The official reading list of Dude, Where’s My Freedom? provides mini-reviews of books I have read. Occasionally, if a book is either very good or inspires some more detailded thoughts, I’ll do a full review in an independent post, and link to it here. While books are not my only sources of information, this listing can give you a good idea of where I am getting my ideas and information from and provide an excellent starting point for those new to libertarian ideas. Books that I whole-heartedly recommend will feature an image of the cover.
Books I’ve Read:
One of the newest entries in America’s fastest growing literary genre of “sympathetic profiles of the white working class,” Janesville chronicles the lives of the residents of Janesville, Wisconsin from the period of 2008 – 2013. Besides being the home of Paul Ryan, Janesville was a company town, built almost entirely on the back of a GM assembly plant. You can probably tell where this is going…
Yes, of course, the plant shut down sending thousands into unemployment and varying levels of poverty. The book showcases the town’s efforts to mitigate the damage, and follows a few former workers as they attempt to rebuild their lives.
In the end, I don’t think it’s quite as fascinating as it should have been. I think it tries to do a little too much. It skips around among a cast of 10+ characters and it’s sometimes hard to keep them straight. Some of them only appear briefly and aren’t particularly interesting. The author would have been better served to dive more deeply on fewer people, rather than giving a broad-level survey of so many. The repeated attempts to tie in state and national-level politics into the local goings on feel forced, and don’t add much to the book. I have to imagine that this story has been better told elsewhere, I just haven’t read much in this genre (yet) so I’m not sure what exactly to recommend in its place.
The one fascinating takeaway I had from this is largely explained in a brief appendix. The author unveiled the very interesting statistic that all the efforts spent on “job retraining” (i.e. shuffling unemployed workers into the nearest technical/community college) were, for lack of a better word, massive failures. Statistically, the people who went back to school to “re-train” actually did worse than the people who simply kept looking for work. Fewer of them got jobs, and the jobs they got were lower paying. Even more ridiculous than that, a specific program launched by the school in cooperation with local employers to focus specifically on “careers that will be in demand” did even worse than the school’s general enrollment. There’s probably a message here – something about the fatal conceit and the abject failure of centralized planning as compared to market selection, but the author didn’t bother to do any sort of “what does this mean?” analysis. They just sort of pointed out the facts, said “this is weird and can’t be explained,” and then moved on. Disappointing.
I’ve been interested in the story of the fall of Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe) for some time. It’s quite a captivating (and infuriating) tale of a global alliance of communists, progressives, and anti-colonialists, conspiring to bring about the collapse of a once-proud nation, (competitive with the developed west on most standard of living measures) into a hellish third-world humanitarian disaster complete with ethnic cleansing, mass murder, starvation, disease, and hyperinflation – all in the name of democracy at any cost.
Ian Smith was the prime minister of Rhodesia, and his regime was widely pilloried around the world for being racist oppressors. This book consists of the memoirs of his life, mainly focused on the slow decline of Rhodesia following its declaration of independence from the UK. Throughout the entire process, he and his allies told the world exactly what would happen if they were forced from power. And he was absolutely right. One can argue that it had to happen anyway, that the benefits of democracy outweigh the costs of having Robert Mugabe take over your country and murder and oppress millions. But one cannot argue that everything Ian Smith said would happen, did, in fact, happen.
Unfortunately, I’m still looking for a good book about the fall of Rhodesia generally. This one falls dramatically short. It’s very long and very boring, and seems to have been written for an intended audience of former Rhodesians who already possess a detailed knowledge of the specific events, players, and factions in 1970s Rhodesia. If that’s not you, the names and locations and parties get confusing very quickly. There’s very little “action” here and not a ton of analysis. Ultimately, it reads like 400 pages of someone whining about what huge dicks the British (and later the South Africans) were. And while that might very well be completely true, it gets repetitive really quickly. The book is a chore to get through and doesn’t do a particularly good job of educating you about what happened and why.
Overall, this is an interesting and important topic, and everyone would do well to learn more about what happened and why, in the hopes that we might prevent such a tragedy from occurring again in the future (or, you know, stopping the one that is happening right now in South Africa). But this book is not a very good way to go about learning more about Rhodesia. If anyone has any recommendations of better sources, feel free to let me know.
