Didact's Book Club

pumpsix has a question on one of my favourite subjects- books:
Just wondering, can you recommend a book on the economic battles between USA and USSR? (Also, off topic, do you know of any good books on economic history? I have New Ideas from Dead Economists and The History of Economic Thought: A Reader coming in the mail. I was wondering if there was anything better.)
It's a great question because there is a lot of ground to cover. Get yourself a stiff drink, this is going to be a long one.

Capitalism vs Communism

One of the best books ever written on the Cold War is of course Reagan's War by Peter Schweizer I've reviewed this book right here on this blog, and it remains one of my personal favourites on the subject of the economic differences between the USA and the USSR. It gives a very powerful account of the economic disparities between the US and the USSR, and shows exactly how the US won that economic war. The documentary DVD "In the Face of Evil", which is heavily based on the book, expands upon that theme and is better at showing, rather than telling, the way  the Soviet economic collapse happened.

Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was written waaaaaay back in 1989, and it was obvious even when he wrote it that many of his conclusions were deeply flawed- he thought that the future would include a Soviet Union, for instance, but less than a year after this book's publication, the Evil Empire was no more. The value of this book is not in its (terrible) predictions, but in the lessons that it contains for future empires. His basic analysis concluded that the powers that thrived were the ones that were best able to balance the needs of their economies with the demands of an imperial military.

If you prefer a personal touch to your history, I would recommend Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell by Karen DeYoung. This is a biography, not an economic history, so it's not going to be heavy on economics. It does, however, give some really good insights into the way the American military was fighting the Cold War, and the way in which Reagan's War brought the Soviets to their knees.

As far as I'm concerned, the definitive work on the subject of the flaws of planned economies is of course Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth, an essay written by (who else?) Ludwig von Mises that turned into a book called Socialism. The essay can be downloaded for free (that's how I got it). It was written in 1920, when the progressive intelligentsia in the West thought that planned economies were the way to go. Before the book came along, it was the single most devastating demolition of the idea that planned economies can work- never mind outcompete free ones- that had ever been published. It still is. No one has ever been able to refute its logic, primarily because the logic itself is airtight.

Two books that aren't strictly about the Cold War, but are still thoroughly worth reading, are Harrison Salisbury's The New Emperors: China in the Era of Mao and Deng and of course Wild Swans by Jung Chang. I read both books in high school when we were studying East Asian history for IB Higher Level history courses. The first book provides considerable insight into Mao Tse-Tung's mindset and life, and shows exactly where a lot of the mythology that surrounded him came from. It also shows where most of his harebrained crackpot economic schemes came from, culminating in the economic catastrophe that was the Great Leap Forward- in which 20 million people died from famine and disease, and that's a conservative estimate. The second book is one of the best books ever written in any language, and is a deeply personal account of Chinese history throughout the late-19th-to-mid-20th-century period. It shows how China went from the decaying and ossified rule of the Ch'ing dynasty, to the heady idealism of the 1920s, to the era of the warlords, to Japanese invasion and conquest, to the horrors of WWII and finally into the Communist era, and the insanity that followed during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. I devoured that book and cannot recommend it strongly enough.

Finally, for those who actually like dense and bulky histories written by historians for other historians, there is Alan Bullock's magisterial Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. This is the book on the subject of the similarities between Hitler's murderous Third Reich and Stalin's even more murderous regime. I warn you now, though, this book is a doorstop- it's well over 800 pages long- and it took me the better part of a month to go through it. While not really about the differences between Communism and capitalism, this book and its dense examination of the similarities between fascism and socialism will be of considerable use when you're faced with the usual crowd of useful liberal idiots who think that socialism is Good and fascism is Bad; they're really just eerily similar manifestations of the same evil ideology.

Economic History

Several of the books noted above are economic histories, but most of them focus on relatively contemporary periods. There are other economic histories that I think are seriously worth reading that cover many different eras.

Richard Overy's The Origins of the Second World War takes a subject that has been done to death and back and puts some serious economic analysis into the question of why the war actually broke out. A. J. P. Taylor's book (of the exact same title) was a sensation when it was published because it was a completely revisionist look at the outbreak of the war. Overy's contribution to the debate injected some real facts and figures into the argument, and made it clear that a variety of economic factors drove that war forward. It also made clear the fact that Germany's road to war was by no means assured.

Amity Shlaes wrote in my opinion one of the finest books ever on the subject of the Great Depression when she published The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. This is the book that forever changed my views of the Great Depression and made it clear to me that most of what I had learned in high school was flat-out wrong. I read it back in 2008- I remember buying this at the airport on my way to Vancouver for a US visa, actually- and simply tore through it during my stay in Canada. I was reading it at about the time that President Jackass was elected, and during the biggest financial meltdown in human history; let's just say, the material was pretty damn relevant. This book, to my mind, is one of the greatest examples of libertarian scholarship and writing that I've ever come across, and I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

Once I read that book, I decided that I'd had enough of being lied to about the way things went in the 1930s and picked up FDR's Folly by Jim Powell and Rethinking the Great Depression by Gene Smiley. Both books will completely destroy the credibility of your teachers in high school by making it perfectly clear that the Great Depression was a disaster explicitly caused by government, not by the market.

One of the oddest and yet most interesting books I've read recently is Isabel Paterson's The God of the Machine. It's a downright weird book, taking as it does concepts in physics- particularly the conservation and translation of energy- and applying it to economics. It treats an economy as a massive, impossibly complex machine, and Paterson's arguments show why such a machine must be set free to operate on its own, rather than being forced to operate according to someone's plan. This is one of the most brilliant defences of the free market that I've ever read, offbeat though it might be.

