Books and Those That Recommend Them

Volokh Consipracy
Ilya Somin – Books I Would Recommend to those Who Disagree With Me

Megan McArdle and Tony Woodlief give their answers to an interesting question: What three books would you recommend to a thoughtful person who disagrees with you politically, in the hopes that reading them will change their mind?

My recommendations would depend a lot on whether the person in question disagrees with me from the right or from the left, and also on the extent of their previous knowledge of social science. Let’s assume, however, that the person is well to the left of me, and that they are an intelligent layperson rather than a scholar or public policy professional. In that case, I would probably pick Thomas Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions – an excellent summary of the reasons why private sector institutions generally process information and make decisions better than government; William Mitchell and Randy Simmons’ Beyond Politics: Markets, Welfare, and the Failure of Bureaucracy — a good, accessible exposition of the economic shortcomings of government relative to markets; and Richard Epstein’s Simple Rules for a Complex World, which explains how simple, libertarian legal systems are likely to work better than complex ones with more statism and regulation. The biggest area of disagreement between libertarians and liberals is over the role of government in controlling the economy. These three books focus on that issue. I have also picked books that try to persuade by analysis and evidence rather than emotional appeals — even though I have to admit that the latter are often more effective.

There is much less in the way of libertarian literature specifically directed at persuading conservatives. However, F.A. Hayek’s classic essay “Why I am Not a Conservative” is surely relevant for reasons I elaborated here.

Volokh – Todd Zywicki – My Top 10 Most Influential Books:

I love lists and I love books, so how can I not chime in with my Top 10 most influential books:

1. F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Volume 1, “Rules and Order”: The most thorough development of the idea of spontaneous order, which in my view is the single most important idea in social science reasoning.

2. Thomas Sowell, “A Conflict of Visions”: It shows the underlying fault lines that divide the way people see the world. Also has been important to me as a professor to understand that not all my students nor many academic colleagues share my “constrained” vision (law & economics) of the world, so to be an effective teacher I have to appreciate the unconstrained vision as well. Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (which I read about the same time as Sowell), makes similar points in a different style.

3. Matt Ridley, “The Origins of Virtue” and “the Red Queen”: Ridley’s accessible introductions to evolutionary psychology (sexual selection and the evolution of cooperation, respectively) fundamentally changed the way I think about the world. Also Frans de Waal, “Good Natured” on the evolution of empathy and cooperation.

4. Pope Benedict XVI: Spe Salvi. The meaning of life revealed. CS Lewis, “Surprised by Joy” and Whittaker Chambers “Witness” were also influential in a more personal way.

5. Charles Murray, “Losing Ground”: Good intentions do not make good consequences. And my first exposure to the use of data and statistics to explore the actual consequences of social policies. Walter Williams, “The State Against Blacks” was another early book that influenced me in this vein.

6. William Manchester, “The Last Lion”: How one man changed the shape of history. I know a lot of libertarians don’t like Churchill. I think he saved the free world.

7. Ayn Rand, “The Fountainhead”: I read them all in college and they inspired me at the time and I remember reading The Fountainhead first. After the obligatory stage of being completely insufferable about Rand’s books I still appreciate their inspirational value today even if I don’t agree with her full philosophy (see, e.g., entry 4 above). Now I’m just insufferable about different things. Rand was also important to me because back in those days it was fashionable to espouse the view that Communism was “great in theory but just couldn’t work in practice.” Rand (along with Hayek’s Road to Serfdom) helped me toward an understanding of why Communism was evil in theory as well.

8. Rosenberg & Birdzell, “How the West Grew Rich”: My first introduction to the institutional foundations of freedom and prosperity and still one of the most useful. Also, Michael Novak, “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism,” which was the first place that I came across the idea of thinking of the foundations of a free and prosperous country as a three-legged stool of sound economic policies, sound constitutional and political institutions, and the importance of a health civil society and mediating institutions.

9. Mancur Olson, “A Theory of Collective Action”: Explains basic dynamics of public choice theory. I’d certainly put Gordon Tullock, “The Welfare Costs of Tariffs, Monopoly, and Theft” here, but since this is a book list and that’s an article, I’ll have to list Olson. I note, however, in my opinion Olson’s book is so poorly written it is virtually unreadable. Luckily, the central insight is pretty simple to grasp. I’d also put The Federalist Papers and Buchanan & Tullock, “The Calculus of Consent” as influencing the way I think about Constitutions (in response to the Olson and Tullock dilemmas). I think of Burke’s “Reflections” and Joseph de Maistre, “Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions” as the response to the Buchanan & Tullock model of constitutions as the product of reasoned precommitment.

