Holiday Book Recommendations

November/​December 2015 • Policy Report

Eat the Rich and Parliament of Whores
by P. J. O’Rourke
As I’ve written before, these two books would make a better course in political economy than you’re likely to get in most colleges. In Parliament of Whores O’Rourke sets out to discover why government grows so large and intrusive and ends up blaming special interests, democracy, and “us.” This is the book that gave us an insight so profound that Cato put it on a T‐​shirt (available at store​.cato​.org). “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

In Eat the Rich, which I think is the single best introductory book on economics, he starts with the right question: “Why do some places prosper and thrive while others just suck?” Supply‐​and‐​demand curves are all well and good, but what we really want to know is how not to be mired in poverty. So he headed off to Sweden, Hong Kong, Albania, Cuba, Tanzania, Russia, China, and Wall Street to find out what works. P. J. O’Rourke is one of the funniest writers around. But what people often miss when they talk about his humor is what a good reporter and what an insightful analyst he is.

Carry on, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
P.G. Wodehouse has been called “the greatest musician of the English language.” He certainly has a light, elegant touch on the typewriter keys, especially in his Jeeves and Wooster stories, about a bumbling young gentleman (Bertie Wooster) and his staggeringly brilliant valet (Jeeves). But it’s difficult to recommend a particular book or short story as the ideal entry‐​point into the series, which is comprised of numerous short stories. Many of the books will do the trick nicely. Consider, for instance, the collection: Carry on, Jeeves, which includes the story of the main characters’ first meeting (“Without the Option”).

At a conference several decades ago, the long‐​serving Institute of Economic Affairs director John Blundell was asked if he was optimistic that liberals (in the classical sense) and libertarian policy could ultimately gain ground versus the status quo statism. He emphatically declared that he was optimistic, because if he were not he would be forced to stay at home in bed all day reading P. G. Wodehouse and drinking champagne, instead of just doing that for half the day, as he claimed to already be doing. Reading Jeeves and Wooster stories is indeed a restorative, morale‐​boosting activity, and it teaches a great deal about writing in the process. That makes Wodehouse a good prescription for libertarian readers.

Richard II
by William Shakespeare
Another great, but far graver musician of the language gave us the play Richard II, which is less widely read than it deserves. Not only is it one of the few written entirely in verse, but it has some excellent character development and soliloquies. Dark stuff, but great. Also, Henry IV is a vastly better story (and play, if you ask me) than the better‐​known Henry V.

Foucault’s Pendulum
by Umberto Eco
Also, I recommend a book that was not written in English but has been well translated: Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. The man is incredibly erudite! Fluent in several languages — living and dead. He seems to know every corner of Europe and much of the world beyond. In this book he weaves a wonderful tale of conspiracies interleaved into world history so cleverly that it is often hard to discern where reality ends and fiction begins. Can be a bit slow to get into, but ultimately a rewarding read. A book I’ve reread twice.

Cyrano de Bergerac
by Edmond Rostand
Finally, consider Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac if you read French. If you don’t, this book alone is worth the effort of learning it. The entire play is not only in verse but in rhyme — something not even Shakespeare gave us. Astonishingly, novelist Anthony Burgess managed to produce a rhyming English translation that preserves the “alexandrine” poetic structure. His translation is a work of poetry in its own right — he finds ways of tweaking the lines so that they not only rhyme and scan in English but so that they capture the feelings and ideas of the original. It is an amazing achievement.


Pelle’s New Suit by Elsa Beskow
In the picture book Pelle’s New Suit by Elsa Beskow (1910), little Pelle needs new clothes and begins by shearing wool from the pet lamb he takes care of. He asks his grandmother to card it and she agrees if he will weed her carrot patch. His other grandmother will spin the carded wool into yarn if he will look after her cows in the meantime. The painter says that while paint is no good for coloring yarn, if Pelle will fetch him some turpentine he happens to need from the general store, he can use the change to buy a packet of dye. So Pelle rows off to accomplish that task (yes, rows; this is Sweden, and they might all just live in an archipelago). Amid delicate drawings of village life, this is first a lesson in doing chores with a willing hand, but also a gentle parable in production, exchange, and the division of labor, which includes domestic labor (one of his tasks is to babysit his little sister). At the end, Pelle rejoices in a new suit made by the labor of others — and which he has fully earned.

The Civilian and the Military
by Arthur Ekirch, Jr.
Ekirch, a libertarian historian best known for his book The Decline of American Liberalism, reminds us of the vehement anti‐​military (not just anti‐​militaristic) sentiments that suffused the founding of the American republic and lived into the 20th century. Ekirch explains that centralism and militarism worked like a hammer and anvil to destroy the small‐​R American republican tradition. In an era where elites from the party that calls itself “Republican” unanimously demand that the American military police the world, Ekirch reminds us that the Founders would have made Code Pink sound like Dick Cheney.

Saving Congress from Itself: Emancipating the States and Empowering Their People
by James L. Buckley
Former senator and federal appeals court judge Jim Buckley looks systematically at Congress’s more than 1,100 grants‐​in‐​aid programs — federal grants to state and local governments that have exploded in recent years, constituting 17 percent of the federal budget. Not only do they undermine federal and state budgets, they undermine constitutional federalism as well by chaining states to federal priorities. Buckley offers several steps to end them.

Overruled: The Long War for Control of the U.S. Supreme Court
by Damon Root
Reason senior editor Damon Root traces the libertarian legal movement from its pre‐​Civil War origins to its emergence, beginning in the 1970s, from the struggle between liberals and conservatives over the proper role of the courts in interpreting the Constitution. This book is a must‐​read for those who want to understand the three main judicial theories that are in competition today.

Private Governance: Creating Order in Economic and Social Life
by Edward Peter Stringham
Edward Peter Stringham’s Private Governance: Creating Order in Economic and Social Life(Oxford University Press, 2015) is a startling look at just how little we need the state — and how little the state actually does — in the areas of securing property and contractual rights. The book takes on added significance when we consider that even for libertarians, this is one of the state’s core functions. We may not be able to do without the state, but we can do a lot more than we probably imagine.

Systems of Survival
by Jane Jacobs
Jane Jacobs is best known for her excellent work on urban planning and the role played within it by what we might term spontaneous order. But a lesser‐​known work of hers is also worth a read. Systems of Survival (Vintage, 1994) is a philosophical dialogue that offers deep insight into conflicts of moral values and why they seem so hard to resolve. Along the way, she explains why science does well in commercial societies, why governments love tampering with agriculture, and whether organized crime is more like a business or like a government, among many other fascinating topics.


Gunnar’s Daughter
by Sigrid Undset
In the early 20th century, Norway was in the midst of a nationalist movement to romanticize its Viking heritage. Sigrid Undset, a young Norwegian author who had meticulously studied Old Norse histories and sagas, considered this movement deeply incorrect and disturbing. She wanted to portray the Viking society as it really was: dark, violent, and barbarous. The result is Gunnar’s Daughter, a brief and gripping historical novel about an 11th‐​century woman who is raped by a suitor, and her struggle for survival and vengeance. Undset is much better known for her later trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter, for which she won a Nobel Prize. But Gunnar’s Daughter is just as engrossing — and much more carry‐​on friendly for holiday travels.


All the Trouble in the World
by P. J. O’Rourke
This is the book that made me into a libertarian. P. J. covers the “big issues” — famine, war, the environment — with humor, compassion, and a sense of adventure. He shows why good intentions don’t always lead to good policy. A great choice for the “bleeding heart” in your life.