David R. Henderson  

My Top 10 Picks

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Thanks again to all who gave me suggestions for economics books that would "expand the universe" of some interns at a conservative think tank. I sent my own list, as well as a link to this blog post, on to my economist friend at that think tank.

A number of people have asked me which I chose. I chose 10. Here they are, in no particular order, with comments on some of them:

Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom. This, of course, is about the dangers of centralized economic planning. So it's not about economics in the way most of the other books are. For what I think is still relevant about it, see my review here (scroll down).

Milton and Rose Friedman, Free to Choose. One reason this book is so readable is that Milton and Rose wrote it based on the scripts for the PBS TV series of the same name. I remember Milton telling me, in the spring of 1980, that it was the number #1 non-fiction book--in Japan!

Frederic Bastiat, The Law. A classic.

Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson. Another classic. Here's my review.

David R. Henderson, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey. My friend Less Antman once described this as an economics book disguised as an autobiography. I really did mean it to be semi-autobiographical. Here's what Milton Friedman said: "The Joy of Freedom is a quasi-autobiographical clarion call for a free society. It is passionate and eloquent, yet at the same time, thoughtful, informed, and profound. A splendid statement of the moral case for a free society, at the same time it is an informed and comprehensive survey of its practical virtues and of the harm done by widespread government intervention."

Steven Landsburg, The Armchair Economist. Here are highlights from my review, including one criticism that, as far as I know, Steven has not answered.

Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist. Here's my review (scroll down).

David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom. This book is more about libertarianism than just straight economics, but since it's written by an incredibly good economist who writes really well, I'm putting it on the list.

Paul Heyne, The Economic Way of Thinking. (The earlier the edition, the better.) In the early 2000s, Armen Alchian told me that when Paul Heyne was thinking about writing the first edition, in the 1970s, I believe, he contacted Armen and asked him if "it would be alright" if he wrote a text that took the insights from University Economics, Armen Alchian's and William Allen's classic, and simplified. Armen chuckled as he told me that story: he had reassured Paul that, yes, people are free to write their own books. I tried teaching economics to undergrads using University Economics, but it was too subtle for most. Paul Heyne succeeded in writing a book that had many of the same insights but did so in a way that was easier to grasp. The modern editions, co-authored by Peter Boettke and David Prychitko, are still quite good and I get good responses from students when I use them in my distance learning class, but they are not as good as some of the earlier editions by Heyne alone. My friend Jeff Hummel maintains that the best version is the 5th edition. That's hard to find at a low price, although I found one and have ordered it.

Steven E. Rhoads, The Economist's View of the World. I used to use this as a text in an economics course in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Man, did the students ever get marginalism, incentives, and opportunity cost. The lightbulbs went on like crazy.


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COMMENTS (25 to date)
Nick writes:

They're all great books, but I feel as though if you wanted to expand the universe of people who were already inclined to volunteer at a conservative think tank that you could have picked a few broader perspectives so they can better understand the viewpoints of people they disagree with.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I noticed that too, Nick. But it's not just a matter of conservative think tank volunteers. These choices all seem to have some things in common! Surely there's excellent economics outside of that universe.

Greg Rehmke writes:

Paul Heyne told me that after contacting the publishers of University Economics with his suggestions, they arranged for him to meet with Alchian and Allen to discuss revisions that would make the book more popular. Paul said the meeting didn't go well and they weren't much interested. From there Paul got the okay to do his own rewrite of University Economics.

Taylor Davidson writes:

Very glad you didn't shy away from putting "Joy of Freedom" on there. It's my #2 after RtS. I think it occupies a space similar to "Free to Choose" but (gods of libertarianism strike me down) I think it's better... More engaging, readable, attention grabbing, etc... One of my personal favorites and an important text when I began my process of self-study years ago.

kzndr writes:

I have to agree with the first two comments: given the likely intellectual inclinations of interns at conservative think tanks, these books are unlikely to do much to expand their universes, and even if one or two does manage to do so the marginal returns of reading more on the list will diminish sharply. Dave, I really enjoy your writing, but this surely stands as a bit of an indictment of yourself that you didn't think to put any books that sharply challenge your worldview on this list (or that you could not think of any books that you respect and find challenging even if you vehemently disagree with them).

