Books for the Future

EconJournalWatch and Dan Klein asked its contributors “What 21st-century works will merit a close reading in 2050?”. You can find the responses, including mine, here and here. I particularly enjoyed Evan W. Osborne’s, Slaviša Tasić’s, Kurt Schuler’s and Scott Sumner’s picks.

I have interpreted this “question from the future” as coming from somebody who “already came to an outlook like my own: “a 40 year old classical liberal in 2050. But I also assumed that she had a special interest in works that helped in shaping the nuances of classical liberal arguments in the 21st century.

Besides the books I mentioned, I pondered adding others but had to leave them out because the limit was ten. Here are those that missed the list, but that I nonetheless believe will be significant and still read in 2050.

 

Martin Amis, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (Vintage, 2003)
A splendid meditation on the blindness towards communist terror shown by many Western intellectuals. Many similar works may fade in memory from now to 2050, when hopefully the dangers and horror of communism will be understood for what they were by most people, but Amis’s literary powers will allow this to survive and enlighten new generations.

 

Luigi Marco Bassani, Liberty, State, & Union: The Political Theory of Thomas Jefferson (Mercer University Press, 2010)
The years 2000-2020 will be remembered as years of “revisionist” history, particularly in the United States, that put the “cult” of the framers in perspective. Yet at a certain point, people will accept again that we cannot read with 20th century lenses the personal behaviour of 18th century gentlemen, and people will search again for works investigating their ideas and why they matter. Bassani’s book will then come in handy, as the best account of Jeffersonian liberalism.

 

Anthony de Jasay, Justice and Its Surroundings (LibertyFund, 2002)
This is a collection of some of Anthony de Jasay’s (1925-2019) philosophical papers. Its shorter chapter (“Empirical Evidence”) is a little classic in its own right. De Jasay was a brilliant mind and should be known more widely. Perhaps by 2050 he will be.

 

Antonio Escohotado, Los enemigos del comercio: una historia moral de la propiedad (Espasa, published in three volumes between 2008 and 2018)
This is a tremendous trilogy on the intellectual origins of the “enemies of commerce,” explaining the intellectual prevalence of the anti-market thinkers. These are long, exhausting books, but filled with insights and written by a non-academic philosopher who brings together an astonishing erudition with a splendid wit.

 

Biancamaria Fontana, Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait (Princeton University Press, 2016)
Madame de Staël (1766-1817) is a powerful liberal thinker who has not been forgotten and whose main works are sadly not available in the English language. Fontana’s book is a splendid introduction and would also work liberals in making sense of the circumstances of the French Revolution, which we typically tend either to worship or caricature.

 

Chandran Kukathas, The Liberal Archipelago: A Theory of Diversity and Freedom (Oxford University Press, 2003)
Government and the “good life”: the second is not a responsibility of the first. This is a thoughtful manifesto for freedom of conscience and tolerance, which does not take shortcuts in answering the question “Should we tolerate the intolerant?” The problems it deals with are not going to disappear, its answers are and will be unpopular, but hopefully, with time, they may enlighten more people.

 

Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones (HarperCollins, 2006)
An American writer writes in French the definitive novel over the mad slaughters of the 20th century. This book will impact the way in which future generations understand Nazism and totalitarianism.

 

Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850 (Yale University Press, 2012)
This is and will be considered for generations an essential work on the Industrial Revolution, and why it started in England.

 

Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography (Allen Lane, published in three volumes between 2015 and 2019)
Few politicians have been so associated with free market reforms as Margaret Thatcher. If The Anatomy of Thatcherism by Shirley Robin Letwin (1924-1993) is still unparalleled as an analysis of Thatcherism, Charles Moore’s wonderful biography acquaints us with the circumstances of Thatcher’s life and makes us understand better her motives as well as the challenges of governing and reforming. For those in the future who will try to make sense of the very few political experiences in which the state was actually rolled back, Moore’s book will be a must read.

 

Nicholas Phillipson, Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (Penguin, 2010)
The early 21st century will certainly be remembered as a happy period, in terms of Smithian studies. This work will stand out, as a splendid intellectual biography written by a great scholar.

 

Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (Harper Collins, 2009)
The health of classical liberalism in 2050 will depend largely on the interpretation of the past which dominates academia and the public debate. The Great Depression is a pillar of the narrative that justifies more statism. In this book, Amity Shlaes explains why it shouldn’t be, providing us a detailed account of what happened and with a sound interpretation of it.

 

Vernon L. Smith, Rationality in Economics: Constructivist and Ecological Forms (Cambridge University Press, 2007)
Vernon Smith’s distinction between different forms of rationality is bound to be more fortunate, with the passing of time, as it is truly enlightening. This book is a methodological tour de force and an exploration of the fundamentals of our social and economic life. Smith is a giant on the shoulders of giants.

