Best books of the Year 2020

This year, I took advantage of the lockdown and some time off work to read. Easily the year I’ve read the most – about 50 books so far – I read about four non-fiction books for every work of fiction.

A couple of months ago, after having read almost entirely non-fiction in the year to that date, I decided I’d had enough of the real world and turned to the world of fiction. I haven’t read much fiction as an adult – usually just a couple of books a year – but after reading ten (or so) fiction books recently, I noticed a few things.

Firstly, fiction books usually start well. What they struggle to do is sustain momentum. Just about every book hooked me in and then didn’t know what to do and where to go, or how to make that journey consistently interesting.

Secondly, they’re typically far too long. Like movies, which seem to have gotten longer in the last couple of decades and often overstay their welcome, authors seem to commit this crime proudly.

These points probably speak more to my taste than an objective fact, but these were my common reading frustrations.

Thirdly, the adult book world is roughly split into genre books and literary books. Genre books are plot-focused and fast, with simpler, more archetypal characters as means of exploring the plot. Literary books focus on character and ideas, have denser, more sophisticated prose and require more attention. So far, the literary books have been light on profundity and heavy on verbosity. (Again, perhaps just my taste.)

Fourthly, the fiction market is driven by women. I decided to have a go at a few popular female-orientated books to see what everyone was reading and raving about. Needless to say, you should just choose what you’re likely to enjoy and learn from.

After this foray into fiction, I’ll probably revert to the unread novels of my favourite authors – Frederick Forsyth, Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe – and look for the rare non-fiction story that reads like a novel, in addition to the many unread non-fiction books on my list. But this year reminded me of how much I enjoy non-fiction stories. One of my favourite books – A Civil Action – is a great example of the genre, and there are a few in the list below.

To be on the favourites list, a book had to have an impact on me by adding to my understanding of the world in a substantial way, and simply be enjoyable to read. A book could sneak onto the list by doing either at a high level. Honourable mentions either informed or entertained, or both to lesser degrees.

My favourite books of 2020

Scattered Minds by Gabor Mate

My first read of the year and on the back of reading Mate’s brilliant Hold onto Your Kids at the end of last year. Mate is a brilliant mind and great writer. I devoured this book. I was surprised by the many aspects of ADHD – not previously realising how serious it could be – but also a little skeptical of Mate’s perspective. His contention that ADHD is caused by poor attachment is a single explanation for a complex mental illness, and reflects his own experience. It’s hard to evaluate this perspective, but he’s very convincing throughout the book. So, while I didn’t come away convinced, it was no doubt a brilliant book from a brilliant mind.

Nature Cures by James C. Whorton

This was the book I’d been looking for. Having been treated for an ongoing illness with alternative approaches for several years, I was keen to read a history of their development. One of the questions in my mind was: is mainstream medicine dominant because it is more useful and scientific, or did it out-muscle its competition? There were elements of both in this history, but it seems like the former is more correct. The history of each major type of alternative medicine was fascinating, with the discovery and development of each approach containing very similar features and trajectories. Some of the founders and approaches were quite bizarre, but despite questionable beginnings, some remain commonly used today, although most of these have gained a semblance of respect by adopting science.

Blueprint by Robert Plomin

Probably the book I’ve talked about the most this year, it provides a clear, digestible, and challenging perspective on the nature-nurture debate. There are no doubt things to challenge about this book, and twin studies need to be interpreted carefully, but nonetheless the book contains some powerful conclusions: that most psychological traits are substantially heritable; that each trait is influenced by many different genes, each with tiny effects; that psychological disorders are extremes on a spectrum, caused by the presence of more genes associated with that condition than is present in others; genes are generalists, meaning they can contribute to several different conditions, dependent on the interaction with the environment; the shared environment has little effect, while the non-shared environment matters, and is both random and inconsistent across time; and heritability of school achievement is high where systemic biases are small. Plomin’s explanation of the methods used in making these conclusions was useful, and expertly explained.

I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

My second Wolfe novel following Bonfire of the Vanities, this was brilliant from start to finish. Unloved by critics, it clicked with me from the first page, with many astute observations and funny moments. It is a well-structured and -executed cautionary tale. If you’re not into his style, Charlotte Simmons would be an absolute slog, but I inhaled this book. Funny, accurate, enjoyable, I’d be handing this to thoughtful young adults as they head off to university.

Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

A fascinating read about a family with the worst luck in the world – six of their 12 children developed schizophrenia, with pretty serious consequences.

Fully Grown by Dietrich Vollrath

A clear and concise analysis of US economic growth. This is a model for how to do this sort of non-fiction writing – clear, concise, purposeful, disciplined.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

An incredible read, beautifully written. Some unique characters and shocking moments. A few critics have criticised it for its political stances, but Vance doesn’t use this book as a political manifesto. He simply makes observations and draws conclusions about the causes of and solutions for the type of culture he grew up in.

Theory and History by Ludwig von Mises

I think by the time I’d finished with this book this year I’d read parts of it three or four times, and completely through twice. Dogged, erudite, brilliant at times, it’s a unique book from a brilliant mind.

Honourable mentions:

The Making of Australia by David Hill

Wooden on Leadership by John Wooden and Steve Jamison

Silent Invasion by Clive Hamilton

How to Win in a Winner-Take-All World by Neil Irwin

Alienated America by Timothy P. Carney

Click HERE for a complete list of books read this year.

Recent reading Nov 2020

The upcoming Netflix release of Hillbilly Elegy prompted me to finally read the book. I first attempted it a year ago but put it down. This time I struggled to put it down. It’s a remarkable story. It illustrated a few things to me that I’d previously thought about.