10. Shelby Steele, “White Guilt”: Despite the seemingly-narrow title, this is actually a book about the decline of the legitimacy of the traditional establishment in the United States and the institutional and moral vacuum that has resulted. The lessons of the book are applicable to virtually every traditional establishment institution in America, from politics, to corporations, to elite universities, to the mainline Protestant churches. The real questions that the book leaves hanging is “What comes next?” and what, if anything, will fill the void. Will the future bring increasing chaos and increasing fragmentation, order imposed by and for the benefit of a cynical and self-interested elite, or some beneficent new form of order and establishment?

11. And while this is really intended to be a 10 entry list, I would be remiss to not add at least a few law books. The first is Richard Posner, Economic Analysis of Law. The second is Thomas Jackson, The Logic and Limits of Bankruptcy, which is the standard work on the law and economics approach to bankruptcy. These two books are basically the bookends of my legal academic research program, so I would be greatly remiss to not include them.

For what it is worth, of the list above, the only ones that I actually was assigned to read in college were Burke, de Maistre, and one or two of the Federalist Papers. And that was because I happened to have one unusual professor, now retired, who was a true conservative. All of the others I had to find on my own, originally through the Foundation for Economic Education and later through the Institute for Humane Studies.

Bonus Entries:

Although these books are not influential in the same way as above, I give you a few more influential books for paticular purposes:


George Will, “Men at Work”: a great look at the inside game of baseball.

Michael Lewis, “Moneyball”: Another great look inside baseball.

David Maraniss, “When Pride Still Mattered”: A book about a lot of things, including American society in the 50’s, but also just a great football book that explains why Lombardi was such a pivotal figure in the history of football. In a nutshell, Maraniss argues that pre-Lombardi pro football was basically the same as college. But Lombardi’s insight was that because NFL teams could stay together for many years, their strategies and tactics could be much more complicated than college. That tradition continues down to today, as the intellectual sophistication of pro football today is really quite extraordinary.

Music: Will Friedwald, “The Song is You”: A great book about the artistry of Frank Sinatra as well as implicitly about the rise of the Great American Songbook.

Literature: without slighting any of the obvious choices, an often-overlooked gem to me is Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove.” A marvelous story about friendship among men. Also, Thomas Wolfe, “Radical Chic” was a hilarious and thought-provoking read long ago.

Update: Apologies for the initial typo in the Holy Father’s Roman numeral which has been corrected.

Update 2: I’m chastened by a note from Aeon Skoble that I somehow forgot to add Harold Berman’s fantastic “Law and Revolution” to my list. Not sure what I’d bump, but it has to go on there somewhere!

Volokh – Orin Kerr – My Top 5 Influential Books

Ok, if Ilya and Todd are going to list the top books that most influenced them, I may as well, too. Here’s my “top 5″ list, in the order that I read them and with the approximate date(s) in which I read them:

1) Arnold Lobel, Adventures of Frog and Toad (read in 1978). Frog and Toad taught me a lot about the values of hard work and friendship.

2) Princeton University, Class of 1993 Freshman Herald (read 1989–1993). I think I spent more time reading and re-reading this 1989 classic (known colloquially as “the facebook”) than any other book, like, ever. Among other things, it taught me the value of a good picture.

3) E.J. Dionne, Why Americans Hate Politics (read in 1993). I often disagree with Dionne, but I found this book invaluable when I decided to get out of the engineering building and to try to understand major American political movements. I had never really though much about conservatism, as I had considered myself left-of-center in college (in the generally unthinking way commonly found on college campuses). Dionne helped me think through my own views more clearly; it ended up as a significant influence on my shift towards the right.

4) F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (read in 1994). The best articulation of the benefits of limited government out there, I think. I started off pretty skeptical about Hayek’s case, but he won me over by force of reason. Very influential. (In contrast to Todd, I found Hayek’s Law Legislation & Liberty Vol. 1 quite disappointing.)

