Sam Seitz

Because I wasn’t able to include enough reviews in my previous post to adequately cover my recent reading, I have been forced to put up a second part. There is a bit more diversity in this list, so perhaps that will enhance its worth.

1. Mr. Kipling’s Army: All the Queen’s Men (by Byron Farwell): This is a tremendously entertaining and informative read, and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in either British history or 19th-century European military history. The book, as its title suggests, is a detailed examination of the idiosyncratic and bizarre customs and practices of the Victorian military. Packed full of interesting nuggets of information and typical British wit, the book systematically examines every facet of the life and service of British soldiers from around the 1860s to early 20th-century. While every chapter is informative, I found those detailing enlistment and recruitment to be the most captivating. The British army was, after all, quite inferior to its continental brethren for most of the period covered in this book. Indeed, as Farwell notes, Parliament had to pay several million pounds to purchase the army from its officers who, due to the bizarre graft-infested commissioning system, effectively owned the nation’s armed forces. The one shortcoming of the book is that is not well-cited and fairly unsystematic. Pairing it with a book like Military Planning for the Defense of the United Kingdom, 1814-1870 (which I also highly recommend) is, therefore, likely a good idea if you desire a more rigorous, academic treatment of the subject. But dry, academic books are boring; this book is not. That makes it absolutely worth reading even if this topic is only of passing interest to you.

2. The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics (by John Judis): I found this to be a thoroughly mediocre book with almost no new information. There is such a glut of populist-related writing out these days that it is difficult to create something original and worth reading, and Judis’ work suffers for it. This volume is, however, still substantially better than Judis’ other recent work, The Nationalist Revival. Moreover, Judis at least does a good job of summarizing and synthesizing the important historical periods of populism and the establishment view on the phenomenon. Importantly, Judis keeps the book short, which makes it an easy and quick read. If you know almost nothing about populism and feel the need to acquire a quick, introductory level of understanding, you can do much worse than this book. You can also do much better (look at Jan Werner-Müller’s What is Populismfor example).

3. War and the Engineers: The Primacy of Politics Over Technology (by Keir Lieber): This is a well-argued book that empirically tests the veracity of offense-defense theory. For the uninitiated, offense-defense theory posits that certain technologies lend themselves to offensive or defensive warfare. When offense dominates, aggression is more likely; the opposite is true in defense-dominant systems. But the theory also recognizes that many technologies are dual-use, and it is often hard for states to determine if adversaries’ weapons are offensive or defensive. The greater the ambiguity, the greater the risk for misperceptions and conflict. To test this hypothesis, Lieber conducts several case studies on technologies – railroads, machine guns, nuclear weapons, and tanks – traditionally considered to have substantially altered the offense-defense balance. Lieber finds that these technologies had no clear effect on the propensity of wars to occur. Indeed, he effectively demonstrates that most technology is impossible to categorize as offensive or defensive ex-ante and is consequently employed in ways directly at odds with the predictions of offense-defense theory. I found the book persuasive and an easy read. It did have two shortcomings, however. First, it focuses too heavily on disproving offense-defense theory at the expense of fleshing out and proving Lieber’s own theory of technological opportunism (which, partly as a result of having studied under Lieber, I find quite compelling). Second, the case studies, while certainly effective, are not as rich and detailed as I would have liked. This is partly the fault of the genre – political science is not history, after all – but I do hope that another scholar picks up the baton and fleshes out the cases presented in Lieber’s empirical chapters.

4. Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero (by Tyler Cowen): In Big Business, famed blogger and economist Tyler Cowen attempts to defend big business against its more vocal critics (which today seem ascendant). Frankly, I found this book to be fairly underwhelming, though not terrible. Cowen effectively defends big corporations from the the many inane attacks made against them by polemical elements of the far left. And, to Cowen’s credit, he is willing to acknowledge some of the shortcomings and odious practices of the world’s less ethical companies. However, the book has at least one major shortcoming, which is that it fails to seriously address the more nuanced criticisms of big business. It is one thing to beat up on some naive freshman in a Principles of Microeconomics class – and I concede that this is the level of argumentation one sees from a lot of the anti-business crowd – and Cowen does effectively that throughout this book. But there are also some extremely well-reasoned and nuanced criticisms from economists, social scientists, and philosophers that, as far as I could tell, are simply ignored in this work. Instead, Cowen seems to cherry-pick cases and examples, frequently resorting to theoretical refrains instead of drawing from empirical data. This is something I’d expect from a libertarian arguing with people on the street, not a professionally researched and published book. It is no surprise, therefore, that Big Business is under-cited and clearly written for a popular audience. The result is something that reads like an over-extended article, which, quite ironically, is exactly the kind of work Cowen so frequently criticizes. He is correct when he claims that ~80% of books should not be written. Unfortunately, this book is not part of the 20% that should.