2016 Elections

Five Books to Change Liberals' Minds

Or at least help them understand how conservatives see the world.

Read more. Argue less.

Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg

It can be easy and tempting, especially during a presidential campaign, to listen only to opinions that mirror and fortify one's own. That’s not ideal, because it eliminates learning and makes it impossible for people to understand what they dismiss as “the other side.” 

If you think that Barack Obama has been a terrific president (as I do) and that Hillary Clinton would be an excellent successor (as I also do), then you might want to consider the following books, to help you to understand why so many of your fellow citizens disagree with you:

  1. “Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Conditions Have Failed,” by James Scott. In this wildly imaginative book, dealing with agriculture, urban planning, and Esperanto, Scott argues that modern governments, relying on top-down knowledge, tend to be clueless, because they depend on “thin simplifications” of complex systems -- and hence lack an understanding of how human beings actually organize themselves.

    Evidently influenced by Friedrich Hayek’s powerful arguments about the inability of planners to capture the dispersed knowledge of individuals, Scott goes even further, arguing that both faceless bureaucrats and free markets can do violence to sensible local practices. After you read him, you’ll never see the Clean Air Act or the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, or any proposal for large-scale reform, in the same way again.

  2. “A Matter of Interpretation,” by Antonin Scalia. Many progressives understand Scalia, and other conservative judges, in crassly political terms -- as opponents of affirmative action, abortion, gun control, and campaign finance legislation. But what Scalia cared most about was clear, predictable rules, laid down in advance. In this book, he argues for approaches to interpretation that produce clarity, generality, and fair notice, and that sharply constrain the discretion of federal judges.

    Scalia’s plea for adherence to the public meaning of legal texts, and to the original understanding of the Constitution, derive from his commitment to rule-bound law. Even if you are unconvinced by Scalia’s arguments, they will get under your skin -- and you are likely to agree on the importance of finding ways to accommodate his concerns.

  3. “Side Effects and Complications: The Economic Consequences of Health-Care Reform,” by Casey Mulligan. Economists love to draw attention to the unintended consequences of apparently public-spirited reforms. For example, big increases in the minimum wage can increase unemployment, and expensive environmental controls imposed on new cars might actually increase environmental harm, by increasing the prices of cleaner vehicles and thus decreasing fleet turnover.

    Mulligan’s central claim is that the Affordable Care Act is imposing large implicit taxes on full-time employment, producing real reductions in wages. The result, he argues, is that many employees would do far better if they worked fewer hours per week -- and in some cases, if they didn't work at all. He projects that by creating a disincentive for full-time employment, health care reform will produce “about 3 percent less employment, 3 percent fewer aggregate work hours, 2 percent less GDP, and 2 percent less labor income.”

    As he acknowledges, Mulligan’s particular numbers are highly speculative (and in my view, they are unsupported by current evidence). But he is certainly right to emphasize the importance of asking about the potential adverse side-effects of any significant social reform -- and at the very least, he offers cautionary notes about the need to monitor the actual consequences of the Affordable Care Act.

  4. “The Righteous Mind,” by Jonathan Haidt. Do conservatives have moral commitments that progressives may not even recognize? Haidt says yes, and he identifies three: authority, loyalty and sanctity. If, for example, someone has betrayed a trust, or treated a boss or a parent disrespectfully, conservatives are far more likely to be outraged than progressives.

    Haidt is not himself a conservative, but he offers a sympathetic explanation of why progressives often fail to understand their political adversaries. He also shows that the moral commitments that resonate among conservatives have deep roots in human history -- and that it is a form of blindness not to acknowledge and respect those commitments.

  5. “Order Without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes,” by Robert Ellickson. Progressives tend to believe that without a strong government, social order just isn’t possible; you would have anarchy. An impressive body of research -- much of it by Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom -- demonstrates that this belief is wrong. Sometimes people can sort things out well enough on their own, benefiting from social norms that have nothing to do with government.

    Ellickson offers one of the clearest and most convincing demonstrations of this point. He shows that in many domains, neighbors find good ways to cooperate and to settle disputes, and that their voluntary practices work to their mutual advantage. His book can be seen as a companion to Scott’s, showing that if you don’t limit yourself to the narrow perspective of a government planner, you can see far more, and in particular the possibility that local practices are doing just fine.

Having read these books, you might continue to believe that progressives are more often right than wrong, and that in general, the U.S. would be better off in the hands of Democrats than Republicans. But you’ll have a much better understanding of the counterarguments -- and on an issue or two, and maybe more, you’ll probably end up joining those on what you once saw as “the other side.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Cass R Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net

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