5) Alexander Bickel, The Least Dangerous Branch (read in 1996). A classic on the role of the courts and the benefits of cautious constitutional decisionmaking. (To be fair, I’m not sure how much it really influenced me, as I recall being drawn to those arguments in law school before reading Bickel the summer after my 2L year. But I figured I should probably add something legal to the list, and TLDB is good stuff.)

Volokh – David Bernstein – More Influential Books

Caveat: These are among the books that most influenced me in one way or another, even if they are not necessarily the best books I have read.

Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom I didn’t think the book had influenced me much when I read it, but I’ve been amazed how often Friedman’s insights have helped form my own ideas.

Walter Williams, The State Against Blacks Not a great book, but it helped get me interested in the ways that government regulation has impeded the prospects of minority groups, a major theme of my academic research. Even more influential and helpful were several articles by economist Jennifer Roback (Morse), but we’re limited to books.

George Orwell, 1984 I read this book in seventh grade and wrote a book report on it. I still remember some of the scenes, so it must have influenced me. Animal Farm is up there, too (“Four legs good, two legs bad!” “I will work harder!”)

Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness I much prefer Rand the polemicist essayist to Rand the polemicist novelist. This book contains the classic essays “Man’s Rights” and “Racism.” Rand was, in my opinion, generally much more powerful and insightful in critiquing the other side than in advocating for “Objectivism.” Consider this bit of wisdom from NPR’s Bob Edwards in 2003:

Ant colonies are often held up as the epitome of a harmonious cooperative society. Thousands of worker ants live together, happily accepting their lots as diggers, nannies or garbage men. Anything they do is for the good of the group, but it does sound a bit too good to be true.

Rand understood the evil inherent in such sentiments.

Mordecai Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization Even though most American Jews have never heard of him, Kaplan was easily the most influential American rabbi of the 20th century. 40% or more of American Jews more or less adhere to Kaplan’s philosophy, even though they couldn’t identify it as his. This book is his magnum opus, although it’s rather dated now. It nevertheless explains how an agnostic bordering on atheist like me could still be committed to being part of the 3,500 year old Jewish civilization.

Whitaker Chambers, Witness; Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind; James Burnham, Suicide of the West I read these three books one Spring Break, on the recommendation of National Review, which touted them as the three basic texts of post-WWII conservatism. I found Chambers bizarre, mystical, and impenetrable, Kirk amazingly turgid and boring, and Burnham simplistic and racist. I ceased calling myself a conservative, and began wondering whether modern American conservatism had any core intellectual basis beyond what it inherited from classical liberalism and modern free market economics.

Anonymous, Title Withheld This extravagantly praised book was written by a left-wing professor teaching at one of the top law schools in the country. I read it many years ago. It was terrible, so terrible it was often funny, and I mean laugh out loud funny (I did, in fact, laugh out loud several times), but it was also exquisitely politically correct. I learned from this book that legal academia was only partially a meritocracy, with a lot of ideology and politics thrown in, and that I should therefore not take any future career slights as necessarily reflecting a meritocratic judgment on the value of my academic work. But I’m not going to pick a fight with the author and the author’s admirers by naming the book or the author.

Peter Huber, Galileo’s Revenge I was the research assistant for this book, an experience which sparked my interest in expert testimony, a significant focus of my academic work. Peter is one of the smartest people on the planet, and I learned a lot from working with him. I tried to emulate his style in my book, “You Can’t Say That!”.

Bernard Siegan, Economic Liberties and the Constitution An amazing book vigorously defending Lochner and other liberty of contract cases, after four decades in which it was nearly impossible to find even a mild defense of these cases. I read this book just before I started law school, and I’m sure it influenced me to revisit the Lochner line of cases, which I’ve been doing ever since.

Paul Fussell, Wartime American soldiers had no idea what they were fighting for in WWII, except to protect themselves and their buddies. It’s a bit much to expect wartime commanders to be sensitive to civilian casualties on the other side, or more generally (as with the American military’s (non)-reaction to the Holocaust) when they are sending thousands of their own men to their death. These and other insights about war.

