If only these people would read…

“Though a man’s conviction that all he achieves is due solely to his exertions, skill, and intelligence may be largely false, it is apt to have the most beneficial effects on his energy and circumspection. And if the smug pride of the successful is often intolerable and offensive, the belief that success depends wholly on him is probably the pragmatictically most effective incentive to successful action; whereas the more a man indulges in the propensity to blame others or circumstances for his failures, the more disgruntled and ineffective he tends to become.”  (Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty)

The maddening thing about reading Hayek is that I come away thinking, “If only leftists had a proper understanding of economics and society, they would stop their infernal meddling and let people be about the business of living productive lives.”

Then I think that perhaps I’m being just as muddle-headed as I think leftists are. Admittedly, I was a leftist before I read any economics, but maybe I read the wrong kind. Maybe there’s some whole other set of thinking and philosophy out there that will bring a right-thinking person to a leftist point of view.

This got me wondering what books thoughtful leftists and small-c conservatives/small-l libertarians might recommend to one another. So I thought I’d ask the question here, and ask you to ask any of your friends who fit one of those categories to come contribute an answer in the comments section.

I suppose some definitions are in order. By “leftist” I mean someone who believes government should play a considerable role in regulating economic behavior, ameliorating perceived imbalances in outcomes, and otherwise directing or controlling individual action based on some kind of majoritarian impulse. That business with the small c and small l, meanwhile, is just to separate the Burkeans and Hayekians and voluntarists and various assorted thoughtful people from the folks who think, on the one hand, that the best conservative tract around is something written by Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh, or who on the other hand are fond of asserting at parties that taxation is theft and that the only solution is to start an anarcho-capitalist colony on the moon.

So, here’s what I’m asking. If you are a leftist, what three books do you believe would best persuade thoughtful people who disagree with you that they are in error? And if you are a conservative or libertarian, what three books do you recommend to thoughtful leftists? In each case, assume the reader is intelligent and educated. Assume as well that he has a life, which means you probably shouldn’t roll up in here with Mises’s Human Action. Unless you really want to.

So I’ll start. I recommend Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, Bastiat’s The Law, and Sowell’s Conflict of Visions. Who’s next?


  1. Ed Chinn

    George Gilder’s “Wealth & Poverty,” and “The Spirit of Enterprise,” and MIchael Novak’s “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.”

    BTW, I once asked a liberal PhD the very same question you posed. I told him I was not going to agree with him just because he felt strongly about something. “Give me some book titles.” He said he’d get back to me. That was 5 years ago.

  2. JH

    Jacques Barzun’s “From Dawn to Decadence” for both left and right. While this is not the book’s key aim, it shows how both today’s “left” and “right” came about and how they fit into the rest of the culture.

  3. Gray

    1) The Road To Surfdom, Hayek
    2) The Roots of American Order, Russell Kirk
    3) Say’s Law: An Historical Analysis, Thomas Sowell

  4. Mark

    From a libertarian: I have to put The Law by Bastiat on the list, even though Tony put it on his. It’s just too good, and short! If Tony had only asked for one book, that would be my choice. My other two: Economics In One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt (which, in many ways, is a companion piece to The Law) and Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, which is a great analysis of why social policy often gets the opposite of what it intends.

  5. Max

    While I found Atlas inspiring and is one of my personal touchstones, I’ve discovered that the mere mention of Rand is enough to cause many leftists to tune out (at best) or–more typically–to become apoplectic. So I’m interested to hear some other ideas for getting a foot in the door…

  6. Ken B

    I would pick Reflections on the Revolution in France by Burke for sure, and maybe a book on software engineering, Object Oriented Software Construction by Meyer as not only one of the best books on software, but a great book on why central planning and control is futile. (The Mythical Man-Month by Brooks is another, and a hell of a lot shorter and less geeky.) The Extended Phenotype by Dawkins, in which he proves what he didn’t in The Selfish Gene, and thus does away with gods. That’s my list today; tomorrow it might differ.

  7. Darren

    For Conservatives (not conservatives), I propose anything by Wendell Berry. Political books that are not political and therefore approachable.

    Human Action (yes, I read the whole thing) is as imponderable as Pascal. And Rand is just a justification for selfishness, not self-interest. Ugh.

    I’m a small-c conservative and Republican. I’ve just never voted for one. They’re not conservative. To me, the political spectrum is orthogonal to the problems we have. Now we have a choice between two irrelevant ideologies. The choice isn’t between big government and small government, it’s between good governance and bad governance. This goes for all social units, from the family and how we raise our kids to world powers. Unfortunately we are governed by egomaniacs who would rather be important than effective.

