What I’ve been reading … and related videos!

Lynne Kiesling

One thing I’ve been doing a lot this summer is catching up on my reading, both on books I’ve had on my list for a while and new releases. Right now I am in the middle of Mises’ Human Action, which I am slightly embarrassed to say I’ve never read from the beginning in its entirety, although I’ve read extensive excerpts. At some point I would love to discuss Human Action with some of my friends who are more familiar with it and its historical context, like Pete Boettke or Pete Leeson or Steve Horwitz.

In terms of fiction I’m also in the middle of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which is just out in paperback (although I’m reading the hardcover version). It’s right up my alley — set in late 19th-century England, opening scene in my favorite museum (the V&A), lots of Arts & Crafts themes and imagery, a multi-layered and historically-informed plot, all written with Byatt’s characteristic subtle language and rich visual imagery in her prose. I don’t think the casual reader would enjoy it (i.e., it’s not a beach book unless you’re already predisposed to like Byatt and/or historically-contextualized fiction), but I am enjoying it a great deal. It’s definitely going with me on vacation up to the Boundary Waters at the end of the month.

Almost all of my recent reading has been nonfiction; let’s see if you can infer the unifying theme. In no particular order:

  • Vernon Smith, Rationality in Economics: Constructivist and Ecological Forms. Here Vernon synthesizes the results of experimental economics (particularly findings of more cooperation and more sharing than game-theoretic models predict) with the work of Scottish Enlightenment scholars and F.A. Hayek to argue that individuals employ a more ecological rationality than the Cartesian, deductive, constructivist form that is embedded in most standard economic theory. Part of this ecological concept of rationality involves heuristics we use so we can function in the face of overwhelming information, and part involves recognizing the inherent sociability of humans. A valuable corrective against the excessively Cartesian constructivist concept of individual rationality that has gone unchecked for too long in economic theory (yeah, representative agent macroeconomics, I’m lookin’ at you … but you’re not alone there.)
  • Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy. I’ll have more to say on this in a separate post (I promised Joel a review and then life happened), but for now I will give a hearty recommendation to read it. Joel does two extremely valuable things in this extensive work: he updates the scholarship on industrialization in Britain that has occurred since 1990 and the publication of his excellent Lever of Riches, and he extends the theoretical framework for understanding and “explaining” the Industrial Revolution to include knowledge, particularly what he classifies as “useful knowledge”. Thus he connects the intellectual developments of the Enlightenment explicitly to the Industrial Revolution. More commentary to come later …
  • Marco Iacoboni, Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others. If you are curious about neuroscience and the recent research on mirror neurons but you aren’t interested in reading the primary neuroscience literature, Iacoboni’s written a very accessible summary of what neuroscientists have discovered and the likely connections of mirror neurons to social cognition, empathy, language acquisition, and interpersonal relations in general. If you have no idea what mirror neurons are but you enjoy reading Jonah Lehrer’s books or blog, and/or you listen to Radiolab, you’ll enjoy this book.
  • James Otteson, Adam Smith’s Marketplace of Life. Again, a work from which I’ve read snippets, but I’ve finally read it cover-to-cover this summer. Jim’s book is great. He does a very thorough analysis of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, and even though I’ve read TOMS cover-to-cover twice and reread various parts of it frequently, this is an outstanding analysis and companion. In particular, he argues (persuasively, to me) that Smith’s moral philosophy and moral psychology enable Smith to articulate the moral foundations of unintended, emergent social order. And he does so in a way that I think is accessible even if you’re not a philosopher or economist (yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, D.O.U.G.!).
  • Fonna Forman-Barzilai, Adam Smith and the Circles of Sympathy: Cosmopolitanism and Moral Theory. Hot off the press … I met Fonna at a Liberty Fund conference last fall, and we found that we had very similar perspectives and interpretations of Smith. Not surprisingly, then, I found a lot of her analysis here interesting and useful. Here she analyzes Smith’s moral theory and arguments in TOMS looking at how it relates to modern questions of cosmopolitanism. She is engaging with literatures in political theory that don’t overlap directly with my economics interests, but her analysis and application to modern concepts of distance and community (and, for example, globalization) is really thought-provoking.
  • Charles Griswold, Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment. This 1998 work is a go-to analysis of Smith’s moral philosophy and virtue ethics. I actually finished this before either Otteson or Forman-Barzilai, and my understanding of Smith’s arguments in TOMS and their broader moral and economic implications jumped discretely upon reading Griswold.
  • Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. Ridley has built an extensive oeuvre of works exploring human behavior that synthesize biology, anthropology, history, economics, and sociology, and this is a very useful example of his work. Here he covers evolutionary biology, anthropology, game theory, and economics to explore how it is that we humans create emergent social order through cooperation. If the set of ideas I’m tossing around in this post intrigues you but you are not familiar with them, this is where I’d start.
  • Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. Ridley’s most recent work, and one that I enjoyed a great deal. Again a synthesis of economics, evolutionary biology, and anthropology, all animating the theme that humans do cooperate, do have incentives to behave in ways that are efficient and socially beneficial in the long run, create sustainability through innovation, and are not going to trash the planet. I am persuaded by his rendition of the argument, but I am predisposed to, because I already agreed with him … which leads to my only criticism of the work. The tone is too “just so”, the arguments too pat — I doubt that they will be persuasive to anyone who isn’t already predisposed toward his worldview and toward being an optimist. That said, I’ve been pretty cranky and pessimistic for the past couple of years because of the wretched, stupid, counterproductive policy decisions that are perpetuating our economic downturn and killing our individual liberties by a thousand cuts, so I needed a good dose of rational optimism! I’d encourage you to read Rational Optimist after reading Enlightened Economy, which will provide more depth and backstory to support Ridley’s arguments.