Solomon Grayzel, A History of the Jews I really hated the yeshiva high school I attended, and I especially hated most of my Jewish studies classes. But I loved taking Jewish history with Rabbi Raymond Harrari, who fortunately let the history speak for itself, even if it conflicted with Orthodox theology (Chanukah, for example, was not known to involve the miracle of the temple lights until the fourth century, hundreds of years after the holiday originated!) Now that was interesting; learning the laws of sacrifice in Leviticus, which we spent an entire year on in Torah, was not. I’d probably be a Buddhist or something now but for this class. Grayzel was the text we used, and it introduced me to, among other things, a woman Jewish warrior who led a multi-religious coalition against Muslim invaders in 8th century Africa. I’ve loved Jewish history ever since.

Matt Ridley, The Origin of Virtue and Helen Fischer, Anatomy of Love My two introductions to evolutionary psychology. I haven’t looked at the world the same way since.

Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative I picked this up at a used book sale for five cents when I was in eighth grade. Until then, my exposure to politics was largely confined to reading the New York Times daily. I found that Goldwater made more sense to me than did Anthony Lewis. (And it was only years later that I found out that Russell Baker was a “humorist.”)

Amnon Rubinstein, The Zionist Dream Revisited I read it in the mid-80s, and it transformed my views on the Arab-Israeli conflict from right-wing to moderate left (on the spectrum of pro-Israel, Zionist opinion), where they’ve stayed ever since.

Thomas Sowell, Markets and Minorities et al. This book contained a lot of information that was, to say the least, contrary to the conventional wisdom in college and law school. It also helped spark my interest in the history of minority communities in the U.S.

Little Green Footballs
The Black Book of Communism

megan mcardle

15 Oct 2009 03:31 pm
Tony Woodlief asks what three books you would recommend if you wanted to change the mind of someone who disagreed with you? Off the top of my head, I nominate Parliament of Whores, The Elusive Quest for Growth, and Government’s End. Readers, liberal, libertarian, and conservative, are invited to submit their thoughts.

Tony Woodlief

I recommend Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, Bastiat’s The Law, and Sowell’s Conflict of Visions.

LECTRONICS BLEG UPDATE: My earlier posting of a reader request for books educating children in elementary electronics generated a lot of email. Here’s my distillation.

Reader George Coulouris recommends Forrest Mims’ Getting Started In Electronics. He also recommends the hydraulic analogy, which I was taught. Lots of readers recommended Mims.

Reader Andy Linnenkohl recommends Paul Horowitz’s The Art of Electronics, commenting: “It just doesn’t get any better than this. As a working engineer in the semiconductor industry I can testify to the fact that not a single engineer I work with does not have a very worn out copy of this book sitting somewhere on his desk. For the working professional it is their college education in one place. At the same time Horowitz and Hill have written a very readable, approachable treatment that is reasonable (I avoid the word “light” for fear of being drummed out of IEEE) on the math and more focuses on concepts at a elementary, logical and rational level. A parent and child could supplement any electronics learning with brief pulls from TAOE and would find the content to meet the learning needs without being too difficult to comprehend.”

Several readers recommend Usborne Electricity, and there’s also the Usborne Introduction to Electronics.

Snap Circuits also, as reader Wayne Padgett notes, come in a Student Training version that includes much more explanatory documentation. There’s even one for the advanced 750 model.

So there you are! I still wish someone would bring back Elementary Electronics, though.

Posted at 8:41 am by Glenn Reynolds

Interesting Debaters on Intelligence Squared

Nouriel Roubini

Niall Ferguson

Thomas Sowell

Full List with Comments
The Americans by Daniel Boorstin
Basic Economics by Thomas Sowel
Black Rednecks and White Liberals by Thomas Sowell
Choosing the Right College by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute
City Economics by Brendan O’Flaherty
Conservative Comebacks to Liberal Lies by Gregory Jackson
Equality, Delusion, and the Third World by Peter Bauer
FDR’s Folly by Jim Powell
The Federalist by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay
The Gathering Storm by Winston Churchill
History of the American People by Paul Johnson
Life at the Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple
Mexifornia by Victor Davis Hanson
Modern Times by Paul Johnson
The Rise of the West by William H. McNeill
They Made America by Harold Evans
Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind by Lawrence E. Harrison
What Went Wrong by Bernard Lewis


Volokh Conspiracy, Books I Would Recommend to those Who Disagree With Me, Ilya Somin • October 25, 2009 3:06 am


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