The economic and political books that set me on my ideological journey (what a horrible phrase) were Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose and The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich von Hayek, both of which I read while recuperating from an operation in autumn 2003.
Free to Choose remains an excellent introduction to economics more than three decades after its publication. The Friedmans explain why free economies work better than centrally planned ones and they explain, in a more philosophical vein, how economic and social freedom are indivisible. If you are to be politically free you must be economically free and vice versa.
The Road to Serfdom was written in 1944 and addressed to ‘the socialists of all parties’. Hayek argued that the two totalitarian ideologies of the time, Nazism and communism, had more in common than not and that step by step surrenders of individual freedom in the name of welfare or economic planning were the slippery slope to those totalitarianisms.
It was these books that set me off on the path which eventually led me to study economics. When I started in 2007 most people thought it boring. A year later, with Lehman Brothers collapsing, I had people asking me about their house prices. I spent the summer of 2008 reading everything I could about business cycles and the best of the lot was Meltdown by Thomas E Woods. This accessible, jargon free book was my introduction to the Austrian School of economics, particularly its business cycle theory.
For anyone who feels that economics is a subject they really ought to get on top of a great place to start is The Clash of Economic Ideas by Lawrence H White. Rather than give you a history of economic thought which starts with Adam Smith and goes from there White proceeds by issues, so there’s a chapters on different views on taxation, one on monetary control, one on the business cycle…considering how important these topics are today this is the best way to find out what some of the best economists in history have had to say about them.
Ronald Reagan once said that “if government planning and welfare had the answer—and they’ve had almost 30 years of it—shouldn’t we expect government to read the score to us once in a while?” That’s exactly what James Bartholomew did in The Welfare State We’re In. Looking at Britain’s welfare state not on the basis of its intentions but its results Bartholomew brilliantly illustrated how the outcomes of the welfare state have been so generally disastrous or, at best, ineffectual. Charles Murray did something similar for government welfare in America in Losing Ground.
Speaking of Ronald Reagan, one of my political heroes, the best book I have read about him was Dinesh D’Souza’s Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader. My favourite chapter was the first where D’Souza took on the notion that Reagan was a dimwit. He compared the various predictions of Soviet longevity from the 1970s and early 1980s of Ivy League scholars with Reagan’s unshakeable belief that Soviet communism would collapse. By asking you to reflect on who was right, the experts or the actor from Tampico, Illinois, D’Souza shows just who the idiots were. Best of all though the book does what a really good biography should, it makes you feel as though you’ve spent time with its subject.
Another political hero, or heroine, of mine is Maggie Thatcher. Yet, for some reason, she doesn’t generate the same sense of warmth that Reagan does. As a result biographies of her are often rather distant so I prefer books about her time in office and the best of a growing field is Thatcher’s Britain by Richard Vinen. Vinen admits to being no fan of Thatcher during the 1980s but says, with an honesty rare among writers on the subject, that his views have changed somewhat. The result is a very fair book the highlight of which is a stuffing of the pompous Hugo Young and the infamous Yorkshire Ripper story.
A book I enjoy for no reason other than its sheer brilliance is AJP Taylor’s English History 1914 – 1945. Social histories are a growing field with David Kynaston and Dominic Sandbrook leading the pack but this book, written in 1965 in Taylor’s trademark, entertaining style, is a trailblazer which stands up to reading today.