Ten books for the budding politician

They say it’s better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness. It’s not as much fun. Still, let me seek to dispel a bit of murk today with a list of 10 books on government that aspiring Canadian politicians should read.

Sixty years ago Joseph Schumpeter called it a “well-known argument” that “the democratic method creates professional politicians whom it then turns into amateur administrators and ‘statesmen.’” I fear that we have since forgotten the argument despite living daily with the result. But to avoid an ill-tempered digression, let me simply note that the vast majority of people who run for office genuinely intend to put public interest ahead of partisanship, raise the tone of debate and make their country a better place. Given the generally pitiful results, it is fair to conclude that there are important things about government most of them don’t even realize they don’t know.

Last Friday, CFRA radio host Stephanie Egan challenged me to offer help on this point. Okay. I can’t make people read and understand this stuff before they go into politics, let alone take time out of their hectic schedules for some reflective reading once elected. On the other hand, with three weeks of summer left, what better use to make of the comparative calm?

To avoid the proverbial drink from a fire hydrant, I determined to list books not on specific issues but on how public affairs work generally, and only ones any person of good will and sound mind could get through quickly, profitably and pleasurably.

1. Henry Hazlitt, Economics In One Lesson. Sixty years ago, Hazlitt himself complained that “a mere recital of the economic policies of governments all over the world is calculated to cause any serious student of economics to throw up his hands in despair.” It still is, because people who seek office still haven’t read this wonderfully clear little volume.

2. Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World From The Twenties to the Nineties. Theory, my father used to say, is just practice with the hard bits left out. It would be comforting to know that those who aspire to influence the course of events had some knowledge of actual events.

3. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty. The classic, and still unsurpassed, defence of free political institutions.

4. Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay, eds, The Complete Yes Minister. Government has its own particular rules, rhythms and reasons. While economists drone on about “public choice theory,” this hilarious British satire still explains it better, faster and far more enjoyably.

5. Jack Granatstein, Who Killed the Canadian Military? Defence of the nation is the first duty of any government. Yet in Canada it has been tragically neglected by every government ... and we citizens elected them all.

6. George Orwell, 1984. Government is not a toy. People who dabble in politics need to understand just how badly public affairs can go wrong, and be instinctively averse to the sort of language and thought that take us in that direction.

7. Darrell Huff, How to Lie with Statistics. I want everyone in public life to read a book on science as an adult, if only to prove that they can. But this classic is still the best inoculation against error and flummery with numbers.

8. A.V. Dicey, Introduction to the Study of The Law of the Constitution. Unless you know how parliamentary self-government is meant to work, and why, you’re liable to reduce it to the mess we see today. Read Dicey on Westminster in its heyday and you’ll never look at a parliamentary committee the same way again.

9. Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom. The Teutonic prose style makes it the most difficult read on the list. But it explains why comprehensive economic planning is not just undesirable but impossible. Do not approach Canadian health care without it.

10. Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. Nothing turns public debate into ill-tempered bickering faster than mistaking a philosophical difference about how the world works for a specific policy disagreement. Sowell’s book can’t make the arguing stop but it can improve its intellectual and rhetorical tone.

It’s best to read the books on this list before entering politics because, as Henry Kissinger once observed, people do not generally “grow in office” (unless by that you mean “become more left wing” or refer to the probable consequences of too little exercise and too much fast food). Lurching from crisis to crisis more often exhausts whatever intellectual capital politicians dragged in with them. But, hey, better late than never.

If these 10 books give off even a faint glow it will, I trust, be worth the candle.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

Columns, PoliticsJohn Robson