Thursday, October 13, 2016

Five Books to Change Liberals' Minds

"Five Books to Change Liberals' Minds" is the title of a remarkable post by Cass Sunstein.
It can be easy and tempting, especially during a presidential campaign, to listen only to opinions that mirror and fortify one's own. That’s not ideal, because it eliminates learning and makes it impossible for people to understand what they dismiss as “the other side.”

If you think that Barack Obama has been a terrific president (as I do) and that Hillary Clinton would be an excellent successor (as I also do), then you might want to consider the following books, to help you to understand why so many of your fellow citizens disagree with you:

“Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Conditions Have Failed,” by James Scott.....
and  closes
Having read these books, you might continue to believe that progressives are more often right than wrong, and that in general, the U.S. would be better off in the hands of Democrats than Republicans. But you’ll have a much better understanding of the counterarguments -- and on an issue or two, and maybe more, you’ll probably end up joining those on what you once saw as “the other side.”
Most public intellectual commentary these days takes a tone of parochial demonization -- the hilarious "how Paul Krugman made Donald Trump possible" is good to ponder. When such people even consider views the other side, it's  bulveristic speculation -- did bad childhoods make them evil, or are they bought? The next sentence usually bemoans polarization. This piece by Sunstein is a breath of fresh air.

Those who listen buy themselves an ear.  I usually find I disagree with Sunstein about most things (though his attempt to rein in regulation from inside the Administration is both praiseworthy and instructive in its failure). But knowing that his opinions come from such consideration, they carry more weight. It's more effective than upping low Krugmanian insult to high Bergeracian disdain.

I'm sure many of my blog readers could suggest additional books for Mr. Sunstein -- Friedman, Sowell, Murray, and so on. That's not the point. When grandma sends you books about how to clean your room, you never read them. If you want to send suggestions, send good liberal and progressive books that lovers of freedom should read.


  1. The argument contained in the linked article about Krugman is certainly correct, but I think that there are much deeper ways in which leftists have enabled Trump than simply "crying wolf" too often.

    The first is that, by outlawing so many areas of legitimate public discourse through political correctness, they have actually made Trump's crassness and insults appear to be a welcome outbreak of frankness. By making so many areas of legitimate and good-faith questioning taboo, the PC crowd has basically channeled discussion into the extremes -- where Trump excels.

    Second, by being so utterly repellant and condescending, leftists have basically created many Trump supporters on the theory of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." This is bad logic, since the enemy of my enemy may very well be YET ANOTHER enemy (as is the case with Trump), but there is no doubt that Trump has won a lot of converts through his attacks on left-wing deplorables like Elizabeth Warren, the liberal media, many supporters of BLM, etc. For these supporters, Trump's attacks on "Pocahontas" are not a bug; they are a feature.

    1. I pretty much agree with all of this. Trumps attacks on the left are welcoming even while I find most of his policies and rhetoric execrable.

    2. While perhaps just the other side of the same coin, I think Trump's candor explains his success in the primary. In a group debate format, a really terrible answer to a difficult question (the Trump method) often plays better than using rhetorical flourishes to avoid answering (the every-other-politician method).

      The trend of not answering difficult questions has gotten out of hand amongst both parties. For example, consider that the Clinton campaign suffered a small crisis upon realizing their candidate was giving the EXACT same answers as Jeb Bush to most questions (we have wikileaks to thank for that amusing nugget). They were not truly overlapping on policy matters of course, but rather just liked the same non-answers to critical questions (e.g., both relied heavily on the "I'm going to form a coalition of our closest allies" response to avoid foreign policy questions).

      Into this sad environment arrived Trump, with an answer for every question posed. Terrorism you ask? He'll ban Muslims! Immigration woes got you down? He'll build a wall! Lost your manufacturing job? He'll hire Carl Ichan to go get it back for you! Giving a bad answer while everyone else on stage hides behind their podium projects confidence.

      That's my take on why Trump won: his unprecedented decision to actually respond to tough questions made him look decisive, confident, and bold. People view that as a prerequisite for leadership, more important than even policy stances, so Trump won. Hopefully the serious candidates have learned their lesson and will not repeat the same error in 2020.

  2. Sunstein included Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” on the list of books progressives should read to better understand conservatives. But I think it should also be on a list of books that libertarians should read to better understand conservatives and progressives.

