John Adams by David McCullough


John Adams might have had the most interesting personality of the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson, in spite of a multidisciplinary life and his flirtations with anarchism, comes off as a somewhat wooden and aloof figure—not a very good drinking buddy. Adams, on the other hand, had a fiery constitution and an earthy simplicity free of the demagogic populism of the likes of William Jennings Bryan. To be sure, he, like all politicians, was a jackass, but he owned up to it, which makes him more likable. His utter humanity stirs the temptation to forgive him for the Alien and Sedition Acts, but we mustn’t get carried away.


David McCullough unpacks John Adams’s colorful character in his classic biography; he commands the reader’s attention for the entirety of this volume, from the protagonist’s early beginnings and entrance exam at Harvard, to lonely walks with Thomas Jefferson as their friendship froze over on Market St. in Philadelphia, to the spellbinding correspondence with Abigail, who in her own right is one of the more remarkable figures of American history. It’s well known that an HBO miniseries has been based upon this author’s work. I actually saw that first, and was utterly transfixed. When I found this book on sale at The Strand at 12th and Broadway, I couldn’t resist.


If there was a single idea that animated Adams’s political philosophy, it was his Hobbesian view of human nature: Man is evil and requires restraint, whether as governor or governed. Counterpoise, in his opinion and in the view of many other Founding Fathers, was the only way to deal with concupiscence. This took form most famously as the checks and balances between the several branches of government, so that one body, and in particular one man, the president, could not run amok. In theory, too, counterpoise extends to the relationship between the government and the electorate, but how much of this really exists these days when the moneyed interests make sure that anyone with an original idea is unelectable? I suspect Adams would have a thing or two to say about our current conundrum.


A more important question is raised: What is the best kind of counterpoise? A bureaucracy decides that black boxes shall be put in all new cars. Car manufacturers are stuck with higher prices, and so are the customers. There is no mutuality in this scenario. Or what kind of counterpoise exists in an election between two parties, one of which argues for a top tax bracket of 37%, and the other, one of 33%? The American ship of State has become large and lethargic, incapable of meaningfully changing course, unable to go back to the beginning to be reinvigorated by her First Principles, at least when it comes to certain subjects.


The best kind of counterpoise, it seems to me, exists between two equal persons engaging in a voluntary transaction. You go to the bakery to buy cookies. Both you and the baker benefit, and if, someday, you decide you’re not satisfied with the cookies, you have the power of the dollar in your pocket to rectify the situation, either by finding a new bakery, asking for your money back, or getting a new order. There is great flexibility in this situation, and creative solutions are often reached because smart businessmen and intelligent customers know that everyone is eager to benefit and be of benefit in such a transaction. It seems to me this should be the model of societal organization as far as possible. What better counterpoise could there be, particularly one that promises rewards rather than threatening punishments?


Many political philosophers liken the relationship of a government and its citizens to a business and its customers. It’s called the Social Contract Theory, which I like to call the Social Hijack Theory. It goes something like this: When you’re born, you, or maybe your parents, consent to be ruled by the government that claims jurisdiction over the territory on which happen to you live. This reminds me a lot of infant Baptism or circumcision, and it’s a desperate attempt to pretend that government is anything but what it really is: a monopoly on coercion putatively in order to secure the peace of society. A particularly rich contemporary example of this was the recent statement by Senator Harry Reid that paying income tax is “voluntary.” Now if Social Contract Theory is true, then the Senator is right. If it is false, then taxation, particularly direct taxation, is theft. The Founders believed in Social Contract at least in substance if not in name, but maybe we need to go easy on them, since, for their time, they dared to attempt experiments in freedom that were as yet unaccomplished. But never forget that the Revolution was sparked over a tiny tea tax.


For me, Social Contract Theory is the stumbling block to Statism. It sits on the fulcrum of what it means to be truly free. I don’t want to take a too-sanguine view of human nature, which, if it is not wretched as such, turns to wretchedness often enough to warrant extreme caution. Nevertheless, Social Contract is a contradiction, a sacred myth to make us feel better about the more extreme measures we take to keep things under control. If any politician were ever to have the courage to publicly announce that human beings are like cattle that need to be poked, prodded, lassoed and fenced in, I would actually have some respect for him or her. At least there would be honesty involved. John Adams believed in Social Contract. He also believed that humanity was more or less depraved and that sometimes the government needed to step in to crack the whip. Liberty, for him, was defined more or less in a very strict paradigm.


Beyond the idea of counterpoise there isn’t much that points toward a self-contained political philosophy on Adams’s part. He was no Paine (who, Adams argued, was better at tearing down than building up) or Jefferson, however much Jefferson damaged the credibility of his own beliefs with his actions. There are a few Christian ideas that generate the classical liberal movement, but above these elementary principles, Adams carves out a path that is largely pragmatic. Perhaps it’s because he understood what Fred Reed has elucidated, that the trouble with self-contained worldviews is the failure to take into account the buoyancy of human excrement. Lest anyone think Adams unprincipled, however, one ought to take note of an important difference between pragmatism and convenience. Pragmatism is the art of sorting out what works; convenience is a system of excuses to get what one wants. In the case of a politician, this is usually tyranny. Adams had only one failure in this respect that I know of: the Alien and Sedition Acts, which for all the injustice they created—These laws prefigured American xenophobia about Mexicans and Arabs by 200 years—were not quite so severe as Abigail would have had them be. One gets the impression that if she had her way, accused “libelers” would have been taken to dungeons in Fishtown to be hung upside down to die of starvation. All the same, it’s hard to picture John Adams, who risked his life numerous times for the cause of freedom, having much patience for the pre-flight booby groping of the TSA. Moreover, the few evils Adams committed are arguably outweighed by the smack down he put on Alexander Hamilton, whose bellicose ambitions did not go unnoticed by the President, thanks in part to his First Lady. Standing armies had no part to play in the America of John Adams, even though he was almost alone in his insistence on building a formidable navy whose strength contributed to the avoidance of war with France.