Firstly, people are complex – neither black nor white, but grey, sitting on a spectrum, trying and sometimes failing, some more than others. The characters in the book, whether it be J.D.’s mum or his grandparents, had both great and terrible traits. While the mother was more the villain and the grandma the hero, both were flawed, imperfect people. J.D.’s mum made terrible choices with drugs and her love life, but also deeply valued education, and was a good student. She loved her son but also struggle to be a solid, functional person in his life. Similarly, Mamaw, J.D.’s grandma, was the rock in his life, a tough, inspirational and caring woman who nonetheless lived a volatile life. These characters were real people, far more interesting than those in most fictions books.

Secondly, the value of self-esteem shone through brightly. Self-esteem – that you have the ability to do something and that you deserve the fruits of that something – is critical in rising from your situation and achieving success. Combined with hard work and good guidance, a person can defy the statistics and expectations.

Third, culture matters. Culture transmits from one generation to the next – albeit to varying degrees, as J.D. himself shows – shaping the character you become. Culture is difficult to address with policy, and while a lack of economic opportunity doesn’t help, a poor culture sees people turn down legitimate economic opportunities. It was also interesting to note the rising expectations of the newer generations, which influenced the type of work they would be willing to accept as respectable.

Overall, the book was highly readable, shocking, funny, sad, and illuminating. Fingers crossed for the film adaptation, especially Glenn Close as Mamaw.


The Devil in the White City is a 2003 non-fiction book about the 1893 World’s Fair held in Chicago. It focuses on the frantic preparations to stage a world-beating fair in a very short period of time. Amid the preparations, a serial killer worked his evil ways nearby, taking advantage of the flock of single women that came to the city in search of opportunity and excitement, and who quickly disappeared.

Many things jumped out at me from this book. The menace of acute illness and the lack of sophistication in medicine, which aligns with what I understand about the state of medicine at this point in history. The fear of building fires. Pollution. The crime, the murders, the accidents, the risk of going to work, and the vice. The industrial city was a relatively new thing, norms and behaviours were still adjusting to a big, anonymous city where individualism could go relatively unchecked. The police were relatively unsophisticated and poorly funded. People could simply disappear. What a different time. Things were still very much a work in progress. History had not ended, it was still being made. Medicine was still developing, as was architecture, policing, and learning how to live on top of each other in a city. It was a time of massive change. A time that desperately needed competent people to build and invent things, but it was also a time of charlatans, crooks and opportunists.

The serial killer of the story could pass as a normal person, indeed, a normal person with extraordinary charm and powers of persuasion. Serial killers come in all shapes and colours. But he had a compulsion to kill that he could not fight.

The lobbying for, and the design and building of, the fair required persuasion, collaboration, determination, long hours, many hands, and big sacrifices. It’s as if the country and its leaders had something to prove – they had pride, confidence, optimism, skill, and because of these attributes, were able to stage something on a grand scale. It begs the question whether, in modern times, we in the West could pull off such a feat.

Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy is a Sign of Success by Dietrich Vollrath (2020)

Short summary

The decline in growth in per capita real GDP since the turn of the century is mainly attributable to demographic change, as baby boomers retire. A fall in the growth residual is the remaining significant contributor, which is mainly caused by a shift to consumption of services, which experience lower productivity growth. Demographic change and a shift to services are features of high living standards, which suggests that the growth slowdown is a sign of success. Other factors played a very small or no role in the slowdown. A decline in the reallocation of firms and workers and a decline in geographic mobility played a minor roles in the slowdown, and these contributors are not really signs of success. Other explanations such as inequality, the rise of China and taxation and regulation had no apparent role, or an ambiguous role in the case of market power, in the slowdown, but may have had distributional consequences. Immigration is a means of slowing the slowdown, while other policies may pertain more to distribution than growth.

Longer summary

Fully Grown is a fantastic introduction to and explanation of the two-decade period of slow growth in the US economy.

Fully Grown starts with the recognition of a slowdown in per capita real GDP, which is a concern because it suggests living standards are growing less quickly than if growth had remained on its 1950-2000 path of 2.25% per person. Instead, real GDP per capita has grown at about 1% per year over the last two decades, a substantial slowdown, resulting in living standards being lower by 25% compared to the 1950-2000 path. The issue isn’t a fall in living standards, or falling behind other countries, but a lost opportunity. The book clinically examines the reasons for this slowdown.

Importantly, the author, Dietrich Vollrath, chooses to define the slowdown in terms of growth in living standards (real GDP per capita), instead of productivity per worker. He does this because ultimately we care more about the former than the latter. This choice is critical because it leads to different explanations of the slowdown.

In defining the slowdown as the reduction in real GDP per capita, or living standards, Vollrath is considering how production is spread across the population, not across workers. This allows demographics to play a major role in the explanation of the slowdown. By having slower growth in, or even less, human capital (less work hours and/or less skill) employed relative to the population, per capita production may grow more slowly or fall. Vollrath finds that a reduction in human capital contributes 1.11 percentage points (pp) of the 1.25 pp fall in growth in real GDP per capita in the period 2000-2016 – it explains almost all of the slowdown. The residual explains 0.25 pp, while physical capital actually contributes 0.1pp per year to growth.

The major driver of the reduction in human capital is the demographic change from changes in family size, which are the result of increased living standards and reproductive control – signs of success. Of the 1.11 pp that human capital contributed to the 1.25 pp fall in real GDP per capita growth, 0.4pp was from a fall in the growth rate of the educational level of the average worker, and 0.8pp from a reduction in the growth rate of workers per capita, as the baby boomers retired. The growth rate of the average experience level and number of hours worked per person actually rose slightly in the period 2000-2016 and therefore contributed positively to growth in real GDP per capita.

