My favourite books of 2018

In December 2017, I decided to set myself a goal of reading 1 book every week, reviewing each one once I finished it. I’m pleased that in 2018 I managed to read 57 (with an average length of 306 pages).

Looking back on the 9 years of running my own company, one of the three lessons I write about after the acquisition was that I would have liked to read more books. Although I can’t possibly remember all the details, over the course of the last year I have felt my thinking being influenced by what I have read even if I don’t remember specifics.

Taking the time to rate and review each title has also been useful. These are all tracked on my Goodreads profile along with reviews for each non-fiction title (I decided to stop writing reviews of fiction because they are so subjective, although I still rate them). Being able to see all those books on a single infographic style page is a nice feature and I often use it as a reference to return to cite something.

My “to read” list has stubbornly remained at around 100 books because I keep adding titles that get cited in other things I’m reading! I’m aiming to keep up the same pace so at that rate, I have at least another 2 years of reading to go!

So to end 2018, here are the 12 books I rated 5 stars:

Fiction

I particularly enjoyed historical fiction in 2018, and Robert Harris is the only author I read to achieve 5 stars in 2018:

I would also recommend Fingersmith by Sarah Waters and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, both of which I rated 4 stars.

Non-Fiction

Silent Spring, Rachel Carson

This book was published in the 1960s and represents the situation at the time, so things have certainly moved on since then, but it is amazing to read about the ignorance and willful disregard for evidence resulting in the extreme damage that humans have done to the environment.

There is no such thing as an entirely pure free market economy. Where negative externalities come into play, such as with the environment, regulation is a necessary component. The degree of carelessness and blindness to any evidence highlighted in this book shows why there are certain areas which always need effective government oversight. 

Whilst there is sometimes too much of a play on emotion, this is a great example of how science can be communicated effectively to a general audience, not only to help teach but also to push a policy objective. It’s no wonder that this book kick-started the environmentalist movement and helped policy-makers truly understand what their role should be.

The Great Degeneration, Niall Ferguson

Written in 2012, it’s interesting to see how the degeneration model has played out over the following ~5 years. This has come to a head with Brexit, and the election of Trump. 

China continues to grow and the idea that it will adopt a Western approach has basically been discarded. But can it maintain its approach without the institutions and structures that made the West so successful? Perhaps it is developing its own model.

I am increasingly of the view that a proper study of history is the most important thing for anyone who is interested in politics or business, and wants to avoid the mistakes of the past. The specifics certainly aren’t predicted by Ferguson, but the direction is. All it requires is knowledge and understanding of the key events of history. 

This book isn’t just about historical events, it is about the importance and relevance of today, and to the future. Applied history.

Essays In Love, Alain de Botton

Anyone familiar with The School of Life will notice the beginning of many common themes. A clever merger of romantic philosophy, relationship advice and a love story, even more impressive knowing it was written when de Botton was only 21.

Universal Healthcare without the NHS: Towards a Patient-Centred Health System

It’s clear that the current approach to funding the NHS is not going to work in the long term. The UK tax burden is already the highest it has ever been, significantly higher than global averages. With changing age demographics, funding for health is only going to become even more of a problem. That doesn’t even consider social care. How we go about addressing this at the same time as maintaining the crucial principle of universal healthcare is the subject of this book.

The instant reaction to any discussion of changes to NHS funding is to cry about the extreme inequity of the US system. Yet most healthcare systems, especially those in similar-income countries globally, and within Europe, use some form of social health insurance. These are much better comparators as likely alternatives than the US. The outcome measures tell you everything you need to know about those systems – the NHS ranks near the bottom and whilst it has improved significantly over time, the current snapshot of performance today is still poor, relative to alternative systems.

This is a discussion that needs to be had. Unfortunately, given the inability to have any form rational debate about the NHS within the UK, it will take a brave politician to set about implementing the reforms the system badly needs. This book does a good job at describing how we got to where we are now, how we compare to alternative systems in Europe and what changes might be workable given the religious nature of anything to do with the NHS. It serves as a good basis for starting that discussion.

The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek

In a very concise and logical manner and by using real examples from the time it was written (1940-43), Hayek convincingly and systematically dismantles the idea of socialism as a realistic form of government. Walking through the key concepts of individual freedom, planning, the rule of law, security, democracy and truth, Hayek demonstrates that socialism inevitably leads to totalitarianism at the hands of the few.

Hayek provides an important understanding of his beliefs about the role of government and what the idea of traditional 19th Century liberalism means (liberty and freedom), which is quite distinct from liberalism as the views of a progressive political party. In writing before the establishment of the welfare state in the Britain, his definition of socialism is in relation to the control of the economy. Most of his examples are from Nazi Germany and the 20-30 years before, whereas for many readers today, examples of socialism which come to mind are more likely to be post-WW2 East Germany and Soviet Russia. He assumes the historical context is known which means it might be difficult for the modern reader to relate, and to apply his theory to how the state should provide social security, healthcare and market regulation today.

