My Top Ten List of Books That Have Influenced Me
by Walter Block by Walter Block Recently by Walter Block: ‘Capitalism’ Yesterday, ‘Capitalism’Today, ‘Capitalism’Tomorrow, ‘Capitalism’Forever
Here, with a few comments on each, are the top ten books which have influenced me in my career as an Austro-libertarian economist. I will not make substantive comments about each. Rather, I intend to personalize my impressions of each, and indicate what they have meant to me.
1. Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action heads up my list. I remember, fondly, well, in an embarrassed sort of way, one of my earliest days in the movement. I was in Murray Rothbard’s house, who had recently converted me to the anarchist position, and I saw a picture of Mises on his wall. I challenged Murray: "Why do you have a picture of Mises on your wall; he’s not an anarchist, he’s a statist?" Murray just smiled gently at me and said that I would understand one of these days. I feel so embarrassed now, that I was such an idiot then, but, I suppose, confession is good for the soul. One of the great benefits of being associated with the Mises Institute is that I get to go to a week long seminar where a bunch of us, old timers and young new scholars, chew over this book. It is a very exhilarating experience to say the least. As a result of these seminars, plus reading on my own, I must have gone through Human Action, oh, maybe, a dozen times in my life. I haven’t read it through each time, but, boy oh boy, do I get something from it every time I look at it. I don’t like to brag, but, I actually met Mises. I attended the very last seminar he gave at New York University. He was very weak then, couldn’t speak up, could hardly hear the questions put to him; but, what an honor to have actually been in the same room with this giant of liberty and rational economics. The Mises Institute also organizes a week long seminar during the summer devoted to the study of this book.
2. Murray N. Rothbard’s Man, Economy and State is a close second for me. Indeed, the decision as to which one comes first, and which one comes second, HA or MES, was an exceedingly difficult one for me to make. It is similar for me to the choice between Bach and Mozart, my two favorite composers. To me, there are few greater pleasures than reading either of these two books, while listening to the music of these two composers. I first started reading MES in the early days of my association with Murray, in about 1966. It was a schizophrenic experience. During the day I would read this book, and at night I would go over to his house to play Risk, to gossip, to cackle (ONE of the u201Cproblemsu201D we his followers had with him was stomach cramps from hour and hour of laughing) and to seriously discuss economics, politics, history, philosophy, pretty much everything under the sun. My weirdness manifested itself in the following way: I couldn’t understand why this great man would condescend to have anything to do with young worthless me. I was a student for goodness sakes, never having accomplished anything; he was to Austro-libertarianism what Bach and Mozart are to music. So, I resolved I would try to become worthy of being in his august presence. How? By being hypercritical of him. (Don’t ask; I was a weirdo. I still am in some ways, although at least some of my rough edges have been knocked off through time.) I am amazed that he had so much patience with me. Looking back on this experience, I now see that all he wanted to do was, amazingly, be friends with me. I guess I just wasn’t ready for that in those years. Happily, later on, I was able to accept his friendship. I can’t fully explain what it meant to me to be an actual friend of Murray Rothbard’s for decades. It doesn’t get much better than that.
3 and 4. Rothbard’s For a New Liberty and The Ethics of Liberty. I don’t know why, but I always viewed these two books as part of a larger one volume set (similar to the amalgamation of Man, Economy and State with Power and Market). One explains what liberty is all about in a philosophical way, the other how it would work from a practical point of view. I was especially taken with Murray’s evisceration, at the end of The Ethics, of the views of Isaiah Berlin, F.A. Hayek and Robert Nozick. Probably, if I were to be accurate, I would mention three or four others of Murray’s books in my top ten. But, I am nothing if not a believer in affirmative action, in this case for other scholars who have influenced me. Obviously, my own career is modeled, to the best of my ability at least, on Murray’s example. I have been sometimes called "a pale carbon copy of Rothbard." It was meant as an insult, but I take this as the highest form of praise possible.
5. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is my fifth most influential book, but she is by far my favorite novelist (my second favorite is Chaim Potok). This book was first published in 1957, and more than 50 years later is still selling like hot cakes. Atlas is to be credited with converting more people to libertarianism than any other book. Heck, more than any other ten, twenty and maybe one hundred books. Random House-Modern Library once surveyed their customers to ascertain their favorite books, and, you guessed it, Atlas took the very first place out of the hundred mentioned on their list; astoundingly, three others of her publications also made the top ten. They also polled their employees, but nothing written by Ayn Rand appeared anywhere on that top hundred list. (I thank Mike Peinovich for directing me to this url.) I first read Atlas in 1963, when I was 22 years old. I read it straight through (except for that horrid Galt speech); I simply couldn’t put it down. Since then, I have read it every 10 years or so, at a more moderate rate; but I still get a lot out of it every time. Some people, libertarians, even, criticize Atlas as simplistic, one-dimensional, poorly written. As far as I’m concerned, the words she wrote fairly leap off the page at the reader, grab him by the throat, and never ever let go. This is a magnificent novel.
6. Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. I simply love this book. I based my own Defending on it: each of them have one basic "lesson," followed by several dozen chapters illustrating it. Apart from that, my pitiful effort does not deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as his. One of the greatest honors I have had was to be asked to prepare an introduction for the Mises Institute’s publication of Economics in One Lesson. Writing it was truly a labor of love. I use this book, and Atlas, as supplementary readings whenever I teach introductory economics. The two of them, together, were the most instrumental in converting me to laissez faire capitalism; why not run them both by my students? Let me tell you how I came to read both of these books at about the same time. I was a senior in Brooklyn College in 1963, when Ayn Rand lectured there. I came to boo and hiss her, since she favored free enterprise, and everyone I have ever come into contact with up to that time knew full well that competitive markets were responsible for starvation, unemployment, depressions, inflations and sweat shops (disease and body odor, too). I was a Brooklyn Jewish Pinko Commie type (this is a redundancy; the big debate in my family was between the out-and-out card-carrying Communists, and the left liberal socialists). Anyway, after her lecture, the Ayn Rand study group that had invited her to campus announced there would be a luncheon in her honor. Anyone could attend, even if you didn’t agree with her, we were told. I hadn’t had my fill of booing and hissing, so I went. When I arrived, I found a long table with about 25 people per side, with Ayn Rand sitting at the head of it, and her chief lieutenants (Leonard Peikoff, Alan Greenspan, Nathaniel Branden, Barbara Branden) ranged alongside. I was relegated to the foot of the table. I turned to my neighbor, and tried to debate him, but he said the people who knew about all this stuff were sitting at the other end of the table. So, young chutspanick that I was at the time (I’m now an old chutspanick), I stuck my head between Nathan’s and Ayn’s, and said there was someone who wanted to engage in a debate over socialism versus capitalism. They asked Who was this person? I said it was me. Branden was very gracious to this impertinent behavior of mine. He said he would come to the other end of the table to talk to me about this, under two conditions. First, we would not allow our debate to lapse after this one session; we would continue until we felt it was settled between us. And second, I would read two books he would recommend to me. Well, I read the Rand and Hazlitt books, went to his apartment some half dozen times, and was converted by him, with an assist from these other Objectivists I mentioned above. My impression of Ayn Rand up close was one of great passion. She had the sparkliest eyes I have ever seen. She radiated energy.
7. Carl Menger, Principles. This is a carefully organized and inspirational book. Menger is the father of Austrian economics, and what a start he made. Principles is written beautifully, and simply, and packs a powerful message. Menger’s detailed analysis of the horse market is alone worth the entire price of admission. I had expected my graduate education at Columbia to be something along the lines of this book plus Human Action, Man, Economy and State, and the books to be mentioned below by Hayek and Böhm-Bawerk. Boy, was I ever disappointed. It was nothing like that. Instead, it was a tortured experience of mathematics, statistics, econometrics, with a bit of socialism and mainstream neoclassical analysis thrown in for good measure. I was bored to tears. But, my alternative was going off to fight someplace in Southeast Asia I had not much heard about, so I stuck it out.
8. Lysander Spooner, No Treason. Back to libertarian theory from Austrianism. No anarcho-capitalist should give this book as pass. It furnishes a magnificent perspective on the state. No one will ever look at government in quite the same way as they did before reading this book. It makes you sit up, take notice, and start cheering and applauding. Are taxes justified? Is the state? What about the fact that we vote? Pay taxes? No one deals with these sorts of questions better than Lysander Spooner. If you are not inspired by this book, you probably don’t have a pulse.
