Five Books to Change Conservatives' Minds

On climate change, inequality, progressive taxation and more, an intro course to the liberal perspective.

Instead of this, try reading the same books.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As the 2016 presidential election made clear, we live in the era of the echo chamber. To escape their own, progressives need to be reading the best conservative thought -- certainly Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, but also more contemporary figures such as Antonin Scalia and Robert Ellickson. The same is true for conservatives, if they hope to learn from progressives. Here are five books with which they might start.

1: “The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World,” by William Nordhaus. If a Nobel Prize is going to be awarded for environmental economics, Nordhaus may well be the leading candidate: With respect to science and economics, he’s unfailingly scrupulous; he also has a luminously clear mind. This book is the best available introduction to climate change, and it shows why all of us should be worried.

Nordhaus is intensely focused on the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and doesn’t neglect the importance of economic growth. In discussing uncertainty, and in exploring the case for a carbon tax, Nordhaus offers a model for how to think rationally about risks.

2: “Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy,” by Robert H. Frank. In Frank’s view, we overstate the role of individual merit and underestimate the massive role of luck in producing individual success or failure – being born into the right family, finding oneself in the right place at the right time, having a good mentor. He makes “there but for the grace of God go I” into a rallying cry.

Offering engaging stories and a ton of data, Frank reinforces his longstanding claim that all of us now lose from a mutually destructive “arms race,” in which we compete to buy increasingly expensive goods that don’t really improve our lives. With that in mind, he argues for a progressive consumption tax, which, in his view, would produce no unfairness and could benefit essentially all of us, by funding necessary programs to improve education, roads, and railways.

3: “Freedom’s Law: The Moral Reading of the American Constitution,” by Ronald Dworkin. Many conservatives insist that judges should adhere to the “original meaning” of the Constitution. Dworkin offers the most systematic response to this view. He emphasizes that the Constitution contains a lot of open-ended phrases, containing abstract moral language: “equal protection,” “freedom of speech,” “due process of law.”

He contends that whatever judges say, all of them end up as “moral readers” of such phrases -- and so their own convictions must play a significant role. The question, then, is what kind of moral reading we will give, not whether we will give one. Dworkin raises serious questions about the notion of judicial restraint -- and the very idea that judges can simply follow the law.

4: “Scarcity: Why Having Less Means So Much,” by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. Some people lack time; others lack friends; still others lack money. Mullainathan and Shafir demonstrate that these diverse forms of scarcity have something important in common: They take over our minds, leaving us with limited “bandwidth.”

If you’re focused on how to pay next month’s rent, you might not be able to think about much else -- how to handle a looming health problem, how to make sure that your teenage son stays out of trouble, and how to get training for a better job. Mullainathan and Shafir show why many public policy initiatives, which impose “bandwidth taxes” (for example, by making people fill out complex forms to receive financial assistance), turn out to be unhelpful and even counterproductive.  

5: “The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War,” by Robert J. Gordon. Americans are proud of their long tradition of economic growth; they also believe in equality of opportunity. With a massive amount of data, Gordon demonstrates that both are in serious jeopardy. He places a spotlight on multiple headwinds, including rising inequality (which means that any gains from growth are concentrated among those at the very top) and slow increases in educational attainment (which will dampen productivity growth).

As a result, Gordon contends that the U.S. has “virtually no room for growth over the next 25 years in median disposable real income per person.” He argues for a more progressive tax system, improvements in preschool education, and an increase in the size and availability of the earned income tax credit.

After reading these books, conservatives are hardly likely to rush out and volunteer to work for the Democratic Party. But they will end up a lot more humble. They’ll also have a far better understanding of why so many of their fellow citizens disagree with them -- and on one or two issues, they might even change their minds.

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

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