As difficult as they are, the problems of human nature and the maintenance of a free society are always dealt with more profitably when the people of a given country are well educated. In contemporary Dumberica, we consider “education” to be glorified, over-priced vocational training. Beyond a given craft many people are afflicted with an appalling lack of curiosity, unless the subject has something to do with what a given celebrity is doing with his or her private parts.


John Adams, on the other hand, favored the traditional liberal arts education, familiarity with ancient languages, the classics, and even of music. He understood that the whole person needed to be formed. He held forth on this matter when he drafted the Constitution of Massachusetts and included a paragraph on education that happily went unmolested by the committee that reviewed it. Alas, if this approach ever took root across the land, Andrew Carnegie and other industrialists ruined it all when they re-tooled the schools to create, in the words of George Carlin, “obedient workers.” It wasn’t long afterwards that we had Prohibition and trashy novels while we progressed from savagery to barbarism without ever having experienced civilization, to quote George Bernard Shaw.


John Adams, for all the posts he held, never once campaigned for political office. He admitted to being beset by ambition; all the same, a part of him longed most to be with his family on his farm at Peacefield. Sadly, late in life he regretted being absent so much from his younger sons Charles and Thomas, both of whom foundered in their cups in adulthood; Charles even drank himself to death. Adams’s sense of guilt in this is palpable. While modern presidents daydream about what their legacy will be, Adams focused on all that he had given up in order to be a central figure in early America. He who loses his life finds it.


The electoral system of the late 18th century allowed the possibility that someone would be dragged into the presidency against his own wishes. Maybe we should return to those days when state legislatures selected their members of the Electoral College and the people, as a result, had only a very indirect influence on the election—and what’s the problem with that, since Social Contract Theory is a mere fairy tale? Think of the peace and quiet! No more political commercials, and instead of victorious candidates giving smug victory speeches on election night, they’ll instead be where they belong: in the bathroom next to the commode, contemplating their difficult future. We should paraphrase a saying of the Catholic Church: He who goes into an election a president comes out a governor, a talk show host, or even a congressman from Wisconsin. Maybe then we’ll end up with leaders who are plausibly sane.


Oh, what’s the use? I remain unconvinced by all this poli-sci jibber-jabber. I propose a society of seven billion secessions, a starburst of human freedom and creativity, a world of mutuality and free will, where the counterpoise exists at the micro level, where it can actually be effective. Maybe we’ll never get there, but if we do, some paradoxical thanks will be owed to the likes of John Adams, who dared to take a step out into the deep, into the unknown territory of a freer society than had been known in most places to that point. We would benefit from similar courage, and in this David McCullough’s book on John Adams offers us an excellent profile.

Must-Read Books of 2010

“Do you have a soulmate?” the shrink asked Will Hunting.  A soulmate, someone who challenges you.  “Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Frost, O’Connor, Kant, Pope, Locke…” replied the precious brat.

“That’s great; they’re all dead.”

“Not to me they’re not.”

This is one of my favorite scenes from Good Will Hunting. Both characters have a point.  The written word can be inflexible, and it lacks the dialectic that is so crucial to learning in many situations.  On the other hand, even if a book is a thousand years old or more, it is still alive.  The author might well have something to say to us today.  Given our poor track record for following the good advice of scribes, it isn’t difficult to find an old book that’s useful today.  This is one of the reasons why reading is as important to me as food, clothing, and water.  If I don’t frequently sit down and soak in the wisdom of great writers, I feel like I forgot to brush my teeth.  It is good to have such enhancing activities; they help us more gracefully to wend through the mysterious space between angels and animals that Man occupies.

Every January, I like to share a list of the best books of the past year—books that I’ve read.  Listening to someone talk about the books they’ve read can be annoying, but please be assured that I realize most people couldn’t care less how much I’ve read, and that’s largely how it should be.  It’s not about me; it’s about the books and my desire to share great ideas with other people.  For other readers, this is an excellent way to maximize effort.  No one wants to read a bad book, so recommendations are key.  I have left out a lot of books that are very deserving of mention.  Perhaps others can speak on their behalf.  I will stick to these:


Allan Bloom:  The Closing of the American Mind

When this book was published in the 1980’s it was alternately praised and lambasted as another conservative prophecy of doom.  Any close reading of Bloom’s work, however shows that this reaction was hasty if not illiterate.  Bloom, for instance, laments the collapse of the American family but adds that he isn’t necessarily calling for a return to the 1950’s Leave It to Beaver bliss.  Bloom, in fact, defies categorization.  This is because he is a thinker and a man of the arts.  He is, in a word, human.

