Friday, January 25, 2008

Books for the Centre-Right

When I am drawn into a bookshop, which happens quite often, I am struck by the political bias of its contents. Heading for the politics section, usually found hugging the newly created environmentalism section to its chest, I find shelves packed with the works of Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and their various disciples. Tome after tome condemns globalisation, the West and America in particular. All things green are praised and all things corporate condemned. Supermarkets which have brought us unprecedented choice and value are accused of all sorts of crimes against humanity. Where are the books explaining how free trade has lifted hundreds of millions from poverty, why the market is the only sensible economic system and that Chomsky is full of it?

I can’t believe that conservatives don’t read. And I know they can write – star newspaper columnists like Daniel Finkelstein, Michael Gove and Matthew D’Ancona are essential to my week. The conservative Spectator is an infinitely better bet for a train journey than the dull-as-dishwater New Statesman. So where are the books for the centre-right? Why do we have the progressive Verso publishing in the UK, but not the reactionary Regnery? The only conservative book I regularly see is James Delingpole’s How to be Right. Not intended to be serious, it is, in fact, sad to say, a bit silly.

So, as a public service, let me list a rare few of the essential reads for moderate conservatives. In the field of history, things are a bit better with Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson both in action for the right, so I will stick to politics, economics and science. Further suggestions would be very welcome.

The Blank Slate – Steven Pinker’s best book to date demolishes the idea that nurture trumps nature. In forensic detail, it explains why everything that the left think about human nature is wrong. Occasional dud chapters on art and violence do little to soften its overall impact.

Freakonomics – An academic and a journalist explain how to use statistics to understand the world. There is not all that much about straight economics and not everything here will gladden the conservative’s heart. But the sections on political funding, law and order and education provide much satisfying food for thought.

The World is Flat РOr why globalisation is a good thing. Taking a truly worldwide perspective, we learn how India and China are outpacing the West. Most of the myths about globalisation are attacked but the best thing about the book is the examples are all real people, not statistics. The problem is it is overlong and written in an annoying dialect of journalistic clich̩.

The Undercover Economist
– A journalist from the Financial Times elucidates economics for idiots (like me). This book explains why markets and free trade work and why the socialist alternatives don’t. We find out why Africa is really poor (it’s not western imperialism) and China is getting richer. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the driving forces of today’s world.

What’s Left? – An attack on leftist shibboleths by Nick Cohen, one of their own. I’ll be looking at the phenomena of the English neo-cons a bit later.

Just out is Sex, Science and Profits which explicitly links the rise of capitalism to the rise of science. It claims all those scientists demanding public funding for their work would be better off without it. It’s something else to add to the reading list. Any further ideas would be most welcome.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.


TJW said...

I enjoy posts like this because I don't read widely enough as I should and often don't have any basis on which to separate the reasonable from the unreasonable.

Bill Greene said...

I don't believe one should separate history from economics. I have developed a theory based on case studies from history that suggests economic progress developed in a few Western nations due to the de facto economic freedom their citizens enjoyed. Thus I use the examples of Phoenicia, Greece, Florence and Venice, Holland, etc as the stepping stones to Western success. I refer to "The Radzewicz Rule" as support for the fact that given a degree of freedom and little oppression a society will prosper as advances bubble up from the bottom by the empowered activity of ordinary citizens. The decline of societies commences when those succssful societies develop to the point that a new class of intelligentsias emerges and usurps control and undermines the cultural standards. (Chomsky is a pefect example of such a new elite that is undermining Western success.) I think this theory may intersect with your ideas on Medieval science--because it was in these outposts of progress such as Florence and Holland and the Hnaseatic cities that the free citizenry had established sufficient success and stability for the scientific geniuses to emerge and make their contribution. Much of this started with monastic movements, the new 12th century universities, and such characters as Robert Grosseteste and Albertus Magnus who taught Bacon to think freely--to separate science and Faith and make discoveries about te physical world. Much of this concpet is developed on my website and supports the ideas about the medieval world you refer to in your book.

Elliot said...

Alas, I find myself moving more and more to the left these days, so I can't recommend any books for your list. But I'll have to look at some of these books to keep my leftist leanings free from dogmatism or triumphalism.

Bill Greene said...

Elliot -- You must really think twice, or thrice, before you drift to the LEFT. Read these books-- and especially COMMON GENIUS--before you lert yourself get hoodwinked by the Left. All of history showws the futility of utopian leftis ideologies. The ordinatu people prosper most--and are hap[piest--when left to the vicissitudes of the free market. After all, the huge rise in the standard of living for all that has occurred in the West over the last couple hundred years occurred without welfare and without centralized state planning. Those measures that have arrived recently are only retarding progress. Read Julian Simon's book, "Hoodwinked" to find out how all the media and acdemics are luring you into a false promise of Leftists--just to give them a raison d'etre!