  8. Beth

    I’d add Sowell’s Basic Economics to his Conflict of Visions – my son read it in high school and found it interesting and accessible.

  9. Beth

    OK, I don’t have a book to recommend at the moment. But I read this article yesterday…it’s a really thoughtful look at both sides of the argument as regards the government’s role in providing health care. The concept of societal common good is discussed. You can read it in ten minutes, which is key in my life right now. When my kids are old enough to stay alive without my constant
    intervention, I’ll read the books.


  10. Jeff Brokaw

    “Radical Son” by David Horowitz
    Anything by Thomas Sowell
    “All the Trouble in the World” by P.J. O’Rourke

    “All the Trouble” is one of my favorite books ever, funny and quotable and full of travel stories intermingled with economic and political lessons, should be required reading for all high school sophomores, in my view.

    “The Future and its Enemies” is also very good.

    BTW, I’ve come to believe over the last couple of years that left vs. right is just one way to view our society, and perhaps not the best.

    I believe a big bright line should be drawn between government, and all those who depend on public largesse to make a living, vs. us “regular Joes” who pay into that system. Focusing on left vs. right serves as a diversion so that the insiders in Washington who connive deals with their lobbyist friends can talk about “bi-partisan” deals to “help” us while they take more and more of our property and enrich themselves.

    I.e., for me it’s now more about corruption, graft, and abuse of power. And I don’t see much difference between the Rs and the Ds in that department. And the events of the last few months have convinced me even more of this theory.

    Just some thoughts and observations I’ve made. YMMV.

  11. TedB

    Um, John Meynard Keynes, anyone? I’m a little surprised that this conversaton has made it this far without anyone mentioning the single greatest economist of the 20th century. His ideas started the era of government “meddling” and represent the foundation of modern monetary and fiscal policy.

    You can start with “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.”

  12. Denver

    Galbraith – Affluent Society
    Keynes – General Theory of Employment etc.
    MacKay – Extraordinary Popular Delusions
    Can’t resist a 4th

    Reinhart & Rogoff – This time is different

  13. matoko_chan

    We read Third Culture economics books….like….
    Winter and Nelson– An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change

    Dosi– Innovation, Market Organization and Economic Dynamics: Selected Essays.

    And …….The Third Culture by John Brockman of course.

  14. Elizabeth

    “How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York”
    By Jacob Riis
    Photography, 1890

    “American Pictures”
    By Jacob Holdt
    Photography, 1977

    “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America”
    Barbara Ehrenreich
    Long form journalism, 2001

  15. Patrick

    Adam Smith The Wealth of Nations. I would consider myself a liberty-as-means libertarian. I am convinced that those who cite Smith as the laissez faire advocate par excellence have never read Smith. He grants generous accommodations for government support for and interventions in public education, transport infrastructure, and defense. Had he not been writing before industrialization, It is plausible to assume that he would have expanded that list to include environmental protection and energy infrastructure.

  16. Dale

    From a liberal believer in the welfare-state and mixed markets:

    A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

    American Made: When FDR Put the Nation to Work by Nick Taylor

    The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

  17. Pete Warden

    I recently finished The Wal-Mart Effect by Charles Fishman. As someone who really should be a Republican if they weren’t so ghastly, I was dreading a diatribe, since Wal-Mart’s so often targeted for awful reasons.

    Instead I found a book that went to great lengths to detail the admirable qualities of Wal-Mart, and then spent some thoughtful chapters on how those virtues had become vices. I wasn’t entirely convinced, but it left me more open to the arguments from the left side of the world.

  18. Azhrie139

    There is a really simple answer to this question. Conservatives read books, liberals read research papers.

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  20. Geoff

    I started out as a leftist when I first became interested in politics, became a libertarian when I first learned about economics, and then became a liberal (I reject the notion that everyone who thinks the government has a role to play in the economy is a ‘leftist.’ I am not a Marxist) as I learned more about the imperfections inherent to market systems. I would recommend reading:
    1. The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi – how markets are embedded within social institutions (No, Mrs. Thatcher, society DOES exist)
    2. Wither Socialism? by Joseph Stiglitz – an excellent analysis of how imperfect information inherent to markets produces sub-optimal outcomes
    3. Anything by Hyman Minsky – the dark side of financial innovation, how the profit motive encourages financial institutions to take too many risks during good times and too few during bad times. While banks and other financial institutions play an important role in promoting innovation, they also do things that are parasitical
    4. The National System of Political Economy by Friedrich List
    5. Alexander Hamilton’s letter to Congress regarding measures that should be taken to promote industry in the United States
    6. Manias, Panics, and Crashes by Charles Kindleburger

    Notice the general lack of philosophers here? On both the left (Marx) and the right (Rand), philosophers tend to be impervious to the messiness of economic reality and the challenges faced by real-world economic actors. Economic history needs to make a serious comeback. Randroids are just as utopian and unrealistic as the dirtiest of hippies.