David R. Henderson writes:

@Nick, Daniel Kuehn, and kzndr,
I see your point. I think our difference is not over whether it’s good to read alternative viewpoints. It’s more likely over where we think those conservative interns are intellectually now. In my experience, I find that they don’t know much.
And kzndr, I do think that one or two of the final chapters of Rhoads do challenge my world view.
Also, Nick, one of the things that we in the minority have been good at, precisely because we’re in the minority, is understanding the viewpoints of people we disagree with. That’s what’s so great, for example, about Heyne, David Friedman, and Rhoads.
@Greg Rehmke,
Interesting story.
@Taylor Davidson,
Thanks.

RPLong writes:

Regarding the first two comments, I think one of the challenges with putting non-libertarian books on the list is that they tend to be very issue-specific. All the left- and right-leaning pop-econ books I can think of are not about economics or world view in general, but specifically about the great recession, or the dot-com bubble, or health care, or etc. etc.

They're certainly worth reading, but their broader usefulness tends to have a very short lifespan.

Of course, it could be that I just don't know about the more general books.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

So the idea is give them someone they'll pay attention to rather than try to resist? That makes good sense.

Mercer writes:

Does the fact that Ridley was chairman of the one of the biggest British banks that failed in over a century suggest maybe he can be too optimistic?

Jon Murphy writes:

Well, Prof. Henderson, don't forget that in the original post, you did say your friend was specifically looking for free-market oriented books.

Mark writes:

Here's a medium plug from a non-economist: iTunes offers excellently narrated versions of Economics In One Lesson and Basic Economics.

I've suggested these titles as a short-term substitute for talk radio to a few folks. Some excellent responses to this suggestion so far. The audio format might appeal to some of these young interns as well.

Connie Elliott writes:

You missed Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers. Anytime anybody asks me why and how I could think the way I do, I hand out a copy.

ColoComment writes:

One of the first and most interesting economics- and political-oriented books that I've read is Jude Wanniski's The Way the World Works.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Mercer,
Does the fact that Ridley was chairman of the one of the biggest British banks that failed in over a century suggest maybe he can be too optimistic?
Possibly. :-)

Suggestion writes:

Thomas Sowell's Knowledge and Decisions

LD Bottorff writes:

Having three of these books, and knowing how good they are, I believe you have made a very good case for reading the other seven. Thanks!

Andrew_FL writes:

Too optimistic about what exactly, Mercer?

The fact that a person may be optimistic about their personal business affairs, and overly so, doesn't seem at all related, to my mind, to whether or not they are overly optimistic about things of broader and largely unrelated scope.

Jeff writes:

Huh. I never knew Matt Ridley had been involved in the Northern Rock debacle until now. Good example of why you probably don't want to put people with no experience in positions of authority in multi-billion dollar financial institutions, I guess.

John Palmer writes:

Hey! Don't forget the Canadian Edition of The Economic Way of Thinking. It's still useful and still being used even though the publisher has not brought out a new edition in over a decade.

Joe Green writes:

The first book I'd give an intern is Virginia Postrel, The Future and It's Enemies

Pajser writes:

I've read only The machinery and Serfdom. Friedman is really good; interesting, clever, intellectually honest.

Tristan writes:

To "broaden" their horizons, shouldn't they be reading non-conservative material? I would give the same advice vice versa to interns at a liberal think tank. It seems like just consuming a ton of material that confirms your existing opinions would be the exact opposite of what young people in particular should want.

triclops41 writes:

It seems many of you overestimate the level of knowledge these interns come in with. Broadening horizons is definitely important. But thinking through one's own philosophy is even more fundamental. You want your interns to be up to speed on the best thinking in your philosophy as a first order of business.
OTO, I would love to hear what you guys would recommend for reading the best of the economic interventionist arguments. It very well could be my own confirmation bias, but I am very often disappointed with the facile arguments economic interventionists use to justify pet policies.

Giorgio writes:

What would you suggest regarding the domain of international relations?

David Boaz writes:

These are all excellent. But my own choice for a first book is P. J. O'Rourke Eat the Rich, which I described here.
http://www.cato.org/blog/whats-so-funny-about-p-j-orourke

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