My Top 10 Most Influential Books:

I love lists and I love books, so how can I not chime in with my Top 10 most influential books:

1.  F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Volume 1, “Rules and Order”: The most thorough development of the idea of spontaneous order, which in my view is the single most important idea in social science reasoning.

2.  Thomas Sowell, “A Conflict of Visions”: It shows the underlying fault lines that divide the way people see the world.  Also has been important to me as a professor to understand that not all my students nor many academic colleagues share my “constrained” vision (law & economics) of the world, so to be an effective teacher I have to appreciate the unconstrained vision as well.  Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (which I read about the same time as Sowell), makes similar points in a different style.

3.  Matt Ridley, “The Origins of Virtue” and “the Red Queen”: Ridley’s accessible introductions to evolutionary psychology (sexual selection and the evolution of cooperation, respectively) fundamentally changed the way I think about the world.  Also Frans de Waal, “Good Natured” on the evolution of empathy and cooperation.

4.  Pope Benedict XVI: Spe Salvi.  The meaning of life revealed.  CS Lewis, “Surprised by Joy” and Whittaker Chambers “Witness” were also influential in a more personal way.

5.  Charles Murray, “Losing Ground”: Good intentions do not make good consequences.  And my first exposure to the use of data and statistics to explore the actual consequences of social policies.  Walter Williams, “The State Against Blacks” was another early book that influenced me in this vein.

6.  William Manchester, “The Last Lion”: How one man changed the shape of history.  I know a lot of libertarians don’t like Churchill.  I think he saved the free world.

7.  Ayn Rand, “The Fountainhead”: I read them all in college and they inspired me at the time and I remember reading The Fountainhead first.  After the obligatory stage of being completely insufferable about Rand’s books I still appreciate their inspirational value today even if I don’t agree with her full philosophy (see, e.g., entry 4 above).  Now I’m just insufferable about different things.  Rand was also important to me because back in those days it was fashionable to espouse the view that Communism was “great in theory but just couldn’t work in practice.”  Rand (along with Hayek’s Road to Serfdom) helped me toward an understanding of why Communism was evil in theory as well.

8.  Rosenberg & Birdzell, “How the West Grew Rich”: My first introduction to the institutional foundations of freedom and prosperity and still one of the most useful.  Also, Michael Novak, “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism,” which was the first place that I came across the idea of thinking of the foundations of a free and prosperous country as a three-legged stool of sound economic policies, sound constitutional and political institutions, and the importance of a health civil society and mediating institutions.

9.  Mancur Olson, “A Theory of Collective Action”: Explains basic dynamics of public choice theory.  I’d certainly put Gordon Tullock, “The Welfare Costs of Tariffs, Monopoly, and Theft” here, but since this is a book list and that’s an article, I’ll have to list Olson.  I note, however, in my opinion Olson’s book is so poorly written it is virtually unreadable.  Luckily, the central insight is pretty simple to grasp.  I’d also put The Federalist Papers and Buchanan & Tullock, “The Calculus of Consent” as influencing the way I think about Constitutions (in response to the Olson and Tullock dilemmas).  I think of Burke’s “Reflections” and Joseph de Maistre, “Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions” as the response to the Buchanan & Tullock model of constitutions as the product of reasoned precommitment.

10.  Shelby Steele, “White Guilt”: Despite the seemingly-narrow title, this is actually a book about the decline of the legitimacy of the traditional establishment in the United States and the institutional and moral vacuum that has resulted.  The lessons of the book are applicable to virtually every traditional establishment institution in America, from politics, to corporations, to elite universities, to the mainline Protestant churches.  The real questions that the book leaves hanging is “What comes next?” and what, if anything, will fill the void.  Will the future bring increasing chaos and increasing fragmentation, order imposed by and for the benefit of a cynical and self-interested elite, or some beneficent new form of order and establishment?

11.  And while this is really intended to be a 10 entry list, I would be remiss to not add at least a few law books.  The first is Richard Posner, Economic Analysis of Law.  The second is Thomas Jackson, The Logic and Limits of Bankruptcy, which is the standard work on the law and economics approach to bankruptcy.  These two books are basically the bookends of my legal academic research program, so I would be greatly remiss to not include them.

For what it is worth, of the list above, the only ones that I actually was assigned to read in college were Burke, de Maistre, and one or two of the Federalist Papers.  And that was because I happened to have one unusual professor, now retired, who was a true conservative.  All of the others I had to find on my own, originally through the Foundation for Economic Education and later through the Institute for Humane Studies.

Bonus Entries:

Although these books are not influential in the same way as above, I give you a few more influential books for paticular purposes:


George Will, “Men at Work”: a great look at the inside game of baseball.

Michael Lewis, “Moneyball”: Another great look inside baseball.

David Maraniss, “When Pride Still Mattered”: A book about a lot of things, including American society in the 50′s, but also just a great football book that explains why Lombardi was such a pivotal figure in the history of football.  In a nutshell, Maraniss argues that pre-Lombardi pro football was basically the same as college.  But Lombardi’s insight was that because NFL teams could stay together for many years, their strategies and tactics could be much more complicated than college.  That tradition continues down to today, as the intellectual sophistication of pro football today is really quite extraordinary.

Music: Will Friedwald, “The Song is You”: A great book about the artistry of Frank Sinatra as well as implicitly about the rise of the Great American Songbook.

Literature: without slighting any of the obvious choices, an often-overlooked gem to me is Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove.”  A marvelous story about friendship among men.  Also, Thomas Wolfe, “Radical Chic” was a hilarious and thought-provoking read long ago.

Update: Apologies for the initial typo in the Holy Father’s Roman numeral which has been corrected.

Update 2: I’m chastened by a note from Aeon Skoble that I somehow forgot to add Harold Berman’s fantastic “Law and Revolution” to my list.  Not sure what I’d bump, but it has to go on there somewhere!