Arnold Kling  

The Great Liberal Books

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On my reading list, a commenter complained that I did not recommend books with which I disagree. Although I disagree with some of Harford, some of Blinder, and much of Warsh, the point is well taken.

Another book with which I have a lot of disagreement but that I respect considerably is David Cutler's Your Money or Your Life. In my book, I come around to the view that Americans consume too many health care services where the costs exceed the benefits. Although Cutler has nothing against cost-benefit analysis, he tends to think that we could probably do better to increase consumption of health care services, particularly among economically disadvantaged populations.

In my view, the vast majority of political books these days, particularly best-sellers, are designed to close minds, not open thme. Most books are entirely one-sided and vacuous. The average conservative book is as vacuous and one-sided as the average liberal book.

I think that the conservative books that I recommend have something to offer anyone who has an open mind. So, where are the leading liberal books? Would Richard Layard's book on Happiness qualify? I think so. He does try to address many counter-arguments. Readers of this blog know that I am no fan of happiness research, but I would grudgingly have to concede the importance of his book, while continuing to reject his philosophy and approach.

There ought to be a great liberal book on global warming, but I have not seen any. This morning, I listened to a minute of NPR (I usually don't), and heard someone solemnly intone that scientists use computer models to predict climate change. As if we have no business questioning what comes out of a computer. What I want to see is something that openly acknowledges all of the weaknesses in climate models as well as the huge cost of lowering projected temperatures while still making the case for major policy changes to address global warming.

There ought to be a great liberal book on Social Security and Medicare, explaining why a fiscal policy of holding a gun to our heads is such a good thing. There isn't. The only attempt I have ever seen to defend the pay-as-you-go financing system in economic terms was from Peter Diamond in his Presidential Address to the American Economic Association, and I found his arguments underwhelming.

I think that the main reason that I tend not to recommend liberal books goes back to my essay on Type C and Type M arguments. I tend to value arguments based on motivation (we care about the suffering of the afflicted, they don't) at zero, and liberals tend to give them a much higher score. When liberals start writing books with a type C flavor, I will have more liberal books on my recommendation list.


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COMMENTS (3 to date)
aaron writes:

The Skeptical Environmentalist is an excellent liberal book.

Dezakin writes:

How about: General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money

A bit dated I suppose.

I'm guessing a problem with left leaning books on global warming with the rightist view is different value judgements. Industrial civilization is just taken for granted as being less valuable than preserving the status quo of climate and ecology.

david writes:

I agree that liberal writing on environmental issues must be lacking, since conservatives commonly see environmentalism as based on a non-human-centered spirituality. Perhaps I subconsciously filter out the Gaians and the animal liberationists, but it has always been my impression that environmentalism is promoted, by and large, through appeal to hedonism. Everybody wants clean air, safe water, good health, pleasant surroundings, and the economic means to enjoy these things, and most environmentalists choose to maximize their audience by sticking to this common ground.

The interesting fight on environmentalism isn't between liberals and conservatives, it's between the conservatives who want to use markets to manage environmental assets and those who believe that anything not already managed by current markets must have no value. Book recommendations on this topic are welcome!

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