Friday, May 6, 2005

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May's Books of the Month

For the merry month of May, I decided to go in-house -- that is to say, the recommended books were written by people affiliated with the University of Chicago.

The international relations book is The Limits of International Law by Jack L. Goldsmith (formerly of the U of C and now at Harvard) and Eric A. Posner. This is a bit unusual; most international relations theorists look down their nose at international law books, because the lawyers tend to assume that the law has a powerful independent effect on behavior. IR theorists tend to be skeptical of this assertion -- the thing is, so are Goldsmith and Posner. They look at customary international law, treaty law, and the use of morality in international legal discourse. They conclude that:

[I]nternational law matters but that it is less powerful and less significant than public officials, legal experts, and the media believe. International law... is simply a product of states pursuing their interests on the international stage. It does not pull states towards compliance contrary to their interests, and the possibilities for what it can achieve are limited.

Not terribly shocking for IR theorists, this is most definitely a shocking thesis for international lawyers. The Limits of International Law is also, I might add, shockingly inexpensive for an IL book.

The general interest book is co-authored by another U of C professor, economist Steven Levitt. Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (co-written with Stephen J. Dubner) is essentially a collection of Levitt's efforts to apply economic and econometric techniques to explain what at first glance appear to be non-economic phenomena -- why the crime rate has declined, how one's name affects one's earning power, etc.

The Freakonomics web site states that, "if morality represents how we would like the world to work, then economics represents how it actually does work." Oddly enough, then, this book is of a piece with the Goldsmith and Posner book. They both represent arguments about the severe limits of morality as a guide to explaining how the world actually works when compared to power and economic incentives.

Levitt and Dubner also have a blog devoted to Freakonomics, and in typical U of C fashion they have a post entitled "Does Freakonomics Suck?" that links to the few less-than-stellar reviews the book has received.

Go check them both out. They're great books -- which, of course, just depresses the living hell out of me. When people like Posner and Levitt are one's peers, there's a pretty high bar for making an impression.

Now I gotta go and revise my own book.....

posted by Dan on 05.06.05 at 04:43 PM


The interesting complaint I've heard is that Freakonomics doesn't do anything that sociologists don't do already. Sociologists will use the same techniques, and its not like economics has a lock on regression analysis. The book sounds fun, but not particularly groundbreaking except to other economists.

posted by: leftintexas on 05.06.05 at 04:43 PM [permalink]

I don't know of any sociologists who make use of intervening variables, natural experiments, &c. in the way Levitt does. Can you name some of their work?

posted by: Will Baude on 05.06.05 at 04:43 PM [permalink]

I like this passage: "International law... is simply a product of states pursuing their interests on the international stage. It does not pull states towards compliance contrary to their interests".

One thing that all states can agree threatens them is the citizen's ownership of small arms. Far more than this citizen threatens others. I expect there to be a worldwide movement against "terrorist militias" and an astroturf-popular movement against private gun ownership.

posted by: David Ross on 05.06.05 at 04:43 PM [permalink]

Is it Levitt or Leavitt?

posted by: Matt on 05.06.05 at 04:43 PM [permalink]

There was a good debate club back in January about the thesis of the Posner/Goldsmith book. Posner argued against Oona Hathaway from Yale.

posted by: washerdreyer on 05.06.05 at 04:43 PM [permalink]

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