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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Is there politics after polarization?

A few days ago, Politico published a dense piece featuring a number of intellectuals and academics, left and right, suggesting ideas to “unite” the country, as President Biden proposed to do. As a non-US citizen, I am interested more in the method than in the substance of the different ideas proposed in the article.

What is it that does this “unifying”? I30 suppose we are dealing, by necessity, with highly symbolic moves, which won’t necessarily make everybody happy. (This is always difficult in politics, even when we are not directly dealing with taking money out of somebody’s pocket to give it to somebody else.) Such moves should, broadly speaking, restore the conditions for a more tranquil partisanship. The problem with “political polarization”, in the US as much as in Europe, it is a matter of tone as well as of political posture. How can we restore public debate in which people stop at shouting at each other?

Nick Eberstadt has a point that sounds reasonable to me:

America will not be able to do much healing in the next four years if the 47 percent of America who voted against the president-elect are treated as a subjugated population. Yet knowingly or not, this is how the election’s victors are behaving. A large minority of our nation can scarcely air its opinions in the academy or, increasingly, in the establishment media. Their speech is ever more policed in the workplace and online by rules tantamount to “victor’s justice.

Of course that’s more easily said than done. And some other of the proposals Politico has assembled seem to be pointing in quite the opposite direction. Some of them are down to heart: Abraar Karan proposes a push for better face masks as a way to convince more Americans to use face masks, Caitlin Rivers some sort of national mourning for COVID19 victims.

A fair number of Poltico’s proposals are, however, concerned with history, and they stress the need for a shared narrative which resembles the various streams of “revisionist” history dominating in the last few years. There is certainly a lot to learn in these accounts of history – but is this something that would actually unite Americans as describe above? It seems to me that it would actually go the opposite way, strengthening the tendency toward the sense of “victor’s justice” Eberstadt cautions against.

Hence my question: is “uniting” Americans after a much heated electoral campaign something that people really care about? Is it simply a posture for reassuring the losers? Is it something only those who lost care about? In a battle so symbolically intense, is there any genuine intention to meet halfway, on either side?

It seems to me that one component of political polarization is the belief in a basic difference in the moral fiber of one’s opponent. The more intense the fight, the greater the impression that something essential is at stake: and in these later years, it is seldom policy-related, it is far more personality-related, particularly after Donald Trump. Self-righteousness becomes ubiquitous in a polarized political spectrum. How do you back down? And is there anybody who really wants to do so?

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Five (More) Books: Revisionist Accounts of the Soviet Experience

In my previous posts, I offered recommendations for reading on the Russian Revolution and the Soviet economy, and the Ethnography of Soviet life.

 

As you can glean from my recommendations for reading so far, I have stressed learning about the dysfunctions and dystopian aspects of the system.  I will come back to that in my final post in this series. But right now I do think it is valuable to also acknowledge alternative perspectives.

During the 1970s, a “revisionist school” of historians rose to challenge the standard “Cold War” totalitarian system narrative. They provided counter evidence to say either that they system was more decentralized and democratic than the totalitarian model suggested, or that it was less repressive than the totalitarian model claimed; or that the economic system was more successful than the critics acknowledged.  Some of these claims made in the 1970s were subsequently challenged when the archives opened in the 1990s, revealing the full extent of Soviet repression. Other claims are still part of the ongoing contested conversation in Soviet studies.  I personally believe that many of the revisionist accounts have important insights, but that in general they tend to miss critical aspects of even the stories they are telling.  I also think, and of course I would, that there are serious errors of a methodological and analytical nature committed in many of these revisionist accounts due to ideological precommitments. Still, to become an informed student, one must be knowledgeable of these alternative accounts.

 

The first one to read would be Jerry Hough’s The Soviet Prefects (originally published in 1969) explores the role that local party organs play in industrial decision making. It is a challenge to the idea of a unified and comprehensive central plan.  Hough’s work was an initial challenge to the idea that Stalin’s regime represented an institutionally strong and robust centralized administration, and starts to push toward the revisionist account that the Stalinist system was actually institutionally weak, and thus the totalitarian account of the control and repression of the system must be exaggerated.

 

Hough was not as strong in that revisionist account as  was Arch Getty, who in Origins of the Great Purges (originally published in 1985) argued that the archival evidence from the 1930s demonstrates that the Communist Party under Stalin was chaotic and confused rather than ruthlessly efficienct in its execution of terror. The totalitarian account must be exaggerated, Getty concluded.  Stalin didn’t orchestrate the terror, but was responding to political threats as they arose in the struggle for survival.

 

Stephen Cohen’s wonderful book Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution (originally published in 1973) tells the story of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet experience through the eyes of one of its main architects, who was later a tragic casualty of the betrayal of the revolutionary ideas.  I am extremely partial to this because Bukharin wrote seriously about the economics of communism.  Bukharin, in fact, actually spent time in Vienna attending Bohm-Bawerk’s famous seminar, and he wrote a book criticizing the Austrian School of Economics.  He was familiar with the works of Ludwig von Mises, and in fact would invoke Mises during debates within the Soviet Union on the shift toward the New Economic Policy. He was dubbed “the most learned critic of communism”.  Bukharin wrote the economic policies for the initial communist period which I mentioned earlier in reference to the work of Malle, and he wrote the New Economic Policy after the collapse of the Russian economy forced the Bolsheviks to chart of new course to stay in power.  He was named by Lenin, along with Trotsky and Stalin, as the potential successor to his leadership in 1923, ironically sealing his fate. Stalin first aligned with Bukharin to purge Trotsky for exhibiting “left-wing childishness”, and then flipped sides to purge Bukharin for “right wing opportunism”.  Cohen’s book asks the question, what if Bukharin had won out in that political struggle rather than Stalin?  Many communists had been asking a similar question about Trotsky ever since Stalin had him murdered in Mexico, but Cohen successfully got a new generation to ask that similar question.  As perestroika matured as public policy under Gorbachev, Bukharin would be “liberated” and even became a symbol of market reforms such as the “Cooperatives Act of 1987”, and photos of Bukharin could be seen around Moscow.

 

Back to the nitty gritty of Soviet history, one of the most horrific tales of the Soviet experience is the Holodomor, as depicted in Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow (1986) or more recently in Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine (2017). But the revisionist account by R. W. Davies and Stephen Wheatcroft in their book The Years of Hunger (originally published in 2004) argues that the famine was not intentional, but resulted from mismanagement and environmental circumstances.  Similar to what I mentioned in my previous post about the “debate” between Malia and Pipes, it appears difficult at times for academics to see their way to explanations that blend ideas and interests with historical circumstances to tell a more nuanced story, as their penchant is for either/or narratives.  That said, detailed scholarship and careful reworking of numerical information is always valuable in helping gain an understanding.

 

This also leads to my last revisionist work, and I think the one that most challenges my own priors about Soviet economic performance through time, Robert Allen’s Farm to Factory (originally published in 2003). He argues against the now conventional wisdom that the Soviet experiment was a horrific failure, and that if you measure correctly it must be counted as one of the greatest economic development stories of the 20th century.  One cannot be conversant in the contemporary conversation about the legacy of the Soviet Union without careful study of Allen’s bold reinterpretation.

 

 

Peter J. Boettke is University Professor of Economics & Philosophy, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22030.


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