With human capital contributing much of the slowdown in economic growth per capita, it was a fall in fertility rates and therefore family size that explains this fall. The decline in fertility and family size is seen across all populations as living standards rise and is therefore a symptom of success. It has an economic rationale. Vollrath invokes Gary Becker’s work on the economics of the family. As family income rises, the opportunity cost of having kids rises. Families choose family size in a way that equates the marginal utility of a child with the marginal utility of income. The optimal family size is found where the marginal utilities are equal. As income increases, families have fewer children. Therefore, the decline in fertility is a function of economic growth and therefore a symptom of success.

Similarly, labour-saving devices raised the cost of having children because it facilitated the movement of women into the workforce. This also made it easier to remain single (as women become more financially independent), which reduces fertility. Women also gained greater control over their fertility through better contraception, which is associated with growth in human capital in women.

These changes and decisions change the demographics of the future. Human capital lead to a 1.11 pp reduction in economic growth, and Vollrath is willing to attribute, at minimum, 0.8 pp directly to population ageing and smaller families (he subtracts 0.31 pp because the changes in education and hours worked per person may not relate strictly to population ageing). Therefore, population ageing accounts for 0.8 pp of the 1.25 pp fall in growth in real GDP per capita, or about two-thirds.

Of the remainder of the fall in growth in real GDP per capita, the residual, or productivity, accounts for 0.25 pp, or about one-fifth. This is the bucket in which anything not related to human capital or physical capital accumulation, sits. Vollrath considers whether slower growth in the residual could be due to mismeasuring GDP, but he seems to lean against that argument. He considers whether innovation – a major cause of productivity growth – is getting harder, and while showing that it is, this doesn’t mean that less innovation is occurring, and indeed, there is evidence that innovation continues apace. He instead finds some contribution to the slowdown from the shift from consuming goods to consuming services, a sign of an advanced economy and therefore a sign of success. He finds some contribution from reallocating resources between uses, such as workers switching jobs, and capital being redeployed in new business ventures and old business ventures exiting the market. Geographic mobility is also a small factor. What does not contribute to the slowdown is inequality, competition from China, or increased taxation or regulation. Market power’s role is ambiguous. Market power has increased since the 1980s, and while it can lead to inefficiency, it can also see production shift to more efficient firms. And indeed, market power is required for innovation to occur. Housing restrictions can have an impact and slow the reallocation of resources to more productive cities. Vollrath labels the lack of mobility of resources as ‘failures’, while the shift to services is a success. The shift to services is also the largest contributor to the fall in residual growth, which adds to his thesis that most of the slowdown is a symptom of success.

Vollrath provides final numbers for the contributors to the slowdown:


-0.8pp — Effects of ageing and smaller family sizes

-0.2pp — The shift from goods to services


-0.15pp — The decline in reallocation of workers and firms

-0.1pp — The decline in geographic mobility

0 — Taxation and regulation, increased inequality, trade with China

When subtracted from the longer-run growth rate of 2.25% for real GDP per capita, the above numbers show a 1% growth rate for the period 2000-2016.

There were many interesting and useful technical and empirical points made about the components making up the residual. I’ve only mentioned their role briefly because they play such a small role in the overall explanation for the slowdown. However, these make up a substantial part of the book, and I may write about these at a later date.

Nature Cures: The History of Alternative Medicine in America by James C. Whorton (2002)

Nature Cures is an incredible exploration of the history of alternative medicine in the US, exploring each major alternative’s approach, philosophy and historical development. While I won’t examine each approach, below I summarise some of the major takeaways from reading the book.

Fundamental differences between alternative medicine and allopathic (mainstream) medicine

Holistic vs specialisation

Alternative medicine generally claims to treat the whole body, whereas allopathic doctors specialise and treat a part of the body.

Nature as therapy vs heroic therapy (interventionist)

Alternative medicine attempts to use nature or natural remedies to treat patients, whereas mainstream medicine uses pharmaceutical interventions.

Empiricism vs theory

Alternative medicine takes an experimental, trial and error approach (although is often underpinned by a theory or philosophy), whereas mainstream medicine is theoretically-based.


Historically (mainly 19th Century in this book), both alternative and mainstream medicine involved, at times, incurring harm to patients. While mainstream medicine typically had greater claims to a scientific basis, it did use treatments and approaches that were harmful to patients, such as calomel. Alternative treatments were often not effective in the way they claimed, but often did less harm and included beneficial lifestyle changes. Often, the harm was in the form of opportunity cost – patients were having unproven treatments at the expense of receiving proper care from a qualified mainstream practitioner. (This was truer as mainstream medicine improved.)

Alternative medicine involved longer, more patient-focused consults than mainstream medicine, where a holistic approach was taken to understanding the illness.

Lifestyle factors were emphasised by alternative practitioners much more frequently than mainstream doctors.

Development and change in alternative and mainstream medicine

Alternative approaches were pioneered by a driven, obsessed, hard-working individual. The approach catches on in the public, causing an influx of new practitioners, some good, some not so. It rises and threatens the mainstream and other existing alternatives, whereupon criticism and lobbying ensue in an attempt to combat the competitor and elevate their own approach against the less reputable challenger. Alternatives claimed that mainstreamers did harm, while the latter claimed alternatives were quacks.

The founders were often tunnel-visioned visionaries, often working without science but utterly convinced of their approach. They were described as medical cultists, because they claimed to have cure-alls through their new approach, while the mainstream was the Devil, involving toxic, harmful, interventionist treatments that hurt patients. Followers could be slavish to the founders in a cult of personality. 

Regulatory battles are a key aspect of the history of the development of medicine in the US. Was regulation used as a barrier to competition, or to protect people from harm? Was licensing a threat, or was it the making of some approaches? How did regulations affect the trajectory of these alternatives? 