    I think that both unrestrained contempt and unsullied admiration for corporations and capitalists in general are wrong – they facilitate innovation and adaptation, but perverse incentives created by the market often result in environmental damage (climate change is a sideshow, the real problem is resource depletion caused by overuse and pollution), financial bubbles, and other calamities. The government can and should step in to prevent or alleviate these calamities, even if they result in costs to business today, because otherwise costs will be borne by society as a whole in the future.

    I’m extremely skeptical of Hayek’s point in the quotation that began this post, but not having read much of his work (other than the Road to Serfdom, which is ahistorical and at times downright silly), I’ll refrain. Nonetheless, the cult of individualism in this country has gone too far.

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  22. mdr

    I second the recommendation of Karl Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation.” Essential reading, no matter your political persuasion. And if you’re a Hayekian, it will certainly give you pause.

  23. Peter

    I’m in the camp with Geoff here regarding the general messiness of economics (and society in general, for that matter). Consequently, I don’t find the “first principles” type arguments of philosophy from left or right much help.

    Consequently, I would recommend the work of the pragmatists (classical – not Posner etc… – so, Holmes, Pierce, Dewey, James). Though Louis Menand’s, METAPHYSICAL CLUB is a great overview of the lives/work of these thinkers.

    In a similar vein, I would recommend:

    THE LAW AND DISAGREEMENT by Jeremy Waldron

  24. BG

    A BRIEF HISTORY OF NEOLIBERALISM by David Harvey – he’s a Marxist, so about as far left as one can get, but before you dismiss what he has to say, this book came out in 2005 and in it he identified finacial services and the complex-to-the-point-of-being-incomprehensible financial instruments as the area of the next big financial crisis. While I don’t agree with everything he says, he makes an excellent critique of the free-market “orthodoxy” advocated by Friedman and the Chicago School of economics.

  25. J. Huck

    From the liberal side of the spectrum:

    Amartya Sen, “Development as Freedom”
    Paul Farmer, “Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor”
    Jeffrey Sachs, “The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time”

  26. Hank Tqu'elli

    Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Vol. i Anti-Oedipus, Vol. ii, A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.
    Now if you read them, you’ll point out that they attack centralization of all sorts, that they use Marx to destroy a functioning theory of the “State”, but that’s the fundamental problem with this discussion. The left doesn’t see the state as the answer to the solution any more than the right sees God as the foundation of its enterprise. The historical premise of Marxism is that the organization of capitalism is the result of the state. Deleuze and Guattari demonstrate in these two volumes a tremendous grasp of the problems of the state while retaining the sensations that provoke Marxists and leftists to propose it as a solution.

    The Birth of Biopolitics – Michel Foucault.
    Another choice that deliberately avoids the mistaken premise of what leftism entails. This one, however, is a much more direct empirical analysis of why Capitalism arose in the first place, what functions and interests it served, and how the movement of economic principles into social theorizing is a practice designed to control or promote certain interests.

  27. Humbuggery

    Loving this discussion and furiously adding to my reading list…

    Not sure where I fit on the political spectrum and therefore not sure where I wish to nudge others, but I offer my three:

    The Trial of Socrates, by I.F. Stone
    Brilliant contrarian take on our democratic roots and the challenges of egalitarian society.

    Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay
    Fantastic documentation of many human catastrophes, from the Crusades to tulip fetish. Should humble any faith in free markets and subdue the romance of popular movements.

    A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
    Though mired in mystical symbolism, the message transcends any religious proscriptions and appeals to our most humane instincts. Consider this an antidote to Ayn Rand: realism and logical compassion over fantasy and masturbation.

  28. Jon Sink

    One of my liberal friends recommended Krugman’s “The Conscience of a Liberal” but I’m yet to pick it up. I think that makes me a bad person considering how often I frustratingly shout through the megaphone about books he ought to read.

    You ask a great question Tony, one that many classical liberals ask but never genuinely follow through on. Seeing how poorly we message our content, I should say we desperately need to understand how the good-intentioned statist thinks rather than beating up a blood thirsty statist straw man.

