Sunday, March 21, 2010

ten 'books' that have influenced my thinking

Maybe it was just my corner of the Nets that was boring last week, but about the most interesting thing I read was a meme from Tyler Cowen, picked up by Matt Yglesias and Will Wilkinson, among others. I tried to come up with ten books and came up short. Like Ezra Klein, I've grown up in a time when books are not the primary source of even the big chunks of information or worldview I get. Following a blog over the course of years is an intellectually comparable endeavor to reading a book, and I think it can be just as rewarding. The existence of hyperlinks and real time rebuttal and fleshing out from other bloggers adds real value as well. Of course, books are often more carefully researched, but it's fine for the different media to fill different needs. Anyway, on to a rough and ready list of ten big influences.

  1. Atlas Shrugged. This is the only work of fiction on this list, and I don't know what that says about me. My pre-Rand worldview is hazy, but before I read AS in tenth grade I had been on the way to overcoming the conservatism of my family and becoming a liberal of some kind, mostly on the basis of my fresh distaste for religion and a perception of a lack of compassion among conservatives. AS persuaded me of the morality of pursuing one's own happiness, turned me into a cheerleader for laissez-faire capitalism, and conditioned me to more or less loathe the caricatures in my head of modern liberalism. Though I was already a deist at the time, I think AS hardened me against all spiritual mumbo-jumbo and quackeries.
  2. While I read a few books on libertarianism, what really influenced me further in that direction, and into full-on anarchocapitalism, was a group of websites I read regularly from late high school through college, including,, and There were also a bunch of random anarchist essays I found, like Wendy McElroy's Demystifying the State.
  3. The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. I was no creationist beforehand, but after reading this I felt like I really grasped the power and elegance of evolution by natural selection. I think here is where I was first introduced to game theory and the idea that unthinking automata blindly following simple algorithms can lead to incredible complexity. And I put a lot of stock in Dawkins' memes as well.
  4. Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. The broad swathes of history are determined by impersonal factors such as geography. This is humbling, and does a lot of damage to simplistic ideologies.
  5. Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennett. Consciousness is distributed in time and space, and the brain is parallel. And we're all zombies and that's okay.
  6. The Myth of the Rational Voter, by Bryan Caplan. Voters have systematic biases that go predictably in the same direction and don't just happily cancel out. Though I'd given up on anarchism by the time I read this, it had left me with a distrust of democracy. This put that distrust on a firmer footing. Which is not to say the whole idea should be tossed aside. We work with what we have, and acknowledge the limitations.
  7. Constitution of Liberty, by Friedrich A. Hayek. Every liberaltarian's hero. He stresses a pragmatic case for liberty, that society is an evolutionary system, and liberty is what allows the system to sample the greatest space of possibilities. "It is because every individual knows so little and… because we rarely know which of us knows best that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it."
  8. Nonzero, by Robert Wright. History has a direction. We find new ways to tie our fates together, whether on purpose or not, whether we like it or not. This ratchets up complexity and leads to new opportunities for cooperation. This book (and Constitution of Liberty as well) made me way more comfortable than libertarians are supposed to be with welfare states and state aggregations (like the expanding EU and international organizations).
  9. Filthy Lucre: Economics for People Who Hate Capitalism, by Joseph Heath. Aside from learning lots of interesting things, this book really made me think about ideological arguments in terms of tribalism. It's amazing how ideological tribes miss huge chunks of understanding. Cognitive biases and tribalism constitute the core of my thinking about politics and every ideology-prone topic.
  10. Reason Magazine and the Economist. That said, you can't get rid of biased and tribal thinking; I think the best you can do is name and understand the shortcomings of your tribe and biases. I get most of my news about the world through Reason Magazine, a libertarian movement magazine with a mostly cosmotarian flavor, and the Economist, a neoliberal source.

1 comment:

  1. Bonus points for being honest, but I hope you're not being too serious about (5) and (8). Wright is prone to being way out of his depth and Dennett is a pompous boor.

    With respect to political philosophy, the best teacher we have is the world around us. You can learn a lot more from investigating the political (and/or economic) successes and failures of the 20th century than by reading a philosophical tract.

    For example, the massive failure of world communism in the 20th century speaks for itself and doesn't need any help from Rand.