Here are the top five of 2020 for me.
I judge them by how much they either influenced or illuminated my thinking, not necessarily the best written though I find original thinking and clarity in writing often go together. I focus most of my reading on American history, particularly the evolution of Progressivism and the underlying philosophies used to promote and contain it.
As a rule of thumb I lean towards volumes that are at least 20 years old- if they are still in demand today they must have some staying power. I always find a few volumes that I have read before. There is usually much to be gained from the second reading.
The Tyranny of Reason by Yuval Levin
Out of print but commands a steep price on the used market. Yuval traces the history of western philosophy to arrive at the social scientific outlook, a perversion of scientific reasoning applied to the social sciences. The certainty of math and the physical realm created a delusional certainty in the social and political realm that was used to justify the suspension of moral considerations in the pursuit of state power.
The Great Society by Amity Shlaes
The Great Society of LBJ sought to build on the legacy of the New Deal of FDR. Where FDR came from the pits of the Great Depression, LBJ’s Great Society came during a dramatic post WW II recovery. We were triumphant in the face of existential threats abroad and a collapsed economy at home, and we lost site of our limits which became quite clear in the failures of the Great Society. The riots after the George Floyd tragedy were minute compared to the urban riots of the 1960’s. The failure to recognize our limits led us to the inflation of the 1970s, and technocrats trying to manage a disastrous war.
The Treason of the Intellectuals by Julien Benda
A short but arduous read from 1928, Benda warned that the accountability of government was served by the clergy and thinkers and that when these forces allied with political power a critical firewall was destroyed. He predicted in 1928 that such a condition would lead to the worst war mankind would ever see. A warning of the importance of an independent media and intellectual class.
Challenges to the American Founding edited by Ron Pestritto
A collection of essays on the philosophical challenges to the principles of the founding, including slavery, historicism, and progressivism.
The Great Tax Wars by Steven Weisman
Well written and engaging history of the rise of the income tax to replace the reliance on tariffs from the Civil War to the 16th Amendment in 1913 and its influence on our political structure. It is amazing how controversial the idea of a progressive income tax was and how rapidly it accelerated in the first ten years of its enactment.