The Year in Books

reason staffers pick the best books of 2008


Ronald Bailey, science correspondent

In Sex, Science and Profits: How People Evolved to Make Money, Terence Kealey, a biochemist and vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham (UK), argues strongly that the conventional wisdom that scientific central planning is necessary for progress is wrong. He cites a good deal of evidence that economic growth associated with research and development is linked almost entirely to private sector research funding. He shows that strong property rights and free markets are essential for scientific and technological progress. There is much more controversy and evidence to savor in Sex, Science and Profits. For example, Kealey argues that patents should be abolished except for those covering pharmaceuticals and that rather than science driving technology, the opposite is true. Everyone now agrees that centralized planning fails to produce economic progress. Kealey persuasively argues that centralized planning also fails to produce scientific progress.

I would also like to make an honorable mention of Cory Doctorow's superb young adult novel Little Brother. A band of San Francisco teenage technogeeks fight for freedom against an oppressive Department of Homeland Security in occupied San Francisco. Little Brother shows how the savvy use of technologies such as RFID cloners, Bayesian analysis, and cryptography can liberate people from oppressive government. Unless you're completely oblivious, Little Brother will fuel your anger over the freedoms that we have already lost to our growing national security state. Moreover, as Little Brother shows, resistance is not futile.

Radley Balko, senior editor

We Americans like to think our republic is unique, that our Constitution has for the most part preserved a form of government that's stacked with checks and balances, representative, and morally superior to the despots, tyrants, and authoritarian regimes that have ruled over most of humanity for most of human history. That's all true. The most important moment in American history is arguably when George Washington declined to run for a third presidential term, despite calls for him to be crowned king, or to serve for life. What's odd, though, is that since then we've come to venerate as "great men" those American presidents who have behaved most like tyrants, and denigrate the few who approached the office with some humility. Gene Healy's book The Cult of the Presidency is scholarly, acerbic, sometimes witty, and ultimately pretty depressing. Healy not only documents and damns the presidents most guilty of expanding the power and influence of the executive branch, he looks at why and how we've come to expect so much of—and invest so much faith in—the occupant of the Oval Office, and why that isn't healthy for our democracy. As we transition from an administration that believed the president has near-plenary powers to one that's promising to lower ocean levels and cure of us cynicism, Healy's book couldn't be more timely, or more important. Historians adore presidents who fought big wars, grew their own power, and broadened the size and scope of the federal government—think Wilson, Lincoln, or either Roosevelt. They have little respect for men like Calvin Coolidge, Grover Cleveland, or Rutherford B. Hayes, men who, as Healy puts it, were content to merely preside over periods of peace and prosperity. Healy's book cautions that it's time to change the way we think about the office of the presidency. There's nothing "great" about aspiring to power, then consolidating, broadening, and wielding it. Kings, tyrants, and politicians have been doing that for all of human history. It's time to define great as the willingness and ability to leave power on the table.

Brian Doherty, senior editor

The book I read this year that most combined reading pleasure, interesting learning, and a sadly large contemporary relevance came from sometimes reason contributor Bill Kauffman: Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin. Martin, a Maryland lawyer, was a contentious, bibulous, lovable yet deeply flawed pain in the ass to his fellows at the convention that launched the Constitution, a document later imposed on the American people very much over the powerful yet ultimately failed opposition of Mr. Martin. Kauffman properly avoids undue somber adulation of either the rest of the Founding crew or his hero Martin, and remains vividly entertaining in chronicling both the power and the ideological plays that went into the making of the Constitution—and the making of the way we now remember the making of it. In this year when the government is ploughing forward with renewed vigor to expand its purview, power, and spending beyond anything even Martin feared—or his Constitution-loving brethren could have expected—we are reminded that the dangers of excessive power are baked into big centralized government at its very inception. But we're also cheered to realize that those who were right in their warnings even centuries ago can see their foresight and sense survive, with the help of light-handed but wise chroniclers such as Kauffman.

Nick Gillespie, editor Reason.com and Reason.tv

In a world of economic chaos and seemingly never-ending bailouts and "stimulus packages," The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding what happens when the government tries to tame the business cycle and fine-tune the economy as if it were a two-stroke engine. (Are you listening, Henry Paulson? George W. Bush? Congress? Barack Obama?)

For the past quarter-century, Robert J. Samuelson has been filing smart, skeptical, and info-rich columns for Newsweek and The Washington Post. The Great Inflation tells the story of how smug economists and politicians in the post-war era almost wrecked the U.S. and how President Ronald Reagan and Federal Reserve head Paul Volcker tamed double-digit inflation in the 1980s. Samuelson provides a rich history of wisdom triumphing over hubris—and he provides a singular commentary on just where the U.S. economy might be headed for the next decade or more.

Katherine Mangu-Ward, associate editor

Neal Stephenson broke my heart with his boring, unwieldy Baroque Cycle. But the Stephenson I know and love from Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, and the underappreciated nanotech thriller Diamond Age is back in Anathem, which tells the story of some fraas (math-oriented secular monks) closeted in a concent (monastery) who are keepers of vast amounts of knowledge and an even vaster clock, while the world outside watches speelies (movies) and chatters on jeejahs (mobile phones). Anathem is Stephenson at his immersive world creating, language tweaking, surprise ending best.

