The best political economy books

2 authors have picked their favorite books about the political economy and why they recommend each book.

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How the West Grew Rich

By Nathan Rosenberg, L.E. Birdzell, Jr.,

Book cover of How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World

In the late eighteenth century, Adam Smith famously asked: Why are some nations rich and others poor? You probably aren’t going to read Smith’s Wealth of Nations to find out the answer. And thanks to Rosenberg and Birdzell’s readable book, you don’t have to. While more recent books offer complementary accounts of wealth and poverty, How the West Grew Rich remains the best.


Who am I?

Peter T. Leeson is the author of the award-winning The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates and Anarchy Unbound: Why Self-Governance Works Better than You Think. He is the Duncan Black Professor of Economics and Law at George Mason University. Big Think counted Peter among “Eight of the World’s Top Young Economists.”


I wrote...

WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird

By Peter T. Leeson,

Book cover of WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird

What is my book about?

This rollicking tour through a museum of the world’s weirdest practices is guaranteed to make you say, “WTF?!” Did you know that “preowned” wives were sold at auction in nineteenth-century England? That today, in Liberia, accused criminals sometimes drink poison to determine their fate? How about the fact that, for 250 years, Italy criminally prosecuted cockroaches and crickets? Do you wonder why? Then this tour is just for you!

From one exhibit to the next, you’ll overhear Leeson’s riotous exchanges with the patrons and learn how to use economic thinking to reveal the hidden sense behind seemingly senseless human behavior—including your own. Leeson shows that far from “irrational” or “accidents of history,” humanity’s most outlandish rituals are ingenious solutions to pressing problems—developed by clever people, driven by incentives, and tailor-made for their time and place. 

If Women Counted

By Marilyn Waring,

Book cover of If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics

A great—and very readable--explanation of how unpaid work, including care for dependents, has been rendered economically invisible. You may consider the “national income accounts” a hopelessly boring topic. This book will change your mind, and economists today are actually paying attention to it. Sooner rather than later the very concept of “income” is going to be redefined.


Who am I?

I grew up in a family exposed to great contrasts of poverty and wealth, in which women were always the ones expected to ‘make nice.” I’ve long been fascinated by the parallels among unfair inequalities based on gender, sexuality, age, race, ethnicity, citizenship, and class, and the ways in which these inequalities are disguised, justified, or just plain ignored. This fascination has driven my successful and very lucky career as a socialist feminist economist and public intellectual.


I wrote...

The Rise and Decline of Patriarchal Systems

By Nancy Folbre,

Book cover of The Rise and Decline of Patriarchal Systems

What is my book about?

Why do patriarchal systems survive? This book examines the contradictory effects of capitalist development, explaining why the work of caring for others is undervalued and under-rewarded in today's global economy. It upends conventional definitions of the economy based only on the market and emphasizes the production of human capabilities in families and communities. The social reproduction of group solidarities creates fractal inequalities that often stabilize hierarchical systems, but sometimes lead to the development of coalitions for progressive change.

The Law by Frederic Bastiat

By Frédéric Bastiat,

Book cover of The Law by Frederic Bastiat

The shortest, surest guide to understanding the government’s relationship to the economy. The Law was first published in 1850, but its relevance, importance, and accessibility are perennial. Multiply your value by getting the Foundation for Economic Education’s newest edition, which includes Bastiat’s classic essays “The Broken Window” and “The Candlemakers’ Petition.”

Who am I?

Peter T. Leeson is the author of the award-winning The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates and Anarchy Unbound: Why Self-Governance Works Better than You Think. He is the Duncan Black Professor of Economics and Law at George Mason University. Big Think counted Peter among “Eight of the World’s Top Young Economists.”


I wrote...

WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird

By Peter T. Leeson,

Book cover of WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird

What is my book about?

This rollicking tour through a museum of the world’s weirdest practices is guaranteed to make you say, “WTF?!” Did you know that “preowned” wives were sold at auction in nineteenth-century England? That today, in Liberia, accused criminals sometimes drink poison to determine their fate? How about the fact that, for 250 years, Italy criminally prosecuted cockroaches and crickets? Do you wonder why? Then this tour is just for you!

From one exhibit to the next, you’ll overhear Leeson’s riotous exchanges with the patrons and learn how to use economic thinking to reveal the hidden sense behind seemingly senseless human behavior—including your own. Leeson shows that far from “irrational” or “accidents of history,” humanity’s most outlandish rituals are ingenious solutions to pressing problems—developed by clever people, driven by incentives, and tailor-made for their time and place. 

The Care Manifesto

By The Care Collective, Andreas Chatzidakis, Jamie Hakim, Catherine Rottenberg

Book cover of The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence

You may not agree with everything in this book (I don’t) but its extraordinarily compelling critique of profit worship built on utter disregard for the well-being of others illustrates powerful synergies between patriarchal and capitalist norms. At the same time, the care collective offers powerful examples of the ways in which people sometimes rally quite effectively around principles of mutual aid.


Who am I?

