Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Some Summer Readings

This intense summer with readings, Deflation-research and Mises Institute fellowship took a turn for slow-motion after both roadtrips/travels and family time. That didn't stop Life of an Econ Student from going forward with what really matters: reading, and reading broad and wide and way beyond the limits of familiar territory. As John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty:
He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.
That openness for other ideas and ability to challenge one's position has always been fundamental to me and was one of the reasons I first started blogging. Note: that doesn't mean one has to accept every nonsense under the sun on the premise that "different perspectives matters". Sure, they do. But not if they're nonsensical or straight-out incorrect? Away with them.

Instead of doing a long-robust review of every book I've read, as I usually do, I'll simply make a brief summary of the most important ones (I may come back to some of the interesting ones in later topics).

Guido Hülsmann's biography of Ludwig von Mises' life, The Last Knight of Liberalism was a fascinating read, the extensive story of Mises' life and, despite its 1050 pages, a brilliant way of getting into Austrian Economics. These days I actually recommend it over more accessible and densely-packed books such as Murphy's Choice mostly because of its easy-going prose. It may be 1050 pages long, but you can read a hundred pages in one sitting, and it explains not only the most important concepts of Austrian Econ, but Mises' context and his opponents' positions. The few things that annoyed me were the tiny little phrases and prose about unknowable things that make the book so easy to read (comments on Mises' determinism and fortitude, the "brilliance in his eyes", "his desire for more")  all unobservable and unrecorded things Hülsmann the scholar has sacrificed in favour of Hülsmann the storyteller. Having a fair background in Austrian econ, what I most enjoyed were the random stories about his life: his awful capacities as a driver; well-known people he met such as first nobel laureate Jan Tinbergen (p. 691) or that he shared a bus ride through France avoiding the Nazis together with Charles Kindleberger (p. 755); that Mises and Margit’s apartment in New York was subject to rent-control (p. 809); the absolutely ingenious way Mises accessed his money in English Bank accounts during the war (because of war-time foreign exchange controls, Hayek, disposing Mises’ bank account in London could not simply send it to him in New York; instead he bought precious books and shipped them across the Atlantic so that Mises could then re-sell them in New York, p. 798). Another favourite is the excerpt from a letter to Richard Ware in 1957 where Mises agrees with me on the naïve “decentralisation for decentralisation’s sake”-case most libertarians are incessantly convinced about  especially since Brexit (p. 993). All in all, a great and pleasant read.

Niall Ferguson is an old favourite of mine, and all the criticism he receives for politically-incorrect statements and controversial research projects only add to my fascination. Re-reading his blast of a book, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World was eye-opening and surprisingly relevant for my upcoming Oxford courses. I can't believe how many things I missed the first time I read it, and this reminder was very useful indeed. Smoothly does Ferguson jump from 17th century Britain to early-, mid- and late- stage Empire, with frequent visits to India's Civil Service and the Indian Mutiny; to Australia, Macquarie (who was Scottish!) and the early establishment of that colony; to Canada and its relation to Home Rule, to the U.S. Revolution and to various wars and conflicts. In his overall quest to show and prove that the Empire was not only horrible colonialism and slavery, we encounter many familiar faces (Livingstone and Churchill, Rhodes and Rothschild) and unfamiliar legends (composer of song 'Amazing Grace' was a slave-trader; Boston Tea Party was not about taxes raised; the table shaped as Africa making my Game of Thrones heart ache; Rhodes' plan of a railway connecting Cape Town and Cairo, drawn as a straight-line; some of the most brilliant mathematicians ever  Francis Galton and Karl Pearson  and their deep involvement in eugenics). Ultimately his case defending the British empire boils down to a) well, British institutions did enrich countries, making them better off than they otherwise would have been, and b) the realistic alternative was not independence and Kum-ba-yah, it was Japanese or Russian or French colonialism, which allegedly was much worse. Say what you will about that conclusion, its rich content and detailed narrative is beautiful indeed, and compulsary for every historian.

What bothers me in his writing the same as Eichengreen in Hall of Mirrors: the inexactitude of sources. Ferguson is such an authority that I'm willing to take his word on faith, but a reference list that refers to an entire chapter rather than a sentence, section or paragrah is enfuriating  how am I going to find that particular piece of information?! This is pop-history, after all, and I have to accept that Ferguson takes certain liberties with the format.

In what may very well have been the best reading all summer, one of my absolute favourite historians  Bob Higgs  renders an outstanding description of the road to political power and Big Government. In Crisis and Leviathan he convincingly and seriously outlines how and why the American government grew so large. Beginning in late-19th century he runs through the critical moments of government abuse, emphasising how crises  and particularly war  with their introduction of "temporary" and "emergency" measures, have been absolutely essential in violating rights of private property. Once those abuses have happened, it was so much easier for later governments even in peacetime or post-crisis time to invoke them again, and again and again. In his story, the role of ideology as a counterveiling measure is the only thing preventing a government creating or responding to a crisis from setting the government on a never-ending growth trajectory. This is also the book where he develops the famous concept of a Ratchet Effect; post-crisis government size does fall back from its crisis-broated level, but never to its original point, ensuring an ever-increasing government:

His story is meticulous and ridiculously-well researched (it's published by Oxford University Press, after all) and his immense number of citation have acted as a role model for my own writing. If there's anything I dislike about it, its his use of the Supreme Court as a proxy or measure for ideology, rather than some way of describing the wider public. I'd much rather see some kind of World Values Survey description for how the average man in the street has gradually accepted a much larger government. Mises says so, as do pretty much every political scientist around: in the long run, every government rules by popular consent only. We can, as Higgs does, describe exactly how American government grew to its current size, but what sustains it is the belief of its subjects.

A productive summer indeed. Check out the next part of my Summer Reading overview, including Bagus' In Defense of Deflation, my excursion into Immigration Economics (hum.. Borjas), and Desrocher's controversial The Locavore's Dilemma from a few years back.

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