Four reading recommendations for freedom lovers

Every cloud has a silver lining. This proverbial saying should be applied to all situations in life, including to the recent confinement we have endured over the last two months. During this time, I have had the opportunity to catch up on reading and shorten my never-ending reading list. Here are four books I have recently read that will delight the lovers of freedom.

1. Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (Nicholas Phillipson, 2010)

If you’re looking for an exciting biography, full of adventures and epic moments, this isn’t your book. Adam Smith’s life was pretty boring. Yet if you’re into economics and want to know more about the life and work of the founding father of modern economic science, this is definitely your book. 

Phillipson’s biography isn’t a simple chronological account of Smith’s life. It’s much more than that. In it, the author dives deep into Adam Smith’s mind, trying to analyze the evolution of his thought and elucidate the reasons that led him to write his two masterpieces: The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations

Among other things, Phillipson discusses the influence of the 18thcentury Scottish philosopher David Hume on Smith and the close friendship they shared until Hume’s death in 1776, shortly after the publication of The Wealth of Nations

The book is very well-written, although it can become a bit tedious and difficult to follow at times. It is divided into 13 chapters, each of which deals with a period of Smith’s life.  

In sum, an essential reading for anyone interested in the intellectual life of a giant in the history of thought. 

2. Pop Internationalism (Paul Krugman, 1996)

Pop Internationalism contains some of the most brilliant non-academic essays written by Nobel-award winning economist Paul Krugman. In it, the author tries and succeeds in debunking some erroneous ideas about international trade, which he calls Pop Internationalism. In Krugman’s words (p. 78):

“I am asserting that the conventional wisdom about international trade is dominated by entirely ignorant men, who have managed to convince themselves and everyone else who matters that they have deep insights, but are in fact unaware of the most basic principles of and facts about the world economy”.

Which ideas are these that pushed Krugman to wield the sword in defense of free trade against its enemies? For instance, he takes on the belief that a deficit in the trade balance is something negative and, as a result, it must be addressed via higher tariffs. Krugman points out that trade surpluses and deficits aren’t a sign of the strength or weakness of an economy, using the US economy as an example, which has combined trade deficits with strong economic growth since the 1970s. 

Another myth that Krugman debunks is that the idea of trade as “a quasi-military competition”, a zero-sum game in which the gain of some countries is the loss of others. This misconception stems from the idea that international trade and competition among firms are alike. Nothing could be further from the truth. As pointed out by Krugman (p. 94): 

“The point is that international trade, unlike competition among businesses for a limited market, is not a zero-sum game in which one nation’s gain is another’s loss. It is positive-sum game, which is why the word “competitiveness” can be dangerously misleading when applied to international trade.”

Although the book was published in 1996, the recent revival of protectionism across the world makes this book a must read, especially for those politicians bent on imposing economic restrictions on trade.  

3. Markets without Limits (Jason Brennan and Peter M. Jaworski, 2015)

Imagine your mum suffers from chronic kidney disease (CKD). She needs a transplant desperately. Even though dialysis keeps her alive, you know that CKD patients are more likely to die prematurely than those without CKD. Would it be ethically permissible to buy a kidney from a willing donor? 

Yes, it would. Or so American philosophers Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski argue in their book Markets without Limits. The main thesis of the book can be summarized in one sentence: if you may do it for free, you may do it for money. Or put differently, if something is ethical, introducing money in the equation (i.e., buying or selling it) doesn’t make it unethical. Applied to the case above, if donating a kidney is considered permissible, buying or selling it should be permissible as well. 

Throughout the book, the authors debunk numerous arguments against human organ sales, pregnancy surrogacy, or buying and selling sex, among others. The most recurrent one is the commodification argument, according to which certain things shouldn’t be for sale. Anti-commodification theorists usually put forward both consequentialist (e.g., the poor would end up exploited if organs sales were legalized) or semiotic (e.g., a market for human organs deprives us of our dignity as human beings) to oppose the existence of markets in these activities. 

However, as Brennan and Jaworski point out, most of these objections (especially those based on consequentialist arguments) can be addressed via targeted regulations rather than prohibitions. Thereby, we can have the best of both worlds: we provide valuable services to those who demand them (in the case of human organs, we are talking about saving thousands of lives every year) while protecting those who are potentially subject to exploitation. 

4. The Ethics of Voting (Jason Brennan, 2011)

Many people consider voting a civic duty. Regardless of how you cast your vote on election day, going to the polls is regarded as an act of good citizenship; a manifestation that you care for the future of your country. However, very few people reflect upon the ethical aspects of voting. 

In the Ethics of Voting, American philosopher Jason Brennan undertakes a comprehensive and thorough analysis of the ethical implications of voting. Particularly, he aims to refute three main widespread ideas, namely: citizens have the civic duty to vote; regardless of who you vote for, voting in good conscience is morally acceptable; vote trading is intrinsically immoral.

The idea of the existence of a civic duty to vote is based on several arguments, each of which Brennan dissects and debunks. For instance, some people argue that, when we vote, we fulfill a duty towards society inasmuch as we contribute to the collective decision-making process democracies are based on. 

However, there are many ways to contribute to society other than voting. You can volunteer in your community or produce goods and services that improve other people’s lives. Therefore, you can abstain from voting and, at the same time, fulfill your civic duties as a citizen.

The second idea is grounded on the premise that, as long as you vote for a candidate you sincerely believe will benefit the country, voting is fine. But, as Brennan argues, if there are objective reasons to think that the policies of a presidential candidate will harm the country, it would be immoral to vote for them. For instance, if Candidate A promises to increase tariffs by 100% in all imported products, which economics tells us is welfare-reducing, voting for them would be immoral as you’d be casting your vote for a candidate whose policies will make your fellow citizens worse off.

The final idea is the most controversial. Is it moral to buy someone else’s vote? Brennan argues that it is, but only under certain circumstances. Going back to the previous example, it would be ethical to buy a vote from someone who’s determined to vote for Candidate A since, by doing so, you’d be preventing someone from voting for a candidate who you know will harm your country.

In a time when democracy has been put on a pedestal by both the public and political theorists in detriment of individual freedom, this book will open your eyes about the limits of democracy and its main tool: voting.