Bloom is most famous for his critique of the modern university, which a friend of mine quite accurately says is a monastery gone bad; but to me some of his most striking observations have to do with relationships.  He scratches his head at the cold nature of romance in the youth of the 1980’s:  after years as lovers, two students would part ways with a handshake, and Bloom would be rendered speechless.  In this context the author, who was apparently no sexual prude, sharpens his knives for the modern hookup culture, which he says ruins the aura of real love.

Of particular interest to me is Bloom’s critique of rock music, which he considers to be decadent.  Good music should be an integrating force and not a fragmenting one.  “To Plato and Nietzsche,” he writes, “the history of music is a series of attempts to give form and beauty to the dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul—to make them serve a higher purpose, an ideal, to give man’s duties a fullness.  Bach’s religious intentions and Beethoven’s revolutionary and humane ones are clear enough examples.  Such cultivation of the soul uses the passions and satisfies them while sublimating them and giving them an artistic unity.  A man whose noblest activities are accompanied by a music that expresses them while providing a pleasure extending from the lowest bodily to the highest spiritual, is whole, and there is no tension in him between the pleasant and the good.  By contrast a man whose business life is prosaic and unmusical and whose leisure is made up of coarse, intense entertainments, is divided, and each side of his existence is undermined by the other.”

Bloom’s volume is a dense one, and I would only be doing violence to it to try to say too much more than I already have, since every word he writes is important.  He might well sound like a noisy gong to most modern readers because he will prove impossible to pigeonhole into some ridiculous worldview or cause.  Bloom’s argument is not that we need to be more conservative or more liberal, or more or less religious, or even necessarily more decorated with degrees.  I think what he really wanted was a fuller realization of the potential of humanity.  He was, incidentally, an advocate of the Great Books Program, and so I dedicate this post to his memory.


Bertrand Russell:  The Problems of Philosophy

One of the things that all the warring world views of humanity have in common is that their practitioners think their system can solve all the world’s problems.  If only everyone would listen to what So-and-So says, there would be peace on earth, a chicken in every pot, a case of beer in every fridge, and five computers in every home.  The best of the So-and-Sos, of course, are cautious of such naivete.  The problem is that usually it’s some follower of the So-and-So that implements the realization of the philosophy, and these people are usually wearing blinders.

This arrogance, it seems to me, comes from a failure to understand the limits of human reason, and that, to me, is the most important contribution of this work of Lord Bertrand Russell.  He begins his work with a discussion of appearance and reality, using a table as an example.  We can see a table, and touch it, but does the table exist outside our ability to perceive it?  In other words, does it have an existence of its own?  This eventually leads to a discussion about Idealism, which holds that reality owes its existence to human thought, a notion that Russell rejects.

Nonetheless, Russell is no Randian Objectivist and courageously faces the limits of ratiocination, the process of human reasoning.  Some questions, for instance, can only be solved through inductive reasoning, as indeed many scientific experiments are conducted.  The more an experiment is repeated successfully, the more likely it is that the conclusions are true.  This kind of reasoning is imperfect but is often as close as we can get.

Somewhat different from inductive reasoning is a priori reasoning and general principles.  2+2=4 is an example of a priori reasoning; even if one doesn’t know the answer to this equation when he starts, he usually has the tools and the knowledge of general principles to come to the right conclusion.  This is a sturdy form of reasoning, as long as one’s premises are correct, but in many areas of human thinking it is impossible to know this for sure.  Because of this, Russell rejects the use of philosophical techniques for fields such as theology.

After so much talk of the limits of philosophy, one might wonder, “What’s the use?”  We modern men in particular like to have definite answers to everything; we are fundamentalists even in matters of whether or not the tree makes a noise in the forest if there is no one there to hear it fall.  Russell, however, sees much of the value of philosophy coming precisely from its uncertainty.  He says, “The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason.”

Philosophy, in other words, makes us more thoughtful.


Jeffrey Tucker:  Bourbon for Breakfast

I have already reviewed this book here.


Jean Renoir:  My Father

The well-known filmmaker Jean Renoir has written a riveting account of the life of his father, the famous painter Pierre-August Renoir.  As a musician, I’m fascinated with visual artists precisely because they use entirely different faculties than I use.  Oddly enough, though, what sticks with me are Renoir’s criticisms of modern life.  He was old enough to remember simpler, pre-industrial times, and he despised the centrally planned Paris that was poured with concrete.  Renoir in general hated modern life—the ugliness, the pace, the utilitarianism.

A conscientious capitalist who loves beauty is compelled to pause when reading a book like this to re-examine his ethical beliefs.  We would be fools to pretend there hasn’t been a downside to industrialism.  One could argue, for instance, that the Southern black slaves were being freed just as the Northern white servants were about to be imprisoned:  Many people feel stuck as a cog in the technological wheel, cubicle dwellers who are paid to leave their creativity and ingenuity at home.  And without an agrarian culture, one’s options are limited.  A landed man is a free man; a man in an apartment with rent and utilities to pay is on rather a tight leash.