John Maynard Keynes is an economist who I hold in fairly deep contempt- but it didn't have to be that way. His book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, is the masterpiece that The General Theory should have been but could never be. The former is everything that the latter is not- cogent, precise, erudite, brilliantly argued, compact, and forceful. If he had written just this book and not bothered with trying to rewrite basic economics, he would be remembered unequivocally as one of the greatest economists in human history, right up there with men like Mises and Hayek.

I would of course be remiss if I didn't mention Vox Day's own The Return of the Great Depression. This is not strictly an economic history- actually, early on in the book, Vox starts out with anecdotes about his time in Japan in order to discuss how debt-fuelled bubbles are formed and how they explode. The value of his book lies in showing how this depression is like the last one, and why the solutions used in the last one won't work in this one either. (He also explodes the idea that protectionism in and of itself was responsible for the length and depth of the Depression, which in my opinion is among his greatest contributions to modern economic thinking.)

Burton W. Folsom's The Myth of the Robber Barons is exactly the book that you want to read if you ever find yourself in an argument with a liberal about the "evils" of big business. This book, more than any other, will destroy that argument very quickly. Highly recommended, it gives libertarians like me some serious ammunition when discussing the superiority of free-market solutions to government-based ones.

Economics in Fiction

While not strictly on topic, I would also highly recommend three works of fiction, simply because they are damn good reads and demonstrate that libertarian ideas don't just have to be discussed in dry tomes about economics and history.

Two books by Garret Garrett are very much worth reading. The first, The Driver, tells the story of Henry Galt (yes, this predates Atlas Shrugged), an entrepreneur who takes over a failing railway business and turns it into a massive success- but who is ultimately destroyed by his critics, who are unable to see the tremendous good that he has done for the world. This book is one of those brilliant defences of the entrepreneur that is so necessary, and yet so rarely seen. The second, The Cinder Buggy, is Garrett's masterpiece. It tells the story of the Breakspeare brothers in the wider backdrop of America's iron and steel industry. This is a terrific human drama, with some real lessons in economics buried right in there with the text. Definitely worth reading.

The third is by Henry Hazlitt, and is called Time Will Run Back. The brilliance of this book lies in the way it addresses a simple but profound question: what would happen in a world in which free markets did not exist? The answer: someone would find a way to invent them. And that is exactly what happens in this book. The son of the Supreme Leader of the world literally figures out how to create a free-market economy, and in the process ends up destroying the harshly oppressive and economically stagnant one-world regime surrounding him. If Hazlitt had written only this book, he would be remembered today as a great author; but he went on to write another two brilliant books, Economics in One Lesson and The Failure of the New Economics, both of which are among my favourite books on the subject ever.

That should be enough to keep anyone busy for at least 3 months. I've read all of these books myself, though the ones I read back in high school obviously don't stand out in my memory quite as well as some of the newer ones. Start with those, and then come back for more when you're ready.

(Ladies, here's a tip: asking a good-looking deeply introverted guy who otherwise has decent game about books, and then being able to hold an intelligent conversation on the same subject, is the single fastest way to signal to him that you might be a keeper. Especially in these benighted times when the closest most girls have been to a "book" is the latest Sophie Kinsella novel or George R. R. Martin's latest work of unbearable nihilistic tedium. Take it from someone who knows.)

UPDATE: Should have included a shot at the whole Fifty Shades-spawned genre of mommy porn to that list of nonsense that women consider to be "literature" these days. My bad. Also, I welcome any feedback from other readers who wish to give their recommendations, just as Francis Begbie did in the comments below. If you have a good book to recommend on the subjects mentioned above, please by all means do so, I would be interested to see what you have to say.


  1. I'll add a few more.

    Debunking Economics by Steve Keen which essentially tears apart the neoclassical shit bit by bit.

    Antifragile/Black Swan by Taleb. Taleb isn't austrian per sae, but he admires them and is a critic of the bullshit math used in economics, such as the methods of assessing risk in Basle II, fucken banks having losses 6 standard devs above the norm. Basically, shitty econometrics models.

    An Austrian Perspective on the history of economic thought. The Road to Serfdom is also great. Some good books here, a lot added to the reading list en aw.

  2. Hey welcome back.

    You know what's funny? Taleb's been on my reading list for literally years, but I've never gotten around to reading him, even though I agree with like 90% of what he says in public. I've got Antifragile, The Black Swan, and Fooled by Randomness in my to-read list right now, I'll be posting reviews of them as I get through them.

    Another great book on a similar subject is A Demon of Our Own Design by Richard Bookstaber. Great book, addresses similar questions and ideas as Antifragile does.

    I happen to work in the finance industry, so let's just say that the conclusions that these books come to are VERY relevant right now- and of course no one is paying attention to them...

  3. Thanks for the list. That is a fair amount of reading; especially, when I combine that with a stack of 26 books I have already accumulated (buying books is an addiction).

    Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg is a great read. The book is a polemic attack on the Progressives and Leftists, which is how I like it. (Goldberg's other book The Tyranny of Clichés is also worth a read, imo.) The only problem with the book is that people will disregard the book's central argument, because of the person who authored it.

    I am halfway through Antifragile - due to Vox Day's recommendation - and I am finding it quite enjoyable and agreeable.

    Too many books; too little time.

    1. Said every deep introvert, ever. It's our perpetual complaint.

      Liberal Fascism was an outstanding book, I remember going through it and wondering why the hell no one had ever taught me any of that stuff in school. That's about the point where I realised that most of what I had been taught in school outside of the hard sciences and mathematics was completely useless.


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