I grew up in a family exposed to great contrasts of poverty and wealth, in which women were always the ones expected to ‘make nice.” I’ve long been fascinated by the parallels among unfair inequalities based on gender, sexuality, age, race, ethnicity, citizenship, and class, and the ways in which these inequalities are disguised, justified, or just plain ignored. This fascination has driven my successful and very lucky career as a socialist feminist economist and public intellectual.


I wrote...

The Rise and Decline of Patriarchal Systems

By Nancy Folbre,

Book cover of The Rise and Decline of Patriarchal Systems

What is my book about?

Why do patriarchal systems survive? This book examines the contradictory effects of capitalist development, explaining why the work of caring for others is undervalued and under-rewarded in today's global economy. It upends conventional definitions of the economy based only on the market and emphasizes the production of human capabilities in families and communities. The social reproduction of group solidarities creates fractal inequalities that often stabilize hierarchical systems, but sometimes lead to the development of coalitions for progressive change.

Economics in One Lesson

By Henry Hazlitt,

Book cover of Economics in One Lesson

There is no book from which you can absorb more economics with less effort. Readers new to economics should start here. Readers familiar with economics should return here often.


Who am I?

Peter T. Leeson is the author of the award-winning The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates and Anarchy Unbound: Why Self-Governance Works Better than You Think. He is the Duncan Black Professor of Economics and Law at George Mason University. Big Think counted Peter among “Eight of the World’s Top Young Economists.”


I wrote...

WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird

By Peter T. Leeson,

Book cover of WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird

What is my book about?

This rollicking tour through a museum of the world’s weirdest practices is guaranteed to make you say, “WTF?!” Did you know that “preowned” wives were sold at auction in nineteenth-century England? That today, in Liberia, accused criminals sometimes drink poison to determine their fate? How about the fact that, for 250 years, Italy criminally prosecuted cockroaches and crickets? Do you wonder why? Then this tour is just for you!

From one exhibit to the next, you’ll overhear Leeson’s riotous exchanges with the patrons and learn how to use economic thinking to reveal the hidden sense behind seemingly senseless human behavior—including your own. Leeson shows that far from “irrational” or “accidents of history,” humanity’s most outlandish rituals are ingenious solutions to pressing problems—developed by clever people, driven by incentives, and tailor-made for their time and place. 

Human Action

By Ludwig von Mises,

Book cover of Human Action: A Treatise on Economics

This is the most rewarding book in economics—maybe in all of social science—if you’re willing to be patient and attentive (no math, statistical equations, or even graphs, but this is not light reading). Human Actions treatment of economics is comprehensive, tackling questions from the philosophical—What, for example, is the nature of economic laws?—to the practical—What do those laws mean for, say, regulating the price of milk? A true tour de force, this book changed how I think about the world, and it might do the same for you. Just remember what I said about patience and attentiveness!


Who am I?

Peter T. Leeson is the author of the award-winning The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates and Anarchy Unbound: Why Self-Governance Works Better than You Think. He is the Duncan Black Professor of Economics and Law at George Mason University. Big Think counted Peter among “Eight of the World’s Top Young Economists.”


I wrote...

WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird

By Peter T. Leeson,

Book cover of WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird

What is my book about?

This rollicking tour through a museum of the world’s weirdest practices is guaranteed to make you say, “WTF?!” Did you know that “preowned” wives were sold at auction in nineteenth-century England? That today, in Liberia, accused criminals sometimes drink poison to determine their fate? How about the fact that, for 250 years, Italy criminally prosecuted cockroaches and crickets? Do you wonder why? Then this tour is just for you!

From one exhibit to the next, you’ll overhear Leeson’s riotous exchanges with the patrons and learn how to use economic thinking to reveal the hidden sense behind seemingly senseless human behavior—including your own. Leeson shows that far from “irrational” or “accidents of history,” humanity’s most outlandish rituals are ingenious solutions to pressing problems—developed by clever people, driven by incentives, and tailor-made for their time and place. 

Mission Economy

By Mariana Mazzucato,

Book cover of Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism

Mazzucato’s timely book offers a hopeful look into the possibilities for companies, governments, and civil society to work together to solve the world’s grand challenges. Inspired by the original moonshot program that mobilized the public and private sectors on a massive scale to take risks and experiment with innovative solutions to a previously unsolved problem, she pushes all of us to think boldly about the possibilities for transformative change. To do so, we’ll need to bust myths that impede progress such as the idea that businesses are the only entities that create value and governments are only there to de-risk and address market failures.

The increasingly popular ideas that governments need to run like businesses and save taxpayer money by outsourcing actually strip public policymakers of the tools they need to spur innovation. With examples of a Green New Deal, accessible health care, and narrowing the digital divide, Mission Economy…


Who am I?

Sarah Kaplan is Distinguished Professor and Director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. She is the author of the bestseller Creative Destruction: Why Companies That Are Built to Last Underperform the Market—And How to Successfully Transform Them and The 360º Corporation: From Stakeholder Trade-offs to Transformation, both address the challenges of innovation and organizational change in society. She frequently speaks and appears in the media on topics related to achieving a more inclusive economy and corporate governance reform. Formerly a professor at the Wharton School and a consultant at McKinsey & Company, she earned her PhD at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.


