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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“Shakespeare in Love” and the Humanity of Business.

I’m reading Tom Stoppard’s biography by Hermione Lee. I never thought I could read 900 pages on a subject previously  unimportant to me with such delight. It is a marvelous book. Stoppard’s life is interesting and eventful, it provides a good glimpse into the world of culture and entertainment in the last quarter of the 20th century. Plus, Lee’s analyses of Stoppard’s plays are masterful.

One thing that comes out of Lee’s biography of Stoppard is how independent-minded he was, and how—as opposed to many of his colleagues—he never conceived of himself as a guru, nor a “joiner” of good causes. For example, when some of his fellow playwrights signed a letter to endorse a ban on all performances to segregated audiences, so as to signal their support for the anti-apartheid fight, he chose not to. “His instinct was against ‘isolationism’. He preferred to give his royalties to an anti-apartheid organization” but allow people to see his work.

Lee reports this comment from Stoppard to the campaigner who wanted him to join: “Of course the idea of a segregated audience is abhorrent. So too is the idea of a playwright being imprisoned or otherwise victimized for his work—but did any of your signatories, I wonder, ban productions of their plays in this time last year in Czechoslovakia, or in Poland?”. Stoppard was shocked at the hypocrisy at the invasion of Prague in 1968 and was critical of the simultaneous disdain for Western institutions and total blindness to what was happening behind the Iron curtain so common in those years among intellectuals in the “free world”.

Stoppard is hardly an “unphilosophical” writer. His work is filled with profound philosophical riddles. I never saw a performance of “Jumpers”, perhaps his most philosophical play, but after reading Lee’s book I know that, as soon as theaters come to life again, I’ll search for it. Nor did Stoppard stay away from political engagement. Quite the opposite. But his politics were quite different than many others’. See this intriguing piece by the late Norman Barry. On politics, he had a great line, used more than once in his plays: political opinions are often, and perhaps entirely, a function of temperament.

Moreover, Stoppard was not convinced that good theatre is only an occasion for a writer to show off as a good person – or an erudite one. He maintained that “a theatre’s job is to prevent people from leaving their seats before the entertainment is over”.

My acquaintance with Stoppard’s work is limited (I am not much of a theatre-goer), but the book leaves you thirsty for more. So I ended up watching and re-watching a few films to which he contributed his writing (though he preferred theatre to the cinema). I was struck by Shakespeare in Love, which I watched as a kid and found amusing, and found amusing again today. It is a constant stream of wit and jokes and deals lightly with some very important subjects, beginning with: can theatre, and art more generally, show us the nature of love?

Lee points out that “the most joyous parts of the film are the challenges of getting a play funded, cast, written into rehearsal and onto the stage. It’s a loving, comic tribute to the theatre”. There is an element in the plot that I think can be considered as subtly McCloskeyan. It hasn’t to do with Shakespeare per se, but rather with “the challenges of getting a play funded”. Most of the works of the bard “sing of honorable aristocrats or comical peasants or sweet shepherds” in spite of the fact “his audience included a big promotion of the merchants and apprentices of businesslike London” (McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity).

In “Shakespeare in Love”, impresario Philip Henslowe is in debt to the ruthless moneylender Fennyman. At the beginning of the movie, the latter is hardly a commendable person. But he is struck by the magic of theatre. He profoundly connects with the beauty of Romeo and Juliet, perhaps more than Henslowe, for whom the theatre is routine. Fennyman becomes a committed investor, a friend of actors, and, for a brief and hardly memorable moment, an actor himself. I suppose some people may consider his story a sort of redemption via art. I consider it quite differently. I think it is great for Shakespeare in Love to show us that business people are not blind to art and can actually grasp it better than others. It emphasizes their humanity. On the contrary, the most dislikable character in Shakespeare in Love is Lord Wessex, who marries for money, is both aristocratic and quite dishonorable in his actions, and is totally oblivious to artistic expression. In the movie, Stoppard of course celebrates those who understand art and beauty whatever class they belong to, as if they were members of a fraternity that includes usurers, apprentices, nurses, and Queen Elizabeth herself. A great celebration for art but also an indirect appreciation of the profound humanity of those who work with money and yet can be sensitive souls too.

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