwig von Mises): A classic work on economics and human interaction

Free Market Environmentalism (Donald Leal and Terry Anderson): Exploring environmental issues through the eyes of price theory

Governing the Commons (Elinor Ostrom): How people come together to solve commons problems

Order without Law (Robert Ellickson): A similar story to Ostrom: how people come together to deal with externalities without the state

De Officiis (Cicero, translated by Benjamin Newton): a classic of moral philosophy

 

12 thoughts on “What I’ve Been Reading

  1. Wow! You’ve been a busy boy! How do you have time to go to school and write a blog? 🙂

    Coincidently, “Free Market Environmentalism” just arrived in my mailbox last week. I haven’t started it.

    My reading list now contains 25 physical books to read, (they are piled on my desk) and 400 e books and articles on my tablet, most of which I haven’t yet read. The good news is that I will have to live to be 95 years old to finish reading them all.

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  2. Jon,

    That’s an impressive reading list and it all looks like worthwhile material. There is only one problem with it. It’s all stuff you already agree with. You will learn more by mixing in some of the best arguments for what you disagree with.

    You rarely get the best version of any argument from the people who disagree with that argument. There is no better preparation for opposing arguments you disagree with than deeply understanding those arguments. There is no better way to get someone to really listen to and consider your argument than to show them you have heard and understood theirs.

    When people think you have misunderstood their arguments they have already tuned you out whether they are right or wrong about that. Milton Friedman understood this. The reason he was such a devastatingly effective debater is that he always started by establishing some common understanding with the other side.

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    • Greg

      You are right about understanding opposing arguments I’ve learned some things from you in that regard.

      You’re also right about Friedman. The following clip from a a Q&A session on Equal Pay is priceless.

      Perhaps you could recommend some reading on positions in opposition to my own. That should be easy, but I will rely on you to select only serious arguments.

      If you don’t mind, that is.

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    • Greg

      BTW I sometimes find that I can’t articulate an argument clearly, although I’m convinced of the arguments validity. In those cases reading something I agree with has often provided me with the clarity of language I wish I had naturally. Huemer is one of those sources.

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      • Ron,

        Yeah, those are all fair points and that is a classic Friedman exchange. The only one I like better is the one he had with Westmoreland on the draft.

        I’m having trouble deciding on what to recommend. I was afraid you or Jon would ask that question.

        Libertarians are more prone to grand treatises. I always want to argue for a pluralistic point of view, There are lots of values that we do care about and should care about and these often conflict with each other creating difficult judgment calls. I understand the libertarian urge for one grand principle that will always cut the Gordian Knot in tough cases but I think that urge is fundamentally mistaken. It would be nice if such a thing existed but I don’t think it does. I think the NAP is a fine place to start but I don’t see it doing all the work you ask of it.

        The best thing I have read lately is “The Retreat of Western Liberalism” by Ed Luce. I’m a big Tyler Cowen fan. He identifies as a libertarian I think but he is much more centrist and mainstream than anyone else in GMU Economics. He gets away with it because he is clearly so much smarter than everyone else. He is a brilliant thinker and an amazing polymath but not a great writer. His Bloomberg columns are better than his books. And they have the advantage of being shorter.

        I love Minsky’s theory of the business cycle. Even though he is a species of Keynesian his theory has a lot in common with the Austrians. Both see ill advised credit bubbles as fueling boom and bust cycles. He provides the convincing micro explanation that Keynes didn’t. It is rooted in human psychology. Stability is destabilizing because it tends to reward risky finance. Those who succeed for a time with risky finance get copied until it blows up. You don’t need government action to make this happen although the wrong kind of government action can make things worse. Minsky’s business cycle theory can stand alone from his policy advise which isn’t worth your time.

        I take something of a Rawlsian position but even though he was an important thinker he wasn’t a very good writer. Read something about him by a popularizer rather than the original. I don’t think anyone needs to be embarrassed to read popularizers. Many of the best original thinkers weren’t very good writers and a lot of excellent writers have few original ideas.

        I’m a bit too heterodox to feel good about recommending someone else to represent my views. Do read the Luce book. It is short and very good and I agree with almost everything in it.

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        • Greg
          I understand the libertarian urge for one grand principle that will always cut the Gordian Knot in tough cases but I think that urge is fundamentally mistaken. It would be nice if such a thing existed but I don’t think it does.

