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.
Most of the books I’ve read have expanded my thinking or at least entertained me, but it’s a much smaller subset that I can say shaped my thinking in a deep and lasting way. The five books below are ones that left me a changed person when I finished them—in my view of the world and how I go about my personal and professional life. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, these books were not only a bright light, but they illuminated everything else in a new way. I’ll list the books with a few words about each and in no particular order:
The Gulag Archipelago (by Alexander Solzhenitsyn)
A deeply human descent into the horrors of the Soviet work-camp system. The Gulag, which devoured the lives of millions, can seem like a distant nightmare today, but it was a reality only a few decades ago. Years after reading this work, the images of the systematic cruelty and individual suffering and perseverance it documents are still with me. Solzhenitsyn’s epic work inoculated me from any future flirtation with socialism.
The Law (by Frederic Bastiat)
A principled and moral case for human freedom. Bastiat exposes the practical folly of government planning and the basic injustice of confiscating a person’s property in the name of social justice. His concluding story about the tribe in the jungle trying to perfect the new-born baby is a perfect metaphor for central planning. This book spoke to my heart as well as my mind.
Economics in One Lesson (by Henry Hazlitt)
My first exposure to practical and systematic economic thought. From the minimum wage to trade protection, Hazlitt shows the unintended but inexorable consequences of intervening in the free market. After reading this book, I learned to look at all public policy in terms of what it means for society as a whole, not just special interests, and what it means for the long-run, not just the here and now. This work has been a model for me both in its thinking and its exposition.
Getting Things Done (by David Allen)
The top book in my “self-help” category! Allen lays out an intuitive system for managing the complexity and competing priorities of modern life. It’s helped me break down larger projects into smaller, doable tasks, to beat procrastination, and to stop wasting time. As the author promises, this book has upped my productivity and reduced my stress at home and office.
The Bible (Old and New Testaments)
This unique book has shaped me spiritually, while informing my view of history, human nature, and personal relations. It’s full of drama and compelling characters, such as Ruth, Hannah, Elijah, and Daniel. It provides practical rules for living and hope for change and redemption. I don’t know any other book that has such power to transform people’s lives.