Popular Economics – John Tamny
Popular Economics is a decent entry-level approach to free market economic arguments which suffers from a rather unfortunate and bizarre gimmick. It has largely been promoted and marketed as a book that intends to teach basic economics to a general audience through the example of numerous pop culture references (the subtitle is literally “What the Rolling Stones, Downton Abbey, and LeBron James Can Teach You About Economics”), which isn’t a bad market to target given the success of books like Freakanomics. But the book itself really doesn’t deliver on that promise at all. Yes, pop culture analogies are made, but they are mostly very quick and last for only a few sentences. A much bigger problem is the “general audience” part. This book takes a pretty hard-line approach to topics such as taxes, regulation, and inflation, and advocates opinions that are well outside the mainstream. While that’s fine for committed libertarians, I don’t expect it would fly that well with those who are “on the fence.” I mean, the first chapter literally starts rolling right in to “taxation is theft” style arguments. In my view, this would likely cause a regular person to assume this book is right-wing propaganda and immediately put it down. And while it’s too partisan for a general audience, it’s also too simple for a sophisticated libertarian audience. Anyone who is willing to accept his conclusions has almost certainly already heard them before somewhere else, and it doesn’t really advance any particularly new or innovative ideas. In the end, it’s sort of the “worst of both worlds,” in that the only people who will probably read it are the people who don’t really need to. That’s not to say it’s bad – it does a decent job of re-stating many of the principles of general economic overviews such as “Economics In One Lesson” in modern language and with instructive analogies that people will understand – but if you don’t feel any particular need for that, you can probably safely skip this one.
On The Take – William J. Chambliss
This is an interesting book that deals with the absolutely widespread corruption at all levels of government. The author is a professor of sociology, which makes the book somewhat difficult to read as it was written in the 1970s with a very academic sort of tone. As a result, it’s very dry and can get a little boring at times, even though it is cleverly structured in such a way as it starts with “small time” crime rings in one city (Seattle) and slowly works its way up through the local, state, and even federal levels. Findings are presented in a very matter-of-fact format which is somewhat bemusing as the author eventually asserts that all levels of government are pretty much completely and entirely corrupted by involvement with organized crime rings, and that such a situation is unavoidable given how our government is constructed and the various demands of the general public. This would seem to be a fairly heavy and damning accusation (at least to the average person, if not to a hardened and cynical libertarian), but it is presented as plainly and matter-of-factly as if the author is reporting on the findings of a study on how plant specimens react to a three degree increase in soil temperature. It’s not an overtly political book, the author is clearly trying to objectively report the facts and, for the most part, strays away from policy recommendations. Overall, it’s a good read, if only to have as a source to refer to someone who doubts the level of corruption in government and would be suspicious of any overtly political author’s reporting.
It’s not just a clever title. This is one of those books that’s basically a laundry list of Ron Paul’s positions on various issues – a literal attempt to define a pro-liberty platform. It’s an interesting read, but is definitely more suited to beginners and newbies than it is to those who are intimately familiar with libertarian political theory and Austrian economics. It’s also not pure libertarianism on display here, RP’s social conservatism shines through in chapters dealing with issues like abortion and immigration. The arguments are generally good and it’s an easy enough read, but is lacking the depth required to make it a true classic. I also think the topical structure, presented in alphabetical order, isn’t necessarily the best way to approach something like this. A good book to hand to a friend who says “What’s the deal with this Ron Paul guy anyway?” but in terms of basic libertarian theory, you’d probably be better off with something by Tom Woods, or maybe Economics in One Lesson.
Very highly recommended. See my full review here.
The Ultimate Resource – Julian Simon
Probably one of the most useful and fascinating books I’ve read in several years. While reading it, I had that feeling of “I’ve always sort of felt that this stuff was true, but I never quite knew how to articulate it like this…” that I haven’t felt since reading Atlas Shrugged. If you’re at all interested in the economics of environmental matters, natural resources, conservation, or overpopulation (which was the freak-out du jour during the 1980s when Simon wrote this book), this is an absolute must read!
The case he makes is brilliant in its simplicity. In a practical sense, the average person doesn’t necessarily care how much of any particular natural resource is available in the Earth. What we care about is how difficult it is for us to obtain some of that resource for our personal use. The best way to measure this is via market prices for various resources. Historical trends indicate that the ability for the average person to obtain virtually every natural resource (or more specifically, the services desired from said resources) has been increasing at an almost exponential rate when indexed against wage rates or the CPI. By this reasoning, natural resources are actually becoming less scarce, not more scarce.
