Summer is the perfect time to settle into a slower pace of life and savor a great book, whether it’s an old favorite that you continue to enjoy or an unfamiliar one with new ideas to ponder. And so before the summer ends, I have a challenge for you: I’m going to share five of my favorite books and essays with you, and I’m hoping you’ll read at least one before the beginning of the semester.
Not only are these fun summer reads, they are classic works that were foundational to my intellectual journey as an economist. They will shape the way you think about society while helping you articulate your beliefs about how to effect human prosperity and liberty across the world.
- “I, Pencil” by Leonard Read. This essay changed not only my views about the economy but my classroom teaching as well. It is timeless and action-packed. This short essay is written from the perspective of a pencil about how it came into being. There is so much economic thinking in this little story. It turns out that the ordinary pencil, which we take for granted and is seemingly so simple, is actually quite sophisticated: so much so that no one person, not even the CEO of the pencil company, knows how to make it. It is a story of the coordination of millions of strangers who come together to serve each other. If you haven’t read this essay, put it at the top of your list, and if you have, it’s a great one to read again!
- We the Living by Ayn Rand. Can you imagine the atrocities of living under Communist rule? This book takes us there, and it’s a great introduction to Rand if you are new to her work. We the Living remains my favorite Rand novel. It’s not a book about economics per say, but about economic systems and how they are so critical to whether we thrive or perish — both personally and socially.
- Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. I love this short, pithy book written in 1946 by American journalist Henry Hazlitt because of how easy it is to understand — it’s both accessible and timeless. Hazlitt begins by encouraging us to think like economists by seeing the unseen and forcing us to take the long-term perspective so that we fully account for the costs of our actions. I come back to this book every year and am reminded of the power of the economic way of thinking.
- Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell. This book does not disappoint and is loaded with stories and evidence to help elucidate the economic way of thinking. Economist and author Thomas Sowell takes us through the market system of prices, property rights, profits and losses, and the mechanisms for increasing human productivity and prosperity. Using stories and evidence throughout, he helps us see the follies of policies that don’t properly incorporate the fundamental economic realities of the world in which we live. I not only love reading this book time and again, but it makes a great holiday gift as well!
- “The Law” by Frederic Bastiat. What if the law becomes a method of theft and plunder instead of an instrument of protection? In this compelling essay, Bastiat helps us see the importance of the rule of law as the foundation of a productive society. He tears down the old notions of political theorists who thought that elected officials could disavow themselves of their self-interest and greed and put on the cloak of the people to serve the common good. Bastiat shows us that the law is a force for good only when political leaders must also submit to it. Otherwise, it is a source of plunder. Originally published in 1850, Bastiat foreshadows the rent-seeking culture and special interests who distort lawmaking today.
Summer is a great time to catch up on the classics — and to reread your favorites with a new perspective. These readings will help you get a jump on the school year and engage in articulate discussion about these issues with your professors and peers.
I hope you find this list to be a helpful starting place in understanding economics and liberty. Which books and essays would make your top 5 list? And if you’ve already read the ones I’ve listed here, why do you think others should read them?