Books that influenced me

Not many Australian bloggers picked up on the Tyler Cowen-initiated listing of their 10 most influential books. Andrew Carr was one. (Update: Tim Andrews parodies such list-making.)

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.

11 thoughts on “Books that influenced me

  1. Chronological order? You were reading Hayek when you were 15, 16 years old? I hope not. Surely you read stuff at that influential age that you haven’t old us about ….. or perhaps you just had an old head on young shoulders. Sort of an emotionless list.


  2. I was 16 or nearly 16 when I bought Free to Choose; a bit older when I read Road to Serfdom – I’m not sure exactly when I read Individualism and Economic Order, but (though there are similar arguments in other books) I think it is the most useful Hayek book. Until the mid-1980s when I became very busy (paid work, student politics, study) I read a lot of fiction and biography, but it is covered by the last paragraph.


  3. Andrew, were you positively influenced by any books on the opposite side of the political/ideological spectrum? E.g whilst I’m a (market-oriented) social democrat, I was considerably influenced by certain ideas in Free to Choose. That said, it didn’t change the broader orientation/direction of my political views.


  4. Krystian – On a different kind of list – of books I have found most interesting and stimulating – there would definitely be at least one from the ‘opposite side of the political/ideological spectrum’, Michael Walzer’s superb Spheres of Justice. I think if I had pursued the political theory path the way Walzer approaches issues, using real historical examples, would have influenced me. I do strongly agree with his argument that there are different ‘spheres’ of life which have/should have their own particular rules, and that sphere crossing can be problematic. But while Walzer puts this argument together very well, by the time I read it this was an elaboration of ideas I already held, and therefore I am not sure that he counts as an ‘influence’.

    Perhaps I have taken Tyler’s suggestion too literally (influence over pleasure or stimulation; books over articles or thinkers), as writers that have been important to my life are missing because they do not meet the strict criteria. John Gray is an obvious omission as well as Walzer – while a lot of his recent work is in my view sloppy and even silly, I learnt a huge amount from his earlier writing, and there is a lasting legacy in my ‘non-foundationalist’ approach to liberalism, that there is no single principle or idea from which all liberal ideology derives (ie not self-ownership, not social contract, not human rights).


  5. Robert – An interesting study for its global perspective; noting Australia’s flat trend compared to the rest of the world.


  6. I must say that Flaubert’s Parrot did stand out like the proverbial sore thumb amidst the list of your influential 10.

    A wonderful novel – entertaining in form alone – but nevertheless essentially fiction. Perhaps one of the books underlying themes, that of ‘futility’, subsequently influenced your views.

    Some people have a ‘thing’ about such lists – but I do think they tell the observer something about person compiling such a list. Even better still is a look at their bookshelves – that would tell us much more than a list that has been consciously selected.

    Whatever the reason – a good choice from a good author!


  7. Spheres of Justice sounds like an interesting book. Yes, when I was compiling my own book list in my head, I found it hard to distinguish between books that influenced me and books that provided intellectual stimulation.


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