Bad books on good topics

One of my pet peeves is a book that picks a really interesting question, and then covers it really poorly. Madmen, intellectuals and academic scribblers is exactly that.

The topic is a fascinating one. How political debate shifts, and what brings about that change, is a fascinating question. Which was why I was so excited to read the book, but so disappointed when I got into it.

It starts with an enormous overview of political/economic thought, which borders on mildly interesting at points, but is more a list of names and broad ideas than anything interesting. Here, and throughout the book, the authors have a habit of referring to something as a ‘marketplace’ as though they’ve explained something (i.e. the ‘marketplace of ideas’), without either explaining concretely what they mean by that, or why using that language and set of concepts usefully adds to the reader’s understanding.

I will share one quote, though, from that section. It’s possibly written with a deep cynicism, but I suspect the implicit critique was purely unintentional:

Coase’s method of studying economics is an unconventional one. He investigates the real world first and uses the patterns he observes to form theories (p. 71).

In a second section, the authors give us their theory that underlies the title. In summary (and believe me, the substantive content in this section could easily have been summarised in a blog post), the authors argue there are four layers – ideas, institutions, incentives and outcomes – that determine the structure of our society. Fair enough, I suppose; again, it might make for an interesting article, drawn out a little. But the extent of the useful prediction they make from this is that there is no useful prediction to be made:

But a more careful look suggests a more profound conclusion: There is no starting point. The search for such a magical point – a lever with which to change the world – is a fallacy common to madmen and intellectuals everywhere … Because humans are rational creatures, and because they respond to incentives, we can and should expect them to adjust to changing conditions in their world, to include new rules. 

As a conclusion, it’s a defensible one; but it could have been reached much more efficiently, without dragging me through an unnecessary theory that turns out to be irrelevant.

The final point in their book is a chapter on political ‘entrepreneurs’. Again, there’s consistency in applying economic terminology without adding any new substantive content. Their advice for effective political entrepreneurship? ‘A focus on comparative advantage’ (so general as to be useless; put your effort where it’ll be most comparatively effective), ‘deep knowledge of the market’ (know what you’re doing), ‘getting the greatest marginal return’ (focus on the most effective areas).

That’s it.

190 pages later, in a book that’s about in part how political debate shifts and changes, and how big ideas become policy, and their big idea boils down to ‘it’s complicated – be effective, efficient, and know what you’re doing’.

Some books should come with a coupon to compensate you for the time you spent reading them.

 

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