Furthermore, the primary method through which this occurs is by individuals coming up with more efficient means of collecting the resources, or finding alternate means through which the services they generate can be provided. For this reason – spoiler alert – “the ultimate resource” is actually the human mind – and the more human minds around, the better off we all will be. He offers one very simple thought experiment is quite intuitive – ask yourself if you would be better off today if the global population 200 years ago was 50% of what it actually was. Now ask why that should magically be different for future generations.
This is an excellent book overall, with one minor flaw. It offers a fairly extensive (but not wholly complete, as that would take several volumes) history of prominent Americans (typically on the left) who were duped and used by Communists. It goes into great detail, examining the extent and prevalence of the “useful idiots” from the birth of CPUSA all the way through the end of the Cold War. Politicians, journalists, actors, and other noteworthy Americans are exposed as active party members at worst, or naive idiots at best.
The one minor flaw is that the study is a little too ambitious. The book clocks in at about 500 pages, which is a bit long for something like this. And it could easily be reduced to 400 or so by eliminating the final couple chapters which seem a little tacked on and unnecessary (they address modern-day politicians who have been duped in regards to Islamic terrorism rather than Communism). Dealing with the war on terror at the very end in very minor detail just seems out of scope. The chapter on Frank Marshall Davis, future mentor to Barack Obama, is a brief and general overview of a topic that was addressed much more exhaustively in Kengor’s later book “The Communist,” (see below for a mini-review of that book).
Overall, this is a useful and interesting book that exposes how deep Communist infiltration and dupery really was throughout the Cold War. Easy to read, and very informative. This is the type of history that the establishment has ignored, and if you want to be educated on these topics, you’re going to have to seek out books like this and educate yourself! Highly recommended.
The Creature from Jekyll Island – G. Edward Griffin
If you want to dive head-first into the world of conspiracy theories surrounding international banking syndicates and the U.S. Federal Reserve, then this is absolutely the book for you. It’s epic in scope, coming in at over 500 pages, and covering just about every Fed-related topic you could desire. It takes the reader on an adventure throughout the past, present, and future of central banking, stopping to examine how banksters have assisted the government in robbing the populace in each and every era of history. The Rothschilds, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Richard Nixon, everyone gets their turn in the spotlight as the author meticulously breaks down how central banking played a key part in every major historical event you can think of.
But this isn’t just a history book. It also provides a basic primer on monetary theory and the technical aspects of central banking. It gives you the “how” and the “why” in addition to the “what” and the “when.” The book isn’t organized strictly chronologically or strictly topically or anything like that. In the introduction, the author warns you that he will jump around from topic to topic, but implores the reader to trust him that the structure will help your overall understanding of the Federal Reserve. I actually really enjoyed this format, and found my trust was well placed. At the end, we even look into the crystal ball and imagine what the future of centralized banking might hold (spoilers: it’s pretty terrible). Despite being very long and covering typically boring topics, it manages to stay both entertaining and informative, and is very easy to read regardless of your level of knowledge of banking and economics.
The only downside I can think of is that the book really jumps right into some fairly well-known and generally poorly regarded conspiracy issues which may be off-putting to certain readers. If you start to roll your eyes whenever someone starts talking about the Morgans and the Rothschilds, prepare to be rolling your eyes a lot. If you duck and cover every time someone mentions the Council on Foreign Relations, prepare to spend a lot of your time reading this book under a desk. But if you’re willing to entertain the notion that the events of worldwide government and banking systems might not just be due to coincidence and random chance, this book could absolutely blow your mind. I have to give it my highest possible recommendation. A must-read for all matters relating to the Federal Reserve.
Whipped out in a few short months following the Newtown shooting, Control was Glenn Beck’s answer to the fast and furious (get it?) push for more gun control laws as a solution to school shootings. This book is very short; under 200 pages total, and really consists of two even shorter books crammed into one. The first half essentially presents the standard arguments for why gun control doesn’t work. The second half attempts to identify the real cause of school shootings, which, according to Beck, is violent video games.