Why support capitalism, then?  Leaving aside the usual caveat that the modern west is not a free market but rather a partially-free mercantilist one, there are some things to be considered.  Firstly, much of the leisure that gives us the free time to criticize modern life is a direct result of the industrial revolution, as are such things as extended life spans—hardly things to be lamented.  But beyond this, I still choose capitalism, because in its essentialness, capitalism is freedom.  I’m not talking about the capitalism of  the corporatist racket;  I’m talking about the capitalism of free exchange, the mutuality between merchant and customer.  It’s a system that allows everyone to say yes or no.

And it allows those committed to the arts to say yes or no—donors, consumers, and practitioners.  In, for instance, a socialist economy, man is not free to decide how much he will work and how much he will play.  The decision is made for him; he owes his time to the State.  In freedom, he can choose the best possible road, taking into consideration all the variables in front of him; not only those that can be measured, but those that cannot be.  For those who have not heeded the advice of Bertrand Russell, constructive leisure time is not important; they would rather work 60 hours a week to pay for the extra car in the garage.  For others, they want just enough money to survive; to them, living well is broader, deeper, and higher than one’s income level.

No one can deny that the arts have suffered in our times.  But fundamentally this is not a crisis of being helpless in the face ineluctable historical or economic forces; rather, it is a crisis of choice.  Most of us have chosen money, forgetting that man cannot live on bread alone.  Shame on us.

One final thought on Renoir:  There seems to be no genius where there is no suffering.  Renoir was surprisingly sane for a creative person.  (I’m allowed to say this, since I’m a crazy person who does his best, at least, to be creative.)  His pain in life was physical, taking the form of arthritis.  There are pictures of him in which the malformation of his hands is obvious.  It’s a great mystery how he was ever able to hold a brush with an organ that had basically devolved into a glorified claw.  It’s beautiful.  It’s inspiring.  It takes away all my excuses.


Seneca:  The Shortness of Life

Seneca (whose full name has something like umpteen words in it) was perhaps the most famous of the Stoic philosophers, who were essentially ancient precursors to the prudent American Puritan.  That’s not all bad; in small doses admonition to responsibility can be a good thing.

Seneca adjures his readers to keep their death always in mind.  Dark, I know, which is why I liked it.  Seneca’s point, though, is to a constructive end; it is not his desire to induce a John Donne-like bout of depression.  All resources are limited, including the space in which our lives exist.  Each of us has an unknown amount of time.  For this reason, we often hear that life is short.  Seneca, on the other hand, says that life is long if you know how to use it.  Seneca would ask each of us, “What are you doing right now, and why?”  We often waste time in our lives on things that we don’t really want to do, on tasks that are not only distasteful, but utter distractions from our real goals.

Putting his advice to use, of course, means learning how to say no.  Leonard Bernstein’s mother once quipped that it was a good thing he wasn’t a woman, because he never learned how to say no.  Bernstein, however, was a genius, and geniuses tend to be able to master superhuman schedules.  Most of us, on the other hand, need to make very careful decisions.  As the world gets more and more antisocial, people seem to become more and more demanding all the same.  We have forsaken affection for expectations, and this is not a good thing.  It can be difficult to cut out the underbrush of one’s schedule, but take courage, and remember your death.  As Boobus Americanus Primus said, “One today is worth two tomorrows.”


G.K. Chesterton:  The Everlasting Man

I read a lot of literature about religion, works that I agree with and that I disagree with.  It is a fascinating subject, and an important one.  For much of this work I have turned to an early 20th century Englishman, G.K. Chesterton, whose book The Everlasting Man is as fresh and as relevant as anything that could be written by Joseph Ratzinger (whose excellent Introduction to Christianity I also read this year), Karen Armstrong, or Richard Dawkins.  (Dawkins tries too hard; it gets old after awhile.)

It is common in Western Christian discourse to tackle The God Question with various kinds of philosophical proofs and theological parsing.  Mystics reject this approach, but so do other more “down-to-earth” thinkers, such as G.K. Chesterton.  Chesterton, as an author of a number of novels, sees The God Question in terms of a history, that is, a story, an adventure.  He says, for instance, that while the idea of a man being damned may be an unattractive one, the idea that man is damnable is quite obviously true, and accounts for mankind’s constant struggles against failure.  Hell is simply a reflection of our own ability to sabotage ourselves.

Against the historical materialism of many of the thinkers of his day, Chesterton applies the notion of immutable human nature to the question of the existence of God.  Why, for instance, did supposedly pre-human animals feel the need to create art in the caves?  What was the purpose of this art?  I’m having a hard time remembering the full argument, and I don’t have the book with me, but if you are interested in philosophy and religion, this is a good book for you.


Peter Ackroyd:  The House of Doctor Dee

I should call this book, “The Token.”  I’m not much of a fiction reader, but I try to do a little every year.  I have a couple of friends that I’ve put in charge of getting me the right fiction books.  One in particular is good at picking out contemporary English authors who show us that not everything written today needs to be a sleazy Danielle Steele novel.

In this book, a young chap inherits an old house owned by his deceased father.  It’s a cute little dwelling, consisting of mismatched parts built at different times.  The house turns out to be haunted by a ghost of a former owner, one Doctor Dee, a sixteenth century practitioner of black magic.  There are many fascinating erudite references in the book to stroke the egos of intellectually vain jackasses like me, but what I remember the most is the shiver that went up my spine in sections of this story.  If ghosts exist, I’m afraid of them.  And even if they don’t, I’m still afraid of them.  Ask me what happened once on Big Round Top in Gettysburg.