At times, efforts to ban or quash a new approach were overturned by courts, typically on the basis of freedom to choose or freedom to practice. Bans and regulations became more effective in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and eventually, different approaches were forced to adopt a more scientific approach to gain the approval of government through state licensing. In this way, licensing could be the making of a profession, and actually helped move each approach forward in their development. State licensing authorities were not going to give their imprimatur to a disorganised, unscientific approach, so licensing often led different approaches to enhancing their educational requirements and offerings, and formalising and homogenising their approaches. Schools for the teaching of the various approaches proliferated as popularity and recognition of the approach grew. Journals were created and professional associations were formed to organise the profession and lobby the government.

Alternative medicine was popular in the 1800s and remains popular today. During the growth phase of a particular approach, many people flocked to try it out. Approaches rose and fell, with new ones emerging as thinking and society progressed. The popularity of these approaches came from a distrust of or dissatisfaction with mainstream medicine (which faced its own scientific issues and provided a fairly narrow approach to medicine), being suckered in by charisma or marketing materials, or sympathy with the philosophy of the new approach. Medicine in the 1700s and 1800s was done substantially in the home with natural remedies, so there may have been some intuitive of these alternative approaches.

Mainstream medicine ascended in the eyes of the public and government in the late 1800s, through taking a more scientific approach and finding solutions to acute illnesses. 

Some alternative approaches rose while others fell. Osteopathy was a more successful field in the twentieth century, by increasing rigour, adopting science and organising well. Holistic, alternative medicine as a whole really started to make major gains in reputability from the 1970s, for a number of reasons:

  • The honeymoon period for mainstream medicine was over, with concerns over the overuse of drugs and their side effects.
  • The defeat of acute illness and the rise of chronic illness, which mainstream medicine struggled to address. Alternative medicine’s whole body and often environmental approach became more relevant, whereas mainstream medicine’s increasing specialisation left it struggling to address some chronic health conditions.
  • Medical holism was a repudiation of Cartesian dualism, holding that the mind and the body were connected, not separate as was so often the approach of mainstream medicine. Alternative medicine was more open to taking an approach that incorporated body, mind, spirit, and environment, integrating it with mainstream approaches as alternative medicine became more scientific. Integrative medicine has been an important force in recent years as medicine has become more individualised, holistic, and environmentally- and genetically-focused.
  • The rise of the counterculture, including natural living. A collaborative approach to medicine was becoming culturally appropriate.

The subtle shift in label to ‘Complementary Medicine’ was indicative of growing acceptance by mainstream practitioners of alternative approaches. As alternative approaches began to incorporate more science into their education, approach and body of knowledge, they were becoming more reputable and able to be embraced by more alternate and open-minded mainstream practitioners, as well as the government. However, there were many mainstream practitioners that were still very skeptical or openly hostile to alternatives. 

Resistance to alternative medicine continued for several reasons. Despite the increased use of science in alternatives, many alternative practitioners were not trained to conduct research. Many of the approaches were not amenable to being researched to the scientific standard required because they used a holistic approach including several or many different treatments, which renders it difficult to discern the effect of a single intervention. Research funding was also harder to come by for alternative medicine. Therefore, it was quite easy to claim that there was no evidence to support alternative medicine.

With the establishment of the Office of Alternative Medicine, which provides funding for research into the most promising approaches, and the establishment of the National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 1998, alternative medicine has been accepted as a legitimate field of inquiry.

Interesting tidbits

  • Naturopathy developed out of hygieotheraphy (water therapy). Hygieotheraphy morphed into an ultra-wellness movement involving whole living and lifestyle improvements in addition to water therapy. The temperance movement piggy-backed off this approach.
  • Magnetism and mesmerism involved healing energy from earth’s magnetic forces. This field morphed into hypnosis, and then into Christian Science, which held that evil and immorality caused illness and religion was the cleansing antidote.
  • Thomsonianism was an important, botanical approach in the earlier alternative medicine movement. It used vomiting or heat in a trial and error approach.
  • Thomsonianism and homeopathy were two of the biggest alternative approaches in the 1800s.


Alternative medicine still faces hurdles relating to a lack of scientific evidence to support their practices, with the Australian government removing naturopathy from eligibility for private health insurance rebates due to a claimed lack of scientific support for their practices, despite the presence of many studies finding positive naturopathic approaches. These approaches often involve holistic treatments containing several or many approaches. This scientific approach does not isolate specific effects and therefore is not reputable in the eyes of mainstream scientists. The lack of funding causing a lack of evidence causing a lack of funding is a chicken-and-egg situation and is seen in many alternatives to mainstream perspectives. Incumbents control the funding bodies and journals, and yet claim there’s a lack of evidence to support alternative ideas. The standard approach taken by incumbent interests in highlighting the lack of evidence for competitor approaches is a classic anti-competitive play.

I found it interesting that becoming established as a reputable medical approach came from being recognised by government. I was surprised by this. State governments tended to require each field to show scientific bona fides to become established as a licensed and therefore legitimate field of practice. Government also played inhibitory roles at times. Of course, this may have been because some of the approaches were not scientific and possibly dangerous, and therefore government played a protective role for consumers. Self-interested rent-seeking remains another explanation. I’ll look into this issue more in the future.

It was uncanny to read how each approach developed. They followed the same trajectory – charismatic and determined leader, enthusiasm in the public grew and practitioners entered, criticism and pressure from competitors, becoming more legitimate/organised, establishment of schools, journals etc. The death of the founder led to its demise, infighting or reconfiguration. It grew to reputability through adopting science and gaining the support of government. It certainly required fortitude and determination to build itself, withstand attack, and organise institutionally. The development of a new approach is a multi-skilled endeavour, requiring a talented and special individual. Reading this book supported my view that history is substantially affected by special individuals that others follow. Literally each of the approaches examined in this book were founded by a very unique and determined individual.

