Request for advice- Reading on politics

by Curiouskid3 min read5th Jan 201228 comments


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I've become adept at navigating the bureaucracy of my public high school. I've dropped environmental science as an AP (because it was painfully slow and replete with busywork) and am now taking an "independent study" in government. I'm going to be using this mainly as a way to study environmental science at my own pace, but I also have to read and write some about standard political issues. the requirements of the independent study are pretty vague. In order to get approved, I've got to BS some reason why I should be granted an independent study. I'm obviously not going to speak plainly. I'll probably say something about my interests in seasteading, environmentalism, and education reform.  What books do you recommend on the politics of these subjects given that it is the mindkiller? Also, the main focus is on environmentalism, not on education or seasteading.  I've done a bit of research regarding seasteading, but there's not much that I know about 


I was particularly interested in this point brought up in the seasteading book:


Let’s consider several different levels on which we could discuss politics:

·       Policy. For example, a debate about whether to criminalize drug use, attempt to reduce the harm of use, or completely legalize it. What are the effects of each specific policy? Which does the most net good? Who is hurt, and who is helped?

·       System. What types of policies does a specific political system tend to generate? For example, in a democracy, a special interest group can easily coordinate to influence legislation which benefits them, but costs everyone a little bit. If every consumer loses a dollar a year from a policy, it just isn’t worth anyone’s time to fight it. Hence we expect democracies to frequently produce policies which steal small amounts from many and give them to a few. And indeed, tariffs, farm subsidies, and bailouts, just to name a few, fit this model quite well. This type of argument is at a level of generality above any specific policy, and it can offer enormous insight at consistent errors made by current governments. But to fix those problems, we need to rise further yet.

·       Meta-system. At the level we want, we think about the entire industry of government. What types of systems does it produce? How can it be changed to produce better systems (that is, systems which produce better policies)? What influences how well the governments of the world serve their citizens? How can we increase competition between governments? This level is the most abstract and the most complex, which can make it difficult to get a handle on, but if we can grasp that handle, it gives us the most leverage to change the world. 


They also recommend a reading list:


Machinery of Freedom (David Friedman)

Game Theory and the Social Contract (Ken Binmore)

Mancur Olson - stuff

Myth of the Rational Voter (Bryan Caplan)

Economics In One Lesson (Henry Hazlitt) ?


In regards to environmentalism, I was thinking about focusing on the relationships between government funding for green businesses as green entrepreneurship is of interest to me. I'd probably have to talk about the Solyndra scandal at some point. 

As a side note, if the requirements aren't too stringent and I can just write about whatever I feel like so long as it vaguely relates to politics (like in my independent study in psychology), I may just go meta and write about Americans Elect


Edit:  I do think that there is a difference between descriptive politics ( e.g.describing the workings of the EPA or a standard civics class) and and normative (woo liberatarians!). I'm more interested in descriptive politics. 


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For a pretty different perspective, you could try reading up on the Discourses on Salt and Iron, which seems surprisingly modern despite being more than two thousand years old - from Wikipedia:

The previous ruler, Emperor Wu of Han, had undertaken a drastic change in policy compared to his predecessors. Reversing their laissez-faire policy at home and policy of appeasement of the Xiongnu abroad, he nationalized the coinage, salt, and iron in order to pay for his massive campaigns against the northern Xiongnu tribes which posed a threat to the empire. Although Wu was successful in his campaigns, his policies bankrupted many merchants and industrialists and led to widespread dissatisfaction and even revolts; after his death, the regent, Huo Guang, called a court conference to discuss whether to continue Wu's policies.


The reformists' criticism of the monopolies largely centered on the idea that the state "should not compete with the people for profit", as it would tend to oppress the citizenry while doing so; mercantile activity were not "proper activities for the state". They pointed out that the monopolies had placed an immense burden on the citizenry. In addition, the reformists complained that the state monopolies oppressed the people by producing low-quality and impractical iron tools that were useless and made only to meet quotas, but which the peasants had to pay for regardless of their quality.

I also heard good things about the Book of Lord Shang.

(I think it was gwern who pointed me towards those two)

Are you looking for textbooks or easier reads? If you're willing to read textbooks, Mueller's Public Choice III has all kinds info and theory about policy, systems, and meta-systems from an economic perspective.