Hans-Hermann Hoppe:  Democracy:  The God That Failed

It’s common for a modern American history course to go like this:  Once upon a time, there were these evil men called kings, who used and abused their subjects to their hearts’ content, and the world was dark and dreary with no sense whatsoever of the idea of human dignity.  Then along came America, and they set the whole world free with equal rights and democracy.  The peasants rejoiced, and all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our government.

This narrative, of course, is largely unquestioned; it is scripture to most people.  Hans-Hermann Hoppe, certainly one of the foremost anarcho-capitalist thinkers of our time, pops this balloon of naivete unapologetically in his book, Democracy:  The God That Failed.

He begins with a careful examination of monarchical government and the several advantages that it held.   A king could not forcibly tax, and he could not forcibly conscript soldiers.  Those mercenaries that modern political scientists like to insult came at a high price; military commanders were therefore rather hesitant to risk their troops’ lives unnecessarily.  Many battles were conceded as soon as one side or the other took the high ground.  Wars were not, for the most part, fought in population centers but out in the fields, away from the citizenry, who considered war to be the irrelevant sandbox fighting of the oligarchy.   In a monarchical system, class divisions were in the forefront of awareness, making the population healthily wary and skeptical of the brainchildren of the royalty.  Kings also had a harder time being looters.  Since they planned to pass their kingdoms on to their posterity, they did everything they could to increase the value of the area through approaches comparatively friendly to businessmen.  And finally, for all the talk about the absolute rule of kings, they were beholden to the natural law.  New measures were expected to be elucidations on natural law.  There was no place for positivism, and where a king stepped out of line, there were powers in place to remove him if necessary.

Hoppe contrasts life under Kings and Queens with life under Congresses and Presidents.  The modern democratic nation-state forcibly taxes—Isn’t it ironic that after rebelling against a tax, the Americans put taxation provisions into their new founding document?—and it has forcibly conscripted soldiers.  Total warfare has resulted from the enemy’s desire to cripple the whole economy, since forcible taxation renders everyone a contributor to the military effort.  Class divisions in the modern nation-state are blurred, though one could argue that during this depression they have begun to make a comeback.  But by and large the fact that any of us can apply for a job with the government makes us forget that there are the rulers and the ruled.  While kings ruled for life and passed their property on to their children, thereby creating an incentive to nurture the land, elected officials only rule for a short time, which creates an incentive to loot.  And while kings were bound by natural law, the modern nation-state maintains that justice is decided by a majority vote, natural law be damned.

Hoppe is not a monarchist and admits that there were problems with monarchies.  Like modern constitutional governments, the royal system decayed at least partly because of its own arrogance:  “Divine right” ceased to be the idea that the king owed his power to God and became the idea that the king could call upon God to justify any of his decisions.  This was the beginning of positivism.  But clearly democracy leaves a lot to be desired, and this is where Hoppe begins his appeal on behalf of what he calls the natural order, which is what many of us call anarcho-capitalism, the system of a common law ethic built on private property rights and the free market–without the existence of a monopoly on violence, otherwise known as government.

Usually I like to list ten books, but this year I just didn’t have ten that I could recommend unreservedly, owing to one factor or another, few of which reflect on the actual quality of the books.  I would like to thank the friends who pointed me in the direction of some of these works.  They know who they are.  Cicero said that if you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.  In my case it might be appropriate to replace the garden with a microwave, but in any event I’m quite glad to say that my cup runneth over.

Must-read books from 2009

Every year I keep track of what I read.  It’s a bit nerdy, for sure, but it helps to keep me motivated.  This year’s reading was so interesting that I decided to put off writing this post until the year was, for all intents and purposes, over.  Last year I managed to get the list out in time for Christmas shopping.  This time you’ll have to refer to this compilation for birthdays or something.

In the past twelve months, I’ve managed to start and finish thirty three books, which I actually consider to be modest.  I’d far rather be averaging one per week.  Of these, I’ve chosen ten to discuss, which is a rather high proportion; nevertheless there was no difficulty in coming up with books that were deserving of singular mention.  There is no rhyme or reason to the order of this list, and most of them should appeal to a broad range of people.

Henry Hazlitt:  Economics in One Lesson

How I found it: This book is constantly referenced in literature put out by the Mises Institute.

In a relatively short volume, using concise, easy-to-understand language, Hazlitt discusses some of the most basic concepts of economics.  The backdrop for this book is the wave of Keynesianism and Socialism that swept the West in the early-mid 20th century.  One of Hazlitt’s most beautiful insights concerns the unseen effects of policy decisions.  One example would be artificially high wage rates as demanded by labor unions.  On the surface this appears to benefit the workers, but the effects of this man-made price floor ripple through the economy, until they come to damage the interests even of the labor unions themselves.  This is an excellent beginner’s book on economics; no prior reading is necessary.

