Memo To: Website browsers, fans
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Ten Favorite Books
I thought it a good time with a new year upon us to give you a second look at several books relating to political economy that most influenced or impressed me over the years. I'll be adding to the list from time to time, and we will keep this memo available on the University page, but here are the originals.
RECOMMENDED BOOK READINGS
We're occasionally asked to recommend good books to read on the political economy, evergreens that are basic and worthwhile, from college years to retirement years. Here are some of my favorites and why. Those marked with a (*) are in print and available on order from any good book store. Click on titles in hypertext to order them through Amazon.com.
Will and Ariel Durant. The Story of Civilization. (*) Eleven volumes published by Simon & Schuster between 1935 and 1975. You can still get this monumental series inexpensively by joining the Book of the Month Club. It starts with Our Oriental Heritage and closes with The Age of Napoleon. You should all have this collection at home and if you have grown children, they should have it in their homes. It's a terrific Christmas present because you will find yourself dipping into it again and again, enjoying its rich detail and easy, flowing prose. First, though, plan to read it from start to finish, even at a clip of 20 or 30 pages at a time. I would start with Volume III, Caesar and Christ, the best of the best, especially timely at this dawn of a new millennium, with an American Empire and a Great Awakening. Then do the first two volumes and pick up with the fourth. Academic historians have always looked down their noses at the Durants and discouraged students from poking into them, primarily because they show such great respect for organized religion and disorganized free markets. In the section on Caesar Augustus, Durant tells us how Romans never forgave him for trying to make them good in addition to happy. You can see why the secular humanists — who think government should do both — are not crazy about this series. It will take you a year or two to get through this. Then, after a break, start over.
Charles Beard. The Republic. The last and best book of the most important American historian, published in 1944 by Viking Press, 365 pages. Any public library will have a copy of this out-of-print gem, but if I were you, I'd call a used book store and have one located. A good one should run no more than $35. There are 21 short chapters, each dealing with an aspect of public policy in the United States, as it took root, grew and flowered over the 150 or so years between the time the Constitution was drafted and Beard drew to the end of his life. It is really the essence of his wisdom, distilled into a series of easy conversations he has with his neighbors, written as if in a radio script. Each one represents a chat in his living room, with intellectual tension provided by the different points of view thrown at Beard by the husband and wife of that evening. The table of contents looks dry as a bone, but you will find yourself enjoying the juicy meats of the ideas therein: A More Perfect Union and Justice; Domestic Tranquility and Common Defense; The Blessings of Liberty; Freedom of Speech and Press; Religious Liberty; Congress as Power; Critique of the Federal System; The Republic in the World of Nations. This is must reading if you plan on running for office. I gave a copy to Steve Forbes and he whipped right through it. (In the chapter on Political Parties as Agencies and Motors, Beard comments: "Democrats...will grant to a Democratic President of the United States measures which they would fight to the last ditch if proposed by a Republican President. They will yield to the management of their party a control over interests which they would defend to the last gasp against the Republican management. Out of such party coherence come new ideas, legislation, practices, institutions, which otherwise, it is highly probable, would never have been brought into being.")
John Chamberlain. The Roots of Capitalism. Originally published by Van Nostrand in 1959, the revised edition I have was published in 1965, the year I arrived in Washington to work at The National Observer. What an inspiration this book was to me at a critical point in my own development. At the time, there was practically nothing being written about entrepreneurial capitalism, buried under the 1964 election avalanche that buried the Republican Party and Barry Goldwater. Chamberlain, who died earlier this year in his early 90s, was a business journalist who learned his economics on the run, as I did in the 1970s. When I re-read Roots of Capitalism this year, 30 years after my first reading, I realized how much of a head start he had given me in my writing The Way the World Works in 1977. John and I became friends in this last period and he did everything he could to help promote my ideas, never once reminding me that he had developed many of the ideas himself as a young writer for Fortune, Barron's, and The Wall Street Journal. I don't know of a better early primer of supply-side economics before the phrase was coined. In Chapter Seven, "Prometheus Unbound — Or the Enterpriser's Function Explained," Chamberlain writes: "Bastiat's general refutation of the iron laws, which he carried out in sparkling fashion in that most sprightly of treatises, the Harmonies of Political Economy, was not to receive a practical demonstration on a large scale until Henry Ford came along to give his workers the five-dollar day without raising the price of his car. As we shall see, it was the five-dollar day which knocked at least three preconceptions of economics higher than a kite for all to see."
