Originally I was planning on reviewing five books in this post, but each review ended up being so long that I decided to cut it down to three. Don’t worry, though. I’ll review the other two at some later date.
The Hapsburg Empire: A New History (by Pieter M. Judson): This book offers a comprehensive look at the Hapsburg Empire from Maria Theresa’s reign until the collapse of the Empire in 1918. While much of the content will be nothing new to those well-versed in 18th and 19th-century Eastern European politics, the book is thorough, well-written, and interesting throughout. The Hapsburg Empire particularly shines when it examines the motivations of the many ethnic and linguistic groups within the Empire and their impact on the polity both at a civil society level and at an institutional level. The treatment of Hapsburg institutionalism is also novel and exceptionally thorough, and this analysis alone makes Judson’s work worth purchasing. From the educational policies of the different crown lands to the regime’s evolving views on censorship, Judson attempts to provide a comprehensive review of the ways in which the Hapsburgs ruled and administered their empire. It’s important to note that this book barely addresses foreign policy at all. This is not a shortcoming, though, as it means that Judson is able to focus completely on his central question: How did the institutions of the Austro-Hungarian state interact with and respond to the many ethnic, religious, and linguistic differences of its subjects? Whether this question interests you for historical reasons or due to its relevance in contemporary discussions of migration and national politics, Judson’s work should definitely be on your bookshelf.
The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (by Tom Nichols): I’m a huge fan of Tom Nichols, and I share many of his views despite being of the opposite political persuasion. That being said, I found his book to be fairly mediocre. It was extremely well-written, humorous, and provocative. Furthermore, I think Nichols makes an important point about people’s increasing lack of appreciation for the value of experts in a country like the U.S. that is characterized by a complicated, specialized economy and democratic government. Unfortunately, I think Nichols occasionally falls into the trap of becoming the very thing he seeks to criticize: a non-expert commenting on topics beyond his ambit. Nichols is, after all, a political scientist focusing on nuclear weapons policy. Thus, it’s far from clear to me that he possesses the necessary qualifications to discuss many of the themes addressed in his book, which covers topics ranging from the media to the psychology of college students. This issue is compounded by the fact that Nichols is quite sparse with his citations, which undermines the credibility and academic rigor of his book. In many ways, The Death of Expertise would probably have been better as a long-form essay (ironically, the book is, in fact, based on an article Nichols wrote several years ago for The Federalist), as this would be more conducive to the op-ed-like tone of the book. None of this is to say that Nichols wrote a bad book. On the contrary, I believe he gets a lot of things right. I just think that the book could have been so much more.
The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (by Mariana Mazzucato): Mazzucato has written a fascinating book that persuasively undercuts the common libertarian/conservative trope of an innovative, perfectly efficient private sector and bumbling, ineffective state. To be sure, Mazzucato does not contest many of the arguments for private sector effectiveness. However, she presents a compelling case for the role of the state in fostering and promoting innovation beyond simply correcting for market failures. As far as I could tell, there are two central arguments for state intervention. First, pure R&D spending is rarely predictive of innovative successes. What is more important in explaining innovation and growth are complex linkages between firms, universities, and research centers. Given that individual firms often lack the necessary capacity to form these macro-level linkages, Mazzucato argues that the state should seek to organize the economy in a way that promotes these kinds of connections. This includes efforts at fostering university-business cooperation, subsidizing new industries through loans and loan guarantees, and even funding direct research through government labs. Second, most businesses and venture capital firms are too risk-averse to invest in cutting-edge industries. Thus, it is crucial that the state play a role in creating new markets. Mazzucato supports this second argument by undertaking a number of deep case studies of industries such as pharmaceuticals, clean tech, and IT. Frankly, the role of the state in these fields is absolutely astounding: Effectively every subcomponent of the iPhone is the product of direct research funded by the U.S. or European governments, and 75% of new American drugs are developed by state, not private, labs. Mazzucato concludes the book by proposing a number of ways in which the state can sustain vital state research. These initiatives are important, as she convincingly shows that the current system is fundamentally parasitic: Innovative tech development is funded or subsidized by public money, but the profits are privatized, which makes it difficult for the state to recoup R&D costs and invest in other innovative fields. My one critique is that I think Mazzucato could have done a better job at presenting a more holistic analysis of public vs. private innovation. Her case studies support her argument well, but they are also quite selective. What conditions make state intervention less effective? What does the overall empirical record outside of her carefully selected industries suggest? These are questions not answered in the book, and they should have been.