    Haidt believes in group selection. If he’s right—and he makes a very good case—then we’re hard-wired to feel special allegiance to our tribes. I’m a big fan of open borders, free trade and against granting special favors to special groups. I still am. But having read Haidt, I understand that this runs counter to the moral intuition shared by most of us that views “our” people as special.

    1. You (we) just need better propaganda. If you can convince 300+ million americans that they are a "group" (even loosely), it should be possible to convince them to accept some of the other people in the world.

    2. @Baconbacon "If you can convince 300+ million americans that they are a "group" (even loosely), it should be possible to convince them to accept some of the other people in the world."

      I think that you have that backwards. I think that a lot of the "open borders" types, and particularly the Libertarians, feel that way because they do not feel that they are in a group with their fellow Americans. A greater feeling of community with the existing Americans would probably cause them to move away from an open borders point of view.

    3. Absalon, I think what Baconbacon is correctly saying is that national identity is an imaginary concept. So if it is possible to convince people that somehow they should share allegiance with 300 million people they have never met, then there is no reason why you shouldn't be able to convince them to share allegiance with the entire human race, to convince them to define themselves as humanists first.

  3. Thank you for adding "bulveristic" to my vocabulary. Took a moment to grasp "Bergeracian." I look forward to working these into everyday conversation!

    1. Disclosure. "Bulverism" is a real word, which I learned from Greg Mankiw. The other I made up, derived from Cyrano de Bergerac. In retrospect, that might be a stretch.

    2. You got me to read the Wikipedia article on Bulverism, which was fascinating. Will have to go back to the original C.S. Lewis. I searched for "Bergeracian" and found nothing but then figured you meant Cyrano. Can you imagine him in one of today's debates?

  4. Its genuinely scary how much the media influences the masses in a way that runs counter to the most basic lessons in economics. Its all the more pathetic that Krugman seems just fine with this.

  5. John,

    "If you want to send suggestions, send good liberal and progressive books that lovers of freedom should read."

  6. Great find! I'll add those books to my Amazon queue. As for the liberal/progressive argument, try these three:

    1. Concrete Economics: The Hamilton Approach to Economic Growth and Policy | Stephen S. Cohen & J. Bradford DeLong -

    2. American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper | Jacob S. Hacker & Paul Pierson -

    3. The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future | Joseph E. Stiglitz -

    1. I haven't read them but do you honestly recommend Stiglitz and Delong as serious books that will convince conservatives and libertarians? In other writing they seem to preach to the choir a lot

    2. In terms of the progressive movement in the U. S. try:

      Louis Brandeis - Former Supreme Court Justice (1916-1939)

      No stranger to freedom, his notable votes as a Supreme Court Justice include:

      Gilbert v. Minnesota (1920) which dealt with a state law prohibiting interference with the military's enlistment efforts. In his dissenting opinion, Brandeis wrote that the statute affected the rights, privileges, and immunities of one who is a citizen of the United States; and it deprives him of an important part of his liberty.

      Or how about:

      Whitney v. California (1927). The case dealt with the prosecution of a woman for aiding the Communist Labor Party, an organization that was promoting the violent overthrow of the government. In their opinion and test to uphold the conviction, they expanded the definition of clear and present danger to include the condition that the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion.

      However, like most Progressives of the time, Brandeis was anti-big business.

      In an address to the Economic Club of New York in 1912, he said:

      "We learned long ago that liberty could be preserved only by limiting in some way the freedom of action of individuals; that otherwise liberty would necessarily yield to absolutism; and in the same way we have learned that unless there be regulation of competition, its excesses will lead to the destruction of competition, and monopoly will take its place."

    3. I've read The Price of Inequality. Pretty much exactly what you'd expect from Stiglitz.

      I didn't necessarily agree with most of it, but I thought After the Music Stopped by Alan Blinder was worth reading.

    4. Prof. Cochrane: earlier you spoke about "lovers of freedom", now you refer to "conservatives". Which group is it that you actually mean?

    5. To you and Absalon. Maybe "lovers of liberty" is better. Obviously, I need a better word. "Libertarian" is close, but is narrow and has many other problematic connotations. "Conservative" is not the right word, as it brings up anti-immigration and use of government to control people's personal lives. I gather "neo-liberal" is gaining steam. I'll write a post soon on this identity question.

