Political Philosophy
December 12, 2004 6:45 PM   Subscribe

Keynes? Hayek? Galbraith? Burke? I'm reevaluating all of my political stances and I'm trying to find a few books that will give me a decent understanding of the basis for today's Conservative and Liberal philosophies. What are the 3 to 5 best books per side to get a reasonably strong overview of what they're about?
posted by frankenklein to Law & Government (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You won't find one; it's a bit of a fool's quest. Neither modern liberalism nor conservatism are strongly based in a general-principles-to-specific-applications framework; they're both mishmashes of particular positions and general principles and contradictions to those principles that happen to make sense to people.

The best thing to do is probably pay attention to the news from a good source (a good big-city newspaper, the Economist, etc) and see what sorts of things liberals and democrats tend to like and dislike. But even then you're only going to be getting at the central tendencies, about which there will be lots of variance.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:41 PM on December 12, 2004

Politics is evil. It infects, perverts and eventually destroys all it touches. Avoid it.

I'd suggest taking up an interest in kites. Really, it can be terribly facisnating--it sits just on the border between science and art.

That said, I (reluctantly) read What's the Matter with Kansas and it provides much insight into modern Conservatism and Liberalism in America.
posted by nixerman at 8:52 PM on December 12, 2004

I would recommend Losing America by Senator Robert Byrd (Dem.) of West Virginia. He's a dead serious guy who's been in the Senate forever, like Ted Kennedy, but lesser known. He's an old constitutional scholarly southern democrat, kind of like a straght Gore Vidal, but loved by Howard Dean and other 'new democrats.' I just bought this book because I enjoyed his Hardball appearances so much. This guy is the shit, he's so damn respectable, and he's seriously pissed about the Patriot Act.
posted by sophie at 9:00 PM on December 12, 2004

The same PATRIOT Act that he voted for? frankenklein listed three serious economists and the prophet of American Conservatism. Robert Byrd is not the Democratic Party's answer to Hayek and Burke.
posted by Kwantsar at 9:13 PM on December 12, 2004

The Worldy Philosophers is a good, classic introduction to the major figures and schools in economic thought. It is very readable and, although written by a very liberal economist, remarkably unbiased.
posted by armchairsocialist at 10:21 PM on December 12, 2004

I've not read it yet, but I have heard good things about Varieties Of Conservatism In America by Peter Berkowitz.

Also: why you should not waste your time with What's The Matter With Kansas?
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 10:23 PM on December 12, 2004

You may want to look into Leo Strauss' Natural Right and History to get an idea of some of the philosophical basis for neo-conservativism. There is a book entitled Leo Strauss and the American Right, but it's really a rather polemical and facile description of Strauss' philosophy, so I wouldn't recommend it.
posted by Frankieist at 10:24 PM on December 12, 2004

I thought The Affluent Society was pretty awesome when I was studying econ as an undergrad (as I recall, it has a very good, Chomsky-like discussion of the PR/Advertising industry and the manufacturing of demand for crap people don't need) and Keynes is definitely THE starting place for politically "liberal" economics. But for more politics and less economics, I also would be interested to see what AskMe's lefties consider the modern cannon.

Ooh, and for bonus lefty sociology points: C. Wright Mills
posted by leecifer at 12:20 AM on December 13, 2004

Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France is and remains the best argument for humanistic conservatism around. Not the mean-spirited pseudo-Darwinian "conservatism" of today, but an expression of great love for all that is good in civilization, and a keen awareness for how easily a society can revert to savagery in a fit of ideological rage.
posted by mono blanco at 12:32 AM on December 13, 2004 [1 favorite]

You really can't go wrong with Rawls. He wasn't really an economist (more of a political philosopher)and I don't know that he inspires much policy but he certainly ought to.
posted by Octaviuz at 12:32 AM on December 13, 2004 [1 favorite]

I used Glen Tinder's Political Thinking for a Poli-Sci survey course I took years ago. It ties political practice to perennial philosophical questions. It's short, concise and a good read. It sprang to mind immediately after reading ROU_Xenophobe's comment about the disconnect between principle and practice.
posted by klarck at 4:41 AM on December 13, 2004

These may be a little off-topic, as they are about social and political philosophies more than current political positions.

A People's History of the United States (link to excerpt covering 1945-1960) will certainly have an impact on your view of labor unions, socialism and American political history. Most hard-core liberals I know love the book.

Sadly, the political message of Leo Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God in Within You (link to Project Gutenberg version) is widely disregarded by the Christian politicians it is directly aimed at. But it is a great thought-provoking book.

Finally, the Civil Rights movement owes much to the theories expressed in Gandhi: An Autobiography. Talk about a compassionate conservative.

The bonus of all these books are they make great reading.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 7:11 AM on December 13, 2004

I would urge you to get beyond the tired liberal/conservative dichotomy and investigate alternatives, including anarchism. I highly recommend Colin Ward's Anarchy in Action; even if you decide you don't agree, it will give you a useful perspective on political matters. (I applaud your desire to rethink your political ideas; I went through the same process, tried out various positions, and decided anarchism was closest to how I saw the world, even if it was impossible to put into practice in the foreseeable future. It's actually very useful to have such a position; it enables you to evaluate the world and other people's politics less excitably.)
posted by languagehat at 7:53 AM on December 13, 2004

My recommendations were intended in the same vein as langaugehat's advice to look beyond the liberal/conservative dichotomy that uniquely dominates American politics. Towards that end, I'd also highly recommend Peter McWilliam's Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do, which explores the "liberal Libertarianism" that many liberal and apolitical people believe in today.

I think this review sums up the book nicely:
Here is a controversial book that contains so much logical thought, it is destined to be roundly ignored by policy makers. —Gannett News Service
posted by McGuillicuddy at 10:24 AM on December 13, 2004

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