Sunday, 27 February 2011

Ten Books That Influenced Me

These are the books that had the greatest impact on my worldview. All of them are from the last few years, which emcompass my intellectual journey from political apathy and economic naiveté, to being a radical libertarian anarchist and Austrian economist.

I list the books in the order that I (first) read them, with the year in which I first read them in brackets. This post is not to be taken as a blanket endorsement of these books. They are the ones that influenced me most, not those I consider the greatest works, nor those that I would recommend to others necessarily.

1. The Road To Serfdom, F.A. Hayek (2007) – This book introduced me to a new way of thinking about politics. It introduced me to basing political views on principles rather than on whims. I identified myself as an individualist, and became opposed to all forms of collectivism. I understood that governments, even if they start off extremely limited, will always tend to grow, especially if the public has a collectivist mindset.

2. The Revolution: A Manifesto, Ron Paul (2008) – Ron Paul cured my apathy about politics. I found him online in November 2007, and became a massive fan very quickly. He took principled positions, he obviously knew what he was talking about economically, and had held those stances his whole career without wavering or compromising. I began questioning my own views about the role of government. I stopped believing in the left-right paradigm, and started to understand a far better paradigm: libertarianism versus statism.

3. Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt (2008) – The title is so appealing that I made this the first book on economics I read. I found it through the Ludwig von Mises Institute, which Ron Paul had directed me towards. Immediately, the fallacies of mainstream economics, and the wealth-destroying nature of socialism and all kinds of interventionism, became apparent to me. Hazlitt’s lesson is so remarkably powerful, that I immediately felt confident enough to reveal my political preferences publicly and argue for free markets in practically every area of society. The economic arguments in favor of a state are untenable, and quite obviously so.

4. For A New Liberty, Murray Rothbard (2008) – It took me about 9 months to go from a Ron Paul-inspired limited constitutional government position, to a full libertarian anarchist position. More than any other author, Murray Rothbard deserves most of the credit for that. This book was so clear, and made the case so powerfully, that I instantly saw the superiority of the anarchist position. It was also the first time I had encountered an explanation of how security and law can be provided without a government.

5. Anarchy and the Law, Edward Stringham et al (2008) – This compilation of essays and book excerpts sealed my anarchism. I read alternative justifications for and visions of anarchy: from David Friedman, Linda and Morris Tannehill, Randy Barnett, Roderick Long, Roy Childs, Hans Hermann Hoppe, John Hasnas. These all helped shape my worldview and especially sharpened up my thinking about how security and law can be provided without a state.

6. The Enterprise of Law, Bruce Benson (2009) – This book gave me my first encounter of public-choice economics. Benson took a whole different approach to Rothbard and Friedman, with a great deal of historical, empirical research into customary law, as well as a detailed analysis of the state law-making process and how it compares to law produced by private courts.

7. Democracy: The God That Failed, Hans-Hermann Hoppe (2009) – Just when I thought my political views were fully-formed, Hoppe hit me with his idea that monarchy is superior to democracy (though anarchy is still best of all, of course). I had taken it as given that if we must have a state, let it at least be democratic, and I had always seen the recent historical transition from monarchies to democracies as a positive thing. This book changed my view completely, and gave me a whole lot more reasons to oppose modern states. If we must have a state, let it at least be a monarchy, I now say.

8. Boundaries of Order, Butler Shaffer (2010) – This book played a vital role in my forming my position, contra Rothbard, as a subjectivist ethicist. In particular, it provided me with the terminology that reveals the flaws in his natural rights justification for libertarianism. It allowed me to move past Rothbard and develop a sophisticated subjectivist justification for libertarianism, free from terminological baggage and smuggled norms.

9. The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins (2010) – I thought I understood evolution pretty well, until I read this book. I had not realised the importance of asking at what level evolution takes place. It is at the level of the gene, and this has enormous implications for how we view evolution. I was struck by the beauty and structure to be found in nature and evolution, as Dawkins masterfully described. I was fascinated by the idea that morality can be explained in evolutionary terms; this idea fit perfectly with my subjective ethics worldview.

10. How The Mind Works, Steven Pinker (2010) – This book is full of remarkable ideas, about how our minds evolved to deal with reality. It brings to life the story of how and why we developed language, self-awareness and morality. I have not yet fully absorbed all that this book has to offer, and will probably need to read it a few more times before I feel I have a good grasp on it. But I already feel that it has had a profound affect on my thinking.

Looking over my list, the thing that jumps out at me is that there is no Ludwig von Mises. He will have to be contented that his views influenced me through others: particularly Rothbard, Hoppe, Hazlitt and Paul. Human Action, Theory and History and Socialism come closest to being on this list. His shorter works, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, Profit and Loss, and Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth all deserve a mention as well.

Murray Rothbard is probably my single greatest influence, and if I had the space, would have had more than one entry in this top ten. I learned economics from Man, Economy and State, and The Ethics of Liberty was highly influential as well. Rothbard’s crowning glory, however, has to be his epic A History of Economic Thought, which shows off his masterly scholarly skills, and wonderful writing style, to the maximum.

Some more short works that influenced me include The Politics of Disobedience (Etienne de la Boetie), The Production of Security (Gustave de Molinari), No Treason (Lysander Spooner), Against Intellectual Property (Stephan Kinsella) and The Depoliticization of Law (John Hasnas).

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