The first half is decent enough, but doesn’t go into enough detail to make the case effectively. Essentially, these are the same arguments and ideas as presented in John Lott’s “More Guns, Less Crime” but not nearly as developed. It also uses an increasingly common format of identifying common arguments by gun control advocates and then seeking to demolish them, which I find to be a rather annoying format (although Beck gets credit for using actual quotes rather than made up straw-man arguments). The second half makes some good points, but ultimately leaves the reader feeling a little concerned. While Beck claims he is not for censorship of any form, his case that violent video games cause school shootings would do a lot of good for people who are in favor of banning such things. Overall, this book is okay, it’s very short and easy to read, but I can’t recommend it. If you want a complete and thorough deconstruction of the issues surrounding gun control, just stick with Lott. There was really no need for Beck to attempt to re-invent the wheel here, and shoving two somewhat unrelated concepts into the same book just doesn’t work that well.
The Real Lincoln – Thomas DiLorenzo
One of the most infamous history books of the last several years, The Real Lincoln takes everything you thought you knew about Abraham Lincoln and turns it on his head. Nothing you learned in high school about “Honest Abe” or “the Great Emancipator” shows up here. This is a blistering take-down of the worst of Lincoln. Tom DiLorenzo, with this book, created a cottage industry of being “the guy willing to publicly bash Abe Lincoln” and his life and career have never been the same since.
This book is essentially a must-read for anyone interested in an alternate interpretation of American history. The facts are established and well documented. There’s not much the Lincoln worshippers can do other than point at DiLorenzo and yell that he must be a secret racist who is attempting to re-establish the Confederacy.
The book is fairly short, and is a very quick read. DiLorenzo makes his case, presents the evidence, and moves on without taking up a bunch of your time with overly verbose language. In some points, it feels like the writing isn’t especially great, as some sentences just don’t sound right and he ends up repeating himself fairly often. But these are very minor complaints, and this book isn’t meant to be a beautiful piece of prose. It’s meant to inform, and it does it very, very well. But don’t let these minor complaints convince you to avoid this – the information in it is absolutely critical, and could potentially change the way you look at American history forever.
33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed To Ask – Tom Woods
It’s no secret that Tom Woods is a personal hero of mine. I think he’s just about the most effective spokesman in the entire liberty movement. A historian by trade, he has an uncanny knack for explaining little-known facts about American history that help make the case for personal freedom. This particular book came out in 2007, before there was much of a “movement” at all, and in it, Tom reviews some of the standard arguments against big government. It’s solid overall and well worth reading, but if you follow Tom Woods regularly, if you listen to his podcast and watch his Youtube videos, you’ve probably heard much of this stuff already. That said, there are definitely some “hidden gems” in here. Some of my favorite chapters are the ones on the native Americans being “environmentalists,” Bill Clinton’s unnecessary intervention in the Balkans, and the bit about George Washington Carver. The “Questions You Aren’t Supposed to Ask” format detracts a bit, as it makes for some clumsily-forced chapters and subdivisions. The format keeps the chapters very short, when longer, more flowing chapters might have made for an easier read. But overall, it’s still Tom Woods. A great book for someone new to libertarian ideas, or someone from the left or the right who is ready to look at American history with a bit of skepticism.
The Road To Serfdom – F.A. Hayek
I’ve owned this book for quite some time, but put off reading it for several years, mainly due to reservations regarding Hayek being difficult to read (a common refrain from those both opposed and sympathetic to his views) as well as regarding Hayek being more willing to compromise, and not as steadfast in his belief in free markets as Mises or Rothbard.
While both of those criticisms have some truth in them, this book is still well worth reading. The language is a little difficult at times, although one should keep in mind that this isn’t technical economics we’re dealing with here. Hayek mainly discusses the philosophy behind socialism. No math or fancy diagrams required, which is always a plus. The difficulty of the language seems in large part due to the simple fact that this book is about 60 years old, and was written for an academic audience at the time. Some of the vocabulary is a little dated, and there are many references to European events in the 1930s that most of us wouldn’t easily comprehend today (luckily, in the version I owned, detailed footnotes were provided). In this book, Hayek goes pretty hard at many misconceptions regarding the role of the state, and while it’s true that he’s not as “hardcore” about things as Rothbard, it’s still a pretty scathing criticism.
Overall, this book does an excellent job of explaining why socialism is bad, not just by appealing to the economic inefficiencies it creates, but also outlining how it changes the moral character of a nation, and how it is explicitly designed to enhance the power of a select few in a way that is incredibly difficult to reverse. It’s a challenging read, but well worth the time and effort.
