TCS Daily

Books for Brooks

By Nick Schulz - November 20, 2006 12:00 AM

The New York Times' David Brooks, writing on the death of Milton Friedman, recently said:

"[Friedman's] passing is sad for many reasons. One is that from the 1940s to the mid-1990s, American political life was shaped by a series of landmark books: 'Witness,' 'The Vital Center,' 'Capitalism and Freedom,' 'The Death and Life of American Cities,' 'The Closing of the American Mind.' Then in the 1990s, those big books stopped coming. Now instead of books, we have blogs.

"The big books stopped coming partly because the distinction between intellectual movements and political parties broke down. Friedman was never interested in partisan politics but was deeply engaged in policy. Today, team loyalty has taken over the wonk's world, so there are invisible boundaries that mark politically useful, and therefore socially acceptable, thought."

This assertion struck a chord since "Witness" was the first book my parents gave me for Christmas that wasn't authored by Theodor Geisel or Jean du Brunhoff (yes, I was a red-baiter-diaper baby). But the notion that there are no big books anymore is a lament I hear not just from Brooks but from younger and less established writers and thinkers as well. Is it true?

Brooks also asserts that "growing evidence suggests average workers are not seeing the benefits of their productivity gains--that the market is broken and requires heavy government correction. Friedman's heirs have been avoiding this debate. They're losing it badly and have offered no concrete remedies to address the problem, if it is one."

Claims like those made by Brooks are designed to elicit a response. So here I take the bait.

The following list reflects my biases as being interested in political economy and notions of justice and fairness as they relate to economic dynamism. Not all of the authors are Friedman's heirs and not all of them speak directly to concerns over inequality -- although most of them do either directly or tangentially. Either way, these books are "big" and important and our political debates would benefit if greater attention is paid to them. All of them have appeared in the last 15 years. They are not in any particular order of importance.

Brink Lindsey, Against the Dead Hand

Robert Fogel, The Escape From Hunger and Premature Death

William Lewis, The Power of Productivity

Joel Mokyr, The Gifts of Athena

Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches

Virginia Postrel, The Future and Its Enemies

William Easterly, The Elusive Quest for Growth

Richard Herrnstein, Charles Murray, The Bell Curve

Charles Murray, What It Means to Be a Libertarian

Charles Murray, In Our Hands

Arnold Kling, Learning Economics

Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital

CK Prahalad, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid

Deirdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics For an Age of Commerce

Bjorn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist

Jerry Muller, The Mind and the Market

Richard Thaler, The Winner's Curse

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel

Michael Cox, Richard Alm, Myths of Rich and Poor

Jonathan Rauch, Demosclerosis

Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter (forthcoming)

Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate

Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near

Andy Kessler, How We Got Here

Carl Schramm, The Entrepreneurial Imperative

Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Empire

One thing that Brooks does better than most columnists today is push his readers to think more deeply and challenge them to look for answers to problems he raises. It's what all good columnists should do, rather than try to shove answers and opinions down readers' throats. I know I am missing a few, but this list of books is a good place to start to understand some of the concerns Brooks raises.

Lastly, I'd be remiss if I didn't add Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. That's another big book. Now all Brooks needs to do is start blogging.

The author is editor of and a Contributing Editor to The American, a magazine debuting this week. If you have suggestions for books he missed, email him at



Two Stand Out
I know most of these, think De Soto has had a great influence on how we think about development economics, I've written here about In Our Hands, but the two on that list that truly stand out for me are Lomborg (who I have repeatedly used as a reference in pieces here) and Diamond.

His later work, Collapse (?) I thought was actually wrong in many of its assumptions, but GG&S really rather changed my view of the world. Yalu's question, exactly why was it the Europeans who conquered, was I think perfectly answered. Nothing to do with any inherent superiority of being white or anything so silly. Whoever had spent some thousands of year with the animals, crops and diseases that we went through would have done the same. Sorry, could have done the same.

It is one of those books where I feel a little uncomfortable if I don't have a copy in the house.

About "Collapse"
Diamond was wrong about more than just assumptions. His history of Easter Island is a tissue of lies.

Demosclerosis was updated to become Government's End.

Fiction - The System of the World by Neal Stephenson
A great combination of historical, science and picaresque fiction. Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz bickering over the calculus. The cultural milieu and the economics of the Age of the Enlightenment.

Three engrossing ~1,000 page novels!
Let's hear it for big books of fiction too.

Diamond's Diatribes
Diamond has become something of a darling amongst the highbrow Lefty intellectual set -- and after examining his works (sprawling conceptual tomes incorporating theoretical notions that range far outside his field of specialty), it's easy to understand why: they set out to legitimize the absolute worst in the guilt-ridden, self-loathing, anti-Westernism fashionable on the Left. My Leftist acquaintances think he's Da Bomb.

I prefer Victor Davis Hanson's scholastic rationalism, a la "Carnage and Culture." Hanson's own review of Diamond's "Collapse" sums it up best:

Also, hear Hanson demolish Diamond in a debate on cultural development, wherein Diamond seems hard-pressed at times to even know how to respond:

Bog is fad, will diminish with time.This is tragedy of modern technology.there is no alternative for good book. Writing good book is really art, and very rearly we can find good book, now a days it is very vey rear to write good book, all publishing trend is nowonly on money making this one is worse period for mankind, all literary angents are commercial, they are now deciding which book is worth for publishing, multinational corporation are money maikg machine, so you to search good books from hipe of junk.

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