The Books that Influenced Me the Most

Tyler Cowen recently started a meme of asking bloggers to list the books that influenced them the most. Here’s Tyler’s list. Some others that I found interesting are Bryan Caplan, Matthew Yglesias, and Jay Elias. I found it interesting that there is so little overlap between my list, Caplan’s and Cowen’s, even though we are all libertarians and have many common interests. Anyway, here is my list, in rough chronological order of when I read the books:

1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. This book stimulated a lifelong love of fantasy and science fiction. I also was taken with Tolkien’s message of suspicion of power and the importance of individual responsibility.

2. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty. I wasn’t a libertarian yet when I read this book, and Mill’s ideas moved me in that direction, though it’s hard to say how much was his influence and how much was due to the fact that what he said matched up well with my preexisting intuitions. Be that as it may, Mill’s excellent exposition at least helped me organize those intuitions into a more coherent set of ideas.

3. Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom. This book and the closely related Free to Choose introduced me to free market economics (my father persuaded me to read it, for which I will always be grateful).

4. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. I am much less impressed with this book today than when I first read it. But this was the work that first won me over to libertarianism back when I was 15. I still think that Nozick’s critique of John Rawls is devastating, and like his coining of the expression “capitalist acts between consenting adults.”

5. John Locke, Second Treatise of Government. I was much influenced by Locke’s defense of property rights, social contract theory, government by consent, and revolution against oppressive regimes.

6. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice. I was very impressed with Austen’s ability to interest me in a subject that I would normally have found boring. Also, I spent a lot of time reflecting on Austen’s emphasis on the importance of paying attention to social cues and close observation of the people we interact with – the lack of which skills was always a weakness of mine.

7. Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions. This was the book that first led me to recognize the importance of knowledge and ignorance to the question of the appropriate role of government in society. The central idea underpinning Sowell’s book is derived from F.A. Hayek’s classic article, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” which I read at roughly the same time, and would be on this list if it were a book.

8. Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action. Much of my research focuses on collective action problems, and Olson’s classic work clued me in to the importance of these issues.

9. Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy. Downs first developed the idea of rational political ignorance, which underpins much of my work on democracy, constitutional theory, and political knowledge. He also introduced several other important ideas that have influenced my view of the democratic process.

10. Timur Kuran, Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification. My favorite modern social science book, and the best book I have ever read on how political oppression operates.

11. Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless. This was the most insightful and influential book I ever read about life under communism and totalitarianism more generally.

12. Richard Epstein, Takings: Private Property and Eminent Domain. Epstein’s book got me thinking about the importance of constitutional property rights and also introduced me to the idea that the Constitution, properly interpreted, protects property rights far more than modern courts have been willing to do. I have some reservations about Epstein’s approach to these issues. But it’s had a big influence on me nonetheless.

13. John Hart Ely, Democracy and Distrust: A Theory of Judicial Review. I was significantly influenced by Ely’s idea that judicial review can and should be used to strengthen democracy, though I strongly disagree with him on many of the details of how this should be done (as well as with Ely’s argument that this is almost the only legitimate role for judicial review).

14. Bruce Ackerman, We the People: Foundations. As with Ely’s book above, I don’t really agree with this one. But it got me thinking about the importance of both normative and positive theories of constitutional change. I was also persuaded by Ackerman’s arguments that we have drifted far away from the text and original meaning of the Constitution, that most of our major constitutional changes have come outside the formal amendment process, and that any serious constitutional theory has to deal with these realities, not hide from them.

15. Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter. Bryan’s idea of “rational irrationality” is an essential complement to the theory of political knowledge and ignorance, and led me to reformulate many of my own ideas on this issue which is central to my own work.

Just missing the cut: Bill James, Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?, which led me to take a much more intellectually sophisticated approach to being a sports fan (one of my favorite hobbies).

I should perhaps emphasize that these aren’t necessarily the best 15 books I have ever read (though I think all of them are very good), just the ones that influenced me the most.

An interesting concluding thought: there are more left of center writers on this list (five, not counting Mill) than I would have expected before I started to think about it: Downs, Olson, Havel, Ackerman, and Ely. Sowell is the only social conservative, and Knowledge and Decisions is almost entirely focused on the libertarian side of his ideas.

UPDATE: A commenter asks why I didn’t count Tolkien as a social conservative. I probably should have. But I didn’t think of his work in primarily political terms. Also, his quasi-anarchist political views coexisted uneasily with his conservative traditionalist leanings.

UPDATE #2: Tyler Cowen has links to a bunch of other bloggers who made lists similar to this one.