Bourbon For Breakfast – Jeffrey Tucker
It’s well established that I’m a huge fan of Jeffrey Tucker, but I never actually got around to reading one of his books until very recently. Unfortunately, Bourbon For Breakfast (amazing title aside) isn’t really a book proper, so much as it is a collection of essays on various topics. Most of them are witty, engaging, and informative, uniquely Tucker. That said, most of them assume a reader with sympathetic views regarding the state. They also cover a lot of ground that you may already be familiar with if you’re a regular reader of Tucker’s articles in The Freeman and/or lfb.org. My favorite essays were the one about drinking in the morning (obviously) as well as the one about low-flow toilets (some amazing lines in there). I’d say for serious fans this is a must-read, but others can probably safely take a pass on this one.
Rushed to market just before the 2012 presidential election (not that it did any good), this book is a brief biography of Frank Marshall Davis, the man who appears in Barack Obama’s memoirs, Dreams from my Father, known only as “Frank,” and who is widely accepted to have been the primary mentor to a young Obama (both pro and anti-Obama sources accept this relationship, despite the fact that Obama himself never used the term “mentor” and has since downplayed their relationship). The biography focuses heavily on Davis’ writings (mainly for newspapers widely known to be associated with the communist party) and is incredibly light on presumably significant other biographical events (his marriage, divorce, re-marriage, and children are mentioned in passing, getting about a sentence each). The connection to Obama is reserved for the last couple chapters of the book. The main body is reserved to examining Davis’ writings, emphasizing how consistently he supported the Soviet position on everything, and the remarkably high level of hatred and vitriol he spewed at Democrats and Republicans alike who dared to question the glory of communism (seriously, his rhetoric makes me look incredibly tame by comparison).
Frank’s story is not unique, and the book makes a point to emphasize that. During the cold war, there was no shortage of public figures in journalism, academia, and entertainment who were card-carrying communists. People who quite literally took a loyalty oath to Stalin and the Soviet Union, and who actually received both their funding and their marching orders from Moscow. I love reading about this aspect of American history, because it may be the most distorted and lied about era in the American education system and in popular opinion in general. Typically, we are told that the Cold War consisted of evil Joe McCarthy, rabidly persecuting innocent people because he was crazy, paranoid, and mean. The reality is quite the opposite. Card-carrying communists owing complete loyalty to the Soviet Union did in fact infiltrate the highest levels of the government, the media, the universities, and the entertainment industry. Most of them, like Davis, spent their entire lifetime lying about it, to their customers, to the government, and to the public at large. The fall of the Soviet Union and the release of the Verona cables and the opening of much of the Soviet archives makes it easy to prove that people like Davis were in fact communists, despite the fact that they would go to their grave insisting they were innocent victims of a witch-hunt. I highly recommend this book, as it provides just a brief taste of how these people operated, and how they were able to achieve a legacy of being “civil rights leaders” despite publicly carrying water for various regimes that murdered over 100 million people.
The Real George Washington – Andrew Allison, Pay Parry & W. Cleon Skousen
This is a simple book presenting the standard American History version of the life of George Washington. It’s fairly long, but the text is in large-print and you can read it pretty quickly. Despite the fact that the main body of the book is concerned with the revolutionary war years, it doesn’t really present the overall context of the war very well, preferring to instead focus on how ill-provisioned the army was and other matters. I would have preferred the book spend a little more time and effort on Washington’s youth, but apparently historical documentation is not readily available for much of his life.
Politically speaking, this book is obviously pro-Washington, bordering on worship at times. It makes a point of emphasizing Washington’s support for a “strong central government,” and takes the standard American History approach of vilifying the Articles of Confederation and dismissing the anti-federalists as ignorant boobs. Constant quotes from Washington about how awful state governments are and how the federal government needs more power might be a bit off-putting to modern libertarian readers.
The biography itself is about 600 pages (but as I said, you get through it very quickly), with the last 200 pages being a large collection of various quotes from Washington. Many of these quotes were already cited in the biography, and I found them to be of little value. I would suggest skipping that section unless you are incredibly interested in Washington’s letters.
Overall, I don’t really have strong feelings about this book either way. I suppose it’s a decent enough overview of Washington’s life, but it is surprisingly non-specific for being so long. I don’t really feel like I learned much of anything new from it. I would only recommend this if someone was very interested in Washington, and willing to accept the standard pro-federalist view of historical events.
