The New York Times' David Brooks, writing on the death of Milton Friedman, recently said:
"[Friedman's] passing is sad for many reasons. One is that from the 1940s to the mid-1990s, American political life was shaped by a series of landmark books: 'Witness,' 'The Vital Center,' 'Capitalism and Freedom,' 'The Death and Life of American Cities,' 'The Closing of the American Mind.' Then in the 1990s, those big books stopped coming. Now instead of books, we have blogs.
"The big books stopped coming partly because the distinction between intellectual movements and political parties broke down. Friedman was never interested in partisan politics but was deeply engaged in policy. Today, team loyalty has taken over the wonk's world, so there are invisible boundaries that mark politically useful, and therefore socially acceptable, thought."
This assertion struck a chord since "Witness" was the first book my parents gave me for Christmas that wasn't authored by Theodor Geisel or Jean du Brunhoff (yes, I was a red-baiter-diaper baby). But the notion that there are no big books anymore is a lament I hear not just from Brooks but from younger and less established writers and thinkers as well. Is it true?
Brooks also asserts that "growing evidence suggests average workers are not seeing the benefits of their productivity gains--that the market is broken and requires heavy government correction. Friedman's heirs have been avoiding this debate. They're losing it badly and have offered no concrete remedies to address the problem, if it is one."
Claims like those made by Brooks are designed to elicit a response. So here I take the bait.
The following list reflects my biases as being interested in political economy and notions of justice and fairness as they relate to economic dynamism. Not all of the authors are Friedman's heirs and not all of them speak directly to concerns over inequality -- although most of them do either directly or tangentially. Either way, these books are "big" and important and our political debates would benefit if greater attention is paid to them. All of them have appeared in the last 15 years. They are not in any particular order of importance.
Brink Lindsey, Against the Dead Hand
Robert Fogel, The Escape From Hunger and Premature Death
William Lewis, The Power of Productivity
Joel Mokyr, The Gifts of Athena
Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches
Virginia Postrel, The Future and Its Enemies
William Easterly, The Elusive Quest for Growth
Richard Herrnstein, Charles Murray, The Bell Curve
Charles Murray, What It Means to Be a Libertarian
Charles Murray, In Our Hands
Arnold Kling, Learning Economics
Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital
CK Prahalad, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid
Deirdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics For an Age of Commerce
Bjorn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist
Jerry Muller, The Mind and the Market
Richard Thaler, The Winner's Curse
David Warsh, Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations
Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel
Michael Cox, Richard Alm, Myths of Rich and Poor
Jonathan Rauch, Demosclerosis
Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter (forthcoming)
Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate
Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near
Andy Kessler, How We Got Here
Carl Schramm, The Entrepreneurial Imperative
Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Empire
One thing that Brooks does better than most columnists today is push his readers to think more deeply and challenge them to look for answers to problems he raises. It's what all good columnists should do, rather than try to shove answers and opinions down readers' throats. I know I am missing a few, but this list of books is a good place to start to understand some of the concerns Brooks raises.
Lastly, I'd be remiss if I didn't add Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. That's another big book. Now all Brooks needs to do is start blogging.