The public intellectuals we don’t deserve

Joakim’s latest post is so good that I can’t help but add my own thoughts. I disagree with nearly all of Joakim’s picks (though Jared Diamond and Niall Ferguson are good choices), but I can’t put my finger on why this is. So, in the hopes that maybe you can figure out why my list is so different than Joakim’s, here are my six public intellectuals, and the fields they write about, that everybody should know (aside from my fellow Notewriters, of course):

Evolution: Joe Henrich, an anthropologist at Harvard and author of 2016’s The Secret of Our Success, a book that has done better than any other at explaining cultural evolution and its relationship to biology and genetics. Dr Henrich is the guy doing all of that excellent work on WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) people, too. Here is a pdf to a recent article of his on the Roman Catholic Church.

History: With apologies to Kevin, Charles C. Mann is the author whose work on history should be more popular. Mann’s 1491 (2005) is not only what revisionary work should look like, but it’s also a great primer on the history of science. 1493 (2012) was not as groundbreaking as 1491 but it’s still the best work of popular history out there that explains the world we live in today. Mann’s focus on history as a global phenomenon and on the history of science is what sets him apart from all of the others. His The Wizard and The Prophet came out earlier this year.

Exchange: The science of exchange has gone through a bit of a down spell lately, and for good reason: many in the profession have long claimed to be prophets. Tyler Cowen is not one of those economists. His public conversations and blogging and have done wonders for those who follow along, and his books are breezy, informative, and entertaining. My favorite Cowen book is 2009’s Create Your Own Economy, and his newest, Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero, came out earlier this year. His popular work strives to balance a moderate attitude towards all ideas while still leaning strongly on the counter-intuitive ideas that have helped make economics stand out among its peers in the social sciences.

Ethics: Yes, ethics is still important, and John Lachs is the philosopher we don’t deserve. Lachs, a Vanderbilt professor, authored 2014’s Meddling: On the Virtue of Leaving Other People Alone, which is a great, easy-to-read book on an idea that should be much more popular.

Literature: Nnedi Okorafor. Okorafor’s voice has the potential to revitalize conversations on literature throughout the world. Okorafor dabs mostly in the realm of science fiction and fantasy, but she also writes for Marvel Films and Dark Horse Comics. Start with her Binti trilogy. Literature needs a big change in order for people to start talking about books again, and Okorafor has the potential and the swagger to make that happen.

Inequality: The left is almost entirely unreadable on the most important topic in the world today, with the notable exception of Branko Milanovic (his 2018 2016 book Global Inequality is wonderful, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about his newest book: Capitalism, Alone), and conservatives, led by Ross Douthat, have retreated inward and focused on their well-worn hobbyhorses: church attendance, community, and familiarity (Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism is perhaps the hottest book from this sector of the political quadrant). Unfortunately, inequality has always been best dealt with by libertarians, and nobody from the libertarian camp has felt quite comfortable enough, or been good enough, to step up and write the book that needs to be written. Oh wait, that can’t be right. Deirdre McCloskey exists. I’m tempted to put Bourgeois Equality on the list, but a 700+ page book just doesn’t count as popular. Will Why Liberalism Works, her newest book (2019), finally catapult her into the broader consciousness of the West? Let us hope so, but we don’t deserve her.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. A rifle’s journey from Belgium to Gaza
  2. No Libertarian Case for Empire (this is the piece that sparked my little tirade yesterday)
  3. A dust-up over dissenting views at Ohio State law
  4. What really happened on Thanksgiving (le duh; this screams “why Econ 101 is so important”)

What I’ve Been Reading

Hello all. Apologies in advance for not posting more often since graduation. I’ve been reading a lot of books lately, rather than stuff on the internet, so I haven’t had much to link to lately.

Here is a list of a few books I have been working on:

  • 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by the science journalist Charles C Mann. I know I’ve blogged about this book before, but I’ve finally got a little bit of free time to hunker down and read the whole thing. I’m about halfway through and it’s really good.
  • Mastering Space: Hegemony, Territory and International Political Economy by the Marxist political geographers John Agnew and Stuart Corbridge. This is a pretty crummy book, but it was recommended because of some good critiques of the IMF and the World Bank that it supposedly has. I’ll keep ploughing through and hope for the best.
  • The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age by the historian Simon Schama. This is a very well-written book about Dutch culture (not Culture) in the seventeenth century and so far I have not been disappointed. Schama eschews the political and economic aspects of the Dutch republic in favor of examining the everyday lives of its citizens.
  • Democracy in Botswana which is edited by John D Holm and Patrick Molutsi. I picked this up for a research project I was doing last quarter and have not been able to let it go yet. It brings together a compendium of talks given at a conference held in Gaborone in 1989 to assess Botswana’s current status in the world, in sub-Saharan Africa and according to the citizens of Botswana.

Of the four books, I’d recommend 1493 to the intelligent layman, but the other three are definitely tough slogging.

Globalization: Its Context and Its Virtues

In my spare time I try to read literary masterpieces and popular non-fiction. The latest book that I’ve picked up is Charles Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. I picked it up because the author’s previous work 1491, had a profound impact on my way of thinking about the world. The new book doesn’t disappoint. An excerpt:

One way to summarize [scholar’s] efforts might be to say that to the history of kings and queens most of us learned as students has been added a recognition of the remarkable role of exchange, both ecological and economic.

[…] In some respects this image of the past – a cosmopolitan place, driven by ecology and economics – is startling to people who, like me, were brought up on accounts of heroic navigators, brilliant inventors, and empires […] It is strange, too, to realize that globalization has been enriching the world for nigh on five centuries.

Indeed. I want to use this quote to level two separate criticisms, one at the Left and one at the Right. Continue reading

Department of Oops!

One of the most influential anthropologists to my own way of analyzing global society and how it interacts with each other is Edwin Wilmsen, whose book Land Filled with Flies: A Political Economy of the Kalahari has deeply influenced my thoughts about intercultural (“foreign”) relations (the other two most influential books on me so far have been Peace Pact… and 1491…). I am currently doing a research project and came across the following sentence, which deserves to be deeply pondered by anthropologist and layman alike:

[…] those who have been responsible for formulating and implementing policy towards [the San] have relied on a functionalist equilibrium model derived from ethnography grafted onto a residual colonial construction of a static San social condition […] A key element in this ideology [governing Botswana policy towards the San] is the mystification of [San] uniqueness, a condition that [has] been imposed on them by other, hegemonically dominant ethnic groups.  Among these hegemonically dominant groups – I urge that we not forget this point – are ethnographers, whose work serves as scientific sanction for this mystification.

Wilmsen is a Marxist, and Land Filled with Flies… was written before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but I nevertheless find his work extremely satisfying. Can anybody see why this is such a powerful critique of collectivism? Admittedly, I have depraved this post of its rich context, but I think readers here at Notes On Liberty are smart and thoughtful enough to find some gems among this deceptive-looking rock pile.

An online profile of Edwin Wilmsen.