Economics In One Lesson – Henry Hazlitt
I may end up ruffling a few feathers with this mini-review, but I have to be honest… I found this book to be a little disappointing. I’ve owned it for a couple years but never got around to reading it until just now. In the meantime, I’ve heard it constantly praised from some of the most brilliant political and economic minds I know. It’s usually described as the perfect beginner’s introduction to Austrian economics. Short, concise, clear – the perfect book to give to someone who may be interested in learning real economics, but doesn’t yet have the background to tackle Mises or Rothbard.
While all of that may be mostly true, and I still recommend reading it, I want to caution that it isn’t perfect. Although it is short and concise, I found more than a couple chapters where I didn’t feel the information was being presented simply enough for a beginner to understand. I was able to understand the key concepts being discussed mainly because I’ve been immersing myself in this field for a couple years now – but I just get the feeling that if I gave this book to a bright, generally well-educated but ignorant of economics friend, they would certainly get lost in some parts, as Hazlitt seems to take economic axioms that are common sense to Austrians (minimum wage causes unemployment, inflation is bad for consumers, etc.) for granted at times. Perhaps he didn’t foresee a future where the Keynesian worldview would become so dominant that the average person would require a great deal of convincing that these axioms are in fact true. This book also shares the minor flaw of Mises and Rothbard in that sometimes the language used dates the book a little, which may be off-putting to modern readers.
One last criticism I’d like to make regards the structure. I was really expecting something of a short overview of Austrian economics step-by-step. In actuality, the structure of this book is something of a hodgepodge of various fallacies being torn down chapter by chapter. While I’m all in favor of bashing fallacies, the order they are addressed in seems to be almost random. I really wasn’t able to figure out why the chapters were arranged the way they were. The chapter defending the profit motive, for example, I felt should have been one of the first of the book as it is a cornerstone of free market principles. Instead, it appears near the end.
That said, there’s still a lot of great stuff here. Many fallacies common in Hazlitt’s day still dominate today, and he definitely gives you the material to respond to them. This would be a good book to give to someone wanting to know more about Austrian economics, it just isn’t perfect, despite how many other people seem to insist it is.
John Stossel is one of, if not the most well-known libertarians among the general public. He does outstanding work presenting a simple and easily accessible case for freedom on his weekly show on Fox Business. Although he would probably fail a strenuously designed “purity test,” he’s right far more often than he is wrong, and he has a particularly unique gift for being able to persuade those who may be “on the fence,” as it were.
That is both his blessing, and his curse. To create material that is easily accessible to those who are still on the fence, one has to focus on results at the expense of deductive reasoning. One also has to be sure to phrase things in a manner that is palatable to those who are currently statists, and avoid too eagerly advocating for positions that might be considered “extreme.” Stossel can help convert people no doubt, but it comes at the cost of having to be very careful not to offend anyone.
I would say this book is an excellent choice to give to a friend who is considering libertarianism, but isn’t quite there yet. Those who already count themselves as fans of individual freedom might be better served with something a little more meaty from the likes of Tom Woods or Andrew Napolitano. One final note: This book contains numerous examples and anecdotes that have already been discussed at length on Stossel’s show, so if you are a regular viewer, be prepared to have a lot of stories and information repeated to you. Also, the video packages on his show are probably more “user friendly” so if you are trying to convert a friend, getting them to watch some episodes of his show (“Illegal Everything” is one of my favorites) is probably more likely to succeed than getting them to read this book.
Under The Loving Care Of The Fatherly Leader – Bradley Martin
This is a very long book (with detailed footnotes) that starts off as an exhaustive history of North Korea under the Kim dynasty, but about halfway through seems to shift focus into a series of stories from North Korean defectors, with less emphasis on major historical events, and more emphasis on describing the lives and circumstances of individual North Koreans. Both halves are interesting in their own right. The historical section is interesting as it sheds some light on how exactly this completely ridiculous situation in North Korea came to be, and the defector testimony section is interesting in presenting a wide variety of experiences of the North Korean population, rather than one monolithic existence which we often assume is the case.
The book does not deal with political ideology explicitly. It portrays specific actions of the Kims as evil, but refrains from making the connection between socialism/communism/totalitarianism and the pathetic living conditions of the average North Korean. At one point, the author tells of his visit to a North Korean tractor factory, where he is stunned to find that nobody at the factory can tell him exactly how much it costs to produce a tractor. This, of course, is a real-life example of Mises’ description of the impossibility of economic calculation under socialism. But the author does not seem to be too interested in that point. He brushes it off as “look how silly North Korea is” anecdote rather than examine how this problem (to one extent or another) exists among all government spending programs.