Overall, this was a well-research, clear and enjoyable book, that balanced story, science, issues, industry dynamics, the role of government, and the competition between incumbents and competitors. It provided a great summary of each approach, allowing me to understand their founding philosophies and assumptions. It gave a strong boost to my perspective on history – that individuals really matter. It reiterated to me the uniqueness of the American culture – the innovation and entrepreneurship, the experimentation, etc. And it provided incredible historical context to the medical landscape that we move in today.

Theory and History by Ludwig von Mises (1957)


One sentence summary

The fact that causality cannot be traced from the environment to human action renders many ideologies, philosophies and methodologies unsuitable for understanding human action.

One paragraph summary

The science of human action is comprised of history and praxeology. Both take ends as given and evaluate the means chosen by human actors to achieve their subjectively chosen goals. This is the appropriate method of science regarding human action because there is no established physical causality between physical phenomena and human action. There is also insufficient regularity in human action for predictive science. Only an approach that evaluates the suitability of means to achieving given ends is suitable for scientific and historical understanding. Other approaches do not respect these fundamental truths and are therefore unsuitable for understanding human action.

Detailed summary

Mises examines the fundamentals of different doctrines, ideologies and approaches to history and social science, and critiques them and compares them to his approaches to the sciences of human action: praxeology and history.

The fundamental argument of this book is that the various competing frameworks for understanding the world are ill-founded, by ignoring the fact that humans act. Human action involves consciously acting to achieve ends determined by values, which in turn are influenced by ideas, emotion and other people.The causal link between the environment, human thought and human action has not been established, while human action does not feature a sufficient degree of regularity to render it suitable to predictive methods. Due to these characteristics, human action cannot be viewed causally, but is instead teleological. Therefore, human action is fundamentally different from the subjects of the natural sciences, and must be interpreted with different epistemological and methodological approaches.

From this viewpoint, Mises criticises doctrines, ideologies and methodologies, including positivism, historicism, Marxism, determinism, behaviorism and materialism. All are found wanting compared to Mises’ proposed methods of the science of human action: praxeology and history. 

Positivism is invalid because it relies on regularity in human action that simply isn’t there. It relies on historical data and assumes they are valid inputs for prediction. Instead, Mises argues historical data is just that – historical; statistics is a representation of the history of human action at a particular time and place. 

Historicism, Mises argues, features contradictions and faulty foundations. Historicism has changed over time, but at various times has held that there is nothing generalisable from history and therefore nothing can be learned from it that is useful outside of that time. Historicism also developed theories of civilisational life cycles, a theory of regularity in social and political life. Mises, on the other hand, argues that each historical event is unique, and a universal theory of human action (praxeology) can be applied as a filter to aid in understanding historical human action.

The fundamental lack of understanding of how physical phenomena lead to changes in the mind and therefore in action forms the basis of Mises’ discussion of determinism. In discussing free-will, Mises notes the two extremes – complete free-will, or complete subjection to environmental forces – and falls somewhere in the middle in his emphasis on the role ideas play in influencing behaviour. People are influenced by ideas, which are influenced by environment and material factors. Ultimately, however, humans act, and we don’t know the causal link between the environment, thoughts and action, and so therefore have no foundational basis for determinism.

Materialism takes a substantial portion of Mises’ time, especially his dissection of Marxism. His main point with respect to materialism is his major underlying point: that we don’t yet know the mechanism between external factors and human action. We don’t know how to get from one to the other, rendering materialism invalid. Mises then spends much of the time pulling apart Marxism, which rests on the assumption that peoples’ beliefs are based on their material circumstances (their economic class). Life and society is a class struggle, with workers uniting to overthrow an exploitative capitalist system, the necessary forerunner of a socialist paradise. Mises takes this apart from many angles.

Mises’ main point – that humans engage in rational action whereas everything else doesn’t, rendering human action a distinct science – underlies his criticism of scientism, which is based on the idea of panphysicalism – the view that the method for physics is the only valid method for all branches of science (‘unified science’). Such a view leaves no room for consciousness, and leads ultimately to behaviorism, which holds that humans simply adjust to their environment. It can’t however explain why they adjust differently.

Mises argues against the idea of absolute values, which many ideologies or doctrines feature. These doctrines attempt to substitute absolute values for the subjective values of individuals. Mises views this as fundamentally wrong. It is not the role of science to discover a universal set of values, an ultimate good that we should be aiming for. All it can do is simply evaluate the means chosen to achieve individually-chosen, subjective ends, hence praxeology’s approach that treats ends as given and evaluates means chosen. Accordingly, the historian, engaging in the science of human action, should not use value judgments, but simply discover the ideas and intent of the human actors, and evaluate the means chosen to pursue their ends. Similarly, economists should not advocate for a policy, for example, even if it maximises output. He should simply state the effects on output/efficiency of a particular policy, as other considerations can be important, such as national security in the case of trade policy. The economist is not equipped to evaluate these other considerations; it is the role of the politician to make this trade-off. (This obviously applies to the Covid-19 crisis regarding the role of experts in advising government.)