James said...

Hi Joe,

Your book sounds interesting but I would point out that the example of China seems to have broken the link between economic success and 'freedom'. Likewise, the Italian city states of the renaissance can be described as free in any real sense.

By the way, I don't think anyone has pulled the wool over Eliot's eyes. He is, I am sure, fully aware of the arguments on both sides and has come to his own opinion. Politics, like religion, is a subject where we can have legitimate differences. I do find some characters on the left, such as Chompsky, to be quite dangerous, but that applies equally to the likes of Ayn Rand and Peter Hitchens on the right.

I will be blogging more explicitly on politics in the future and I hope that those all across the political specturm will want to stick around.

Best wishes


Bill Greene said...

Elliott should as you point out decide political matters as he judges them--and there is room for divergent views on socio-political matters, but economic policy is different--there are some principles that approach "absolute truth." While gay rights and abortion are difficult, economics is much easier. A big problem for American voters is sorting these things out--politicians inflame us on secondary issues, and many people vote on a single issue while the critical problems escape attention. I suggest that government should stay away from moral questions, personal choice issues, lifestyle stuff, etc. and concentrate on keeping Americans free and prosperous. And I agree that "intellectuals" of both the Left and Right are scary. The subtitle of my book COMMON GENIUS
is "How Ordinary People Create Prosperous Societies and How Intellectuals Make Them Collapse."
I think these elites of either persuasion should not tell us how to live our lives! On economic matters, however, I suggest that our elected officials should be encouraged, and selected, on the basis of sound economic policy. And that gets me to your point about Florence and Venice prospering without being wholly free democracies:
You are right that Renaissance Florence did not always represent true democracy and could not be called politically free--but, unlike most autocratic states, the Italian cities did provide de facto economic freedom. Their rulers came from the merchant class and were very attuned to free trade and business enterprises--Machiavelli's advice to rulers was to leave everyone's private property alone! My book proposes that it is that type of economic freedom--not political freedom--that allows a society to successfully develop a prosperous economy. The Radzewicz Rule (you can google it) states that the common man plus security less oppression creates economic freedom and thereby prosperity. CM + S - O = Economic Freedom. Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai in the Arab Emirates and a few Eastern European nations are following this route. They may oppress political dissent and enforce some social values or customs, but they leave business alone. Indeed, they strip away most regulatory burdens to stimulate trade. In some ways such autocratic rulers can be more constructive for entrepreneurs than a democratic regime because they can by strong arm tactics provide the "S" -- security-- both personal protection and the safeguard of their citizens' property. Africa is full of democracies with no security--having the vote doesn't help their people. The principal of such economic freedom--as compared to democratic freedom-- is calculated for every nation in the annual Indices of Economic Freedom published by Heritage Foundation--a similar one is published by Fraser Institure. There is wide agreement on the mechanics that provide economic freedom--and that nations maximizing same prosper more than nations that score lower. My book applies this concept to history's rare stepping stones that led to western supremacy. The lesson from these case studies of history establish that de facto economic freedom produced growth by empowering a wide spectrum of their people. Conversely, the growing regulatory and tax burden in Western democracies has slowed their growth and accounts for their declining power and affluence. France and Germany have slipped to 44th and 18th place-- behind such nations as Bahrain, Ireland, Estonia, and 11th place Chile. "Old Europe" may include political democracies but populist trends have reduced economic freedom. It seems that all dynamic young nations with economic freedom (that grow in affluence) have been unburdened by the centrist tendencies of the intellectual elites that accumulate in large prosperous nations. Thus, once ordinary enterprising people have built a successful nation, new elites come in and bring on decline by reducing economic freedom, reducing motivation of their people, and/or introducing oppressive or decadent social policy. The big question for the future is framed by the fact that China is increasing its economic freedom and the U. S. is decreasing its peoples' freedom to operate. Will China's free market reforms (they're giving property deeds to the peasants!) win out over America's excessively regulated business and social environment ? Oppression (The "O" in the Radzewicz Rule) is not just about physical and regulatory matters--it also entails imposing mental straitjackets on a nation's people. Oriental cultures always suffered from the effect of their passive philosophies and theologies. There is no significant genetic difference between Chinese and American individuals --but there has for millennia been a critical difference in cultural nurturing. However the Western advantage that comes from the self-reliant "attitude" of its people is being reversed and increasingly resembles the overly structured nature of past Oriental society. The new mental oppression flowing from America's politically correct, environmentally obsessive, racially sensitve, and victim oriented elites will have a profound negative impact on our economy and future strength. This mental oppression added to increased central governmental controls and reduced private property protection will all work to China's advantage. There is nothing unique about Western success except its long-standing encouragement of simple de facto economic and personal freedoms. The next wave of future global success can be won by any nation copying those principles. And the dustbin of history will be full of former gloried nations that abandoned those same mechanics of good government. A German writer, Olaf Gersemann, recently wrote "Cowboy Capitalism" to alert Europeans to emulate, not ridicule, the American "attitude" that kept them free in two World wars. My book COMMON GENIUS describes how throughout history certain simple mechanical devices and mental attitudes created the winners who outpaced those societies burdened by economic and mental constraints. It is not about left vs right, or conservative and liberal labels--it's about long-term survival. Bill Greene (real name)

None said...