9. Hayek, Prices and Production. This slim volume, in my opinion, is Hayek’s best work. I imagine its "triangle" analysis of the structure of production influenced the chapter in Man, Economy and State on the Austrian Business Cycle Theory. That diagram, in any case, is not to be found in Mises. Although I have more recently become a critic of this way of presenting ABCT, full disclosure, I have a confession to make: I still think in terms of the triangle for macro questions. And when I do, I think nice thoughts about Hayek.
10. Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, Capital and Interest. The thing that struck me most about this book was its intensity and attention to detail. This author went through, seemingly, every theory of interest ever propounded by anyone. And, he subjected each one to such excruciating and detailed refutation it left me breathless. I confess this struck a chord in me, and I have adopted this style in my own work. I am proud and honored to be a member of the same school of thought as Böhm-Bawerk.
Don’t ask me why, but having discussed my favorite books, the ones that have influenced me the most, I feel compelled to at least list, but not discuss, my favorite composers, some of whom I have mentioned above. So, here goes:
- Respighi (but only for Ancient Airs and Dances)
Here is a bit of full disclosure coming up. I was inspired to write about the ten books that have influenced me the most by Tyler Cowen; here is his list. He calls on others to follow his lead in this regard, and I am happy to do so.
I must say, that although we are both Austro-libertarian economists, our understanding of this concept must be very different, as there is very little overlap between our two lists. Well, none, that is. There is no one single book that appears on the top ten hit parade of the both of us.
However, there are a few of his selections that I might have included on my honorable mentions, had I chosen to highlight them. For example, I very much like his second, third and fourth choices: The Incredible Bread Machine, by Susan Love Brown, et al., Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, by Ayn Rand, and Friedrich A. Hayek’s, Individualism and Economic Order. These three, in my opinion, certainly belong on the book shelves of those of us who support laissez faire capitalism.
But I am puzzled, shocked, and frankly appalled by his fifth-ranked book, John Maynard Keynes’ The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Well, maybe, just barely, it is important "to keep your friends close, but your enemies closer yet." So, I’ll concede it is important to study the contributions of our intellectual enemies, perhaps, even more carefully than those of our mentors. This isn’t quite the way I look at the matter, but, what the heck, different strokes for different Austro-libertarian folks.
This, however, is not at all what Professor Cowen has in mind. Instead, he says of this author "Keynes is one of the greatest thinkers of economics and there are new ideas on virtually every page." Well, I admit there are some new ideas, but, I would challenge Cowen to specify any that were true. On the other hand, perhaps I should have seen this coming. I am, after all, the co-author of an article which takes this George Mason University professor to task for his views on macroeconomics: Barnett, William II and Walter Block. 2006. "Tyler Cowen on Austrian Business Cycle Theory: A Critique." New Perspectives on Political Economy, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 26—84; see here or here. In view of this, perhaps I ought to rethink my characterization of Cowen as an "Austro-libertarian." (I sent Professor Cowen this article twice, asking him to consider writing a reply. The first time I did so it was out of collegial consideration; I certainly appreciate being made aware of criticisms of my own publications, and being offered the possibility of writing a rejoinder. So, I thought he would appreciate being notified of the existence of my critique of his book on ABCT. The second time I did so because I plain, plumb forgot that I had already done so. Hey, I publish many critiques, and at almost 70 years of age, Alzheimer’s is quickly creeping up on me; I’m just happy I’m not quite yet at the drooling stage. Cowen never did bestir himself to write a rejoinder to my and Bill Barnett’s critique of his work, although he never tires of reminding people that I sent him this article twice.)
When he was a young lad, an enfente terrible, Tyler Cowen was a solid Austro-libertarian. He showed great promise of being one of the leaders of his generation of the movement supporting this economic political philosophy. This has not been true for a while now, unfortunately. Perhaps Cowen has been reading too much of his sixth most influential book, John Stuart Mill’s, Autobiography. Of which he says: "This (book) got me thinking about how one’s ideas change, and should change, over the course of a lifetime." I think we would all have been better off, far better off, without quite so much "change."