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Gifts for the Family Nerd

It’s that time of the year when bloggers get to parade around their favorite books in the name of holiday spirit. After all, for all the chic and splendor of the latest gadgets and gizmos, any curious reader knows there’s nothing more valuable than finding the right information.

Some folks like to focus their promotions based on titles from the given year (“Best of 2010!”), but for my list I thought I would let you in on some of the works that have been most influential in shaping my own views on faith and free enterprise.

This does not mean, however, that these books are (necessarily) religious. Rather, the following books were extraordinarily valuable in steering my raw, Bible-based upbringing in the right direction when it came to economics (even if it required a few detours along the way). Also, there are certainly plenty of “classics” I will not be mentioning — Max von Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Adam Smith’s A Theory of Moral Sentiments, Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, etc. — but that is only because these titles did not confront me soon enough (unlucky me!).

So, without further ado, here are my recommendations for your Christmas wish list, along with a few reasons as to why I think they are important.

A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles — Thomas Sowell

At the very root of each of our political opinions lays a fundamental view of human nature. It is from this view that each of us constructs our political solutions, whether social, economic, or a mix. The value Sowell brings to this struggle is his ability to deconstruct all things political by putting them in terms of ideological vision. Sowell does not pose such struggles in terms of left and right, but rather between constrainedand unconstrained visions. By doing so, he gets to the deeper core of our political thinking and illuminates why we see humanity the way we do and why that matters. Are humans completely perfectible, merely improvable, or fatally doomed? How does the answer to such a question impact our view of government?

As for how this ties in with faith, it may be somewhat obvious. The Biblical view of humanity, for example, must serve as an input to our political view of humanity. On this question, Sowell indirectly draws out some good questions for Christians: What does original sin, the fall of man, redemption through the Cross, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit teach us about how individuals and communities can be optimized? Sowell does not answer such questions directly, nor does he approach them within the Biblical domain, but the parallels are easily evident.

The Virtue of Selfishness — Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden

I have already expressed my general views of Ayn Rand on this blog, so it may come as a surprise that I am recommending one of her works. But alas, as was hopefully evident in my post, Rand’s views on the individual served as a valuable buffer to my own views of the individual. We should remember that it is not only by examining extreme collectivism that one attains a proper view of individualism; it is also by exploring “extreme” (or so-called) individualism. Exploring Rand’s glorification of selfishness and her ridicule of all things spiritual provoked many important questions in my quest for truth, some of which were quite daunting to face. Why do we believe in God in the first place, and if we do, what kind of God is he? If he’s a good God, is he only good to the individual, or does he simply value community? How do we find the balance between the two, or is there a balance in the first place?

On the whole, Rand’s hostility toward “mysticism” can be a bit hard to handle, but I think she effectively illuminates the moral risks of God-less morality, particularly as we try to tackle it in the public sphere.

Who Really Cares: The Suprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism — Arthur Brooks

If you have been at all persuaded by the more distasteful elements of Rand’s views on God, selfishness, or the individual, Arthur Brooks will surely challenge you in a new direction. In Who Really Cares, Brooks primarily explores the activity of charity (or volunteerism), asking “who gives, who doesn’t, and why it matters.” The revelations therein (which I have also commented on elsewhere), show that not only does a freer market mean more charity, but more charity also means a healthier and more productive market. Where Rand reaches supreme failure, Brooks balances the benefits of self-sacrifice and self-interest superbly, arguing for more freedom not only because it is better for ourselves, but because it means more responsibility, prosperity, happiness, andcharity for all.

From Poverty to Prosperity: Intangible Assets, Hidden Liabilities, and the Lasting Triumph over Scarcity — Nick Schulz and Arnold Kling

Brooks provides plenty of evidence for why conservatism (or libertarianism) is important for charity, but we must also realize that charity is only one way that Christians can impact the world and alleviate poverty. Let us remember: It was not (primarily) charity that led to the prosperity of the Industrial Revolution or the rapid growth of the tech boom. These events (among plenty others) have been transformational in their impact, but the drivers behind that transformation had to do with what Schulz and Kling refer to as “intangible assets.”

Such assets, we soon learn, are mostly moral elements: trustcreativityproperty rights,physical security. In other words, we not only need charity to transform our culture for the better, but we also need to learn how to leverage human potential to the maximum in areas where profit is evident and necessary. It is in the countries that have promoted such leverage that the poor have discovered prosperity not through luck or fortune, but through hard workownership, anddetermination. As Christians, having the proper avenues for “leverage” in our own lives is crucial. Schulz and Kling teach us that the freedom to make good or bad decisions is not one confined to governments or public economies, but they also show us that it must not be divorced from those spheres. Again, while this book does not comment on anything remotely religious, the parallels remain evident (see here).

After reading it, I soon came to many questions about the sorts of “intangible assets” governments and economies can leverage for the Christian. Charity is important, especially for the Christian, but we mustn’t forget the moral transformation and empowerment available through markets.

Free to Choose: A Personal Statement — Milton Friedman

Perhaps the most popular of the titles listed is Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose. In my college years, I was desperate to learn more about economics, and after browsing plenty of textbooks and essays, my Grandpa eventually gave me a copy of this book, telling me it contained all I needed to know. The book certainly delivered on many of those grounds, but it also contained more insight into the spiritual than I originally expected.

On this point, I may depart with some of my predestination friends, but for any Christian who is concerned with choice — the choice to trade, the choice to sin, the choice to give your life to Christ — Friedman’s exploration of the implications of free choice provides many insights into how God structured the world and why freedom is important for all of us. Although Friedman focuses primarily on things like markets, equality, consumer protections, and inflation, such illuminations about the science of the market are put in terms easy for themoralist to grasp.

On the whole, Friedman’s work has served to answer many moral questions I had about the market, even though he doesn’t mention God once (or so I remember).

So there they are! Even if you don’t pick these up in time for Christmas, I hope you’ll consider reading them at some point in your journey. They certainly proved valuable in mine.