Wednesday, March 27, 2013

What I've Been Reading

After spending much of the semester reading, and learning a lot from, Alan Ryan's two masterful works On Politics and The Making of Political Liberalism, I've finally moved on to some other authors.

Margaret Paul, Frank Ramsey (1903-1930): A Sister's Memoir (2012). Ramsey lived only 26 years, but what an interesting life he led in that short time. This biography would be well worth the read even if Ramsey's intellectual achievements were not still so enormously relevant to mathematics, economics, and philosophy. All the Cambridge luminaries of the era, including Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein, and Keynes ran their ideas past Ramsey before publishing them. This isn't just a biography of a singular genius, though; it's also an insightful history of the University of Cambridge between the wars. A really fun and enlightening read.

John Darwin, Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain (2012). I'm not especially interested in the topic of Empire-building, but Darwin is such a fine and interesting writer, that the book is really hard to put down. I'm especially intrigued by his claim, for which he mounts a great deal of historical evidence, that "Empires were not made by faceless committees making grand calculations, nor by the 'irresistible' pressures of economics or ideology. They had to be made by men (and women) whose actions were shaped by motives and morals no less confused and demanding than those that govern us now" (p. xi)

Stephen T. Asma, Against Fairness (2013). An entertaining counter-attack against the forces of egalitarianism, which argues both positively (based on empirical studies) and normatively in favor of favoritism. The author is wise and witty, but perhaps a bit less counter-intuitive than he believes himself to be. Whatever the merits of fairness, I've never read anyone who believes that it is the only value in the world that should be maximized. And others before Asma have pointed out (though not in such a fun way) that a commitment to fairness as an independent maximand could reduce the welfare of everyone. See Louis Kaplow and Steven Shavell, Fairness versus Welfare (2009). Nevertheless, Asma is so pithy that his versions of the arguments are simply more fun to read. Who could gainsay his assessment of Spongebob, Squarepants (one of my favorite television shows to watch after a long day of brain usage) as a long-running "morality play"? On the other hand, his skills as an illustrator (his drawings litter the book) leave a good deal to be desired.

Meanwhile, I'm also reading several books, chapters, and articles for a conference paper I have to write on the international legal concept of "state responsibility" as it applies in the climate-change context.

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