    6. I would love to read such a post. I consider myself greatly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson's view that group thinking is dangerous. It leads to solipsistic "orthodoxies" in which each member reinforces the common view thus keeping everyone else in line. In my opinion, resistance to joining a group is exactly the identifying mark of a true intellectual. I don't know if one could pick an identity and still remain faithful to this principle. One of the thinkers I admire, Milton Friedman, tried. He identified as Libertarian, but he also preached that there are no absolutes (and that's the only absolute), which caused many to doubt that he was a "true Libertarian", whatever this means.

      Bulverism, ha, nice. I have had the privilege of socializing with Greg on a few occasions; he is fun to talk to.

    7. Professor Cochrane

      ""Libertarian" is close, but is narrow and has many other problematic connotations. "Conservative" is not the right word, as it brings up anti-immigration and use of government to control people's personal lives"

      A rose by any other name ... The problem you have is not the word. The problem is that the people you have the most in common with have certain policy preferences that make them toxic to the broader society and give rise to those "connotations" for any collective label applied to you and that group.

      Society is a grand bargain where we trade off some individual liberties in exchange for the benefits we get from being in a society. Deciding where that trade off happens is a game theory problem. The benefits from society are so enormous that there is a huge joint surplus to be divided. The Libertarians want to take what is important to them from that grand bargain while largely trying to ignore what the other 90% of the population want from the bargain. Libertarians also tend to ignore the fact that the surplus from society is a joint product.

      We can have the technocratic argument over whether Elizabeth Warren's policies would achieve what she wants to achieve. That is a different but worthy issue. The Libertarians are free to seek to sway the bargain by arguing that everyone will be better off if we collectively move in their direction. But first the Libertarians need to accept that the mass of society has a right to say to them: To be part of a society you need to accept the legitimacy of collective decision making and if you are not willing to do so then you are free to leave and go hunt small animals in the forest with a rock.

    8. Oh, come on, really?

      Libertarians don't accept that "To be part of a society you need to accept the legitimacy of collective decision making"? So they don't accept the democratic process? Are they some group of rebels breaking existing laws and taking up arms against the government? Oh wait, no, that would be the anarchist left.

      As well, you seriously think that "Libertarians also tend to ignore the fact that the surplus from society is a joint product"? So when they favor voluntary EXCHANGE they think that each person trades with whom, itself?

      I think you got it all wrong. Libertarians understand that production is a joint process quite well. The difference is that they favor exchange that is VOLUNTARY, unless a strong case can be made otherwise, because they understand that only then can one be certain that both parties are better off as a result. It is a moral argument against the government siding with some at the expense of others, which is something that liberals don't seem to mind...until they happen to find themselves on the wrong side. But I understand that a straw man is easier to beat.

    9. Everyone understands the general critique for Libertarians. Almost no liberal that I know of even attempts to understand what public choice is all about. When it comes to a problem to solve, liberals immediately skip that messy step. Before I hear about another necessary technocratic solution, I would really first love to hear how they plan to combat public choice before we then agree to their other grand plans.

    10. Constantine - You have a built in assumption about "ownership". It makes no sense to talk of "voluntary exchange" until you have established "ownership". I am really talking about how we establish "ownership" of the joint product.

      James - I find your comment to be incomprehensible.

    11. Voluntary contracts that govern the joint product are a form of voluntary exchange as referred to by libertarians. And government taxation is rarely about joint production (as in the case of basic science, for example) but rather about pure transfers from the productive young to the unproductive retirees and from the high-skilled to the low-skilled.

    12. Absalon, I am lost. Voluntary exchange determines ownership. I rent a diner (I am Greek after all), hire you to wash the dishes at my dinner then cook and serve meals for my customers, and pay utilities. The services rendered are the result of a joint effort. The voluntary exchange between me and my landlord, me and you, me and my providers, me and the utility company etc. determine the share of "ownership" in the value of the services rendered. Any party that did not participate in this process can only claim part or all of the ownership by force (non-voluntary).

    13. Bret Stephens in a recent column ("NeverTrump for Dummies") defined conservatism as "a principled commitment to limited government, free markets, constitutional rights, equal opportunity, personal responsibility, e pluribus unum and Pax Americana." That list of beliefs is more classically liberal than statist, libertarian, or conservative, and perhaps many readers of the Grumpy Economist would share them. The Progressives embraced the cloak of "liberalism" after they had fouled their own nest with the petty tyranny of the bureaucrat. It is probably too late to reclaim the term.

