Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Rothbard, Murray (1995): An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, Volume 1: Economic Thought Before Adam Smith

What is it about?

The book basically covers, as the title suggests, the intellectual history of economic thought - what currently would be called economics - up to an including Adam Smith's landmark work The Wealth of Nations.

However, as is fitting with Rothbards libertarian background, the book is written with a special eye on free market thoughts.

Moreover, towards the end of the book, Rothbard's agenda becomes clearer and clearer as Adam Smith gets a very, very disfavorable treatment by Rothbard - and with his characteristically vivid use of words.

Thus, the book is not a dispassionate historical account on the evolution of economic thought, but in addition an value-laden evaluation of different schools and trains of thought.

Was it good?

The book is quite monumental, the first volume alone running for nearly 600 pages. The text is very informative and quite often told by focusing on certain key individuals, their careers, thoughts and influences. In the usual Rothbardian style, the text is very enjoyable to read.

However, the value-laden nature of the text starts to become perhaps a bit too striking towards the end of the book - especially considering that the text is (supposedly) academic by nature. In particular, the treatment of Adam Smith is very harsh, as can be seen in the following quote (pp. 435-436):

The problem is that he originated nothing that was true, and that whatever he originated was wrong; that, even in an age that had fewer citations or footnotes than our own, Adam Smith was a shameless plagiarist, acknowledging little or nothing and stealing large chunks ... And even though a plagiarist, he plagiarized badly, adding new fallacies to the truths he lifted ... Wealth of Nations is a huge, sprawling, inchoate, confused tome, rife with vagueness, ambiguity and deep inner contradictions.

You really get the sense that Rothbard was no fan of Smith. However, it must be admitted that Rothbard can write, which makes any book by Rothbard a pleasant reading experience.

The main take-away for me?

In a text like these, there is a wealth of take-aways to be had, from the nature of money or value to the theory of interest rates.

However, perhaps the big meta-take-away for me is the importance of simple problems. Indeed, it seems to me that economic thought has made greatest progress when a clear, well-thought answer to a simple problem has been advanced. As one example, the diamond-water paradox, or the paradox of value, was one such simple problem which lead to the 'marginalist revolution' in economics. Another such example is the question of why is there such a thing as interest (rate for money).

Who should read the book?

Quite obviously, this book is not for everyone already because of its scale and scope. Instead, I presume that the book appeals most to those interested in intellectual history and that in political economy in particular. Moreover, it certainly would not hurt, if one has a favorable attitude towards free market thinking in addition.

The book freely available at Ludwig von Mises Institute: An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, Volume 1

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Swift, Jonathan (1729): A Modest Proposal

What is it about?

This is a pamphlet (i.e. not a fully-blown book per se) is a satirical attack agains "value-free economics" prevalent during the 18th century.

The "solution" or "reform" being advanced aims at decreasing the number of children of poor people by advocating eating them when turn one year old - and claiming that this is an optimal course of action both in economic as well as culinary terms. Or, in Swift's words: "A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout."

Obviously one of the main points of Swift is that there is no such thing as value-free economics.

Was it good?

The pamphlet reads really beautifully and oozes the rhetorical style of the period. Moreover - and importantly - the author really succeed in demonstrating how an attack against a school of thought can be done wholly in its own terms.

The main take-away for me?

In addition to the above, for me there are two main take-aways. First, the pamphlet really calls - quite justifiably, I think - into question the possibility of value-free economics, or purely technocratic societal decision-making. In other words, whatever course of action is selected, it always - Swift seems to argue - is based on some set of values instead of being value-free.

And second, Swift underscores the power of humour and laughter as a strategy of opposing something. Namely, if one argues against or seriously criticises something, one, by doing so, affirms the credibility of the argument being criticised through the very act of criticism (i.e. the position being criticised deserves to be taken seriously). Thus, by laughing at an argument or a position, one disaffirms the position by not even taking it seriously. Laughter is powerful.

Who should read the book?

Once again, this one should appeal to everyone, but especially those who are interested in economics, economic history, political economy or political philosophy. But in any case, the pamphlet reads so beautifully that basically anyone can derive enjoyment out of it.

The pamphlet freely available on Gutenberg.org: A Modest Proposal

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Rothbard, Murray (1959): Science, Technology, and Government

What is it about?

The book basically addresses one question: whether scientific and technological research should be (predominantly) conducted by free market enterprises or governments - and particularly in the USA. Being (or having been) a frontline libertarian thinker, Rothbard's position and the basic arguments for that are not difficult to guess even without reading the book.

Was it good?

The book is clearly a product of its time, i.e. the late 1950s. At that time, it probably was an interesting contribution to the ongoing question about how to best organize scientific research and technological development, and how scientists and engineers should be educated and paid. However, a modern reader probably will get relatively little out of it if he or she already has read a bit of basic Austrian economics or equivalent texts already.

The main take-away for me?

Being yet another book in my reading series in Austrian economics, I feel that there is no real take-away for me here. The book could have, in an abridged form, been one of the chapters in Rothbard's For a New Liberty - it is perfectly in line with everything said there. Of course it must be born in mind, that this one precedes For a New Liberty by more than a decade.

Who should read the book?

I think that the book is of most interest to those who are particularly interested in Rothbards' works and how his thinking has evolved over time. For others, some other more encompassing text by Rothbard or some other Austrian economics thinker is more recommended.

The book at Ludwig von Mises Institute (freely available): Science, Technology, and Government

Block, Walter (2008): Defending the Undefendable

What is it about?

This book, perhaps more than any else, is pure libertarian discourse, and - one could say - continues from where Murray Rothbard left off. The basic setup of the book is actually quite ingenious: it goes through generally despised professions or social positions one by one (e.g. the drug pusher, the ticket scalper, the speculator, the middleman) and argues that a representative of each of these serves a valuable market purpose (in the spirit of totally free market capitalism) and that any resentments towards them are not justified (in the same spirit).

Was it good?

With regard to the basic setup and argumentative style and boldness, the book certainly is very good. Whether one subscribes to the arguments being advance, however, depends very much on one's stance towards political philosophy and political economy. In any event, the book should we worthwhile to read regardless, because - like Rothbard's works - it compels one to think an thereby reveal one's position with regard to what is being suggested.

In some cases, however, the argumentation is a little bit forced, like in section seven, where litterers and wastemakers are being argued into being 'heroes' because they, through their actions, underscore e.g. the suggested fact that public places should be privately owned.

The main take-away for me?

Perhaps the main take-away for me has to do with the style of presentation. Namely, by going 'all the way' to the extreme conclusions is an effective way to really test any given argumentative structure and see whether one really subscribes to it or not. This, of course, closely resembles the thought experiment 'method' commonly employed in philosophy.

Who should read the book?

I think that everyone could enjoy the book regardless of whether one subscribes to what is being suggested or not. Of course, this requires a basic interest in political philosophy and political economy, but the text is so accessible that very little prior knowledge is required. Highly recommended.

The book at Ludwig von Mises Institute (freely available): Defending the Undefendable