Mitch Daniels picks five books

This is a very interesting interview with Indiana governor, Mitch Daniels at Five Books.  I won’t go into a great deal of detail (you should just read the whole thing) but I must say, this is the sort of introspective, intelligent, and thoughtful politician we need more of in American politics. I would feel very comfortable pulling the lever for Daniels should he choose to run for the GOP nomination in 2012. Here’s a taste:

You’re a sitting governor [of Indiana], you’ve been an OMB [US Office of Management and Budget] director and you deal day to day with people who want to plan stuff – everything from zoning commissions to the legislature. How does this book inflect how you deal with that?

With humility and caution. I think I would say that this is something you’ll see in the Postrel book as well, probably in several of these books. They led me to a view that government clearly has to establish rails around certain behaviour and economic activity. But simplicity, clarity of the rules, a caution about over-prescriptiveness in how to achieve a certain outcome or prevent a certain externality from happening – I think I probably first saw a lot of that in Hayek.

For instance, I remember my first day on this job. We did a ton of things, we wanted to emphasise that a lot of change was afoot. But I went over to see our biggest regulatory agency – we had hundreds of people in the room or on the phone. It was an environmental management agency and I told them then, and I’ve told them since, that we did not intend to weaken or moderate a single rule that I knew of, in terms of environmental standards. But I said that what we were determined to do was to make regulation consistent, predictable and quick. We worked very hard on that. We measured to see if we were getting there. So I guess that, if you say, correctly, that this job involves overseeing necessary regulatory activity, that mentality came in some part from books like Hayek’s.

Hayek goes in two directions: one is the value of freedom in and of itself, and the other is freedom as instrumental in creating a dynamic economy. Two of your books are about freedom per se, including Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose. Friedman is one of the few authors who have made it on to multiple lists, so why Free to Choose as opposed to Capitalism and Freedom or A Monetary History of the United States? What is the role of Friedman in your thinking?

I could have flipped a coin and honestly, in my own mind, I wasn’t drawing the neatest of separations between these books. I think that Free to Choose probably is there because it expressed best to me the moral – I hate to say superiority – but the moral underpinnings of free economics, if one starts from the premise that the highest value is the autonomy and dignity and freedom of the individual. I thought it was Friedman who best summarised why that value is best protected and promoted by property rights, by free economic voluntary exchange. I suppose it’s there less for its economic analysis, which is very compelling to me but you can find it in a lot of other places, than for the moral emphasis that runs through it.

Notice also what’s missing from this and other talks with Daniels: any mention of the “secular socialist machine” and other anti-Obama screeds. This is, if I may beat on this drum for a while longer, positive conservatism. Or at the very least, if we want to avoid the word conservatism, it is positive limited government thinking. This sort of thinking has a chance at actually leading toward limited government, not just toward anti-government posturing.

Take, for instance, this.

I think the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition in the UK is a very good example of positive conservatism in action. Decentralization, deregulation, and freedom – not just economic but civil freedom as well. The entire package. Right now Mitch Daniels and Gary Johnson both show a lot of promise in terms of taking the Republican Party in a better, more responsible direction. I think Daniels probably has a better chance, but I think either would be preferable to either this or the previous administration.

(hat tip Tyler Cowen)

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8 thoughts on “Mitch Daniels picks five books

  1. Nothing wrong with his choices, but Daniels doesn’t seems confused about conservatism. He was asked to choose “5 Books on Conservatism” and instead, he selects five books by libertarians. He even says he regrets not including Hayek’s “Why I Am Not a Conservative”!

    I don’t have anything against libertarians (and least nothing that I don’t hold against all utopianists) but that ideology is in no way related to conservatism.

    Daniels may be sharper then most politicians, but his embrace of libertarianism shows that he is likely to be too enthralled with abstractions to be an effective President.


  2. I think Joe exaggerates the point a little bit, but it’s interesting to note how Gov Daniels hedges his bet wrt the moral superiority of private property and free economies (and why).

    I think that’s a mistake, an irrelevant one in most circumstances but profound one in others. Instead what we can say is that the autonomy of the individual is not necessarily our highest value, but that the exceptions to it ought to be rare and carefully considered. In particular, that supposedly good intent does not make collectivization acceptable. And with that in mind, we ought to confidently assert the moral superiority of free economies relative to the alternatives.


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