    14. Absalon - Why? John's Clinton Plan blog post basically echoed the sentiments I wrote.

      "This "plan" implies a stinging rebuke of her predecessor, when you think about it. If all it takes is the force of Hllary's will to accomplish all this in 5 years for $275 billion, just why did he fail in 8 years with about $10 trillion? Maybe, just maybe, President Obama was trying darn hard, using the same methods, and came up short for a reason?"

  7. "good liberal and progressive books that lovers of freedom should read."

    False dichotomy.

    1. In terms of Progressive lovers of freedom try the works of Louis Brandeis:

    2. Absalon,

      The false dichotomy is that you must either accept big business with monopoly powers or big government with monopoly powers.

      Progressivism was always about bucking both trends - big business and big government.

  8. Sunsteins list is very good. Here are three of the classics:

    Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman

    The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents by F. A. Hayek

    Free to Choose: A Personal Statement by Milton & Rose Friedman

  9. Here are a few left-leaning books that might be amenable to libertarians:

    -The Acquisitive Society, by R. H. Tawney
    A socialist critiques capitalism; it's a theme that a thousand writers have harped on. But Tawney is no ideologue, and he presents socialist ideas while not preaching to the choir. He does a great job deconstructing natural rights and private property, and how they can ultimately be used to defend both wonderful things--freedom, individuality, and economic efficiency--and their darker aspects, such as greed, corruption, and human isolation.

    -Family and Kinship in East London
    This isn't a book; its actually a sociological study. But it comes from an era when a welfare state was viewed as being in harmony with the personal lives of the poor. The post-Thatcher/Reagan introduced a new narrative, that the welfare state was a technocratic, top-down construction that messed with incentives in unintended ways. It's a breath of fresh air, and might give libertarians an alternative perspective on the left's preferred economic system.

    -Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford
    The story of the Soviet Union, told through a narrative lens. Libertarians often dismiss communism as either a silly pipe dream or as outright destructive, and with good reason. But it's important to understand the beauty of what socialism tried to achieve before we turn away from it. Spufford makes it abundantly clear that our reaction to the fall of socialism should not be joy, but rather sadness at what might have been.

    I've tried to avoid books that just say "libertarianism is wrong, and libertarians are bad for thinking otherwise." That kind of preaching is directed at the converted, not libertarians. Instead, I've selected books that might make a libertarian re-think some of their beliefs.

  10. When such people even consider views the other side, it's bulveristic speculation -- did bad childhoods make them evil, or are they bought?--Cochrane

    But is it a bulverism to dismiss some arguments as bulveristic?

  11. Thanks for pointing us to Cass Sunstein's article. It's a nice try.
    My issue with his list is that those books nibble at the edges of "conservatism/libertarianism" (or whatever you want to call it).
    For me, the divide with liberal-progressives goes much deeper. It goes to the whole Weltanschauung, and at its core, it goes to liberty and the understanding of liberty.
    Which is why, IMHO, Sunstein's list is superficial. It goes much deeper. One has to read Hayek's Road to Serfdom, or his Fatal Conceit books. One has to read Montesquieu and understand separation of powers (which progressives completely reject), one has to read about federalism (true federalism, where the states have true powers do undertake policies, without being threatened by the federal Leviathan). One has to understand the Constitution of the United States and the powers given to each branch and understand that having "a pen and a phone" does not work in a true separation of powers environment; one has to truly understand the thinking of the Founders, one has to read the Federalist Papers from the first word to the last (not just excerpts). In other words, one has to understand liberty.
    Nice list, the one of Sunstein - but superficial. It goes much deeper.

  12. I was moved by William Easterly's "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics." How can we help the poor in the world? Good intentions? More money spent on huge projects? Nope. They mostly fail. Economic liberty and providing proper incentives work.

    Easterly continued these themes with

    * The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good


    * The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor

    But it was The "Elusive Quest for Growth" that first knocked by socks off.

    1. Historically the most successful economic development program for undeveloped areas seems to have been:
      1) external power creates fortified military town;
      2) external power then creates a zone free from piracy or brigandage by killing pirates and bandits;
      3) people flock to the new secure zone to live and trade generating prosperity.

      This seems to be the founding story for, among other cities, Copenhagen (a contraction of the Danish for "merchant's harbor"), London, Paris, Valencia, New York, Hong Kong, Singapore, Mumbai, Jakarta, Lagos, Sao Paulo, Lima, Rio de Janeiro, Manila ...