Although I started the book already believing that socialism doesn’t work, Hayek’s style and straightforward logic has helped me significantly develop my thinking of the topic. It offers a level of clarity that is so often missing from contemporary debates. There are so many parallels with current events that you can easily replace the historical examples with more modern instances.

The final chapter discusses how an international federal system might help to prevent further war and how it could be structured to avoid socialist control. I found the parallels with the early to mid stages of the EU project fascinating. I feel the historical context of why the EU was created was missing from Brexit the referendum debate, and Hayek only serves to highlight concern about might happen following any breakup of the EU. Parallels with the WTO are also interesting.

I will now be looking for both essays which can help to add detail to the arguments Hayek makes, but also look to discover dissenting opinions and counters to his arguments. 

Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman

Friedman is not quite as easy to read as Hayek. Whereas I found I could hardly put The Road to Serfdom down it was so compelling, Friedman was more of a challenging read. He gets very technical but this is because he uses real world examples of how to apply his philosophy to the current state of things (as it was in early-1960s America, which is mostly still relevant today).

I like to understand how the philosophy I read can be applied to real world situations and so I enjoyed how Friedman combines both the theoretical and practical. He doesn’t waste time repeating things unnecessarily and his logic is often very straightforward and comes to a rapid conclusion. For example, he dismisses Marx in just a few sentences, entirely effectively as well!

Friedman’s thoughts on inheritance particularly stood out for me as it instantly changed my opinion on the merits of inherited wealth vs “working hard/earned wealth”:

It is widely argued that it is essential to distinguish between inequality in personal endowments and in property, and between inequalities arising from inherited wealth and from acquired wealth. Inequality resulting from differences in personal capacities, or from differences in wealth accumulated by the individual in question, are considered appropriate, or at least not so clearly inappropriate as differences resulting from inherited wealth. This distinction is untenable. Is there any greater ethical justification for the high returns to the individual who inherits from his parents a peculiar voice for which there is a great demand than for the high returns to the individual who inherits property?

Regardless of your political viewpoint, this is a key text to understand the capitalist ideal. Friedman has chapters on taxation, education, discrimination, licensing, social welfare and others. In all he provides solutions that he thinks will much better tackle the problems at hand. I would particularly like to implement his flat rate negative income tax and simplify the entire system of taxation. This book should be required reading for anyone in government, politics and probably even society in general.

Poverty Safari, Darren McGarvey

There are 2 parts to Poverty Safari. The first is a series of auto-biographical stories which provide the sad backstory for Darren McGarvey’s upbringing and experiences growing up and living in poverty in Glasgow. 

It is a brave thing to do to recount such personal tales. Whilst it certainly helps to share these experiences so others can try and understand how many people live, I feel their real purpose is to provide legitimacy and authenticity to what I feel is the main, and second part of the book: McGarvey’s commentary and analysis of the current state of poverty politics.

This is important because McGarvey’s assessment is no doubt controversial and without understanding his background then it would be right to ask how he is qualified to judge the current state of political discussions. Of course, the stories themselves are important to help the reader understand what life is like struggling with poverty but I get the feeling that society is becoming somewhat immune and numb to such otherwise emotive events. The specific, harrowing details might surprise the reader, but the fact that this happens in general probably does not. As such, the dual purpose is crucial: factual information as well as providing credibility for the author to attack the current political landscape.

It is refreshing to read an assessment of the current state of things that to me sounds entirely accurate. Not only does it criticize the entire strategic approach to dealing with poverty:

There is a big disconnect between the grand social engineering agenda of government and the far simpler, unglamorous aspirations and needs of local people, many of whom are not fluent in the ways of jargon.

but it also provides a compelling critique of how the problem is even discussed. Not only does McGarvey examine his own beliefs, but he asks questions of everyone involved:

I always just thought the aim was to dismantle poverty. However, once you see the mechanics of the poverty industry up close, you realise it’s in a state of permanent growth and that without individuals, families and communities in crisis there would no longer be a role for these massive institutions.

It is also good to see acknowledgement of the difficulties in “solving” the problem. We are stuck in a blame narrative which is designed to score political points which only serves to distract from solving the real problems:

Blame for poverty is always ascribed to someone else; an outgroup that we are told not only enables poverty and benefits from it, but also gets a kick out of people being poor.

For anyone who is interested in learning about what it is truly like to experience poverty but is frustrated by how things seem to be progressing (or not), you will find this relatively short book an enlightening read regardless of your political views. And especially if you have political views (left or right), it cuts through the challenges of having a real discussion in our current age of outrage.