Rather late, here’s mine:
1. Milton Friedman, Free to Choose. For reasons explained here.
2. Friedrich Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order. Contains key essays on markets as discovery mechanisms and spontaneous order. This is what I have taken from Hayek.
3. Isaiah Berlin, Four Esssays on Liberty. His most famous essay, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, is in this volume. It is beautifully written and repays multiple re-readings; as my own political reading widened I understood more of its allusions and admired it all the more.
4. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty. Mainly the arguments on freedom of speech. I wrote about Mill last year.
5. Irving Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism. For reasons explained here.
6. Jonathan Swift, Poetical Works, The Portable Swift. My policy views are classical liberal, but there is a Tory sensibility – superbly captured in Swift’s razor-sharp satires and understanding of human weaknesses – that I think is a desirable complement and corrective to the over-optimism, naivety and sentimentality of some liberal thinking. I liked the late Auberon Waugh, and particularly his Private Eye diaries, for similar reasons (the diaries were published in book form, though they are hard to find these days).
7. Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot. Introduced me to the novel-essay style, an enduring taste. It mixes the learning of non-fiction and the pleasures of fiction. Perhaps also a path not followed, a style of book I might have aspired to write had I not pursued a politics major over an English major. But it is probably just as well I did not.
8. Bruce Headey and Alex Wearing, Understanding Happiness. One of the early social science studies of happiness, which set off nearly 20 years now of dabbling in this field. Despite the torrent of books on this subject over the last decade, this is still one of the better texts.
9. Robert Putnam, Making Democracy Work. In hindsight this and Understanding Happiness mark a shift in my approach from political theory to empirical social science. When I read Putnam’s account of social capital in Italy it offered a more rigorous way of analysing the ‘communitarian’ arguments that I was looking at in my PhD thesis (never completed).
10. James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense. Another book that helped to integrate the traditional concerns of political theory with empirical research.
I wasn’t quite sure what to do with John Carroll and Robert Manne’s Shutdown: The Failure of Economic Rationalism (1992). It was a bad book that did not influence my thinking at all, but it did prompt Chris Jones, Chris James and myself to co-edit A Defence of Economic Rationalism (1993), which I think did have a big influence on my life. I’m not sure I would have been employed by the CIS in 1994 without it.
The list (which is in rough chronological order) shows me that my basic philosophy was settled before I turned twenty, and my methodology was settled before I turned thirty. I don’t think I have stagnated since, but my intellectual life since my late twenties has been more about incremental change and applying my broad philosophy and approach to new subjects than making fundamental changes. Higher education has been my most important subject since the late 1990s, but there is no book that has had a big impact on my specific thinking about higher education policy.
The requirement of ‘influence’ meant that I left out many books and authors I have liked a lot, indeed often enjoyed more than those on the list, but which had less impact on my subsequent thinking. Good books provide their own rewards, and need leave no greater legacy than pleasant memories.