December 8, 2005
From time to time, readers ask me what books have made the biggest
difference in my life. I am not sure how to answer that question
because the books that happened to set me off in a particular direction
at a particular time may have no special message for others -- and
can even be books I no longer believe in today.
book that got me interested in political issues was Actions
and Passions by Max Lerner, which I read at age 19. It was
a collection of his newspaper columns, none of which I remember
today and all of which were vintage liberalism, which even Max
Lerner himself apparently had second thoughts about in later years.
of Karl Marx -- especially The Communist Manifesto -- had the
longest lasting effect on me as a young man and led me to become
and remain a Marxist throughout my twenties. I wouldn't recommend
this today either, except as an example of a masterpiece of propaganda.
no book that changed my mind about being on the political left.
Life experience did that -- especially the experience of seeing
government at work from the inside.
that permanently made me a sadder and wiser man was Edward Gibbons'
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. To follow one
of the greatest civilizations of all time as it degenerated and
fractured, even before being torn apart by its enemies, was especially
painful in view of the parallels to what is happening in America
in our own times.
of the Roman Empire was not just a matter of changing rulers or
political systems. It was the collapse of a whole civilization
-- the destruction of an economy, the breakdown of law and order,
the disappearance of many educational institutions.
It has been
estimated that a thousand years passed before the standard of
living in Western Europe rose again to the level it had once reached
back in Roman times.
would it take us to recover from the collapse of Western civilization
today -- if we ever recovered?
of books most readers seem to have in mind when they ask for my
recommendations are books that go to the heart of a particular
subject, books that open the eyes of the reader in a mind-changing
never look at the Third World the same way again after reading
Equality, the Third World, and Economic Delusion by Peter
Bauer. It demolishes many myths about the causes of poverty in
the Third World -- and about "foreign aid" as a way
of relieving that poverty.
never look at crime the same way after reading Crime and Human
Behavior by Richard J. Herrnstein and James Q. Wilson. It
is a strong dose of hard facts that shatter the illusions of the
intelligentsia and the mushy rhetoric of "root causes"
and the like.
1960s classic, The Unheavenly City, likewise cuts right through
the pious cant about urban problems and confronts some inescapable
realities. You will never look at urban issues the same way again.
own books, those that the most readers have said changed their
minds have been Knowledge and Decisions, A Conflict of Visions,
Basic Economics, and Black Rednecks and White Liberals.
Knowledge and Decisions is not an easy book to read and
it was not an easy book to write. But it goes to the heart of
why certain kinds of decisions are better made in particular kinds
of places -- whether economic, political, or other institutions,
or in informal settings like the family. Unfortunately, those
decisions are often made in places that don't do as good a job.
of Visions is my own favorite among my books but it too is
not for everyone. It traces the underlying assumptions behind
opposing ideologies that have dominated the Western world over
the past two centuries and are still going strong today.
readable of these four books is Basic Economics, which
may also be the most needed, given widespread economic illiteracy.
Rednecks and White Liberals challenges much that has been
said and accepted, not only about blacks but also about Jews,
Germans, white Southerners and others.
2005 Creators Syndicate