Saturday, 8 November 2014

Book reviews

As Christmas is not so very far off, here are some books I have read recently which I warmly recommend as presents... 

Paul Chase - Culture Wars and Moral Panics: The story of alcohol and society

Paul Chase, who blogs at CPL Training, is a proud defender of drinking and the pub trade. His new book is a comprehensive history of the temperance lobby from its religious inception to its makeover as a 'public health' movement ('from clerics to medics' as he puts it). Although the story is told chronologically, Culture Wars and Moral Panic is much more than a historical account. Chase looks at the issue from various different academic perspectives and his analysis of, for example, the disease theory of alcoholism and minimum pricing, is incisive. I'm familiar with much of the territory covered in this book, but I still learned a lot. For my money, it's the best book on the topic that has yet been published.

Jamie Bartlett - The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underground

In which Jamie Bartlett delves into the seedier side of the internet so you don't have to. Trolls, porn, online drug-dealing, fascists, suicide pacts, that sort of thing. Having read it, it's impossible not to conclude that there are a lot of weirdos out there. Bartlett's bizarre and sometimes grim examples are almost randomly selected and therefore only represent the tip of the iceberg. Which is worrying. NSFW, as they say.

Nick Cater - The Lucky Country and the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class

This is specifically about Australia, but it is relevant to all Anglo-Saxon countries and many more besides. Cater's thesis is that a self-satisfied cosmopolitan elite has taken control of politics, education and the media in Australia; an elite that holds ordinary, working people in undisguised contempt. Cater's dismay is heightened by the fact that he is a British-born immigrant who fell in love with the country's classless society when he arrived several decades ago. Very well written and full of fascinating detail, The Lucky Culture is a brilliant, passionate and often amusing polemic.

Dominic Frisby - Life After the State

Speaking of passionate polemics, this compelling and thought-provoking attack on big government is well worth reading. I'm not entirely convinced by some of Frisby's arguments about inflation or his affection for the gold standard, but there are many good ideas in this book and Frisby has the evidence to back them up. He rightly objects to the way that proponents of big government—usually, but not always leftists—use the plight of the poorest five per cent of society as a justification for running government monopolies. The result is that everybody pays far too much for sub-standard services and the poorest five per cent remain in the same pitiful condition. The lesson is, as Ringo Starr once said, "everything government touches turns to crap".

Virginia Berridge - Demons: Our changing attitudes to alcohol, tobacco and drugs

Virginia Berridge is easily Britain's best historian of public health, but she is rarely read by the general public because her books tend to be sold at university library prices. Demons should change that. She has taken the best of her previous work on alcohol, tobacco and drugs and brought them together in a single volume. Her central thesis is that different substances tend to be viewed more or less kindly at different stages in history. This is not a revolutionary thought, but her reputation doesn't hinge on radical interpretations. It rests on incredibly thorough research and there is plenty of it on display in this book. The other thing that sets her apart is her unwavering commitment to not taking sides. It is impossible to guess what her views are on tobacco control, temperance and drugs. Perhaps she has none. As a reader, there are times when you wish she would drop the pokerface and get off the fence, but we should be thankful that there is such an able historian coolly documenting stories that are so often distorted by those who play a role in them.

James Allan - Democracy in Decline: Steps in the wrong direction

Another polemic in the best sense of the word. Allan has a simple argument which he kicks from every angle before declaring it to be robust. His argument is that democracy—counting the votes and letting the majority prevail—is being undermined by a bunch of ex-lawyers (ie. judges) interpreting laws, bills of rights and constitutions in a way that was clearly never intended by those who wrote them. The examples he gives are frequently absurd and always unsettling. A lucid and persuasive book about a serious subject.

Michael McFadden - Tobacconacht: the anti-smoking endgame

In which Michael McFadden ups the ante after his previous (excellent) book Dissecting Anti-Smokers' Brains with a Godwin's Law title that he knows will get up the noses of his opponents. Tobacconacht is a real labour of love. 517 pages about all things connected to the tobacco control movement. It starts with the eponymous, satirical short story before launching into the cesspool of junk science that underpins so many 'public health' claims. There are plenty of letters to editors and short articles to read along the way. McFadden is an engaging and affable narrator who always manages to see the funny side. It's impossible not to like him, unless, of course, you happen to be an anti-smoking fanatic.

Bryan Caplan - The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why democracies choose bad policies

Probably the best book by an economist I've ever read. It was published a few years ago now (2007), but I only got round to it last year. The central thesis is that voters have biases that guarantee bad government. Caplan argues that the median voter is not just ill-informed but systematically misinformed. His discussion of the most common examples of voter ignorance broaden the book out from being about political economy to being about economics more generally. There is an article-length version of this book available on the internet. If you like that, read the whole thing.

Jean-Francoise Revel - Last Exit to Utopia: The survival of socialism in a post-Soviet era

Also a few years old, Last Exit to Utopia is a masterpiece of bile, wit and sarcasm. Revel was an ex-Marxist philosopher who spent the last thirty years of his life denouncing unreformed Marxists, of whom there are many in his home land of France. He gave them it with both barrels in this, his final book.

Plus, here are some freebies that you might enjoy...

Petr Skrabanek - The Death of Humane Medicine and the Rise of Coercive Healthism

I have mentioned the late, great Dr Skrabanek a few times on this blog. He had a column in The Lancet in the days before scepticism was banished from that journal. The Death of Humane Medicine is his last and finest book; a lament for the death of liberalism in the world of public health which was ahead of its time.     

Simon Clark - Diary of a Political Campaign

The splendid Simon Clark, director of FOREST, has put together a compilation of blog posts covering the long and ongoing attempts by ASH et al. to bring about the ludicrous plain packaging policy. Simon would be the first to admit that this a niche subject, but it is still quite shocking to see several years of desperate 'public health' campaigning condensed in 200 pages. By the end of it, you are left wondering why so many people were prepared to waste so much money and time in the pursuit of such a trivial political objective. One also wonders how many more similar campaigns it will take before the public becomes weary of grandiose promises and trumped up evidence.

Ralph Harris and Arthur Seldon - Advertising in a Free Society

I must declare in an interest here in that I wrote about a third of this book and I edited the other two-thirds, but I did so because I was so impressed with the 1959 original. Harris and Seldon really get to grips with the economic and moral objections to advertising in this book.

You should also read Jamie Whyte's brilliant Quack Policy, also an IEA publication.


Christopher Snowdon said...

I went to the link for the Petr Skrabanek download, and got this:

Unauthorized access to downloads!

You tried to start a download from a not authorised resource or your browser do not send a referrer!
If you deactivate the referrer in your browser please activate it in your browser configuration to download the file!

How does one become an 'authorised resource'?

Christopher Snowdon said...

My bad. There's a working link there now.

Christopher Snowdon said...

Thanks. From a quick skim, it promises to be a good read.