I wrote...

The 360° Corporation: From Stakeholder Trade-Offs to Transformation

By Sarah Kaplan,

Book cover of The 360° Corporation: From Stakeholder Trade-Offs to Transformation

What is my book about?

Companies are increasingly facing intense pressures to address stakeholder demands from every direction: consumers want socially responsible products; employees want meaningful work; investors now screen on environmental, social, and governance criteria; “clicktivists” create social media storms over company missteps. CEOs now realize that their companies must be social as well as commercial actors, but stakeholder pressures often create trade-offs with demands to deliver financial performance to shareholders. How can companies respond while avoiding simple “greenwashing” or “pinkwashing”?

In The 360° Corporation, I argue that the shared-value mindset may actually get in the way of progress and I show—in practical steps—how trade-offs, rather than being confusing or problematic, can actually be the source of organizational resilience and transformation. 

Beyond Economic Man

By Marianne A. Ferber, Julie A. Nelson,

Book cover of Beyond Economic Man: Feminist Theory and Economics

This classic anthology reveals “rational economic man” as a naked and misshapen emperor pretending to be grandly dressed. While unpacking the androcentric (and plain old sexist) assumptions of conventional economic theory, it also provides rich examples of new ways of explaining the links between gender, care, and inequality.


Who am I?

I grew up in a family exposed to great contrasts of poverty and wealth, in which women were always the ones expected to ‘make nice.” I’ve long been fascinated by the parallels among unfair inequalities based on gender, sexuality, age, race, ethnicity, citizenship, and class, and the ways in which these inequalities are disguised, justified, or just plain ignored. This fascination has driven my successful and very lucky career as a socialist feminist economist and public intellectual.


I wrote...

The Rise and Decline of Patriarchal Systems

By Nancy Folbre,

Book cover of The Rise and Decline of Patriarchal Systems

What is my book about?

Why do patriarchal systems survive? This book examines the contradictory effects of capitalist development, explaining why the work of caring for others is undervalued and under-rewarded in today's global economy. It upends conventional definitions of the economy based only on the market and emphasizes the production of human capabilities in families and communities. The social reproduction of group solidarities creates fractal inequalities that often stabilize hierarchical systems, but sometimes lead to the development of coalitions for progressive change.

Gender, Development and Globalization

By Lourdes Beneria, Günseli Berik, Maria Floro

Book cover of Gender, Development and Globalization: Economics as if All People Mattered

It’s a great and up-to-date overview of gender inequality on a global scale, covering paid and unpaid work, public policies, and the impact of patriarchal institutions. It also explains why current trajectories of economic development are both inadequate and unsustainable.


Who am I?

I grew up in a family exposed to great contrasts of poverty and wealth, in which women were always the ones expected to ‘make nice.” I’ve long been fascinated by the parallels among unfair inequalities based on gender, sexuality, age, race, ethnicity, citizenship, and class, and the ways in which these inequalities are disguised, justified, or just plain ignored. This fascination has driven my successful and very lucky career as a socialist feminist economist and public intellectual.


I wrote...

The Rise and Decline of Patriarchal Systems

By Nancy Folbre,

Book cover of The Rise and Decline of Patriarchal Systems

What is my book about?

Why do patriarchal systems survive? This book examines the contradictory effects of capitalist development, explaining why the work of caring for others is undervalued and under-rewarded in today's global economy. It upends conventional definitions of the economy based only on the market and emphasizes the production of human capabilities in families and communities. The social reproduction of group solidarities creates fractal inequalities that often stabilize hierarchical systems, but sometimes lead to the development of coalitions for progressive change.

The Machinery of Freedom

By David Friedman,

Book cover of The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism

A key insight of economics is the power of markets to organize human affairs. The Machinery of Freedom takes that insight to the limit. How might society work if even governmental functions were organized using markets? Friedman’s answer will surprise and challenge you. And whether you come away convinced or not, you will come away with a better understanding of markets.


Who am I?

Peter T. Leeson is the author of the award-winning The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates and Anarchy Unbound: Why Self-Governance Works Better than You Think. He is the Duncan Black Professor of Economics and Law at George Mason University. Big Think counted Peter among “Eight of the World’s Top Young Economists.”


I wrote...

WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird

By Peter T. Leeson,

Book cover of WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird

What is my book about?

This rollicking tour through a museum of the world’s weirdest practices is guaranteed to make you say, “WTF?!” Did you know that “preowned” wives were sold at auction in nineteenth-century England? That today, in Liberia, accused criminals sometimes drink poison to determine their fate? How about the fact that, for 250 years, Italy criminally prosecuted cockroaches and crickets? Do you wonder why? Then this tour is just for you!

From one exhibit to the next, you’ll overhear Leeson’s riotous exchanges with the patrons and learn how to use economic thinking to reveal the hidden sense behind seemingly senseless human behavior—including your own. Leeson shows that far from “irrational” or “accidents of history,” humanity’s most outlandish rituals are ingenious solutions to pressing problems—developed by clever people, driven by incentives, and tailor-made for their time and place. 

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