My Readings 2014

Luis Rubio

 My best reading this year was Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World, a history of the origin of Anglo-Saxon liberalism and its differences with its continental counterpart. Daniel Hannan, English politician and historian, addresses face to face an explanation of the origin of Western civilization centered on the concept of individual freedom. In the political and legal world based on Anglo-Saxon law, the freedom of the individual is the most cherished value and from there the entire system of human interaction is constructed. In contrast, affirms Hannan, in the European version, deriving as it does from Roman law and thinkers like Rousseau, freedom is a concession of the State, thus, the heart of human interaction lies in the regulations emanating from this. What’s fascinating about this book resides in the series of implications that these differences entail for international relations, the different positions that exist with respect to themes such as climate change or property rights.

As if it were the flip side of the coin, Stein Ringen devotes himself to analyzing what power is and how it can be successfully exercised in a democracy. In Nation of Devils: Democratic Leadership and the Problem of Obedience, Ringen declares that power on the side of the governor is what makes others obey commands. What makes them accept persuasion is authority.” A government can have its objectives clear, its structure of legitimacy well constructed and, however, be incapable of modifying the reality when it lacks effective public policies. “Where it stumbles is in making workable policies. Good intentions are not enough. Competence is not enough. When a government has power and can make policy, its next problem is to avoid mistakes. It cannot be done by command, which is only counterproductive, but only by leadership and showing its citizens confidence and professional trust.”

Liberalism: The Life of an Idea is an extraordinarily vivid history of a belief. In contrast with the political use of liberalism as an economic strategy, Edmund Fawcett conceives of it as a belief that evolves but that is sustained on progress, skepticism with regard to authority and  respect for the individual above all else. This manner of understanding the liberal ideal allows him to incorporate not only the Anglo-Saxon classics but also, and prominently, thinkers who do not tend to be associated with liberalism, at least in the way that political debate has distorted it, thinkers like Sartre, Brandt and Kohl. How has liberalism survived? By its enormous capacity of adaptation: in contrast with Conservatives, who fear change, says Fawcett, Liberals welcome it because changing societies are adaptable and stable. At variance with Socialists, who consider that Utopia must be administrated, Liberals seek to create conditions under which each person can develop himself in his own fashion without the weight of a dictatorship. An extremely well-timed book.

Gottland is a book that is extremely strange: an assortment of stories written by a Pole about Czechs. Its success is due to the extraordinary collection of narratives, anecdotes, and tales on how the population, the ordinary man in the street, lived and adapted to the totalitarian system. Beyond these specific stories, what emerges is a photograph, a film really, of day-to-day life under fascism and totalitarianism. Although the book is exceedingly humorous and cunning, what it reveals is a perspective of the human condition when it confronts tyranny and corruption and, despite this, keeps its conscience alive and head held high. On reading this book by Mariusz Szczygiel I thought about how difficult it is to imagine how it is to live under such a weighty shadow and how impossible it is to judge those who lived this way. Its frame of reference is totally alien to Mexicans’ experience.

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have written three books that are exceptionally interesting because of the innovative way that they’ve interpreted situations and tendencies ranging from criminality to narcotrafficking, the college tests, real estate transactions and homeschooling. Crunching the numbers, the authors come to unexpected conclusions (such as that legalization of abortion diminished criminality in the U.S.). The most recently published of the three, “Think Like a Freak”, offers a “technique” for interpreting distinct social problems. The book is an invitation to think differently, to free oneself from prejudice and to measure potential impacts instead of presupposing results without information or analyses. This is a book that proposes a new way of thinking, beginning with the need to admit that no one knows everything, thus eradicating preconceptions. For the authors, the world is not how we imagine it to be and there’s always something new to learn, particularly how incentives make people tick. Its proposal is that to solve problems it is necessary to start out by understanding causes, transcending clichés and asking the right questions.

Milan W. Svolik has written a fascinating study, The Politics of Authoritarian Rule, on the politics of authoritarian governments. His point of departure is that dictators are up against threats from the masses that they govern (which requires authoritarian control), while simultaneously dealing with the elites with whom they govern (which requires parceling out the power). What’s crucial in this is that in a dictatorship there is no independent authority that exacts compliance with the agreements and this comes to be a permanent source of instability.



a quick-translation of this article can be found at