Religion & Liberty Online

An economist’s summer reading list

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Between raging inflation and declining markets, consumers have much to worry about. What they shouldn’t worry about is whether there are answers at hand. Some new books provide hope.

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If you attended Acton University, you saw the treasure trove of books for sale. Several of those books made it onto both my credit card and my summer reading list. Even if you weren’t able to join us at AU, you can still find most of the books here. As you head to the beach, a lake house, or just your front porch this summer, consider taking some of my new favorites along with you.

  1. Black Liberation Through the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America by Rachel S. Ferguson and Marcus M. Witcher. This book comes at a critical time in American culture, given escalating racial tensions. The authors contend that in a time of racial strife, tribalism, and populism, we need a renewed commitment to classical liberal principles that will allow black Americans to flourish. Ferguson and Witcher argue that the classical liberal tradition should be explored in the context of the history of black America because it has provided and continues to provide the best pathway to economic and educational freedom, criminal justice reform, and the liberation of existing black institutions from unnecessary constraints. The authors also frankly address the reality that black Americans have suffered from a systematic exclusion from institutions that would have enabled them to practice and enjoy the principles of liberty. The solution to past neglect and abuse lies in the consistent application of these economic principles and “transitional justice.” You can watch Dr. Ferguson give a presentation on the book here.

  1. The Economics of the Parables by Father Robert Sirico. This short book provides a timeless perspective on the economic truths found in scripture. Father Sirico examines 13 biblical parables, including “The Rich Fool,” “The Talents,” “The Laborers in the Vineyard,” and “The Prodigal Son,” all of which reveal the richness of God’s created order and our role as divine image bearers within that order. Father Sirico guides us so we can glean economic principles embedded in scripture rather than impose upon scripture misguided ideas coming from our own distorted perspectives and preconceptions. As Father Sirico writes: “The power of the parables endures in part because the examples Jesus chose have proven to be persistent throughout history. They are part of the enduring human condition while retaining a freshness that prevents them from seeming old-fashioned or ‘old tech’ at all. They appeal to something natural, constant, and ubiquitous in the human experience.”

  1. How the World Became Rich: The Historical Origins of Economic Growth by Mark Koyama and Jared Rubin. It’s hot off the presses, accessible for non-economists, and visually illustrative. The first sentence of the book reads, “The world is rich,” and the rest is full of graphs, data, and explanations of how the world has become so rich but also why some countries remain underdeveloped. Koyama and Rubin explore many theories that attempt to explain why certain countries attained the prosperity they did, factors that include geography, institutions, culture, and colonization. Britain along with other Western countries experienced the first wave of the Industrial Revolution, and the authors rightly focus on what preconditions enabled this to occur, focusing on the link between economic and political development. They also find that culture matters. Cultural values are both persistent and affect institutional development. Exploring the varied theories and focusing on the impetus for why and when industrial revolutions occur provides the best hope for helping currently underdeveloped economies permanently escape poverty.

  1. Money and the Rule of Law: Generality and Predictability in Monetary Institutions by Peter J. Boettke, Alexander William Salter, and Daniel J. Smith. Published last summer, if you have not had a chance to read this book, read it this Americans are vexed by the worst inflation rates we’ve seen in 40 years, and many are asking if we’re reliving the 1970s and what we can do to recover. The authors implore us to consider the long- and short-term costs of monetary policy. We can’t simply pursue what seems politically attractive in the moment if it will yield long-term unintended consequences. The mainstream view suggests that central banks can and should use constrained discretion, meaning they should allow circumstances to determine response. But the authors warn that no matter how smart or benevolent we believe them to be, central bankers have limited knowledge and don’t always possess the incentive to intervene in the economy in a way that will yield the desired corrections. The authors offer us a way forward, however: use the rule of law as a guide for the application of monetary policy. The authors give examples from both the Great Recession and the COVID-19 crisis to help us understand how general and predictable rules are far more effective than unpredictable interventions. You can listen to the authors discuss the book here and here.

  1. Finally, written by Leonard Read of FEE fame and first published in 1958, “I, Pencil” is just a short article but nevertheless a classic with many imitators. It’s a timeless telling of the miracle of market coordination. Read writes through the point of view of the pencil, a product easy to dismiss as merely the simplest of tools, but in fact it’s vastly complex. No one person can create a pencil in isolation, and if we had to rely on one person’s knowledge, we wouldn’t have any pencils at all. Rather, the market is a story of peaceful cooperation without anyone in charge per se. No one person directs economic activity. We can and should marvel at the decentralized process of market cooperation that yields the bounty of human creativity, from the manufacturing of No. 2 pencils to electric vehicles. This is an easy and accessible essay, great for the entire family to read and discuss. There’s also a short movie on the essay you can find here and a spin-off produced by Russ Roberts, titled “It’s a Wonderful Loaf.”

No matter where this summer takes you—far-off vacation destinations or your backyard barbecue—these books (and article!) are worth dipping into. I’ve learned much from these talented and insightful authors and hope you do as well.

Anne Bradley

Anne Bradley, Ph.D., is an Acton affiliate scholar, the vice president of Academic Affairs at The Fund for American Studies, and professor of economics at The Institute of World Politics.