Bryan Caplan  

My Book List

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The fifteen books that influenced my thinking the most, in chronological order:

1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  While I ultimately didn't learn much of substance, this book got me very excited about about ideas.  Nietzsche's vision of discovering the truth, whatever is may be, and proclaiming it, no matter how much it offends others, is still with me.

2. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged.  An old libertarian adage says that "it usually begins with Ayn Rand," and in my case it's true.

3. Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness.  While I ultimately decided that her central arguments were actually incompatible with moral realism, this book nevertheless sparked my obsession with meta-ethics.

4. Murray Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State.  It's full of gross logical errors and sophistry, but still taught me at least half of what I know about econ - and 90% of what I know about how economists ought to write.

5. Ludwig von Mises, Human Action.  In terms of pure economics, it's just a poorly organized (but still beautifully written) version of Rothbard's MES.  But Mises' implicit political economy made a huge impression on me - and I eventually realized that it's a lot more empirically grounded than standard public choice.

6. Murray Rothbard, For a New Liberty.  This is the book that made me an anarcho-capitalist.  It's got lots of problems, but still amazes me.

7. Paul Johnson, Modern Times.  Some of my favorite academic historians don't take this book seriously, but its broad brush paints a true picture of the 20th century. 

8. Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource.  Simon's amazing empirics burned away my lingering Randian pessimism about the modern world - and converted me to natalism.

9. Richard Posner, Economic Analysis of Law.  Reading this book convinced me to start taking neoclassical efficiency analysis seriously.  It also rekindled my love of econ right before I had to choose between law school and an econ Ph.D.  So thank you, Judge Posner, for helping me make the right choice!

10. Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve.  From a young age, I thought that intelligence matters a lot.  But several of my favorite K-12 teachers tricked me into abandoning my youthful insight.  TBC gave me back my birthright - and persuaded me that econometrics was not a waste of time along the way.

11. Steve Landsburg, The Armchair Economist.  This slim volume taught me that economic puzzles are everywhere.  If Posner rekindled my love of econ, Landsburg's delightful book poured an endless supply of gasoline on the fire. 

12. Donald Wittman, The Myth of Democratic Failure.  This is the book that awoke me from my dogmatic public choice slumbers - and (negatively) inspired all of my work on voter irrationality.  It's a gift.

13. Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky, Democracy and Decision.  This neglected work finally explained why, contrary to orthodox public choice, basic economics implies radical differences between consumer and voter behavior.

14. Judith Harris, The Nurture Assumption.  Harris sucked me into the exciting world of behavioral genetics - and got me thinking about the implications for the meaning of life.

15. Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of ManMike Huemer sold me on the philosophy of common sense years before I actually read EIPM.  But I was still shocked at how persuasively Hume's obscure contemporary solved all the main problems of philosophy.  Or to be more precise, Reid developed a philosophical technique for dissolving any philosophical problem whatever.

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Les Cargil writes:

1. The Gulag Archipelago - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
2. Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me - Richard Farina (included in an inheritance of my favorite cousin's estate)
3. Player Piano - Vonnegut
4. (an obscure book, which proposes the idea
of Soviets and Americans taking CDS positions
against nuclear war ) Henry III.
5. Burmese Days - George Orwell.
6. The Story of Civilization (by Will and
Arial Durant) So far as I have got.
7. Civil War - by Shelby Foote.

Liam writes:

Hey Bryan, I think you left out "The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey" ;)

Tracy W writes:

My list, in no particular order because I can't put them in chronological order because I mostly can't remember which order I read them in, and I can't put them in order of importance because they cover different things that I don't know how to compare.

1. Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein. Taught me to question so much.
2. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. First defence of free markets and criticism of government action I had ever come across (ironically, given my parents). Also this might have been the book that made me decide to study engineering at university (I read a lot of SF in my teenage years).
3. The Design of Everyday Things/The Psychology of Every Day Things. (book has two titles). How the design of things can make them easier or not to use, and how the designer bears responsibility for what is often labelled operator errors.
4. The Logic of Failure. How people make bad decisions, really changed my outlook on blame.
5. The Nurture Assumption, really changed my understanding of people and families.
6. The Handbook of Forecasting by Scott Armstrong. Packed full of forecasting information, by someone who is a skeptic about forecasting's accuracy, but aware that it needs to be done.
7. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. Basically, the role of information in markets. Perhaps not his best book on this topic, but the first one I read.
8. Guns, Germs and Steel. Opened my eyes to the importance of geography.
9. How to Lie With Statistics. The title explains it.
10. Zen and the Art of Motorbike Maintenance. All about quality in a deep way.
11. Don't Shoot the Dog. All the ways of modifying someone else's behaviour.
12. Pride and Prejudice. All about the importance of how you choose whom to marry.
13. The Second Sex. Really opened my mind to the way a number of men think about women, even now, eg in Jeremy Paxman's The English, he mostly considers Englishwomen in relation to Englishmen (he does discuss different years of the increase in women's rights), but he regards Englishmen in relation to other cultures.
14. There should be some of Issac Asimov's non-fiction writings in here about science and that kind of mindset, but I can't remember the titles.
15. Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. Doing empirical economic work before statistics departments - wow!

Snorri Godhi writes:

Nice to see a book that I have actually read (The Armchair Economist). This is more than I can say for the Cowen and Kling lists, I am ashamed to say.

I followed the link to the 2005 blog post on Reid and I have a question:
Without studying Reid's works, it is easy to dismiss his claim as either (a) Foolish, [...] or (b) Platitudinous, [...].

Where "his claim", as translated by Bryan, is that Bayesian priors should be based on common sense. Actually, my objection would be that the claim is tautological: common sense is the name that we give to our prior beliefs. Or am I using the expression "common sense" differently from most other people?

To take the example in the 2005 post:
If (A implies B), then (Not-B implies not-A). [...] You have to ask yourself, "Which is more likely? That A is true, or that not-B is true?"

In this case, to say "common sense indicates that A is more likely to be true than B is likely to be false" is the same as saying "the prior that I assign to A is larger than the prior that I assign to non-B".
What am I missing?

Floccina writes:

It always surprises me that so many intelligent people say Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged influenced them. Maybe I missed something when I tried to read, I only made it half way.

On the other hand Julian Simon's "The Ultimate Resource" had a great influence on me although by the time I read it was already becoming obvious that the likes of Paul Ehrlich the club of Rome were very wrong.

Just the fact that Simon liked to pointed out that population was growing due to falling death rate and that that was good think changed minds.

MRS writes:

'While I ultimately didn't learn much of substance, this book got me very excited about about ideas. Nietzsche's vision of discovering the truth, whatever is may be, and proclaiming it, no matter how much it offends others, is still with me.'

This is a deliciously absurd statement that seems to reveal the philistine thoughts of a person called Bryan Caplan

Doc Merlin writes:

The first book I read in english, the King James Bible, had a very profound impact on me, besides learning me to read english with it, it also affected my life substantially.

Two books by Heinlein, Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

David D. Friedman's, The Machinery of Freedom now unfortunately out of print!

More recently The Bottomless Well really has got me thinking.

Isegoria writes:

Bryan, you should have had the courage to lead off with the AD&D Monster Manual.

Jacob writes:

Armchair Economist is a classic. I believe it is the seed that created pop-economic literature as we know it today.

Jay writes:

The Bell Curve? It certainly teaches you how to not handle research and data. Is that what you mean?

Janus Daniels writes:

What Jay said.
But, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, etc. listed with Nietzche...
And this is, beyond doubt, the best that modern conservative thought has to offer.

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