That said, there is a lot of value in this book. It will certainly get you up to speed on the history of North Korea, and is not especially biased in favor of the North in any way. I certainly believe that becoming more familiar with the facts surrounding the greatest failures of Communism can only help the cause of liberty.
Happiness Is A Serious Problem – Dennis Prager
Dennis Prager was basically the first political talk-show host I listened to on a regular basis. His political views are pretty much standard neocon stuff, and I’ve since evolved past them and stopped listening. However, when it comes to matters of religion and morality, he is absolutely interesting, and often talks about issues that you simply won’t hear discussed on regular talk shows.
One of his areas of expertise is happiness. Every Friday, the second hour of his show is the “Happiness Hour” where that is the only topic of discussion. This book provides a systematic framework of his beliefs and findings on happiness, and as such is an excellent primer that is literally capable of changing someone’s life. I highly recommend it, whether you believe happiness is an area of your life you need to improve or not. Prager’s work on happiness will certainly be his legacy, and it well deserves your time, even if you disagree with his political views.
Defending the Undefendable – Walter Block
Summary: This is by far one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. The book is, essentially, a collection of case studies in how to think like a common-sense economist. I say common sense rather than Austrian economist, simply because many of the arguments boil down to fairly basic economic theory rather than specific distinctions unique to the Austrian school. Rather than present the material in a dry, top-down, foundational treatise form (such as Rothbard’s “Man, Economy and State”), Walter Block offers a series of short, real-life examples in how the principles of economics can show us that “conventional wisdom” often misses the greater point.
One of my favorite aspects of this book is the variety. Even though almost every one of the “villains” that Block seeks to defend could be justified by the simple argument of “humans only engage in voluntary trade for mutual benefit,” he doesn’t simply rely on that in every chapter. Rather, he comes up with unique (and still relevant) defenses to almost every case, meaning that by the time you are finished with the book, you’ve been exposed to a wide variety of economic concepts and seen them applied to real life situations.
If I were teaching basic economics to a high-school or undergraduate class, I would prescribe this book as a text. I cannot think of any other book I have read that makes a clearer, more easily understood case for freedom and liberty, while at the same time training your brain to “think like an economist.” This is an all-time classic, and we all owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Block for writing it.
Theodore and Woodrow: How Two American Presidents Destroyed Constitutional Freedom – Andrew P. Napolitano
I have to say that I was a little disappointed in this book. I had very high hopes, as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson are presidents that are highly regarded despite being absolutely terrible, but I haven’t actually read a lot about them, and was hoping this book would give me a good education on where and how they went wrong. Now, in fairness to The Judge, he said in press interviews (and also in the introduction of the book) that this is not a biography, but rather a case against them. I was pretty okay with that, as I figured it would just mean that the book would go light on biographical details (such as their lives outside of politics, childhood, death, etc.) but still focus on the progressive era and their specific policies. Instead, the main pattern of this book is to vaguely refer to some progressive cause that Roosevelt and Wilson championed, and then start talking about where the issue stands today. In my mind, this book focused entirely too much on current events, and actually dealt with current issues more specifically than the history of the progressive era. I would have definitely preferred more “red meat” on Wilson and Roosevelt and less summation of where we stand today, which has been pretty thoroughly covered in other sources (including the Judge’s last book). However, as it stands, this book is an excellent overview of the libertarian positions on the “issues of the day” and would be great to give or recommend to neocons who are aware of The Judge from his appearances on Fox News and Glenn Beck and might be willing to listen to him and give his positions some serious thought. For those of us who are already committed to freedom and liberty, this book offers some nice overviews of the cause, but not a whole lot of new information. It’s still The Judge and it’s still good, but if you are already familiar with the basic arguments for liberty, your time is probably better spent reading Mises, Rothbard, or anything else that’s a little heavier and in-depth.
One Nation Under Debt – Robert E. Wright
The subtitle for this book is “Hamilton, Jefferson, and the History of What We Owe.” I bought it expecting a thorough history of the national debt from colonial times to present day. It certainly isn’t that, at all. The vast majority of the book covers a very small period of time, from about 1776 – 1820 or so. The book essentially ends with the Jackson administration paying off the debt, and after that there’s a very brief summation of “and then we ran it up and it’s kind of a problem now.” It mostly covers the financing of the revolution, and then a large section of slurping over Hamilton. Jefferson is mostly dismissed as an ignoramus who had an irrational fear of the debt for populist reasons. There’s also a quite lengthy chapter providing very short biographies of people who happened to own early federal debt, for some reason. Overall the book is quite boring and does not deliver at all on what I was expecting. Not recommended. Your time is much better spent elsewhere.
