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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

5 Great Books on Politics and Public Policy from 2016

A lot of great books on politics, economics, and public policy were published over the last year.

A lot of interesting books on politics, economics, and public policy were published over the last twelve months. It can be difficult, though, finding the gems among the extremely large number of books about public affairs that hit bookstore (and Amazon warehouse) shelves each year. For every volume as eagerly anticipated as Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Equality, engaged readers must sift past a dozen volumes of hot-take pop commentary like Thomas Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late. That said, here are a few new titles that caught our attention at CEI in 2016.

The Intimidation Game: How the Left Is Silencing Free Speech by Kimberley Strassel. Reviewed this week by Fred L. Smith, Jr. for the Claremont Review of Books:

Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel has written an insightful, important book on the Left’s efforts to drive market-friendly voices from the public square. A skilled investigative journalist, Strassel documents the extensive efforts to suppress political opposition, intimidate dissidents, and weaken the First Amendment.

Strassel notes that attacks on speech—and defenders of it—have come from both parties. She traces the history of campaign “reform” initiatives, accompanying court challenges, and bipartisan support for “transparency” and “accountability.” Readers will gain clarity, but little comfort, from her chronicle of culture and politics conspiring to weaken free speech.

Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future by Johan Norberg, summarized here by Ryan Young:

Norberg is a Swedish economist and political commentator who has hosted documentaries for the BBC and other outlets. His latest book updates CEI hero Julian Simon’s work showing why the world is getting better, not worse. And he does so in a friendly, easy-to-read style. Norberg remains pessimistic about a scare-obsessed media’s ability to accurately report on the human condition. But the facts on the ground give him no choice but to be optimistic about humanity’s future, from declining disease rates to rising life expectancies to mass prosperity finally reaching the developing world. Pairs well with any of Julian Simon’s work, as well as Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction by Lawrence W. Reed. Reviewed by Kent Lassman here at Open Market in October:

About a dozen years ago, I developed a habit of asking the same question when I interviewed someone for a job. Typically, about two-thirds of the way through the allotted time, I ask a candidate if he or she has a hero.

The specific answers have never mattered as much the humanity expressed through the answer. If you have a hero, I am willing to bet you have a strong connection to that person. The non-traditional interview question seeks to understand the humanity and passion of the candidate. It also clearly signals that I’m not interested in hiring just a set of skills or a resume, I need to hire a person with a real beating heart, who has lived and thought about life. Try it sometime – you’ll find that it is not a question where it is easy to fake the answer.

As a result, I was delighted to find an early copy of a new book that serves as primer on what it takes to make a hero.

With Real Heroes, his latest book for the Foundation for Economic Education, Lawrence W. Reed brings to life dozens of stories where high character animates courage and triumph. Reed has mastered the maxim that people think analytically but learn analogically. He carefully makes the case that we need real heroes and they can be found all around, if we are willing to see them.

Rivalry and Central Planning by Don Lavoie. Summarized here by Ryan Young:

Lavoie played a major role in building up George Mason University’s economics department before he passed away in 2001. The Mercatus Center’s new reissue of his 1985 book, originally published at the height of the Cold War, remains relevant to today’s debate between spontaneous orders versus central planning; some old debates never die. Mercatus also recently reissued Lavoie’s National Economic Planning: What Is Left?, which focuses on similar themes.

And by way of honorable mention, I also include my own review, for Cato Journal, of Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests by Jason Brennan and Peter M. Jaworski. The book was originally released in 2015, but the review was published this year:

The authors do a good job of separating incidental objections from the fundamental moral questions at the heart of the anticommodification debate. In a section titled “Business Ethics vs. What Can Be for Sale,” we are asked to consider objections to a couple of scenarios. Some critics of the fast food chain Chick-fil-A, for example, object to the company’s political opposition to marriage equality. Other critics have been appalled at reports of abusive working conditions at facilities operated by Apple’s Chinese contractor FoxConn. If we deem these companies’ products to be worthy of a boycott, that would represent a kind of limit on the market for chicken and smartphones, but not the kind of limit that concerns the authors.

Their primary question is whether there are things that categorically cannot be legitimately bought and sold. They are not concerned, in this book at least, with the objectionable actions or business practices of particular companies. To date, the anti-market critics have not yet argued that chicken sandwiches and iPhones are inherently immoral items to sell.

That distinction, along with the understanding that Brennan and Jaworski are not necessarily arguing for unregulated markets, sets the stage for considering the anti-commodification theorists’ real objections. And while ultimately they conclude that all of those objections can be answered and refuted, they do take them seriously. For example, Brennan and Jaworski engage in fascinating discussions on whether public betting on the likelihood of future terrorist attacks should be legal, as well as on more well-trod debate topics like legalizing sex work and the moral status of surrogate motherhood.

Republished from CEI.

  • Richard Morrison is the Senior Editor at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.