 

Tom Stoppard, Rock ‘n’ Roll (Faber, 2006)
Great insights on communism and how Western intellectuals saw it in this marvelous play by one of the greatest playwrights of his generation.

 

Mario Vargas Llosa, La llamada de la tribu (Alfaguara, 2018)
A gallery of portraits of classical liberal political thinkers written by a great novelist, who since the 1980s has been a leading voice for liberalism all over the world. Vargas Llosa not only presents lucidly and elegantly a brilliant selection of champions of this tradition of thought, he also provides the readers with some unique insights into how they became what they were.

 


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The Communist Trabant

In a comment on co-blogger Bryan Caplan’s post this morning, I mentioned the fact that in the 1980s, star East German figure skater Katarina Witt was given a Trabant as a reward for her productivity. Many East Germans were allowed to buy Trabants but, as with most consumer items, there was a lengthy queue.

Here’s a video about the Trabant. Watch it and you get some appreciation for what East Germans thought of as a reward for outstanding performance.

A couple of facts:

The top speed was under 6o mph.

It was a 2-stroke engine that achieved 26 mph.

Watch the video and you’ll learn a lot more about this Communist consumer item.

Personal story

In October 1999, I taught an economics course  in the MBA program in Prague run by the Rochester Institute of Technology. Wandering around Prague during my off time, I saw a handful of Trabants on the road. In October 2000, I was back to teach again and I didn’t see a single Trabant on the road.

After Communism, Trabants were replaced largely by Skodas. The comparison between the two is stark.

 

 

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Implicit and Structural Witchery

You’re back in Salem during the 1690s.  After an exhaustive hunt for witches, the Lord High Witch Hunter files a bombshell report: Despite his best efforts, he’s failed to find any witches in Salem.  Don’t imagine, though, that the fight against witchery is over.  During his investigation, the Lord High Witch Hunter uncovered an enormous volume of “implicit witchery” and “structural witchery.”  For example, residents of Salem occasionally skip church, or lose interest during the sermon.  That’s implicit witchery, pure and simple.  Even worse, some leading merchants happily trade with Catholics and pagans.  That’s structural witchery at the highest levels of society.

If you’re part of this society, you’d better not laugh.  That’s implicit witchery, too.  For anyone else, however, the Lord High Witch Hunter’s report is absurd.  The magistrate launches a massive witchhunt.  He fails to detect actual witches.  So he redefines “witchery” as “Lack of single-minded devotion to my faith.”  Why bother with this farce?  To make a thinly-veiled threat:  If you’re not part of the solution to witchery, you’re an implicit/structural witch.  And will be burned like a witch.

Similarly, imagine that during the McCarthy era you fail to uncover any actual Communists.  The Lord High McCarthyite could admit he was wrong, but where’s the fun in that?  Wouldn’t it be better to declare that you’ve discovered a massive dose of “implicit Communism” and “structural Communism”?  As long as your society fears you, anything could count.  Perhaps support for progressive taxes is implicit Communism.  Perhaps the overrepresentation of left-wing academics in state-funded universities is structural Communism.  Yes, you can cry, “Bait-and-switch.”  But that sounds dangerously close to implicit Communism.

Or suppose you’re in modern Iran.  The Lord High Inquisitor hunts for atheists, but can’t find any.  So he declares war on implicit atheism and structural atheism, which abound even in the Islamic Republic.  Shocking?  Not really, because almost anything qualifies as implicit atheism or structural atheism.  If this is such an obvious scam, how come hardly anyone in Iran says so?  Fear.  Minimizing the danger of implicit atheism is a prime example of implicit atheism.

In the modern West, hardly anyone worries about in-the-flesh witches, Communists, or atheists, much less implicit or structural versions of these creeds.  But that’s because the targets have changed, not because the age of moral panic is over.  And while the list of targets is long, racists and sexists are plainly at the top.  The most obvious result is that people spend ample time trying to find racist and sexist individuals.  In practice, however, this is as frustrating as trying to find witches in Salem.  People today are about as likely to declare themselves racists and sexists as people in 17th-century Massachusetts were to declare themselves brides of Satan.  Part of the reason, no doubt, is fear; avowed racists do get punched in the face, after all.  The main reason, though, is that almost no one sympathizes with creeds that almost everyone hates.

So what are you supposed to do if you want to continue the good fight against social ills you’ve already practically driven to extinction?  Move the goalposts all the way to Mars.  These days, the world’s best detectives would struggle to find outright racists and sexists.  Yet implicit racism, structural racism, implicit sexism, and structural sexism will always be in plain sight, because the definition expands as the phenomenon contracts.

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