Ludwig von Mises. Human Action (*). The magnum opus of this great political economist, written in the years after WWII and published first in 1949 by Yale University Press. I have the third revised edition, 906 pp, published by Regnery in 1966, still available in paperback via Fox & Wilkes through your local bookstore. Here is the only place I ever found a clear discussion of monetary deflation, without which I could never have figured out the bond market these past several years. It's also the only place where I found the idea that men of wealth throughout history have combined their political power to raise taxes, in order to discourage competition from the masses. He's marvelous on the political market as well: "Liberalism realizes that the rulers, who are always a minority, cannot lastingly remain in office if not supported by the consent of the majority of those ruled. Whatever the system of government may be, the foundation upon which it is built and rests is always the opinion of those ruled that to obey and to be loyal to this government better serves their own interests than insurrection and the establishment of another regime. The majority has the power to do away with an unpopular government and uses this power whenever it becomes convinced that its own welfare requires it. In the long run, there is no such thing as an unpopular government. Civil war and revolution are the means by which the discontented majorities overthrow rulers and methods of government which do not suit them. For the sake of domestic peace, liberalism aims at democratic government." Vermont Royster of The Wall Street Journal said of the book in 1966: "Certainly this book will have great influence if it finds its way where it ought to be, on the bookshelf of every thinking man. Logic may be slow yeast but it works incessantly."
Benjamin P. Thomas. Abraham Lincoln. I never really appreciated Lincoln until Lew Lehrman suggested I read this 548-page one-volume biography, published by Knopf in 1952. For the first time, I began to understand the driving force behind Lincoln's rise from log cabin to the White House, to save our system of representative democracy. You can find this fine book in any public library, as I did before spotting one in a used book sale. If your spouse is asking for Xmas gift ideas, you cannot go wrong with the most recent one-volume bio, 714 pp, of our greatest president, Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald, published this year by Simon & Schuster (*). Donald has not missed much of the Lincoln seen by Thomas, and adds a dimension by producing Lincoln's world from his perspective. In other words, there is nothing in this volume that Lincoln would not know about, a format discipline that keeps us on track as the man grows and matures. As a further companion to your Lincoln library, I recommend the two volume collection of Lincoln's writings and speeches, published by Library of America in 1989 (*).
Richard Wright. Black Boy. This is another Library of America print (*), an autobiography written more than fifty years ago and now a classic. What it was like to be born black in the Deep South early in the century, growing up, moving to Chicago in the Depression years, joining the Communist Party, trying to make the black-white connection. I'd always thought this was a novel written by an angry black, which was reason enough to avoid it after reading several of that genre. I picked up a copy of this edition a few years ago and found it beautifully written, charming in its early innocent years, illuminating throughout. There's a movie here.
Thomas Mann. The Magic Mountain (*). One of the best books ever written, certainly one of the greatest influences on my own life, a novel that attempts to encapsulate the entire human experience in a remarkable philosophy of time. Published in 1924 in Berlin as Der Zauberberg and in 1927 by Knopf in NYC, it is now available in two translations from the original German. It can be had in paperback from Vintage International, 1992, in the 729-page translation by H.T. Lowe-Porter I first read as a 16-year-old growing up in Brooklyn. Inasmuch as Mann urged his readers to read this book twice, it might be well to try first the new translation by John E. Woods, which has had good notices. If you do not have patience, you will quickly give up on the mild-mannered young protagonist, Hans Castorp, a young man who visits a tuberculosis sanatorium in pre-WWI Germany, stays for the cure, and contemplates the way the world works. But as Clifton Fadiman noted in selecting this as one of his hundred favorites of all time, we should take note of Mae West's comment: I like a man who takes his time. The passage that struck me as a teenager, wondering what to do with my life, was this: "Many false conceptions are held concerning the nature of tedium. In general it is thought that the interestingness and novelty of the time-content are what 'make the time pass'; that is to say, shorten it; whereas monotony and emptiness restrain its flow. This is only true with reservations. Vacuity, monotony, have, indeed, the property of lingering out the moment and the hour and of making them tiresome. But they are capable of contracting and dissipating the larger, the very large time units, to the point of reducing them to nothing at all. And conversely, a full and interesting content can put wings to the hour and the day; yet it will lend to the general passage of time a weightiness, a breadth and solidity which cause the eventful years to flow far more slowly than those poor, bare, empty ones over which the wind passes and they are gone."