Oliver Sacks:  Musicophilia

How I found it: Stumbled upon it while Christmas shopping in 2008

Expectans, expectavi Domine…..This book makes me think of a piece of Gregorian chant, an offertory melody whose text is, “I have waited, waited on the Lord…..and he put a New Song into my mouth.”  Sacks fills this book with heaps of fascinating information and incredible stories.  If you can read it with a dry eye, you’re a better man than I am.  One account early in the book relates the story of a man who had never been involved in any way with music in his entire life; then one day he was struck by lightning, and began composing and playing the piano.  A surgeon friend of mine tells me that neuroscientists such as Oliver Sacks tend to have more of an appreciation for the spiritual, and one does indeed get this impression from Sacks, who seems to be steeped in just as much wonder and amazement at these things as his readers.  Moreover, musicians will find the reading of this book to be an experience of renewal, a re-awakening to the truth that music is indeed a gift to be cherished.

Naomi Klein:  The Shock Doctrine

How I found it: After a lively lunchtime discussion about politics with a musician friend, he escorted me to the bookstore and bought it for me.

“But this isn’t capitalism!”  I found myself saying this over and over again as I read through this incredibly revealing book. Klein passionately and thoroughly exposes the work of the merchants of death in the U.S. government, from CIA operatives and psychologists (who perfected torture techniques already in the 1950’s) to the infamous economist Milton Friedman.  Under the name of capitalism, the United States effected coups, killed people, and established fascistic economic systems (I’m using this term literally, not pejoratively) in faraway lands, like wolves in sheeps’ clothing.  The book is hardly sympathetic to the free market, but proponents of capitalism need to read this book and reckon with what some jackasses have done over the years while falsely claiming to be friends of the free market.  For me, it lead to a more precise definition of capitalism:  The system of voluntary exchange which results from the ethic of non-aggression and private property rights.  As one will find out from this book, the U.S. government respects neither the principle of non-aggression nor private property rights.

Ludwig von Mises:  Human Action

How I found it: You can’t get through two articles from an Austrian economist without seeing this book cited.

At nearly 900 pages, Human Action is Mises’ grand discourse.  The profound and most basic difference that Mises’ approach has with others is that it bases the study of economics on—well, human action.  It is the gentle and humble opposite of the arrogance of Rand’s Objectivism and Friedman’s mathematical equations.  Most refreshing is Mises’ allowance of subjectivity in the field of economics.  If I were to recommend one tiny section of this book over all others, though, it would be Mises’ criticism of the holistic view of society, a section that soundly rejects the sanctimony of many do-gooders, while at the same time showing that Austrian economics, rather than being atomistic, actually considers the good of the culture at large and posits that voluntary exchange on the free market is the way to achieve it.

J.L. Carr: A Month in the Country

How I found it: A friend lent it to me.

I am absolutely horrible about reading enough fiction, so I rely largely on friends to bring such things my way—actually, one friend in particular, who’s taste has proven to be quite sturdy.  One of the strengths of fiction is that general principles can be taught without tempting readers to quibble over minutiae the way certain kinds of non-fiction do.  Carr is British, and this is a short story about an artist that leaves London to spend a month in the countryside restoring the apse painting of a church.  While he’s there he sleeps in the bell tower and kibitzes with a lunatic archaeologist who’s charged with finding someone’s remains in the church yard.  A delightful little read that can be done in one afternoon on your front porch with a cold glass of iced tea.  (Perhaps save this one for Spring, then…)

Haruki Murakami:  What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

How I found it: Browsing the book store looking for ways to throw money away

This title jumped right out at me, given that I’m a runner.  This is not a systematic “how-to” book or anything; it’s just a flow of conscious account of one man’s affair with the greatest sport in the world.  Murakami, a jazz bar owner-turned novelist, relates his journal entries to the reader.  This includes an account of his run along the original route that ends in Marathon, Greece, from which we get the name and distance for running events.  The title, he tells us, is based on someone else’s work which is called “What I Talk About When I Talk About Love,” and this is apposite.  The runner will find this book to be a source of new energy; non-runners will finish it perhaps a bit more curious about what it is that they’re missing.

John Robinson:  Dungeon, Fire and Sword

How I found it: Borrowed from a friend

This is the story of the Knights Templar during the Crusades.  In it you will find all manner of sanctimony, hypocrisy, and hiding behind religion for the sake of a political agenda.  The original mission of the Knights Templar was to guard the Temple Mount in Jerusalem when it was under Christian control.  Job creep set in, and, among other things, they came to guard the road to Compostella, a popular pilgrimage site, and to be some of the world’s first bankers.  They participated fervently in the mindless orgies that were the Crusades, proving that Islam is not the only religion to commit barbaric acts of war under the guise obedience to God and faith.  Ultimately, the success of the Templars was their undoing.  King Philip IV of France, who owed them enormous sums of money, manipulated an unholy alliance with the papacy to have the Knights tortured, tried, and killed on trumped up charges.  In a dramatic conclusion, Jacques de Molay, the last grand master of this order, was marched into the cathedral square in Paris to confess the “official version of events,” and in one last moment of courage, told the crowd the truth of what had been done to this order.  For this, he was rewarded with summary execution, but one cannot escape the impression that he was ultimately victorious over the lust for power which gripped the monarchs and the papacy at that time.

Murray N. Rothbard:  The Anatomy of the State

How I found it: On

At only fifty-plus pages, this book makes for good introductory reading to the anarcho-capitalist political philosophy.  In the short chapters contained in this volume, Rothbard contends with the superstitions that make people believe that the State is necessary.  The reading is not difficult; yet, the writer leaves out nothing of importance.  This would be a good companion alongside Albert Jay Nock’s Our Enemy, the State, with the added blessing that Rothbard does not suffer from Nock’s sometimes tiresome fatalism.