Mises argues for rational utilitarianism over natural law. He argues that natural law is contested, similar to religious doctrine. Nature couldn’t be interpreted unequivocally, for nature is not clear in its ways.  Also, there is no natural tendency for these supposed natural laws to come about. Wars had to be fought and won, and bad laws had to be recognised as such, fought over and overturned. In the end, Mises argues, natural law ultimately fails because the idea of natural law simply substituted debate over interpretations of nature for debate over values. It didn’t solve the problem of disagreement or subjectivity. However, Mises noted the major accomplishment of natural law: the destruction of legal positivism – the idea that the only legitimate source of law is the government or ruler. In fact, every law could be subject to ‘critical examination by reason’. Mises concedes that there is a kernel of truth in natural law, and it aligns with Mises’ worldview. Mises argues that there is a ‘nature-given order of things…to which man must adjust his actions….’, acknowledging there is something to the idea of natural law. However, it seems that what Mises was referring to were the laws of economics (human action), and not, for example, some universal aspect of human nature beyond the idea of rational human action. From this recognition, Mises lays out his approach to assessing the world of human action: there is a ‘nature-given order of things’ (economics) that can be discovered by reason, according to their effects (utilitarianism). Natural law therefore leads to rational utilitarianism. Utilitarianism involves evaluating the means chosen, not the ends aimed at.

From this fundamental contention, Mises proposes that there are two main branches of the science of human action: praxeology and history. His method for history is explained in the following paragraph. According to Mises, praxeology is the theoretical science of human action, a deductive science based on axiomatic aspects of human life. It begins with the idea that humans act to improve their situation. Actions are based on values, which are subjective. People act by choosing means to achieve their desired ends. Thus, praxeology takes ends as given, and evaluates the means chosen. It evaluates human action with respect to chosen ends. It is non-judgmental of ends and values; it simply takes them as given. From this starting point, Mises establishes important, universal aspects of human action, such as cost and uncertainty. These then inform the doing of history. 

The second main field in the science of human action is history. Mises’ historical method involves combining knowledge from logic, mathematics, the natural sciences, the science of human action (praxeology), and thymology (psychology, or why people act the way they do) to form a specific understanding – an understanding of a specific historical event. Historical analysis uses the lens of praxeology as a filter to understanding the immutable laws of human action that apply in any historical setting, as well as the knowledge from the natural sciences, etc. and adds to that with specific, circumstantial data about the person, such as emotion, motivation, ideas, value judgments, etc. (thymology). It therefore attempts to understand the ends people were aiming at, and evaluate the means they chose to achieve them. Therefore, Mises’ history is always teleological – a history of purposeful actors, as opposed to a causal explanation of phenomena. The historian does not know the causal link between the environment and the action. However, he can evaluate the actions (means) taken by people in seeking their chosen ends.

Take-aways from the book

Given my lack of formal training in philosophy or methodology, there was a lot of low hanging fruit in reading Theory and History. Part of the value was simply from taking the time to unpack many of the ideas that underlie different perspectives that are still seen today (Theory and History was published in 1957).

With my recent attention on the limitations of science, I enjoyed Mises’ clearly correct point that humans are fundamentally different to the subjects of the natural sciences and therefore need to be examined and studied using different approaches. This is obviously contrary to the trend in economics, which is increasingly empirical, as economists seek guidance about the future from the past, and engage in forecasting. Economics uses historical data in predictive models, or finds relationships from the past and assumes they may be indicative of the world today. 

Mises doesn’t quite address an issue that arose for me, which is that while human action is not of sufficient regularity to enable accurate prediction, it has, as Mises acknowledges, a degree of regularity. Indeed, somewhere in either this book or Human Action, Mises concedes that history may have some use in speculation about the future. So, while positivism may fall south of the bar of ‘science’ in the realm of human action, of what use is it? Can Mises be correct and yet we be able to continue on with our methods, in some more modest form? If not, is Mises’ alternative up to the task? What is possible with Mises’ approach? Economists coming out of George Mason University, such as Peter Leeson and Christopher Coyne, apparently employ a Misesian approach, which is something to investigate further. Dani Rodrik’s book Economics Rules is a further text to examine this issue, as it assesses economic methodology in recent times and suggests a way forward.

If we are to persist with positivism, training in the limitations of positivism, of which Mises’ critique could form a part, would be most useful. I received no training in the limitations of economics, to the detriment of my education. Theory and History was of such value to me precisely because of the lack of awareness I had of these issues from my education. But Theory and History is by no means an introductory text. It took perhaps 5-6 years of on- and off-again thinking and reading on this topic, with more focused recent attention, to be ready to read and understand this book. It is dense, erudite, and focused – whether to its detriment or not – on a single idea: the fact that humans act and are thus different to other natural phenomena in that there is no causal relationship between external phenomena and human action. What is beyond dispute in my mind is the incredible degree of knowledge Mises brings to the topic. 

Mises’ discussion of universal values was incredibly stimulating, as I’ve considered this question in recent years. Mises’ contention that all values are subjective and that there are no universal values, goes against religion, collectivism, even Marxism. Marxists and collectivists have values they wish to force on the population – the true values that others have been blinded by ideology to see. As Mises argues, historically, those that have argued for true, higher values have not lived up to them themselves, and there has been perpetual disagreement over such values. Instead, what is needed is a society where the subjectivity and diversity of values is allowed, allowing everyone to pursue their own subjectively defined values. Social cooperation is the ultimate means for enabling that. Therefore, maintaining social cooperation is just. This aligns nicely with Hayek’s advocation of general rules for the maintenance of an extended order society. Hayek refers to these general rules as morals.

Mises’ contention that values are subjective may ultimately be true, but I wonder if it may be only partly true, and a truth that is not widely observed. While there is clear disagreement between people over values, there is a large degree of commonality across cultures and religions. So while Mises rightly argues that there is conflict over values, he seems to underappreciate the cross-cultural agreement and therefore the possibility of some shared values that may be considered ‘objectively true’. Further, as Henry Hazlitt later noted, people see value as all important; ‘it is the very standard by which we judge importance’. It is therefore a rudder and a tool for assessment, and will naturally form a major part of philosophy. Is Mises throwing the baby out with the bathwater by focusing purely on means and not on ends or values? In fairness to Mises, he saw his role as that of a scientist, evaluating means, not ends, but philosophy, as Roger Scruton argued, is a field for areas of inquiry where science cannot shed light.

