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Great Books on Politics and Public Policy from 2017

The last twelve months have seen a flurry of new books on politics, economics, and public policy hit the Amazon warehouse shelves. Since last year’s precedent-shattering general election, for example, it seems that everyone involved with national politics is writing a campaign tell-all memoir. As we observed with last year’s post on best books of the year, however, sifting the popular hot takes from thoughtful and lasting analysis can be challenging. With that in mind, the CEI staff presents our picks for must-reads from 2017.

Senior Fellow John Berlau brings us back to our nation’s founding ideas:

In 2017, Kevin J. Hayes wrote a unique biography of George Washington that is of interest not only to libertarians, but to everyone who wants to learn from Washington’s example in order to better our country and to better themselves.

Hayes’ George Washington: A Life in Books, published by Oxford University Press, is the first intellectual autobiography of the Father of our Country. It attempts—and largely succeeds—at detailing the books Washington read and the role they played during different periods of his life.

This is a monumental task, because unlike Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin—two Founding Fathers we tend to think of (not necessarily correctly) as more intellectual than Washington—Washington never put memoirs or an autobiography to paper. But he did leave behind detailed diaries he had written since he was a teenager. He also kept nearly all receipts for purchases that he made, including those of books.

Piecing these things together, along with the inventory of Washington’s libraries at Mount Vernon and his various properties, Hayes is able to give a comprehensive summary of the many books that most likely influenced Washington. Of particular interest to libertarians is that Washington owned a copy of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, the 1776 classic tome making the case against mercantilism and for capitalism, and made notes in the book’s margins. Also of special importance is the story of Washington’s friendship and patronage of passionate liberty advocate Thomas Paine before their falling out over the French Revolution.

Full disclosure: Next year, I hope my book on Washington’s entrepreneurship and innovation, to be published by St. Martin’s Press in July, will make many folks’ Top Ten lists.

Executive Vice President Jim Harper recommends a look into the future of legal theory:

For law and legal practice nerds, Gillian Hadfield’s Rules for a Flat World was a fascinating 2017 contribution. Never mind the allusion to Thomas Friedman’s 2005 “flat world” book. Hadfield engagingly documents how both law and legal practice have failed to keep up with the needs of a global economy. Costs and complexity are entangling and strangling productivity, depriving consumers of the even greater benefits industry and commerce would now be providing if they could. The solutions Hadfield discusses don’t obviously meet the challenge. One can imagine some of them creating yet another layer of bureaucracy. For some readers, the book’s greatest indictment is issued by silence. It makes scant mention of common law, doesn’t cite Richard Epstein’s Simple Rules for a Complex World, and never mentions the greatest exponent of bottom-up lawmaking, Bruno Leoni. Hadfield is no doctrinaire opponent of these ideas. Fifty years after Leoni’s death, the libertarian legal community has not given his ideas the salience they should have.

The director of CEI’s Center for Energy and Environment, Myron Ebell, highlights two books that expose politicized science:  

I recommend two policy books published during the past year: Scare Pollution: Why and How to Fix the EPA by Steve Milloy and Green Tyranny: Exposing the Totalitarian Roots of the Climate Industrial Complex by Rupert Darwall.

Steve Milloy has been working for nearly three decades to expose the use of junk science in the regulatory process. In Scare Pollution, he comprehensively and convincingly demolishes the Environmental Protection Agency’s claims that atmospheric levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) are a leading cause of human mortality. The EPA has used these phony claims, based on two secret epidemiological studies, to produce enormous collateral benefits that offset the enormous costs of many Clean Air Act regulations, including the Obama Administration’s regulation of carbon dioxide emissions from coal and natural gas power plants. Milloy has written a wrecking ball of a book that also tells a good story. 

Rupert Darwall’s Green Tyranny is a sequel to The Age of Global Warming: a History, published in 2013.  While his first book provides an account of the intellectual sources of the global warming movement from an English and American perspective, Green Tyranny focuses on the less well-known background in Sweden and Germany. Darwall shows that the climate industrial complex has totalitarian roots both in the National Socialist Party (the first green party in power), and in the Frankfurt School of cultural Marxism. Darwall goes on to discuss the threats to our freedom of speech and democratic institutions posed by the totalitarian mindset of global warming alarmists. It’s an impressive piece of scholarship written in a lucid style. 

CEI Fellow Ryan Young recommends WTF?!: An Economic Tour of the Weird by Pete Leeson of George Mason University, a recent book that ties together the work of Adam Smith and David Hume. Below is an excerpt of a review by our friend Isaac Morehouse of Praxis:

…the book combines eight real world behaviors that make you say “WTF?!”, derived from Leeson’s research and published papers.  Everything from shaking a poisoned chicken to settle a slight, to convicting insects and rodents of crimes in a court of law are examined, revealing sensible, even brilliant logic. The theme over and again is simple but profound: given the constraints (beliefs, resources, etc.) they face, people behave in rational ways to seek their ends.  Yes, trial by combat and wife sales are rational actions in context.

But what makes the content in WTF?! really stand out is the form. Leeson’s academic work is accessible, but this book is downright fun. It’s like Ripley’s Believe it Or Not; enjoyable as much for entertainment as enlightenment. Acting as a tour guide, Leeson describes strange phenomena and their rationale, while engaging colorful characters on the tour who ask many of the questions readers are thinking. The guide pokes fun at them, and himself, shares barbs and insults, and connects to stories from his own childhood.

You don’t need to care one bit about economics or social theory to enjoy this book. Conversely, if you hate fun and frivolity and care only for social science, you’ll find serious economic theory in WTF?!

And my own pick is the fascinating but not-exactly-optimistic statistical analysis of labor trends by Nicholas Eberstadt: Men without Work: America's Invisible Crisis. Technically this book was published in the last quarter of 2016, but it had most of its impact over the last year, so I’m making it an honorary 2017 title.

Even at a time when we’re being told that unemployment rates are the lowest they’ve been in decades, Eberstadt keeps his eye on the number that’s not in the news—the labor force participation or work rate, which includes all of the long-term unemployed people that the official unemployment rate excludes. He makes a compelling case that the number of able-bodied American men who are neither working nor looking for work in the long term should alarm us all.

Eberstadt summarized his argument in May 2017 for the Milken Institute Review:

While there are a dozen plausible reasons for the shocking result of the 2016 presidential election, the discontent of white men lacking college degrees ranks high on most lists. And no small part of that discontent is linked to their diminishing role in the workplace.

Over the past two generations, America has suffered a quiet catastrophe in the collapse of work for men. In the half-century between 1965 and 2015, work rates (the ratio of employment to population) for the American male spiraled relentlessly downward — a seeming flight from work in which ever-greater numbers of working-age men exited the labor force altogether. America is now home to an army of prime-working-age men, some seven million of them ages 25 to 54, who no longer even look for work. Consider a single fact: in 2015, the work-rate of males aged 25 to 54 was slightly lower than it had been in 1940, when the official unemployment rate was 14.6 percent and the United States was just coming out of a decade of depression in which the search for work was usually futile.

Please also visit our friends at the Cato Institute for a video of their book forum on Men without Work from earlier this year featuring Ebertsadt and my former CEI colleagues David Bier and Alex Nowrasteh.