Summer Book Reviews, pt. 1 – Politics/Economics

by on September 25th, 2004

I’ll be posting a series of short reviews of the books I read this summer while in China, with the first round being those related to politics/economics.

The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich A. Hayek: Recognized as one of the intellectual forefathers of modern conservative thought, in his most famous work Friedrich Hayek lays out the case that economic controls invariably, inevitably lead to more and more state control of other aspects of life and skillfully draws the link (pointed out not often enough!) that Naziism was a socialist ideology. Written during World War II, Hayek took refuge in England after leaving his native Germany and sought to warn his new country that it was flirting with the same kinds of socialist policies that his homeland had already adopted. The language can be thwarting at times, a combination of age, the erudition of the writer, and perhaps the residue of English not being Hayek’s first language, but it is short and thus still accessible. Another point to mention is that Hayek focuses on what was the primary threat of his time: socialism through state ownership. Today, the primary threat is socialism through the redistributionary state, so while his arguments hold true, they are geared toward a slightly different problem. Recommended.

Power and Prosperity by Mancur Olson: This is the book that economist Mancur Olson was working on when he unexpectedly and tragically passed away. It seeks to answer why economic performance has been so poor in the post-communist world of Eastern Europe. The answer, in short, is that misgovernment can occur in a nominally capitalist economy just as it can in a socialist economy. What is needed is a “market-augmenting government” which provides the structures necessary for markets to properly function: rule of law, property rights, stability, impartial enforcement of contracts, etc. He also makes some very interesting points about “bandits,” whether mobile like thieves or stationary like governments. This is the kind of book I love, the kind that seeks to answer the question of why things are the way they are. Very accessibly written. Recommended.

The Lexus & The Olive Tree by Thomas Friedman: I had high hopes for this book, so perhaps that can explain my dissatisfaction to some extent. It discusses what Friedman sees as the primary conflicts of globalization: People want to drive Lexuses, but they want to protect their olive trees too. The problem with this book is that beyond that simple thesis, there’s just a long progression of anecdotes. I tired quickly of hearing about Friedman’s various jet-setting trips around the world and his impressions or stories about this place or that place. Too much anecdote, no synthesis. I expected to get a new insight or two, but I came away with only some interesting illustrations of obvious points. I also got concerned when his impressions of China’s traffic problems conflicted with my first-hand observations this summer. After spending all summer in China, one of the things that amazed me was the lack of accidents, given the way people drive (it’s really frightening). Friedman comments on seeing multiple traffic accidents on an average daily commute in Beijing. I spent a lot of time in Beijing, and came away with exactly the opposite impression. Another issue came in the last chapter of the book, where Friedman starts commenting on all sorts of things that have nothing to do with the topic of his book, going so far as to deride the insanity of the U.S.’s lack of gun-control laws. What? Interjecting personal political opinions on a matter unrelated to his topic is both unnecessary and bad business sense – where was the editor on that one? Not recommended.

Hard America, Soft America by Michael Barone: This short book attempts to frame recent American history as a tug of war between the forces of “hard America” and “soft America.” Barone describes the areas of American life in which “hard America” prevails (the military, the workplace, etc.) and those in which “soft America” prevails (schools, for example). Unfortunately, this is one of those books that is at an awkward length. It could have been expressed better as an essay or as a longer, more researched book with more specific support. In its current form, however, it leaves the impression of being just an overgrown essay. The point is made in the first couple of chapters, and beyond that it gets a bit repetitious. Not recommended.

Useful Idiots by Mona Charen: In this book, Mona Charen takes us through the last fifty years and reminds us how familiar liberals of today took the wrong side in the Cold War. The liberals of today who claim to have been strong on national defense during the Cold War were not too long ago flying to Vietnam and Nicaragua to meet with Communists (interestingly, John Kerry went both places!) and coming back singing their praises. This book is especially valuable for those (like me) who are too young to remember personally how the American left refused to take a hard line on communist aggression around the world. The book is very well-researched, entertainingly-written, and it is short enough to be an afternoon-read. Recommended.

China Hands by James and Jeffrey Lilley: Great book for anyone interested in China, intelligence, or diplomacy. The Lilleys have had a long history in China, and their story makes for a very interesting read. The first portion of the book seems to be a tribute to James Lilley’s brother, who died in occupation-era Japan when Lilley was still young. His brother is also the object of the book’s dedication. As a result, the first part of the book moves slower than I would prefer, but I like that by making the book a tribute to his brother he does not focus on himself. Too many books of this sort are self-aggrandizing. Lilley’s book never even approaches it. Lilley served as a CIA agent during the Korean war and later in Cambodia and Laos. The conflicts in organizational culture between the CIA and State Dept. are interesting, as he later got involved on the State side of things, running the American Institute in Taiwan (our unofficial “embassy”), our embassy in Seoul, and finally our embassy in Beijing. He was ambassador to China during the Tian’anmen Square massacre and the accounts of it alone are worth the purchase price of the book. Also interesting are Lilley’s impressions of George H. W. Bush, who he met when the latter served as ambassador to China. Recommended.

John F. Kerry by “the Boston Globe reporters who know him best”: Yes, I did actually read a biography of John F. Kerry and I’m glad I did. I think the Boston Globe reporters who put this together did a pretty good job of making a balanced presentation based on what was known at the time. It does omit some of the things that have recently come to light in Unfit for Command but I don’t think many of those allegations were publicly known at the time this book was written. It is critical of Kerry at times, especially during his first attempt at running for Congress and during the campaign against Weld. Every conservative should read this fair-minded biography to gain a better understanding of who they are up against, and every liberal should read it rather than the Tour of Duty fluff-piece so they understand the whole picture of who they are supporting. I was pleasantly surprised. Recommended.

Hunter Williams