Mises was utterly convinced of his worldview. He argued against the tide, unwilling to compromise in his academic work (he was willing to compromise in his political work, though that, he maintained, was appropriate, for politics is about compromise). Mises was a very concrete and opinionated thinker. There was little room for equivocation. This is what makes him so compelling, but may also be a weakness. It’s all or nothing for Mises.

There were so many interesting tidbits that I enjoyed in this book. It was interesting to note that it was the ‘antisecularists’, as Mises referred to them as, that viewed capitalism as an unjust system. It seems that that has switched around in the present, with much of the modern radical left being, seemingly, secular. (However, many have pointed out the ‘religious’ aspects of their behaviour – the outing of ‘heretics’, the quest for moral purity, etc. This seems to align with ideas put forward by, for example, Joseph Bottum in An Anxious Age.) Mises’ discussion of the Irish who want to take back their language at the time of Mises’ writing was interesting. His discussions of interactions with other cultures also grabbed my attention. 

There were many others, but I won’t go on. However, below I’ve posted some interesting passages from the book.

Overall, Theory and History  was an incredibly stimulating and challenging read. I appreciate his major point about the uniqueness of human action, his discussion of values, his incredible breadth of knowledge, and I’ll remember his critiques of different doctrines, ideologies and philosophies as I evaluate different arguments put forward in discussion today.


On value

“It is one of the tasks of the specific understanding of the historical sciences to establish what content the value judgments of the acting individuals had. It is a task of history, for example, to trace back the origin of India’s caste system to the values which prompted the conduct of the generations who developed, perfected, and preserved it. It is its further task to discover what the consequences of this system were and how these effects influenced the value judgments of later generations. But it is not the business of the historian to pass judgments of value on the system as such, to praise or to condemn it. He has to deal with its relevance for the course of affairs, he has to compare it with the designs and intentions of its authors and supporters and to depict its effects and consequences. He has to ask whether or not the means employed were fit to attain the ends the acting individuals sought. It is a fact that hardly any historian has fully avoided passing judgments of value. But such judgments are always merely incidental to the genuine tasks of history. In uttering them the author speaks as an individual judging from the point of view of his personal valuations, not as a historian.”

“All judgments of value are personal and subjective. There are no judgments of value other than those asserting I prefer, I like better, I wish. It cannot be denied by anybody that various individuals disagree widely with regard to their feelings, tastes, and preferences and that even the same individuals at various instants of their lives value the same things in a different way. In view of this fact it is useless to talk about absolute and eternal values. This does not mean that every individual draws his valuations from his own mind. The immense majority of people take their valuations from the social environment into which they were born, in which they grew up, that moulded their personality and educated them. Few men have the power to deviate from the traditional set of values and to establish their own scale of what appears to be better and what appears to be worse. What the theorem of the subjectivity of valuation means is that there is no standard available which would enable us to reject any ultimate judgment of value as wrong, false, or erroneous in the way we can reject an existential proposition as manifestly false. It is vain to argue about ultimate judgments of value as we argue about the truth or falsity of an existential proposition. As soon as we start to refute by arguments an ultimate judgment of value, we look upon it as a means to attain definite ends. But then we merely shift the discussion to another plane. We no longer view the principle concerned as an ultimate value but as a means to attain an ultimate value, and we are again faced with the same problem.” 

“Value is not intrinsic. It is not in things and conditions but in the valuing subject.”

“Contrary to popular conceptions, it [the theory of comparative advantage] does not say that free trade is good and protection bad. It merely demonstrates that protection is not a means to increase the supply of goods produced. Thus it says nothing about protection’s suitability or unsuitability to attain other ends, for instance to improve a nation’s chance of defending its independence in war.”

“From the bewildering diversity of doctrines presented under the rubric of natural law there finally emerged a set of theorems which no caviling can ever invalidate. There is first the idea that a nature-given order of things exists to which man must adjust his actions if he wants to succeed. Second: the only means available to man for the cognizance of this order is thinking and reasoning, and no existing social institution is exempt from being examined and appraised by discursive reasoning. Third: there is no standard available for appraising any mode of acting either of individuals or of groups of individuals but that of the effects produced by such action. Carried to its ultimate logical consequences, the idea of natural law led eventually to rationalism and utilitarianism.”

“The chief accomplishment of the natural law idea was its rejection of the doctrine (sometimes called legal positivism) according to which the ultimate source of statute law is to be seen in the superior military power of the legislator who is in a position to beat into submission all those defying his ordinances. Natural law taught that statutory laws can be bad laws, and it contrasted with the bad laws the good laws to which it ascribed divine or natural origin. But it was an illusion to deny that the best system of laws cannot be put into practice unless supported and enforced by military supremacy.”

“Marxism is a revolutionary doctrine. It expressly declares that the design of the prime mover will be accomplished by civil war. It implies that ultimately in the battles of these campaigns the just cause, that is, the cause of progress, must conquer. Then all conflicts concerning judgments of value will disappear. The liquidation of all dissenters will establish the undisputed supremacy of the absolute eternal values.”

[On those who seek justice…in social institutions.] “Social institutions…must be just. It is base to judge them merely according to their fitness to attain definite ends, however desirable these ends may be from any other point of view. What matters first is justice. The extreme formulation of this idea is to be found in the famous phrase: fiat justitia, pereat mundus . Let justice be done, even if it destroys the world.”

“Although some intolerance, bigotry, and lust for persecution is still left in religious matters, it is unlikely that religious passion will kindle wars in the near future. The aggressive spirit of our age stems from another source, from endeavors to make the state totalitarian and to deprive the individual of autonomy.”

