An incomplete list in no particular order:
Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed – James C Scott. A grim but fascinating history of ‘high modernism’, a political ideology focused on making ‘messy’ societies and economies more ‘rational’. A highlight is the chapter on Le Corbusier, the ghastly French city planner, and the chapter on Tanzania’s ujamaa villagization programme.
Monetary Policy in the 2008-09 Recession – Robert Hetzel. This chapter of Hetzel’s book more or less convinced me that monetary policy is what turned the financial crisis into a long, deep recession.
A Crisis of Politics, Not Economics: Complexity, Ignorance and Policy Failure – Jeffrey Friedman. An excellent account of the 2008 financial crisis that is used as a hook for a broader point about the fundamental problem with regulation that ignorance in a complex world poses.
Democracy, the Market and the Logic of Social Choice – Samuel DeCanio. If we know very little about the world (which is both complex and ever-changing), we need some way of learning about it and deciding how to use resources. This paper argues that markets, having numerous different products and production methods, offer a better system of ‘trial-and-error’ to the collective decision making that takes place through political mechanisms.
The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics – Philip E. Converse. Most people are very ignorant about politics. This might imply that we should have rule by elites. This paper suggests that there is a trade-off between knowledge and open-mindedness that undermines that implication. I’ve written about this here and here.
The Constitution of Liberty – FA Hayek. This book makes a strong case for individual liberty to facilitate progress, because individual ‘experiments in living’ (both social and economic) allow for the sort of trial-and-error process that we need to learn about the world and improve on things. The third section of this book is a slightly strangely mundane political-economic reform agenda, and is now quite anachronistic, but what is interesting about it is just how unlibertarian so many of Hayek’s policy recommendations are.
The Use of Knowledge in Society – FA Hayek. A classic paper about the distribution of knowledge among individuals and the difficulty people face in trying to make decisions about things on a large scale. I think Hayek over-emphasises the role of ‘local knowledge’, though, and now prefer to think in terms of total, uniform blindness that is basically only overcome by accident (‘trial and error’ yet again!).
What’s Wrong With Libertarianism – Jeffrey Friedman. Friedman argues that libertarians attempt to ‘waterproof’ their worldview by shifting from a consequentialist ‘This is the best way to a rich, happy world’ position to a ‘This is synonymous with justice’ position based on natural rights or something like them. The latter is easy to defend but philosophically quite weak (I would say untrue). Friedman suggests that this ‘superstructure’ needs to be dismantled, and I agree. This has had a big influence on my own ‘libertarianism’.
Raise the Crime Rate – Christopher Glazek. Prison rape in America is quite well known about but very few people realise the scale of the problem. Assuming that people in jail do not deserve to be raped (which is something many people would disagree with, I think), reducing incidences of prison rape should be a very high priority for most people. Glazek ends with quite enjoyably radical suggestions about how to do this.
Why Nerds are Unpopular – Paul Graham. This could alternatively be called ‘Why school is awful’.
The Triviality of the Debate Over ‘Is-Ought’ and the Definition of ‘Moral’ – Peter Singer. I have trouble with meta-ethics and wonder if any meta-ethical position is really defensible, but I think Singer’s position (which I believe is just a restatement of RM Hare’s) is probably the most acceptably simple.
Practical Ethics – Peter Singer, especially this chapter on taking human life (especially re: abortion). I think some form of utilitarianism is basically true, although I sometimes wonder if my preference utilitarianism is in fact hedonic utilitarianism (if a preference is satisfied but its owner doesn’t realise it, is the world better off?). That question aside, Singer gives the clearest and most interesting discussion of difficult moral questions that I have read. His position on abortion and infanticide is well-known and I find it difficult to disagree with him. I also find it frustrating when other people who are pro-abortion use evasive language or reasoning to avoid what seems to me to be the logical (if repugnant) conclusion of their positions.
The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins. One of the few books on biology I have read. Very persuasive on individual vs group selection and the implications that this has for understanding human and animal behaviour.
How Richard Dawkins Got Pwned and An Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives – Mencius Moldbug (Both very long. Moldbuggery is a collection of Moldbug’s writing.) I am not a neo-reactionary, but sometimes I think Mencius Moldbug is the greatest living political thinker. His claim that progressivism is a non-theistic sect of Protestantism, with all of Protestantism’s evangelism and intolerance of heresy, is in particular very persuasive to me. I also think ‘neocamaralism’ is quite a cool model for a state and I’d like to see it tried out somewhere.
Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk? – Michael Clemens. A review of existing estimates of how much wealth could be created by abolishing controls over international (a) trade, (b) capital flows and (c) labour mobility. The gains from free movement of labour are so enormous that it is hard to see how any controls could be justified in a cost-benefit analysis.
The significance of monetary disequilibrium – Leland B. Yeager. This paper more or less explains why price and wage stickiness are really important and interact with fluctuations in NGDP to have an enormous impact on the wider economy. Goes well with the Hetzel paper above.
My friend Ben wrote his equivalent list here. There is a lot of overlap between his list and mine. This is primarily because Ben is extremely smart and I get many of my ideas (and new music) from him.