If you don't want textbooks, then read Bryan Caplan's book, Brennan and Lomasky's Democracy and Decision, and Carpini and Keeter's What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters, which will collectively bring you to the cutting edge of how we get policy failure on the "system" level. Read Donald Wittman's The Myth of Democratic Failure for the opposite perspective (Caplan is mostly responding to Wittman).

For "meta-system" stuff, definitely read Mancur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations and The Logic of Collective Action (if you only read one, read the former as it is much more "meta-system" while the latter is a bit more "system". There are excellent insights in both.)

There is a huge debate in economic history about how much political institutions matter for outcomes, mostly focusing on why Britain specifically had an industrial revolution at the time it did while other countries (especially China) did not. You can read Greg Clark's A Farewell To Alms for the anti-institutional story, many Doug North works for the standard institutional story, and a sort of sideways pull from Deirdre McCloskey's recent Bourgeois Dignity or Mokyr's The Enlightened Economy.

That's all I've got as an economist. Not much on environmentalism, but plenty on how we got what we've got, whether what we've got is good, and whether what we've got can be improved.

Did I come off as libertarian? I think that I need to balance my reading/views a little which is why I'm reading about libertarian topics.

Not you in particular, but some of your sources (and some of the other recommendations) look like they have a specific libertarian bent.

I found "Popular Government" by Henry Sumner Maine pretty interesting - It's a late 19th century perspective on the recent (for him) history of democracy-related ideas. It may not be as good as the books on your list though, but it's probably a pretty different perspective.

Why do you think LW is a good forum for this topic? Book recommendations on politics can quickly become expressions of ideology, which can spark mind-killing discussions.

Well, it is certainly not my intent to spark mind-killing discussions, and I made sure I read the mind-killer sequence before I posted here. I do think that there is a difference between descriptive politics ( e.g.describing the workings of the EPA) and and normative (woo liberatarians!). Perhaps I should have made that distinction in my post.

Also, where else would I get good advice on politics?

Yes, there is a difference between descriptive politics and normative. But like economics, the two easily run together, in the minds of writers and readers alike. I think people are overconfident in their own ability to distinguish positive and normative discourse, especially in politics. Even factual descriptions can piss people off who are used to thinking the opposite. And while there's benefit to correcting their false beliefs, the chances of actually doing so are thin, and the chances of a forum-polluting flamewar or signalfest are high.

As for where to get advice, why not an avowedly political forum? You could start with whatever political blogs you frequent. The audience of such fora have already self-selected for interest in politics. You could probably ask professors of political science, too. Just find their contact info on the university website and write them an e-mail.

Good luck. It sounds like an interesting study you're trying to do.

Please pay more attention to formatting. Three fonts in one article and mixing serifs with sans-serif are visually disturbing.

Be aware, Hazlitt's book is written from an explicitly Austrian viewpoint; without attempting to evaluate Austrian Economics on its own merits, you should know that trying to present anything you read in that book to a "mainstream" audience is not going to go over well.

Can you give me an example of something significant in that book that a mainstream economist would disagree with or whatever?

It seems written more for the purpose of dispelling the illusions of the average, economically illiterate commoner, rather than as some sort of theoretical treatise that somebody of another major school of thought would have trouble with.

Although not written by an Austrian economist, The Machinery of Freedom seems much more likely to spark a serious argument with the average economist. After all, it's a treatise dedicated to proselytizing anarcho-capitalism (a specific form of full-blown anti-statism).

Sure, and very soon in the book too. Hazlitt discusses make-work programs (pgs 17-24 in the edition provided by the FEE) and argues for crowding out: the government can't build a bridge without taking money, thus the "unseen" effects of government projects are less capital/jobs in other places.

This is usually true, but there's a huge literature in economics about when it's true and when it isn't. Specifically, from a Keynesian viewpoint, in a recession caused by a stagnation of aggregate demand, government can create jobs without "crowding out" jobs in the private sector because, under those circumstances, the private sector was not operating at the PPF and those jobs were not going to be made.

Likewise, the chapter on inflation (ch. 22) is not up to date with modern thinking. The book refuses to recognize sticky-wage situations that might cause inflation to be beneficial. In fact, Hazlitt addresses and brushes aside the idea that workers might be fooled by wage decreases brought on by inflation. Not his fault, but we've had decades of research since then that many economists would agree prove him wrong. The book was released long before Friedman and Schwartz's research on the link between money and the great depression. The chapter ignores the negative economic effects of deflation, which most economists consider worse than inflation under sticky-price conditions. Furthermore, it offers a brief introduction to Austrian Business Cycle theory (inflation has disastrous long-term consequences because it distorts the structure of production) which most economists consider false. He even dismisses the idea of a monetary multiplier--something we know for a fact to exist because M1, M2, and M3 are all larger than the monetary base.

