Ezra Klein asks me:
What do you think the best fiction books are for understanding economics? Left and right? From my perspective on the spectrum, I’d go with Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, but I’d be interested to hear your favorites…
Some will cite Harrison Bergeron, the Vonnegut anti-egalitarian short story. Others would nominate Ayn Rand, anarcho-capitalist science fiction, and of course there are the fictional-economic creations of Russ Roberts. But what are the Western classics that — policy polemics aside — teach one how to think like an economist?
My attention is usually drawn to 1660-1775 in British fiction, starting with Defoe and continuing through Swift, Boswell, and just about everyone else. To my eye they all thought like rational choice economists, albeit strange ones with a focus on approbation, self-deception, and the perverse social consequences of individual action (see my In Praise of Commercial Culture, the chapter on literature, for more detail). They are the true roots of Smith’s TMS. Dickens and Balzac are contenders, but I find them a bit too one-note, as is Harriet Martineau. Nonetheless the eighteenth century works remain ahead of their time and they certainly don’t teach basic economics or help one think much about policy.
What are your picks?