On their faces these works may not appear directly relevant to the political economy of regulation and competition in large infrastructure industries experiencing technological change, but I think they are all likely to interest you if you are interested in the political economy issues inherent in regulation. Some of the Smith scholarship may verge too deeply into philosophy and political theory, depending on your personal interests, but I have certainly enjoyed every one of these works and recommend them all as worthwhile reads.

But, since it’s a Friday afternoon in late summer, I’m going to close with a couple of videos of Matt Ridley discussing The Rational Optimist. The first is a recent TED talk he gave in Oxford (can’t get the embed to play well with WordPress, grrr), using the “when ideas have sex” meme that is the tagline for the book. The second is from the PBS Newshour.

Have a great weekend!

4 thoughts on “What I’ve been reading … and related videos!

  1. Ridley’s key theme is the salience of trade — commerce — exchange — in propelling progress. The great point (which too many fail to grasp) is that trade makes both sides better off. Ridley draws an analogy to the biological exchange of information, i.e., sex, which propels evolution. Trade, he writes, is akin to ideas having sex with each other.

    Ridley’s book celebrates the human achievement. To lament modernity, to deny that we’ve progressed, even to condemn what we’ve done, while romanticizing a supposedly halcyon past, is pitiably foolish. Ridley does a great job showing just what progress has achieved in quality of life for the average human. He and I share a profound reverence for the titanic human exertions standing behind this.
    Reading his book on an airplane — a half-day transcontinental trip that for our forebears was arduous, miserable, dangerous, and took months — made me marvel anew at the vast web of contributions by untold thousands of people across the globe and across centuries that made this possible. The same is true of even our simplest modern conveniences, to which most of us give scarcely a thought.
I have been following the reviews and blog commentaries on Ridley’s book. Most have been quite positive. The nastiest was by George Monbiot in Britain’s left-wing Guardian newspaper. One can of course quibble with details of Ridley’s analysis. But to dismiss his basic story, to actually condemn it as villainy, takes a really diseased cynicism, and blinding oneself to what is, well, blindingly obvious. It’s painful to observe. And it’s harmful, standing in the way of a better world (especially for the downtrodden, about whose plight such pundits constantly whine).

 Monbiot et al are intolerant guardians of a narrow orthodoxy. They portray Ridley’s book as fanatically pro-capitalist and anti-government. It is not, and only a fanatic would see it so. Their critiques reveal more about the critics than about the book.

    Bravo to Ridley for his breath of fresh air and clear thinking. That his message is widely labeled “radical” is ironic — the reaction really should be, “Duh! Tell us something we don’t know.” Yet Ridley is indeed telling us something that, sadly, most people don’t know.

    My own book, The Case for Rational Optimism (Transaction, Rutgers University, 2009), does make many points and arguments similar to Ridley’s, but is far broader in scope, covering not only such topics as the economy, war and peace, technology, democracy, etc., but also the evolutionary background and the philosophical and psychological issues involved with optimism versus pessimism. See http://www.fsrcoin.com/k.htm

  2. I note in passing that Ian McDonald’s latest novel, The Dervish House, has a major character who is a commodity trader for an energy company. Ian has clearly been reading about Enron.

Comments are closed.