This is a deeply pessimistic book. Charles Murray warns, Cassandra-like, of the ill effects that are resulting and will result from the economic and cultural divergence between the upper and lower classes. Even so, he tries to be optimistic, and he succeeds in being optimistic himself, but he doesn’t succeed in convincing the reader to be optimistic.
I am a criminal. More precisely, I am the kind of criminal that Charles Murray likes. Now, as is well-known, everyone is a criminal nowadays, because of the enormous expansion of deliberately vague and open-ended criminal laws. The average American commits multiple federal felonies every day. But Charles Murray specifically wants every American to commit a precise type of relatively limited crime, and I realize with joy that I have been happy to oblige his request for several years.
“The White Man’s Burden,” despite its inflammatory title, is a measured analysis of the ability of the West to help alleviate poverty in the rest of the world. The title is actually ironic, for the book concludes, in essence, that most of the burden the West has taken on has led to no improvement and much waste. This book is a companion, in many ways, to Easterly’s later book “The Tyranny of Experts.” It also has much in common with other books focusing on both the Great Divergence and the lifting of the poor out of poverty, in particular Angus Deaton’s recent book, “The Great Escape,” and James C. Scott’s seminal “Seeing Like A State.”
In the United States, most of us glimpse Venezuela in flashes. We know that Hugo Chavez is dead, and we know that his socialism has run Venezuela into the ground. As of this writing, in August 2015, it is a crime-ridden hellhole that has reached the stage of military confiscation of foodstuffs from farmers for redistribution, and is declining fast to Zimbabwe levels. But most of us don’t know more. That’s where this relatively short book provides real value.
“Empire Of Cotton” is really two books. First, it’s an exhaustive exposition of the history of cotton as a textile raw material. That’s about 80% of the book, and by exhaustive I mean very, very exhaustive. Second, and unfortunately dominating, it’s a puerile, scattered, self-contradictory and confused attack on the Great Boogeyman “Capitalism,” along with sustained criticism of anything originating in or related to European culture. This book is a sort of “Occupy For Eggheads.” But not for very clear-thinking eggheads.
Unfortunately, this book is nearly unreadable. Oh, I’m sure it’s readable if you’re a professional or academic economist. But for the casual reader, even one with a pretty good background knowledge of economics, it’s mostly an endless series of highly technical, loosely related charts, graphs and conclusions. All this to agree with the writer of Ecclesiastes, 2500 years ago, that “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”
William Easterly is a leading critic of traditional approaches to development—that is, of traditional approaches to bridging the Great Divergence. He, and everyone else studying development, want to know why and how the West and a few Western-influenced countries have become wealthy, and everyone else in the world has stayed poor, despite trillions of dollars spent fruitlessly over seven decades by the West to bring the poor out of poverty.
Conservative Insurgency is that rare animal: an optimistic look at the future of America through a conservative lens. Framed as a fictitious oral history (think Studs Terkel) from 2041, when a form of conservatism has come to dominate essentially all areas of American life, the book largely succeeds in its goal of showing how such a consummation, devoutly to be wished, might come about—through a decentralized, self-organizing strategy: an insurgency (hence the title).
Whether this book is good or bad depends largely on what you expect it to be. If you expect it to be a cautious attempt to open up to discussion the subject of the existence of distinct races and genetic racial differences, and how those might affect social structures and institutions, you will think it is good. If you expect it to be a definitive proof of one interpretation or another of those same matters, you will think it is bad, for it is nothing of the sort. And, of course, if you are stuck in the old politically dictated paradigm that all differences among humans are purely random or cultural, and that “race is a social construct,” you will think it is mad, bad and dangerous to know.
I was hoping to find real insight in this book. I didn’t. Not because the authors are not well-informed—they are very well informed about their topic. Nor because the authors are not well-intentioned—they are very well-intentioned. Nor do they appear to be wrong about most or all of their facts. But despite all their effort, coupled with constant and justified moral indignation and calls for global justice, they fail to confront the real reasons and solutions for the problem they outline.