Louis Cheslock, ed.:  H.L. Mencken on Music

How I found it: Roaming around Bookhaven, a used book store in Philadelphia.

I have already reviewed this book here.

Richard M. Weaver:  The Ethics of Rhetoric

How I found it: Brought to my attention by Br. Stephen, of course

What would a year be without at least one Weaver book?  Like most of his work, I’m not sure how much of this volume I’ve absorbed; it may be worth a re-reading sooner rather than later.  Unlike the other volumes I’ve discussed here, I’ve actually had to pull this one off the shelf and thumb through it to jog my memory about what the writer discusses.  Among other things, some of which went over my head completely, Weaver discusses Edmund Burke’s use of the Argument from Circumstance and Lincoln’s use of the Argument from Definition.  The writer seems to have a surprising amount of admiration for Lincoln, given his dyed-in-the-wool Southern ways of thinking.  Perhaps the most interesting chapter in this book is Weaver’s exploration of grammar as it relates to rhetoric:  avoid the adjective, he says; it only begs the question.  Good advice which I have yet to follow.  Another chapter worth a great deal of study deals with the use of what Weaver calls ultimate terms:  “God words” and “devil words.”  This discussion is still timely.  Think of how people try to shut one another up by hurling accusations of “intolerance” or “Godlessness.”  (Well, maybe I remembered some of this book, after all.)  If you haven’t read any Weaver yet, I’d start with Ideas Have Consequences, or maybe Language is Sermonic.  The Ethics of Rhetoric is a bit heady, and the reader will benefit from some built-up familiarity with the writer’s ways of thinking.


The great football coach Lou Holtz, the last one to win a national championship at Notre Dame, once said that the difference between where you are now and where you’ll be five years from now comes from the people you meet and the books you read.  In my experience, this is an understatement.  Books are among my favorite things; I would take them first, God forbid, in the event of a fire.  Many of the works I’ve discussed above were given, lent, or recommended to me by friends, and I would like to thank them.  They know who they are.  From personal experience I can say that few things feel as rewarding as having given a book to someone who not only gets it but also appreciates it.  The ideas in books can be so exciting, along with taking them apart and putting them back together again.  I’m not even sure that Belgian beer can compare to this.

“But I’m not a reader.  I just don’t get into books,” you might say.  To that I can only reply that you haven’t found the right books.  Reading is a tool, not an object in itself.  Find something that piques your curiosity, fires your imagination, or soothes the deepest longings of your soul.  I guarantee you that a book has been written about it.  Tolle, lese.

Happy New Year.

Ten Must Read Books for Your Christmas List

Here is a short list of selected books which I’ve read in the past year which I think are indispensable to anyone’s bookshelf. I have listed them in order of what would seem like a good progression from one to the next for the reader.

1. Richard Weaver: Ideas Have Consequences

With every turn of the page, Weaver clears out the angst of modern existence by fearlessly going after the “sicknesses” of modern society. Readers of this blog will be familiar with Weaver’s qualms over modern education, as well as what he calls fragmentation and obsession. He also discusses egotism in work and art, as well as the dissolution of hierarchy. Weaver devotes the last three chapters of the book to his proposed remedies for the elucidated societal ailments: restoration of property rights, language, and respect for tradition.

2. Frederic Bastiat: The Law

In this short work, Bastiat, who called out the Broken Window Fallacy, discusses some of the absurdities of democratic societies. His principal insight in this work is perhaps that the law is constantly being used by one sector of society in order to try to loot another sector. That might be one of the more accurate and pithy descriptions of politics ever formulated.

3. Albert Jay Nock: Our Enemy, the State

If you think limited government is the way to go, read Nock. He will quite quickly disabuse you of that notion. In this short work, Nock describes the parasitical nature of the State, mixing in surprising observations. One that sticks out in my mind is that term limits are an instrument, rather than a circumscription, of power, since a given term grants a sitting politician nearly free reign in what he does. This was the book that converted me from “limited government” libertarianism to anarcho-capitalism.

4. Buchanan: Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War

This particular book deserves a full length review. Suffice it to say that many in the press have not been friendly to it, but that Buchanan, while sparing the reader no piece of information, is eminently fair in his descriptions of the various power players who were behind the commencement of hostilities in Europe before both World War I and World War II. Buchanan does not look back longingly at what might have been, but rather lays out the mistakes made by the world’s leaders, and the prudent will no doubt take heed of the author’s warnings. Suffice it to say for now that, while Hitler was evil, the West was pulling all manner of diplomatic bloopers which only made the situation far worse than it needed to be. This book is the antidote to the kind of Americanism which always cites World War II as the fundamental moment in State Salvation History which justifies all manner of ill-advised 21st century military excursions.

5. Schall: The Regensburg Lecture

The Rev. James V. Schall, S.J. takes an in-depth look at Pope Joseph Ratzinger’s well-known lecture at Regensburg which sparked protests in the Muslim world. Schall elaborates Ratzinger’s central question of whether or not Islam can be a “reasonable” or “logos-based” faith. The theological opinion known as voluntarism–the belief that God is not bound by reason–is explored thoroughly by the author with respect to Islam. I only wish, perhaps, that certain fundamentalist Christian outlooks which are adding tensions to the world stage would have been discussed as well. In any case, Schall’s great contribution here seems to me to be a fearless exploration of the theological roots of the problems we presently face. The question might then dawn on the reader: Why are we dropping bombs instead of having an honest exchange? (I should add that I don’t know that this last point was Schall’s goal.)

