Wednesday, February 11, 2009

An Introduction to Economics and Political Philosophy

So a number of people have recently asked me about a reading list to get better acquainted with economics and political philosophy, and I've thus far had quite a difficult time responding. There's just so much to read, and it's sort of hard to say where to start! Accordingly, I think I'd like to try to maintain a list on this blog, changing it as I read new things and become exposed to new ideas, with the intention of appealing to the non-philosopher and non-economist who wants a background in those areas, but doesn't have the time or the interest to read everything that anyone has ever written.

I'm going to approach this project somewhat differently than I think a lot of other people might, in that I'm going to leave a lot of history unexplored in favor of getting people up to speed on the current state of discussion (as I understand it). Though a lot of people might immediately understand why I'm doing this, it will be worth explaining the choice for the sake of those who don't. Those who don't care about my life's story should just skip down to the list.

I taught myself guitar, and I have been playing since I was 13. Some of my friends who took up guitar around the same time took formal lessons, where they learned scales, chord structures, proper strumming technique, and all the rest. Most of them quit, and those who still play are permanently scarred by the passionless regimentation that characterized their musical upbringing. They know the techniques, but they don't feel the music. I, on the other hand, learned power chords and palm muting and spent the first few years of my playing career thrashing out punk rock and generally having a fantastic time. 9 years later, I still hold the pick wrong, my thumb doesn't rest properly on the back of the neck, and there are a number of techniques I can't do with even average proficiency. But I love the music I play, and I defy you to find me a guitarist who will scoff at my capabilities.

I also taught myself economics and philosophy before I started taking substantive classes in those subjects in college. Even though I no longer believe almost anything that I held to be unquestionably true in those early days, I maintain the passion and excitement for the subject that the experience ingrained in me. I can't imagine that I would feel this way if my introduction to philosophy had been in the History of Philosophy courses I took in college, where most of our time was spent determining what someone important said once, what they meant, and why they were wrong. Even with my existing foundation in philosophy and enthusiasm for the subject, I often found those classes soul-deadeningly boring and difficult to stomach (though in retrospect, I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to have taken them; they were invaluable). I won't inflict that on someone else, even if it is technically the "ideal" foundation. Just like an understanding of all the scales is the foundation to proper soloing, and yet (I think) is the wrong thing to learn first, a deep familiarity with the history of philosophy is indispensible for proper philosophical though, and yet should be left for later.

So with that in mind, here's the list, along with notes explaining why everyone should read these things.


Part 1: Honing the Instincts, Libertarian Style

1. Anthem by Ayn Rand

The first book clearly needs to be a dystopia, and anyone who doesn't see why needs to get a life. The choice of Anthem was a tough call, because I'm pretty sure that I don't think that Anthem is the best dystopia. But where Anthem's preachiness makes it a worse book than some of the others in the genre, I think it makes the book better as a tool for philosophy. It's super short and pretty well written, so it should be easy to get through quickly.

2. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

This is another short book, but it's definitely a little drier. Nevertheless, I think it remains one of the most powerful cases for liberty that has ever been made. It deals with a lot of issues that are immediately relevant in thinking about life, and is generally a good starting point for political thinking. This book is important historically, and Mill's ideas will come up in later readings, so it will be helpful to have read this book. But it also stands on its own as a worthwhile introduction to political philosophy.

3. Gorgias by Plato (Socrates)

*Whew!* You made it! Your reward is a thoroughly entertaining and worthwhile jaunt even further into the past, where Socrates takes on a number of interesting characters in one of the most educational (and in my opinion, entertaining) conversations ever had. This is another short, quick read.

4. The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality by Ludwig von Mises

After Socrates' distinction between what's good for people and what they think they want, it seems appropriate to move on to a book which argues that what people think they want is actually bad for them. Anyone on the Left will rightly consider this book to be the king of bourgeois apologetics. And I agree. But whereas the reasons why Mises' analysis falls short are complex and require a great deal of nuance, the reasons why Mises is right are simple and immediately recognizable. This book will take you from an appreciation for the value of individual liberty to a celebration of the power of the free market to promote that liberty, as well as the prosperity that goes with it. Again, it's not that long, so it shouldn't be too hard to get through.

5. "A Petition" by Frederic Bastiat

This essay is near and dear to the hearts of many economists, and for good reason. It is entertaining and relevant, and makes its point quickly and accessibly. You'll be glad you read it. If you hate it, then there's something wrong with you.

6. Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt

Put simply, this book is awesome. By the end of this reading, you will have a very good claim to having a bona fide understanding of libertarianism, and a solid foundation in free-market economics (assuming you've read the above recommendations as well). Hazlitt's writing is fantastic, and there's a reason for the title. It really is that good, and it's a pretty quick read (I think).

Part 2: Building a Foundation in Economics

7. "I, Pencil" by Leonard Read

This essay is one of the most famous in the history of popular economics, and deserves every bit of its reputation. It's written in a lively manner and makes its point with incredible effectiveness. Best of all, it can be read easily in one sitting without breaking a sweat.

8. "The Use of Knowledge in Society" by Friedrich Hayek

This essay takes the points made in Read's essay a few steps further, and presents them in a way that's slightly more rigorous. Some people find Hayek's writing to be dry, but this is unquestionably one of the most important essays in the history of economic thought. I think that it is indispensible for a thorough understanding of economics and political philosophy, so just get through it; it's not that long!

9. Animal Farm by George Orwell

Your reward for finishing Hayek's essay is a book you may have seen before, Animal Farm. Even if you've already read it, going through it again with the level of insight which you have obtained from the previous readings will be valuable. Plus, it's an awesome book. Enjoy!

10. "Public Choice" by William Shughart II

This brief introduction to the Public Choice school of economic thought helps to give form to Orwell's story, and provides a balance for the knowledge problems discussed by Hayek. Where Hayek's analysis shows why governments fail even when they try to do good, Public Choice economists point out that it's not even always true that governments are trying to do good. At this point in the reading list, you should be noticing that you understand a whole lot about economics and public policy, and it wasn't even really that hard to learn. This calls for a celebration, I think.

11. Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy by Daniel Hausman and Michael McPherson

Having gotten this far, though, I think it will be worthwhile for you to commit to an all-out assault on economic philosophy. This book is the motherlode, and after reading it, you'll be better versed than anyone you know who hasn't reached the graduate level in economics (and many of those who have). I know it's a lot to get through, but the writing is good, and it really is worth the effort. Plus, Dr. Hausman was my professor at the University of Wisconsin, and he's the man.

To be continued! Get started on this stuff, and by the time you're finished, there will be more. Good luck!

1 comment:

Suchita S said...

Some of these have been added to my extensive list. Thanks!

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