  29. David McGinnis

    i kant reed.

    but i will tell you that reading “Common Sense Economics” by Gwartney further seated my frustration that other people don’t understand cause & effect. Seems to me like a non-political understanding of cause & effect regarding allocation of limited resources (economics) would be a surefire way to find out where you fundamentally agree and disagree. Can’t say that Gwartney is unbiased though…

    I like to stay at a low reading level… so again with not a real representation of a school of thinking, but a conversation piece that would open discussion (strays from your request) I found the fun book Freakonomics – Levitt very intriguing. It possibly just fostered my existing understandings.

    I also think Koch’s “Science of Success” is just a well worded capture of not-so-common sense. Good gateways. After all, you do want your victim to be open, right?

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  32. Mazacote Yorquest

    Gramsci, Prison Notebooks
    Veblen, Theory of the Leisured Class
    and, to be a little cheeky,
    von Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, First Edition

    So Marx and Rand both eschewed “messiness?” Hm. That must be why Max Weber, a real slouch when it came to amassing social data, said he wrote The Protestant Ethic with Marx looking over his shoulder. Alert: Marx did write stuff after his 30th birthday.

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  34. John

    “There is a really simple answer to this question. Conservatives read books, liberals read research papers.”

    Hmm, evidently you have failed to learn one of the most basic facts about our current subject of inquiry: we can only do (normal, scientific) research on what is, not on what should be. Politics is not about accurately describing society now – although of course it helps to know where we are – but rather about guiding society in some direction or another, or perhaps trying to hold it in place in the face of various counter currents. But research cannot tell us which path we should go on (or whether we should stay where we are). Hence the importance of books, and theory. Sadly, I am becoming more and more convinced that there isn’t any method behind the madness advocated by progressives. I don’t speculate about what there is.

    As someone who is becoming more and more conservative (largely against my wishes), I wish there were cogent articulations of the progressive ideal that I could read and accept or reject. But I have yet to find any fully articulated and defended presentation of the progressive position, or at least, one that I do not know pretty decisive objections to. (e.g., Rawls is good, but Rawls is wrong. And he isn’t really progressive anyway.)

  35. Jason

    Here are a few books from a Left-ward perspective that I would recommend to my conservative/libertarian friends:

    A Theory of Justice — John Rawls
    Rise to Globalism – Stephen Ambrose
    Every War Must End — Fred Charles Ikle
    The Ecology of Commerce — Paul Hawken
    For the Common Good — Herman Daly and John Cobb

  36. Brent T. Davis

    Being in education gives a person the chance to encounter a lot of what is being offered up to children as must reads: The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, Our Eyes Were Watching God, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, etc. One of the books that I would require all high school children to read is:

    1. Witness, by Whittaker Chambers
    The Communist movement that has morphed itself into the environmentalist movement and the social justice movement is a very real and present danger. Witness is essentially the autobiography of a bright young man who came under the influence of the communist ideology during his early years at Columbia University and then became a witness for that set of ideas before coming to faith in God, leaving the darkness, and, at the risk of his life, becoming a witness for the light and becoming the central figure in probably the most high profile communist spy trial of our time. Records found since the “fall of communism” comfirm Mr. Chambers story. A former senior editor at Time and later the National Review, Chambers writes eloquent and trenchant prose that benefits any but especially the developmental reader who wants to see how to write very, very well.

    I’ll be back with 2 and 3 in a second, or third post, as I have run out of time and must get my children to school. Read Witness, though. It is one of the most important books you will ever read.

  37. Justin Martyr

    I’m a conservative.

    For an intelligent person who doesn’t really know anything about politics:

    1. Spin-Free Economics by Narimen Bharevesh. Great introduction to modern economics. Not one-sided like Hazlitt.
    2. Civil Rights by Thomas Sowell. A great introduction to culture.
    3. The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. Great introduction to human nature.

    For a more sophisticated reader, perhaps a libertarian who wants to know what drives conservatives:

    1. Moral Sentiments and Material Interests edited by Herb Gintis. Think of it as free-rider proof morality.
    2. Rationality for Mortals by Gerd Gigerenzer. Probably the most important defender of the power of heuristics and bounded rationality.
    3. Microeconomics by Bowles. Modern behavioral economics. Progressives will find a lot to like about inequality, but my take away is that it is really about the need for cohesive communities based on internalized values. I love the hawk-dove defense of loss aversion.

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  39. Alpheus

    As a libertarian conservative, I’d suggest the following:

    1. “Give Me Liberty” (an essay) and “The Discovery of Freedom” by Rose Wilder Lane; Lane explains what freedom has given us in a very passionate way, and compares it to social order.

    2. I’d second “Economics in One Lesson”.

    3. “Nation of Cowards” by Jeff Snyder. These essays are nominally about gun control, but are ultimately about freedom in general.

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