6. Murray Rothbard: The Ethics of Liberty

You all knew I had to get Murray in here somewhere. This book is a tour-de-force, a thorough working out of a positive theory of anarcho-capitalism. The reader will not likely agree with everything Rothbard says, but the achievement here is a broad-based approach to dealing with the various issues that would come up in a stateless society. Rothbard has no fear: He relishes the opportunity to take on those very subjects which many would consider to be begging for the existence of the State, e.g. crime, courts and police.

7. Albert Jay Nock: Memoirs of a Superfluous Man

Nock did not think of himself as an interesting person, but whoever twisted his arm to write this autobiography certainly did, and to that nameless friend we all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude. This book is an account of the various impressions Nock put together in his mind over the course of his life. His “mind your own business” attitude is refreshing, and his mix of Toryism and anarchism is yields some fascinating results. This book will not offer eye-popping moments of astonishment at every page; it will feel more like sitting in an old man’s living room, listening to him yammer on about what he’s learned in life. But when you finish and put the book down, you will realize that your paradigm has shifted.

8. Mencken: Notes on Democracy

I will pick up and devour anything by Mencken from cover to cover in a matter of days. In this book Mencken fearlessly tackles the problems, triumphs, and absurdities of our sainted political system. Along the way he calls out Americanism, fundamentalism, and even the Rotary Club, and brings up the most unpopular point that a democracy, too, can wield a tyrannical kind of power. While ever skeptical, Mencken softens the blows of his more difficult material with his unique wit. Yet, there are moments in this book that are deeply serious which might indicate just how troubled Mencken was by any number of problems that needed to be faced. The book winds up to a grand conclusion, which explodes on a rhetorical question that will flabbergast the reader.

9. Richard Weaver: Language is Sermonic

This is a collection of a number of essays and other works by Richard Weaver. The first chapter, in fact, is the chapter on language from Ideas Have Consequences. Writers and speakers will find this volume to be indispensable, but this is no ordinary book about writing. Weaver tackles hard questions about the essence of language, and, in the process, seems to stumble, almost unintentionally, upon some of the more important subjects for our time. This is a great book to read on the front porch of a Southern manor. One can almost hear the masterful deliberateness of Weaver’s locution in these pages.

10. Dom Joseph Gajard: The Rhythm of Plainsong

What the hell is this book doing on here? Well, the truth is that Gajard’s book is about more than just Gregorian rhythm. He in fact discusses the most fundamental aspects of rhythm in such ways that all musicians could benefit from his insight. Much of rhythm boils down to arsis and thesis, i.e. the rising and falling motion, which mimics natural movements such as the rising and falling of the foot during walking. How many performances I have heard in which the musicians do not understand the principles discussed by Gajard! Often we over-emphasize rhythm until it is oppressive, or we add a facade of vitality to a piece of music by assaulting every single down beat. Gajard’s book is the remedy for this and many other musical problems. If you can so much as read music, get this book.

The people you meet and the books you read

In 1988, then-coach Lou Holtz of the Notre Dame football team wrote in his chronicles of that championship year that the two things which will make a difference between where you are now and where you are five years from now are the people you meet and the books you read. The year 2008 is nearing a conclusion, and it has been a year of transformational meetings and readings for me.

A friend I’ve known for about three years got me into Albert Jay Nock and Murray Rothbard. This year I read Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man and On Doing the Right Thing, both of which are available from Mises. I’ve read Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty, published by NYU, as well as his Egalitarianism as a Revolt against Nature, which is, again, available from Mises.

I made the acquaintance this past May of another fine fellow, who in the course of discussing various political theorists, mentioned the august name of Richard Weaver and recommended that I read his Ideas Have Consequences, which I did, and which stood a number of my mistaken ideas on their sides, where they shall rightly languish forevermore. I added to this Weaver’s Language is Sermonic, a fascinating collection of essays which seem effortlessly (and perhaps a bit unintentionally) to get around to many more of the essential problems of modern life than the title might suggest. Writers and speakers, at the very least, should read this book. How I wish I had gotten to know the one who recommended Weaver to me so much sooner! Shortly after making his acquaintance, he moved to a wonderful but faraway place. We stay in touch via email.

I mention these books because all of them have played a role in shaping my thinking in drastic and positive ways. Each one has, in its own way, been a liberator. Weaver’s books ameliorate existential angst; Rothbard’s bring order out of chaos and offer a workable anarcho-capitalist solution; and Nock teaches the reader to be wise and to mind his own business. I feel like a free man after this stroll through the mid-20th century book stacks. Then there is H.L. Mencken. Suffice it to say that he improves anyone’s b.s. detector.

I am quite grateful to the friends who have put these books in my lap. They shall go nameless; they know who they are. And if only I could recommend a good book to them! I’ll have to think about that for awhile.

Lou Holtz was quite right in what he said, except for one thing: It doesn’t take five years for a friend or a book to make a difference. The really great treasures start to work their magic immediately.