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September 04, 2011

Sunday Book Thread

I've been studying economics for years (as a hobby; how sad is that?), and one thing that's become very clear to me is that the study of economics alone is very unsatisfying. (They don't call it "the dismal science" for nothing.) Economics often seems to be little more than a sociological or cultural mirror: you see what you want to see. I think that's why society has been so badly served in general by economic "experts" - it tends to draw people who look for pattern and regularity in a system that is, above all else, a chaotic series of interactions between often-irrational human beings.

After you've read enough books about "pure" economics, you can't help but notice that no system of economics ever works in reality as it does in theory, and that economics is simply one thread in a larger weave of society and culture. A study of economics inevitably leads one to larger questions of philosophy, governance, and religion. How could it be otherwise? Economics is just...people doing what people do. And a large part of what we do takes place in the region of the mind - our preferences, dislikes, and impulses (rational or not) heavily influence our economic decisions.

The first book I ever read that tried to deal with economics in a philosophical context was F. A. Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty. Hayek, like his forebears Hume, Burke, Locke, and Mill, tries to locate economics in a philosophical model, and to explain how the free-market capitalist system is most disposed to protecting the Western conception of individual liberty and natural rights. Even when the  book was being written (in the early to mid 1950's), Hayek could see the trend of government away from the "Classic Liberal" position and towards the statist, interventionist, regulatory monster we have now. His intent was to show how this trend not only produced economic harm, but actually undermined the basic philosophy of America's founding. The book struggles with some mighty questions, and doesn't provide fully satisfactory answers - but then, that's the point. Hayek admits in his preface that he is an economist at heart, and is trying to address questions - legal, moral, ethical, political - that he is not fully trained to address. Yet he does a very credible job in this book, I think.

The book is well worth reading, even if you're not generally a fan of philosophy or economics texts. If nothing else, it's a reminder that the questions that seem to press so hard today have in fact been weighing on the minds of people for a long while now. Whenever I hear someone say, "This time it's different", I want to point them to this book. The specific circumstances may be different, yes, but the inexorable movement towards statism and overbearing government has been going on for a long time now.

What's everyone else reading?

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posted by Monty at 09:16 AM

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