Arnold Kling

What I've Been Reading

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Check Your Base... Unbroken--and the Bomb...

1. Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini, an American airman who was shot down, captured, and tortured by the Japanese during the second World War. It was written by Laura Hillenbrand, the impairment-fighting author of Seabiscuit, and it is at least an equally compelling read. When the inevitable movie arrives, it will be interesting to see whether the screenwriters seek to tone down the Japanese abuses of prisoners or to dilute them by reaching for some sort of moral equivalence. If not, then by the time the atomic bomb makes its appearance, your only second thought will be to wish that the U.S. had dropped more of them.

2. Your Teacher Said What?! by Joe Kernan and his daughter. This is a book of the "our side is right, the other side is wrong" genre that I regard as self-unrecommending. And the last third of the book lived up (down?) to my low expectations. However, there were some surprising redeeming features.

His motive for writing the book is the way that capitalism is typically taught in school.


my very smart young daughter had fallen prey to a media culture and an educational system that were not only completely ignorant of the nature of a free-market economy but, often enough, hostile to it. It was as if I had learned that she was being taught geology by a member of the Flat Earth Society.

He writes,

Progressivism, at its core, isn't really anything but the idea that government ought to act like a parent.

I would dismiss that as an opponent's unfair caricature of Progressivism, but consider the well-known progressive George Lakoff. The central metaphor of his Moral Politics is one of government as parent. See my review, written in 2000.

On property rights, I thought that Kernan raised an interesting issue, but he made little effort to resolve it.


For most of history, ownership was a might-makes-right concept. If you had something of value, and I took it because I was stronger than you, it was mine--at least unless someone even stronger made me give it back. The "someone" could be a tribal leader or a feudal lord or a modern state, but ownership was just possession with the permission of the biggest bully in the neighborhood.

Some people say--loudly--that nothing has changed: that the government...is just the latest version of the biggest bully in the neighborhood. [but] there is a huge difference between a legitimate government restrained by the rule of law and a king restrained by nothing at all

His most interesting opinions concern immigration.

if you want to raise a population rich in the attitudes that start them off believing they are in control of their lives, rather than victims, then you want to encourage immigration. Legal immigration, of course, but immigration--and lots of it.

A few pages later:

The basic principle that defines work in Europe...is that workers need to be protected against their employers. By building an entire economy on these lines, European economies have accepted that the only thing that keeps the average laborer from becoming a victim is the power of the state.

...[citing Lee Harris] people tend to be divided into two basic groups: one whose "locus of control" is inside them and one whose locus is outside...Free-market libertarians are internals. Social-welfare collectivists are externals...

I guess it's not surprising that a nation of immigrants would have stronger beliefs in aspiration, willpower, and individualism than a country of emmigrants...the factor that is most important in building an entrepreneurial economy is the degree to which the nation welcomes immigrants.

This pro-immigrant bias, which appears in the chapter "America vs. Europe," is what appealed to me most about the book. I am sympathetic to the view that American culture has been shaped by the fact that people exercised "exit" to get here.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Jonathan Bechtel writes:

Well, those excerpts definitely read like a book that's intended to galvanize people on his side rather than convince people that disagree with him.

That said, I do agree with him on everything you quoted.

Andy Hallman writes:
If not, then by the time the atomic bomb makes its appearance, your only second thought will be to wish that the U.S. had dropped more of them.

Arnold, this is repugnant, and I'm glad David called you out on it.

Shane L writes:

I'm forever baffled by the use of a "Europe" as a alternative model for the United States. Are we talking Belarus, Switzerland or Sweden? Fifty different countries with different policies. I understand that what is usually meant by "Europe" are the handful of prosperous social democracies like Germany, Sweden, etc. But still! Talking about European policies is like talking about "American" policies to mean Cuba, Nicaragua, and the US.

"I guess it's not surprising that a nation of immigrants would have stronger beliefs in aspiration, willpower, and individualism than a country of emmigrants...the factor that is most important in building an entrepreneurial economy is the degree to which the nation welcomes immigrants."

Interesting, but is this also true for Latin American countries with many immigrants?

chipotle writes:

Joe Kernan is a financial "journalist" whose chief qualification seems to be that he has great hair and therefore looks nice on television. Seriously, if you watch him on CNBC's appropriately named Squawkbox, you'll see television programming that has all the depth of insight of FNC's morning show "Fox and Friends."

Pandaemoni writes:
For most of history, ownership was a might-makes-right concept.

Is that documented in any way?

Most of what I have read of hunter-gatherer societies (which would be most of human history, unless he meant "recorded history") suggests that they tended to live communally, without well-defined leaders (so no "tribal chiefs") and without well defined rules of property within the group. Assuming the scholarship on that has not changed, that would men the principle that served ancestral humans for tens of thousands of years would more likely be: "ownership, to the extent it existed, was a 'who in my in-group needs this right now' concept."

David MacRae writes:

Unbroken is simply an awesome story of one man who stood his ground against state goons in a very personal way. Another state murdered hundreds of thousands of people in a very impersonal way. Do not claim that the one is justified because of the other. States are evil and both narratives prove it.

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