Cooperation and Coercion: How Busybodies Became Busybullies and What that Means for Economics and Politics
(Note: this is a weird one. This is both a review of this book, and experiment in reading style and strategy.)
I decided to try something new with this book: I decided to give it one hour of my time, and see how much I could get out of it.
If you search for “how to read like a graduate student,” you’ll learn an important point: grad students don’t read every word of all the books they’re assigned. They just can’t. There’s too much reading.
I remember an article I read once about “breaking a book,” which is a method for breaking down a book and getting the point of it without reading every word. I can’t find this article again, and I’m not sure if that phrase is actually in common use, but it stuck with me. I set out to “break this book.”
It was an ideal book for this:
- It’s relatively short; less than 200 pages
- It’s pushing a specific point-of-view
So, here’s what I did:
I read all of the extra material – the back cover, the author bios, etc.
I read the table of contents carefully, and figured out that the book was divided into two parts; the first part looked like theory, and the second part was specific evidence for that theory
I read the introduction
I skipped forward and read the conclusion
I read the first section of every chapter; thankfully, the chapters had clearly-delineated sections that served as introductions to that chapter
I looked through every entry in the index and looked up some that interested me; I specifically took note of entries that had a lot of page references
Finally, having gotten the basic gist and having 20 minutes left, I went back and read a couple chapters that looked interesting
And that was my hour.
I think it worked well. I believe I a decent of the contents and point of this book.
Here it is (note that this is an objective representation of the content and POV of this book; these are not necessarily my personal feelings or beliefs) –
The book is written from a politically conservative point-of-view. In fact, one of the authors works at the Milton Friedman Institute. I gather that they’re both Libertarians.
The core point is that we need less government. Society works better with fewer rules.
“The Knowledge Problem” says that no one has all the necessary knowledge to do anything. The authors used I, Pencil as an example, as well as the guy who tried to build a toaster from scratch
To solve The Knowledge Problem, humans have to work together.
Humans can work together in two modes: cooperation, when we choose to work together, and coercion, when we’re forced to work together
In America, we are trending toward coercion over cooperation. Instead of choosing to work together, we’re expecting the government to force us to work together.
We are moving from “negative rights” to “positive rights.” A negative right is a “freedom from” right – it protects us from something. A “positive right” is a “freedom to” right – it entitles us to something. Americans increasingly want positive rights from government.
The voting system is flawed and easily manipulated. There is a “cost” to voting in terms of attention and time, and so lots of people don’t vote because the cost to vote is more than their small share of what’s at risk. The people who reliably vote for something are people who have something at stake, or are manipulated by advertising and promotion.
People don’t think about unintended consequences. Government implements rules without thinking about the accidental things it will bring about. For example, a law in Mexico designed to reduce pollution stated that people couldn’t drive their cars one day a week, determined by the last digit of their license plate. So people who could afford it just bought a second car (with a different license plate). And the second car was invariably a worse car, environmentally. The law did nothing to reduce pollution.
People respond to anecdotes not data. We hear about mass shootings in the media and overstate their significance. From a data standpoint, deaths from mass shootings are minuscule.
People respond with emotion, without understand the true impact of what they want. When it comes to gun control, we say that it’s worth it “even if it saves just one life.” But if we really believed that, we would reduce the speed limit to 5 m.p.h. because that would save hundreds of thousands of lives. But we would never do actually that.
There were several chapters in the second section about specific areas where government is trying coerce people toward better outcomes: the wars on drugs, poverty, and terror (the “nouns”); gun control; taxes; etc. Each chapter had lots of data claiming to prove that coercive efforts don’t work.
The conclusion also had data to show that cooperative countries – those with less government coercion – were more objectively successful than countries with more rules.
And that was the book.
Do I agree with the point of the book? I don’t know.
Books written by smart, passionate people can always be pervasive to some extent, and this is certainly the case here. The information is well-written and well-presented, but I’m sure there’s just as much persuasive information arguing in the opposite direction, I just didn’t read that today.
What makes me a little nervous is that someone might just read this one book about the subject, and come away believing they totally understand it. Confirmation and sample bias would cause some people to simply read books that they think they would agree with, and if they already believed the points in the book, they might come away from this one thinking, “Well, that’s all solved and settled and there is no other side to that story.”
The other thing I worry about here is that Libertarians like the two authors don’t seem to have much to offer in terms of solutions, other than “just leave everyone alone and it will all work out.”
…is that true, though? I think there are lots of countries dominated by crappy people, institutions, and social phenomenon that needed strong, positive, collaborative – and yes, even coercive – action to prevent it.
So, the information was good, the book was well-written, and authors did a credible job for their point. I’m just not totally sold on it.
But I am sold on my reading experiment. For a specific type of book, this is a good method. Another test will be when I try it for a history book. I might not work as well there, but we’ll find out.
- I have read this book. According to my records, I completed it on November 27, 2022.
- A softcover copy of this book is currently in my home library.