As both a Catholic and a conservative I find the Blank Slate very interesting. In fact I purchased the book because of your recommendation. I have also been reading many reviews of the book and thus far most of the negative reviews have come from the Left. Some have even accused Pinker of being an "extreme conservative" and "reactionary".

I was wondering if you think the Catholic concept of human nature can be reconciled with the human nature presented in the Blank Slate. From what I gather the "Ghost in the Machine" is an attack on more modern conceptions created by Descartes rather then traditional Catholic teaching.

James said...

Hi None,

I actually see Pinker as following the path beaten out by Augustine and St Paul. Both realised that human nature was real, that it is inherited and that we can't get away from it. Both the natural law St Paul saw written in our hearts and the original sin observed by Augustine match Pinker's own observations.

I'm going to blog a bit more on this in the next couple of weeks (yes, I know I often promise to blog on stuff and don't for ages but I'll do mu best!).

As for the ghost in the machine - I think that was a wrong turning we got from Plato. St Paul, think, is quite clear that we need bodies and the general resurrection will be corporal not ghostly (although not the same as our current bodies). Check out my posts last summer on this question.

None said...

Thanks James. I am also interested in your thoughts regarding natural law theory of ethics. Maybe you can incorporate that into your blog in a couple of weeks.

Are you familiar with Larry Arnhart's Darwinian Conservatism blog? If so, I was wondering if you any comments about it.

Bill Greene said...


As a parent of nine children with 14 grandchildren I can attest to the fact that each is uniquely created, is defined by a definite set of ingrained personality traits, and can be best described as "a loose cannon." Nurture becomes important because of the need to civilize these kids into being constructive members of society. I am interested in the idea that somehow Western institutions did a better job of this nurturing process than, say, the Oriental or Middle eastern cultures. For example, classical Greece put the individual person on a pedestal and then Judeo-Christian beliefs shaped these heroes into responsible independent individuals with free will and an understanding of the separation of religion from secular affairs. The scientific advances of thre Middle Ages may have arisen from this enabling legacy--compared to say, Islamic ideas that failed to separate Church and State, and oriental philosophies that emphasized order, obedience, acceptance of fate, etc. In any case, all societies were made up of these varying humans and the social order was best attained when a degree of free rein was allowed to each individual--accepting the differences-- but providing some over-all constraints based on religion and secular laws. That may be why the concept of individusal freedom in Western society won out over the more constrained societies of the East--one empowered the individual, the other restricted his genius.

Humphrey said...

Reading this, I'm inclined to agree with Joe6pak on the subject of whether china's rise really breaks the link between economic success and freedom. The rise of China's economy after all is facilitated by the outsourcing of manufacturing by corporations based in free countries and the economic reforms brought in by the Chinese government were inspired in part by the example of Hong Kong and the implementation of the one country two systems policy. If history is any guide we should see a prosperous middle class demanding more freedom and political power. This in turn will be hard for the government to resist as, having committed to joining the global financial system stability is firmly in its interests. But then again I might be being too optimistic.

Bill Greene said...

This question of nature vs nurture is confused by the fact that the discussion centers on merely the personality of the child/adult. I concede that temperament and personality are primarily inherited but that ingrained personality is not the key to producing productive happy adults. That is where nurturing comes in, and the whole process of civilizing and educating a baby should go way beyond shaping its personality. It is the additional taught and acquired attributes of each human that determine the fate of a scoiety. The difference between aborigines and MIT undergraduates is simply different nurturing. Their "slates" are comparable at birth except for personality differences. But they develop -- Good manners alone compensate for many personality flaws. Who cares that Franklin was a happy lovable and gregarious extrovert and Adams was a stick-in-the-mud introvert? They both played constructive roles in founding the United States and their inherited personalities were secondary to the benefits that their family and cultural environment provided them with. It is a serious mistake to denigrate parental nurturing. It matters! The nation's future depends on it. Bill Cosby emphasized that fact: If nurturing didn't matter he wouldn't have famously asked black parents, in reference to some of their children's dress style, "What are you waiting for ? Do you expect God to pull their pants up?" When it comes to what's important, we were all blank slates, and civilizing us through nurture trumps the raw genetic material we came naked with into this wonderful world