          I’m pretty sure no such “grand unified principle” exists. There are always going to be exceptions at the extremes that will have to dealt with and judgements made at that time. What I think we do have as a good first principle is natural rights. I believe we are all sovereign individuals with an inalienable right of self ownership which includes negative rights to not be killed, to not be confined or restrained, and the right to one’s just and rightful property. You may prefer the term “self determination”, but I would consider them interchangeable.

          I think the NAP is a fine place to start but I don’t see it doing all the work you ask of it.

          I wouldn’t start with the NAP, but would consider it a great guide for personal behavior IF an individual wishes to live peacefully with other human beings. Otherwise, of course, it has no practical use. Crusoe by himself had no need for the NAP, but when Friday arrived he had to decide whether to cooperate with him for mutual benefit, or kill him on the spot. As I believe most people would, he chose the former.
          I’m already a Tyler Cowen fan, and I will check out Lusk and give Minsky another look. Thanks for the pointers.

          I looked briefly at Minsky previously when you mentioned him, and remember thinking something was missing. I’ll look harder.

          Stability is destabilizing because it tends to reward risky finance. Those who succeed for a time with risky finance get copied until it blows up.

          I agree that this is understandable human behavior, but no matter how much risk people wish to take they are constrained by the availability of investment capital, which in the US economy is pretty much controlled by the Fed. A free market in money and credit would reduce the opportunities to overextend as savers and borrowers would balance supply and demand between them.

          You don’t need government action to make this happen although the wrong kind of government action can make things worse.

          That’s for sure. I see no possibility of positive government actions.

          I take something of a Rawlsian position but even though he was an important thinker he wasn’t a very good writer. Read something about him by a popularizer rather than the original.

          I have disagreements with Rawls, but I will for sure check out the Luse. Thanks.

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          • Ron,

            You always want to use language that says people “do have” what you describe as Natural Rights. Do you actually believe that these rights have some real existence as Platonic forms independent of actual persons or are you just using “do have” as a shorthand for “ought to have” even when we all know that people are in reality often denied these rights?

            >—-“…no matter how much risk people wish to take they are constrained by the availability of investment capital, which in the US economy is pretty much controlled by the Fed.”

            You are vastly underestimating the ability that private markets always have had to expand the money supply with private lending during investment manias. There was no central government bank expanding the money supply during the Dutch Tulip Bubble. That was one of the biggest investment bubbles of all time (maybe the biggest) in terms of the irrationality of the valuations.

            Every act of private lending also expands the money supply and the availability of investment capital. The only limit on this is the psychological ability of people to believe they will be paid back by borrowers. This limit is finite but sometimes astonishingly expansive.

            It was a vast expansion of private credit in the Shadow Banking System that provided most of the investment funds that fueled the housing bubble. The Shadow Banking System is a generic term that refers to mostly unregulated or very lightly regulated forms of private lending. No one had a good understanding of the amounts involved at the time. When Milton Friedman died at the peak of the Housing Bubble he had no inkling we were in a credit bubble and he had about as good an understanding of the money supply as anybody.

            The reason we didn’t see the kind of inflation the Austrians expected in the wake of the spectacular post -recession expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet is that the Fed was just replacing money that had been destroyed in the Shadow Banking System, not really expanding the amount of money in circulation.

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          • Ron,

            I have some disagreements with Rawls too. His theory has the same weakness as all Social Contract Theories. It presumes there would be an unrealistic level of agreement if people were all in equal circumstances with equal knowledge. In reality people vary quite spectacularly in their risk tolerance.

            Rawls’ central insight is that those most opposed to some kind of mandatory social safety net insurance can almost always be observed to be those who already know they have fared quite well in the lottery of birth circumstances and luck compared to the average human. if people had to choose their public policy preferences before they knew anything about their life circumstances, policy preferences would tend to converge a lot more than they do now.

            Rawls does understand that incentives for hard work and initiative make everyone better off, not just the talented and hard working.

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          • Ron,

            I just started reading something today that I am very confident you would like. It’s titled “Right-Wing Collectivism” by Jeffrey Tucker. It’s not anything you or I will disagree with but it does have that great virtue you mentioned of making the argument in a more skillful way than either of us could.

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  3. Greg G-

    Your point is well received. A few things I’d just like to say in my defense:

    1) These are the non-technical books, which I figured would be of most interest to my readers. The more technical books (eg, Paul Samuelson, JM Keynes, AC Pigou, and others that I am reading for my classes) would bore most non-economists, so I left them off the list.

    2) Over winter break, I will be reading some more pop-econ books once my time is my own. Among these include Dani Rodrik’s “Straight Talk on Trade.”

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