Stephenson is part of an elite geek crew that has started spending ungodly amounts of time (and perhaps money) on something called the Long Now Foundation. Founded in "01996," guys like Whole Earth Catalog editor Stewart Brand, Internet guru Tim O'Reilly, and Wired's Chris Anderson get together under the banner of "taking the long-term seriously." This entails stuff like building a real-life clock that will keep time for 10,000 years and is "not entirely unrelated" to the clock in Anathem.

Michael Moynihan, associate editor

It would be easy to dismiss, based solely on its breathless title, Edward Lucas' book The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West as a revanchist, tub-thumping, probably Russophobic screed. This would be an unfortunate mistake. Lucas, a Russia correspondent for The Economist, writes with occasional—and justifiable—outrage that, after a post-Soviet period of relative political, personal, and press freedom, the country under the command of the beady-eyed Chekist Vladimir Putin has regressed into a sort of non-Marxist Bolshevism. But for the most part, Lucas provides a sober accounting of the closing of Russian society. There is the reemergence of extreme nationalism, as evidenced by the pro-Stalin schoolbooks and the recent raid on the human rights organization Memorial, in which its archives on Stalin's Gulag were seized; the mysterious murders of Kremlin critics like Anna Politskaya and Alexander Litvinenko; the silencing of independent media voices; and the aggression against former colonies.

One can always pick knits with the inelegant phrase "new Cold War"—there will always be more differences than similarities with the old one—and countless pro-Putin pundits, columnists, and bloggers do, citing any criticism of America's old adversary as neo-imperialist nonsense. But with the introduction of a bill into the Putin-controlled Duma broadening the definition of treason to include the most banal of criticism, Lucas appears more prescient than overheated. And one cannot come away from Lucas's terrific and terrifying account of transcendent Putinism thinking that all is well—or that a Western-style democracy exists—in Mother Russia.

Damon W. Root, associate editor

University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein has been fighting the good fight on behalf of property rights and limited constitutional government for decades. This year's Supreme Neglect: How to Revive Constitutional Protection for Private Property distills that work into a concise, highly readable account. Starting with the premise that "property is the guardian of every other right," Epstein traces the right of property from its first systematic appearance in Roman law through to the threadbare legal protections it receives in modern America, a disastrous state of affairs he persuasively blames on Progressive and New Deal reformers (and Supreme Court justices) who championed state power over individual liberty. As Epstein writes, "the faithful constitutional protection of private property is not some parochial exercise, but is an indispensable part of any comprehensive constitutional order that advances long-term social welfare." Supreme Neglect offers an eloquent defense of that position.

Jesse Walker, managing editor

It is a blurb-writer's cliché to declare that a work of nonfiction "reads like a novel"; like many blurb-writer's clichés, it is almost never true. With Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, a history of the United States from 1964 to 1972, it is. The chapter on the early life of Richard Nixon feels like the foreboding opening to a '40s crime story, while other sections resemble a Dos Passos media collage. Nixonland features complex characters, entertaining set pieces, and a sense of the perfect detail. It is hard to forget, say, the grotesque moment in Nixon and Kissinger's encounter with Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai when Mao reveals that the missing military leader Lin Biao perished in a plane crash. "Chou hinted that it had not been an accident," Perlstein writes. "Nixon winked his solidarity. 'The chairman can be sure,' he said, 'that whatever we discuss, nothing goes beyond this room.'" (The author is self-confident enough not to underline the fact that it eventually did leave the room.)

The book is also an impressive, wide-ranging piece of scholarship, with a lens that moves smoothly from biography to sociology to cultural studies. Perlstein's concerns stretch from Nixon's foreign policy to the movie Patton—and, just as important, the ways Patton influenced Nixon's foreign policy.

David Weigel, contributing editor

The Great Evangelical Panic of the Oughts began on November 3, 2004, with the re-election of George W. Bush and the almost immediate attribution to "values voters" and right-wing Christians who, in their fervor to ban gay marriage, gave the Republicans their biggest majority since the 1930s. The Panic struck authors, publishers, and politicians with plague-like force—it's hard to remember now, but the idiotic congressional "rescue" mission for Terri Schiavo was initially viewed as a stroke of Republican brilliance. Its symptoms were smugness, shrillness, and a desire to defeat Rick Santorum. The Panic is over now and Rapture Ready, Daniel Radosh's book of funny, insightful, and sympathetic reporting, is the only book that should survive it. Radosh is neither conservative nor Christian, but he is genuinely interested in the billion-dollar industry that has grown, over decades, to service America's evangelicals. He combines Paul Theroux travel-plus-conversations with history, hard numbers, and—when it's called for—stunned mockery of the worst elements of Christian pop culture. There's more insight here than in a hundred screeds against "Christofascists." It's the Let Us Now Praise Famous Men of Red America, and will be worth reading long after people forget what that term meant.

Matt Welch, editor in chief, Reason magazine

The greatest public policy books—not an oxymoron, I swear!—are able to change the way you think, even or especially on topics you might otherwise know. I don't claim to know economics well, but I did live through a time when persistent inflation was the number-one domestic policy issue, and bien pensants from President Carter on down just assumed it was the inevitable, if morale-sapping cost of living in the modern world. What Robert Samuelson accomplishes with this book—which I was proud to excerpt in the current issue of reason—is change the way you look at recent history, merely through the act of describing it with proper terminology and emphases. In the process you come to admire further those political actors who chose to fight inflation and win, while losing further respect for those who were not only disastrously wrong on economics, but cowardly in pretending that this important historical shift either didn't take place or wasn't important to begin with.