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.
No book but the Bible has single-handedly anchored any aspect of my worldview. But there are several foundational ideas that are implicit in all my work—or that nag at me when I haven’t given them justice. I’ve connected seven books to five ideas that come to work with me every morning.
Tyler Cowen likes to say that everyone is a regional thinker. I’m certainly a New England thinker, and that has a great deal of relevance for local policy. My hometown had been self-governing——with a militia and a welfare system——for 120 years when the United States came into being. To this day, New England towns are self-contained, full-service local governments that correspond to longstanding communities. I approach questions of local governance with an instinctive bias in favor of governing units that clearly correspond to social and economic places. Against that bias, The Crucible (and ample data on housing affordability) argues that self-government can be open to great abuse.
A central tension in my philosophy of economics is between the role and limitations of material well-being in promoting human flourishing. In Lewis’ work, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, technology and opulence are more naturally instruments of slavery than freedom. The alternative view is given by Sen, whose book was important in bridging from the utilitarian values implicit in economics to my deeper Christian and classical moral values. What this means for my research is that housing affordability is as much about allowing community to form as it is about maximizing disposal income.
In policy debates, absolute certainty in one’s beliefs is considered a virtue. It should not be. Larson’s tale of two Chicagos in 1893 warns against hubris in two ways. The squalor and violence of the real, laissez faire Chicago is at odds with libertarian dreams, and is a reminder that annoying regulation is not the worst of all possible worlds. The fake Chicago built for the World’s Columbian Exhibition—called the “White City”—is a more obvious warning against hubris. Against all logic, the White City became an actual model for two generations of urban planners. Their certainty that grass and open space would cure urban ills did immeasurable damage to cities and their residents throughout the 20th century. Jacobs’ book, published in 1961, was the chime that broke the spell cast by the World’s Columbian Exhibition.
Twenty-first century policy debates are full of misplaced nostalgia for pasts that never existed. Reading broad histories is essential to avoiding the Golden Age fallacy and its evil twin, the Dark Age fallacy. I’m not sure if The Discovery of France is a history, but it’s one of the best of whatever it is.
This famously dense textbook, wielded by my professor Larry Epstein, taught me rigor. Ideas worth defending are also worth expressing precisely. In economics, that precision usually comes through mathematical expressions. The most common way that I catch myself or fellow policy researchers avoiding rigor is by leaving assumptions unstated, whether that’s in empirical work or verbal arguments. Among academics, lack of precision often arises from knowing too little about the industries, governments, or places being studied. For the latter failing, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Truman Bewley’s Why Wages Don’t Fall During A Recession are good correctives.