On statistics

“In the field of human action statistics is a method of historical research. It is a description in numerical terms of historical events that happened in a definite period of time with definite groups of people in a definite geographical area. Its meaning consists precisely in the fact that it describes changes, not something unchanging. In the field of nature statistics is a method of inductive research. Its epistemological justification and its meaning lie in the firm belief that there are regularity and perfect determinism in nature. The laws of nature are considered perennial. They are fully operative in each instance. What happens in one case must also happen in all other like cases. Therefore the information conveyed by statistical material has general validity with regard to the classes of phenomena to which it refers; it does not concern only definite periods of history and definite geographical sites.”

On dialectical materialism

“Marx obfuscated the problem by confusing the notions of caste and class. Where status and caste differences prevail, all members of every caste but the most privileged have one interest in common, viz., to wipe out the legal disabilities of their own caste. All slaves, for instance, are united in having a stake in the abolition of slavery. But no such conflicts are present in a society in which all citizens are equal before the law. No logical objection can be advanced against distinguishing various classes among the members of such a society. Any classification is logically permissible, however arbitrarily the mark of distinction may be chosen. But it is nonsensical to classify the members of a capitalistic society according to their position in the framework of the social division of labor and then to identify these classes with the castes of a status society.” “This socialist or communist doctrine fails entirely to take into account the essential difference between the conditions of a status or caste society and those of a capitalistic society.”

“If a man expresses opinions at variance with the ideology of a definite class, that is because he does not belong to the class concerned. There is no need to refute his ideas by discursive reasoning. It is enough to unmask his background and class affiliation. This settles the matter. But if a man whose proletarian background and membership in the workers’ class cannot be contested diverges from the correct Marxian creed, he is a traitor. It is impossible to assume that he could be sincere in his rejection of Marxism. As a proletarian he must necessarily think like a proletarian. An inner voice tells him in an unmistakable way what the correct proletarian ideology is. He is dishonest in overriding this voice and publicly professing unorthodox opinions. He is a rogue, a Judas, a snake in the grass. In fighting such a betrayer all means are permissible.”

On the philosophy of history

“Simplified accounts of history, adapted to the capacity of people slow of comprehension, have presented history as a product of the feats of great men…. No serious historian ever shared in such nonsense. It has never been contested that the part played even by the greatest figures of history was much more moderate. Every man, whether great or small, lives and acts within the frame of his age’s historical circumstances. These circumstances are determined by all the ideas and events of the preceding ages as well as by those of his own age. The Titan may outweigh each of his contemporaries; he is no match for the united forces of the dwarfs. A statesman can succeed only insofar as his plans are adjusted to the climate of opinion of his time, that is to the ideas that have got hold of his fellows’ minds. He can become a leader only if he is prepared to guide people along the paths they want to walk and toward the goal they want to attain. A statesman who antagonizes public opinion is doomed to failure. No matter whether he is an autocrat or an officer of a democracy, the politician must give the people what they wish to get, very much as a businessman must supply the customers with the things they wish to acquire.”

On historicism

“History is a sequence of changes. Every historical situation has its individuality, its own characteristics that distinguish it from any other situation. The stream of history never returns to a previously occupied point. History is not repetitious.”

“There is no harm in comparing different historical events and different events that occurred in the history of various civilizations. But there is no justification whatever for the assertion that every civilization must pass through a sequence of inevitable stages.”

“Those who want to set the clock of history back ought to tell people what their policy would cost.”

On religion as a substitute for science

“Where people did not know how to seek the relation of cause and effect, they looked for a teleological interpretation. They invented deities and devils to whose purposeful action certain phenomena were ascribed. A god emitted lightning and thunder. Another god, angry about some acts of men, killed the offenders by shooting arrows. A witch’s evil eye made women barren and cows dry. Such beliefs generated definite methods of action. Conduct pleasing to the deity, offering of sacrifices and prayer were considered suitable means to appease the deity’s anger and to avert its revenge; magic rites were employed to neutralize witchcraft. Slowly people came to learn that meteorological events, disease, and the spread of plagues are natural phenomena and that lightning rods and antiseptic agents provide effective protection while magic rites are useless. It was only in the modern era that the natural sciences in all their fields substituted causal research for finalism.”

On phsychology

“What characterizes the neurotic as such is not the fact that he resorts to unsuitable means but that he fails to come to grips with the conflicts that confront civilized man. Life in society requires that the individual suppress instinctive urges present in every animal. We may leave it undecided whether the impulse of aggression is one of these innate urges. There is no doubt that life in society is incompatible with indulgence in the animal habits of satisfying sexual appetites. Perhaps there are better methods of regulating sexual intercourse than those resorted to in actual society. However that may be, it is a fact that the adopted methods put too much strain upon the minds of some individuals. These men and women are at a loss to solve problems which luckier people get over. Their dilemma and embarrassment make them neurotic.”

On fiction

“Fiction is free to depict events that never occurred. The writer creates, as people say, an imaginary story. He is free to deviate from reality. The tests of truth that apply to the work of the historian do not apply to his work. Yet his freedom is limited. He is not free to defy the teachings of thymological [psychological] experience. It is not a requirement of novels and plays that the things related should really have happened. It is not even necessary that they could happen at all; they may introduce heathen idols, fairies, animals acting in human manner, ghosts and other phantoms. But all the characters of a novel or a play must act in a thymologically [psychologically] intelligible way. The concepts of truth and falsehood as applied to epic and dramatic works refer to thymological [psychological] plausibility. The author is free to create fictitious persons and plots but he must not try to invent a thymology—psychology—different from that derived from the observation of human conduct.”