What I’ve Been Reading

Here’s some good books I’ve read recently:

The Problem with Political Authority – Michael Huemer

Do governments have a special right to coerce? Do citizens have an obligation to obey? Starting from uncontroversial assumptions about everyday morality almost everyone would accept, Huemer ends with a radical conclusion: government is a great and unnecessary evil.

Like most radical political theses, I find the diagnosis of societal ails to be more convincing than the proposed cure. Still, for a book I was confident I would disagree with the thesis before I started, I found the book changed my mind on more than a few things.

Vanishing Into Things – Barry Allen

How does traditional Chinese philosophy think about knowledge? How does this differ from Western philosophical traditions?

Allen covers several main branches of early Chinese thinking: Confucian, Daoist, Zen and military philosophers. Among these disparate traditions, he identifies common and contrasting currents of thought. The importance of 无为 (wu wei – effortless action) and wisdom, the focus on becoming over being, and the titular idea of vanishing into things as opposed to trying to ascend to a perfectly objective perspective.

A Farewell to Alms – Gregory Clark

What explains the Industrial Revolution? Why did it take place in 18th century England and not ancient Greece or China? Clark’s conclusions about the causes of the industrial revolution are somewhat weak, but his description of the economic lives of ordinary people throughout history was fascinating.

His most interesting idea is that we are living in a fundamentally different time than the past. Not just in terms of absolute wealth, but that many of the values of what made life worthwhile necessarily flipped during the Industrial Revolution. Because of the Malthusian trap that dominated preindustrial people, many great ills (plagues and wars) actually made people more prosperous, while many modern triumphs (agricultural innovation, peace) caused population booms which led to their children becoming even poorer.

Clark’s other book, The Son Also Rises, regarding the surprisingly low social mobility across all countries, is also a must-read.

What Price Fame – Tyler Cowen

Is fame bad for society? Cowen throws an impressive amount of economics theory to the question of fame. Although the conclusions he reaches are varied, a couple interesting ideas struck out at me:

  • Commercial culture may be overly simple and low-brow, even more so than the average person might want, because it is difficult to coordinate fame around more complicated products.
  • Fame isn’t zero sum. Someone being more famous doesn’t make others less famous, and indeed many institutions (fine-grained weight divisions in boxing, hall of fames) are designed to supply more fame than others.
  • A fame-intensive culture may, on the whole, be a net positive for society. The people who suffer are not the anonymous consumers of celebrity, but the famous themselves.

Nexus Trilogy – Ramez Naam

My favorite novels of 2015. Set twenty years in the future, a new drug that can wire itself to the individual neurons in your brain allows for shared consciousness, programmable minds and enhanced empathy and cognition. But who will control it?

The book is an excellent commentary about the current war on drugs, international politics and society’s own technophobia. It was also refreshing to read a book that is cautiously optimistic about the future. Dystopianism is an easy source of conflict, so it dominates science fiction, but too often it plays into our existing fears rather than challenging them.

If you’re interested in more book lists like this, let me know and I may make it a regular event!

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