  13. John,

    Based upon this comment:

    "To you and Absalon. Maybe lovers of liberty is better. Obviously, I need a better word. Libertarian is close, but is narrow and has many other problematic connotations. Conservative is not the right word, as it brings up anti-immigration and use of government to control people's personal lives. I gather neo-liberal is gaining steam. I'll write a post soon on this identity question."

    First, understand the following terms:

    1. Constitutional conservative - This is what conservativism is and always has been about - federal government limited to the powers granted to it by the Constitution.

    2. Progressivism - The progressive movement in the early 20th century of the United States was a concerted movement against BOTH big business and big government.

    3. Liberalism - This is a preference of big government over big business.

    4. Crony Capitalism - This is a preference for both big business and big government.

    1. Frank Restley--The Progressive Movement was a many-headed beast that promoted government by experts and eugenics, among other things. Woodrow Wilson, for example, pushed limitations on free speech that landed people in jail. Laura Weinrib's new book "The Taming of Free Speech" provides a contra-history of the development of First Amendment thought in the 20th century and the rise of the ACLU. The Progressive Movement was not for lovers of liberty; it was for technocrats.

    2. I suggest Studs Terkel's Division Street: America and Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals. Lovers of liberty better get a description of the problem from the horse's mouth.

  14. Alice Goffman's "On the Run," even with the controversy surrounding some of its details.

    I was already troubled by the trends in our criminal justice system, Goffman's presentation pushed me all the way over to reformist on the issue.

    Most libertarians will say they were already there, but for people like myself who lean more toward conservative than libertarian, this book can be a real eye opener.

  15. That is just peachy. The author of "Nudge" recommends not to demonize the opposition. Conservatives have valid concerns arising from observation and history. But, this won't stop Sunstein and his friends from doing what they want. They still know best, and historical arrangements such as the Constitution are not going to stop them.

    Sunstein will use state power to nudge people into a better life. Don't worry, he knows your concerns and will accomodate them to the extent possible, without altering the grand plan too much. The nudges will become stronger in a reasonable and gentle way until no one can resist. Happiness and prosperity will follow.

    Is disarming the population one of his goals? He understands our concerns, that other unenlightened states did some questionable things when they had complete power. Don't worry, Sunstein understands these concerns and will accomodate them in some way, without allowing the citizenry to be armed.
    EDITORIAL: Sunstein flunks gun rights test
    === ===
    Later in the lecture, Mr. Sunstein said, “My tentative suggestion is that the individual right to have guns as it’s being conceptualized now is best taken as a contemporary creation and a reflection of current fears - not a reading of civic-centered founding debates.”
    === ===

    Of all the tyrants, the smart and smiling ones are the worst. My opinion of Sunstein has not changed. He loves the lawless Obama, who is bringing the glorious future to us much faster than if Obama had to respect the rules. Rules previously adopted by the people through their cumbersome mechanisms of representative government under a limiting Constitution. Instead of a Constitution, we could have Sunstein's Little Blue Book of Nudges.

    Sunstein gets credit here for book references But, is this "I like their ideas and practice them" or is it "Know your enemy"? I welcome Sunstein to state his top 10 conservative ideas which should be implemented in government and which are now part of his beliefs.

    Here is a part of Sunstein's thought. I see Sunstein in competition for "Kindest, most thoughtful, considerate, totalitarian".
    Salon: Obama confidant’s spine-chilling proposal
    === ===
    Sunstein advocates that the Government’s stealth infiltration should be accomplished by sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups.” He also proposes that the Government make secret payments to so-called “independent” credible voices to bolster the Government’s messaging (on the ground that those who don’t believe government sources will be more inclined to listen to those who appear independent while secretly acting on behalf of the Government). This program would target those advocating false “conspiracy theories,” which they define to mean: “an attempt to explain an event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.”
    === ===

  16. I will leave a link to the article to maybe change yours..

  17. Deplorable S E DelendaOctober 19, 2016 at 2:19 PM

    Andrew Garland's post is instructive; Sunstein is not a bona fide political actor seeking give and take, he is an acolyte of the state and is morally unbounded in pursuing the acquisition, maintenance and enhancement of state power.

    He is engaging in what my late grandmother like to describe as "paying lip service", i.e., a perfunctory and insincere declaration.


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