RECOMMENDED READING FOR OBAMA…. The Washington Monthly has a feature in our new issue with book recommendations for the new president, with suggestions from some of our favorite writers and thinkers. We’re covering the recommendations in an ongoing series of posts, and here are the next two from our list.
I would recommend that President Obama read Lost in the City, by Edward P. Jones. It’s a short-story collection that brilliantly illuminates the humanity and struggles of everyday Washingtonians. Despite the phony Washington bashing during the campaign, D.C. is as Main Street as any place in America, and just as deserving of federal attention. The District could be a model for reform. A leader with Barack Obama’s intelligence and enthusiasm has the ability to make that happen.
I realize that President Obama will be busy, and he won’t have much time to kick back with a whole book. So I will merely suggest that he read The Pretense of Knowledge, by Friedrich Hayek, a 1974 lecture delivered after the Austrian-born economist accepted the Nobel Prize in Economics.
Hayek’s argument was that social science, including the dismal science of economics, has built up the pretense — and it is only a pretense — that it is possible to gain “scientific” mastery over complicated social problems. Such intellectual ambition is inherently Icarus-like, he argued. It is “the fatal conceit,” as he entitled one of his books (available, if 44 is curious, on Amazon).
It seems that every president feels called upon to undertake some enormous challenge — a task worthy of his own ego — and usually that challenge defeats him. For Bill Clinton, it was health care. For George W. Bush, it was Iraq. Of course, sometimes a president succeeds — so it was with FDR, victor in World War II, and Ronald Reagan, who won the Cold War.
So what will it be for Obama? That’s an open question right now, but a little Hayekian humility could save him from the grievous mistakes that other presidents have made as a result of overconfidence and underpreparation.