June 18, 2020

Mercatus Scholars’ Most Influential Books: Michael D. Farren

Michael D. Farren

Research Fellow

In commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, we’ve asked some of our scholars to share the books that have been most influential or formative in the development of their analytical approach and worldview.

From existential engineering to the Salem witch trials to Argentine magical realism, our scholars have drawn inspiration from diverse and dramatic wellsprings of intellectual thought.

Read on for more about why and how the books we will discuss have influenced our scholars’ approaches to policy and philosophy, and what lessons other readers may draw from these works.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Alt text_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

5 books that have influenced me and I can recommend (in no particular order):

The Righteous Mind (by Jonathan Haidt)

Jonathan Haidt's investigation into where our political beliefs come from is masterful. It improved my understanding of the deeply-held values underlying political movements; it's one of those books that fundamentally enhances your ability to understand the world you live in. Every summary of the book, even Haidt's own Ted Talk, doesn't sufficiently capture the educational value in the book--you have to actually read it. Alternately, I recommend the audiobook since Haidt reads it himself.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (by Robert Heinlein)

I grew up cutting my teeth on Robert Heinlein's novels, and this is one of his best. I love how he was able to realistically create a completely different society on the Moon. It opened my mind to understanding that many aspects of our society are simply the result of the environmental conditions we live in. The Moon's environment is completely inhospitable to human life (every breath you take must be cleaned and re-oxygenated so you can breathe it again!), meaning that the ONLY way to survive is to work together with others--autarky is not an option. But the resulting society is also influenced by the particular political disposition of the Moon's inhabitants (refer to Haidt's "The Righteous Mind" above), meaning that the story might have been very different if the Moon had been a penal colony for socialists rather than libertarians. Or perhaps not--it's an interesting thought experiment!

Bonus pick: The wildly unexpected events of the last few years keep reminding me of Heinlein's short story The Year of the Jackpot. Other Heinlein fans will understand why.

After the Welfare State (edited by Tom G. Palmer)

It was fascinating to discover that prior to the Progressive Era there was a vast web of fraternal societies that provided many of the same social safety net services that we've come to rely on the government to provide over the last 80 years. They were crowded out by those government programs, and it's apparent that this history has been sadly forgotten. There are certainly valid arguments that fraternal societies didn't save everyone from deprivations of poverty, but the same can be said for the government programs today. I'd like to see more experimentation with new forms of fraternal societies to provide a localized, bottom-up approach to alleviating poverty, to complement or partially replace than the bureaucratic, top-down system we have now. 

Why Wages Don’t Fall During a Recession (by Truman F. Bewley)

Truman F. Bewley's book is a masterpiece of research, and is fully readable by the non-economist. He tackles the question that had long confused economists "Why do companies tend reduce their workforce during a recession, rather than simply tell workers they must take a pay cut until things get better?" After all, prices of other goods and services tend to fluctuate with demand--why not labor? His method was empirical, but not quantitative, which is somewhat novel for modern economic research. His interviews with business executives revealed what's probably common knowledge to managers, but surprises many economists, at least at first blush: Workers can choose their effort level, which affects production, and their morale affects their effort. Pay cuts reduce worker morale, so it's generally better for production-based purposes (at least in light of the current institutions that affect the US labor market) to lay off workers. Bewley's finding makes complete sense in hindsight and illustrates how the labor market works very differently than a commodity market: a factory machine may not have emotional responses that affect its production, but workers do. In essence, Bewley's work reminds economists that we practice a human-focused science, and that abstractions sometimes go too far.

Faith of the Fallen (by Terry Goodkind)

Terry Goodkind's "Sword of Truth" series was another foundational set of books I read during my adolescence. It's a bit like other fantasy series until this book, which clearly is an argument against communistic totalitarianism. The protagonist is captured and forced to live as a day laborer under the communist regime to "educate" him regarding the virtuousness of socialist philosophy. The book does a good job illustrating the opposite: that without the reward of profiting by doing the hard work to figure out what others need and providing it to them, there's little motivation to strive to create a better world. And under those social rules humanity tends to revert back to its default state: soul-crushing poverty. The protagonist's entrepreneurship, undertaken in secret to simply survive, ends up undoing the evil empire. I also particularly like the story's emphasis on art as being more than just a luxury, but something that is necessary for the expression of the noblest values of the human spirit.