Rollback is a essentially Tom Woods making a very brief summary of his case against large, out of control government. I’m a huge fan of Tom, but not so much of this seemingly standard type of book, a very basic summation of libertarian principles, with examples of government ineptitude thrown in. This would be an excellent book to give to someone who might be on the fence when it comes to personal freedom and the need for large government programs. But for someone like me, who is already sold on liberty, there just isn’t quite enough substance here. I already know that the Pentagon wastes money, so 15 pages of examples of that doesn’t really do a whole lot for me, other than make me a little irritated. As far as these types of books go though, this one is as good as any.
Ludwig von Mises – Human Action
I just recently finished reading the classic economics treatise that represents the foundations of Austrian economics. There isn’t a whole lot to say here that hasn’t already been said by people much more knowledgeable than I. If you’re familiar with Austrian Economics, you know what you’re going to get with this book. I would not recommend it to those new to Austrian Economics, as it can be pretty tough to get through sometimes. I also found the organizational structure to be a bit confusing. Some of the chapters on money and interest were still well over my head. That said, there is still a ton of great stuff here, especially in regards to the basic concepts of praxeology and political theory. Required reading for those who aspire to be familiar with Austrian Economics, but make sure you’re prepared for it first!
Robert Bryce – Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future
This is a very informative book that provides a no-nonsense look at the energy situation facing our country specifically and the world in general. Robert Bryce does not seem to be a libertarian by any means, he regularly calls for government intervention, tax breaks and subsidies, and seems to generally support the global warming hypothesis. That said, his complete take-down of the near uselessness of solar and wind power combined with his refusal to decry coal and oil as completely evil will probably cause him to be viewed as a crazy, biased, planet-hating conservative by most of the population. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in energy issues as it sums up where our power comes from, and how ridiculously impossible it would be to meet our needs with “green” energy without putting millions of people into abject poverty. Lots of statistics, graphs, and tables that paint the facts without a whole lot of political posturing. Highly recommended.
Peter Schiff – How an Economy Grows and Why it Crashes
Peter Schiff is a prominent Austrian economist well known for correctly predicting the housing bubble several years in advance. He also hosts a daily radio show that is an excellent source of economic and financial information as well as general news coverage with a pro-liberty slant. This book is essentially an attempt at the “Economics for Dummies” genre. Peter tells a well-developed story that consists of “desert island economics” that never really leaves the desert island. The book is short, amusing, and easy to read. Essentially, the two halves of the book are somewhat different and serve different purposes. The first half is a simplified explanation of how economics works, showing why free markets produce prosperity. It’s the type of book you would give an intelligent middle or high-school student to help them understand economics without the keynesian spin. The second half gets a little more complicated, and stops being a general overview of economics in lieu of becoming something akin to a humorous parody of the actions of keynesians (from LBJ and Nixon up through Bernanke and Obama). Overall, it’s worth reading, and would be a great gift for a young person with limited economic knowledge.
Cody Lundin – When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need to Survive When Disaster Strikes
Becoming a libertarian often means beginning to take an interest in survivalist stuff, off-grid living, etc. This is the first survival book I ever purchased and read, and I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed. My main gripe with this book is that it doesn’t delve into much specifics on anything. There are chapters devoted to various categories (food, water, shelter, temperature, etc.) and almost every chapter provides some pretty basic common-sense guidelines followed by a comment like “a detailed discussion of this stuff is beyond the scope of this book.” So while I don’t think it taught me all that much, it is still a very nice general reference to have around. Some of the examples are a little over the top, it’s almost as if the author is simply trying way too hard to be entertaining. Also he sometimes comes across as using the book to promote his survival school and courses. But as I said, I will keep it handy in case something ever goes down. Another positive aspect is that this book doesn’t just focus on the obvious things like food and water, it also covers things you may easily forget in your survival plans such as communication and sanitation (and yes, it even tells you how to dispose of a dead body). If you’re completely new to this stuff this book may be of use to you, but I have to believe there are better options out there for people who are serious about such things.
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