There are similar objections to be raised throughout the book. Hazlitt ignores all of them. Not to be too critical, I like the book and the lessons are usually true, but any modern macroeconomist will walk away miffed.

This is usually true, but there's a huge literature in economics about when it's true and when it isn't. Specifically, from a Keynesian viewpoint, in a recession caused by a stagnation of aggregate demand, government can create jobs without "crowding out" jobs in the private sector because, under those circumstances, the private sector was not operating at the PPF and those jobs were not going to be made.

Yes, but Keynesian recessions are a monetary phenomenon, caused by a shortfall in M*V (the quantity of money times its velocity of circulation). "Job creation" programs increase M*V (by increasing V), but they do so in an inefficient way; thus, they actually forgo some crowding in which would occur under more efficient policies.

I do broadly agree w/ the rest.

I agree completely. I only meant to point out that there are economists who would object to portions of the book, not that I'm one of them.

I found The Machinery of Freedom to be rather speculative, particularly wrt. privatized law. Friedman also seems to handwave over natural-monopoly and public-good problems, although he sensibly describes them as "hard".

Still, David Friedman is far better than such "Austrian economists" as Murray Rothbard, who by his own admission was not engaging in intellectually-honest scholarship at all, but simply seeking convincing arguments for his anarcho-capitalist, propertarian ideology.

It's old, but I found Bureaucracy by James Wilson very interesting on the theory of practical implementation of policy. Amazon points me to Essence of Decision by Zelikow and Allison which was interesting, but less essential to my current thinking.

Also, your link to "Americans elect" is broken.

I'd recommend going back to the fundamentals, not just to avoid the mind-killing aspects of politically-charged issues, but because autodidacts tend to be in danger of having gaps in their knowledge of which they are not aware.

Politics kills minds by precluding analysis and depth of understanding: my team says X, so I say X, no research or thought required. Further, you can also go wrong by trying to research a politicized topic like a debater, scouring a debate for talking points.

For instance, as I understand it, seasteading purports to be a practical application -- a hack -- of the principles of international law. In order to really understand seasteading, you need to have some background knowledge of general international law, law of the sea, and admiralty law. I'm not saying you should start by reading Grotius in the original Latin, but you should read the Wikipedia entry about him. What would Grotius have said about a purported new nation perched on top of a previously uninhabited island? What would international law say if that island had been attacked by the Kingdom of England (not yet in union with Scotland)? Would it matter if the founders of that purported island nation were all pirates or slave traders?

I second the "go back to fundamentals" bit.

And about international law in specific, I read an interesting account of it's history in Henry Sumner Maine's "Ancient Law", where he describes the transition between various conceptions of international law, one where the primary entities were tribes/people and not territory, then one where everything is under a centralized sovereignty that is supposed to solve all conflicts (the roman empire, then the pope - I guess the same would apply to China); and then finally what we have now, a territory-based distinction (I'm summarizing a lot, and probably got some bits wrong).

In the same category as Grotius, you might want to check out Montesquieu, whose ideas strongly influenced the American Constitution.

An environmentalist book that I recommend is Deep Economy, by Bill McKibben. It's not a "view from nowhere" book at all, and it's partially at odds with the singularity-predicting viewpoint, but it was good.

For example, in a democracy, a special interest group can easily coordinate to influence legislation which benefits them, but costs everyone a little bit. If every consumer loses a dollar a year from a policy, it just isn’t worth anyone’s time to fight it.

The existence of numerous groups trying to reduce the influence of money in politics means we've run into a drastic oversimplification. So I'd be a bit careful around this book.

Yeah. But I think the idea of looking at government on those three levels was really insightful even if the example used for looking at government from systems level wasn't necessarily correct.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

It's old, but I found Bureaucracy by James Wilson and Essence of Decision by Zelikow and Allison very interesting on the theory of practical implementation of policy.

Also, your link to "Americans elect" is broken.

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[-][anonymous]10y 0

If you can control how you spend your time, you should spend it on topics as far from politics as possible.

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