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TAC Bookshelf for the Week of June 3

Addison Del Mastro, assistant editorI first read Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff by Arthur M. Okun, or at least parts of it, while I was studying for my masters degree in public policy. Based on lectures from 1974, the book is an important text in economics and public policy. Coming back to it later, it can certainly feel a little bit like a textbook, but it is also contains themes that feel very relevant to today’s socio-political atmosphere.

Much of what is interesting here is subtext or applications of the core ideas. Most of the book frames economic growth and efficiency as always in tension with equality (of opportunity and/or result). The book is not an anti-libertarian tract, though it could also double as one. It is more of a warning against the concentration of economic and political power, which may be “efficient” but also strikes at the heart of the very idea of a public, civic space.

In this vein Okun champions what he calls the “pluralist” conception of rights, in which “rights can…be viewed as a protection against the market domination that would arise if everything could be bought and sold for money.” (One chapter heading is tilted “Transgressions of Dollars on Rights.”) Okun was hopeful that civic-mindedness could win out, but with the rise of things like private prisons, fee-based fire protection, evisceration of campaign finance laws, suggestions that Post Office service should no longer be geographically universal, and the broad trend of financialization in the economy, it would seem that efficiency—or greed—has made great gains.

Equality and Efficiency is a very human book, its policy analysis deeply tied to concerns over real people and over the preservation of the civic mindset in American politics and policy. He obviously felt this message was needed in 1974; it is concerning, to say the least, that the book reads today as a fire bell in the night.

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Bradley J. Birzer, scholar-at-large: “I believe we are very near to one another, but not because I am at all on the Rome-ward frontier of my own communion. I believe that, in the present divided state of Christendom, those who are at the heart of each division are all closer to one another than those who are at the fringes. I would even carry this beyond the borders of Christianity: how much more one has in common with a real Jew or Muslim than with a wretched liberalizing, occidentalised specimen of the same categories.”

So wrote a 53-year-old C.S. Lewis to an American correspondent. His words, first published in 1967, though written in 1952, have as much meaning today as they did over six decades ago.

Indeed, the entire collection of C.S. Lewis’s Letters to an American Lady  brims with wisdom. Again, here is Lewis: “How little people know who think that holiness is dull. When one meets the real thing (and perhaps, like you, I have met it only once) it is irresistible.” Or, again: “If you must weep, weep: a good honest howl! I suspect we—and especially my sex—don’t cry enough now-a-days. Aeneas and Hector and Beowulf, Roland and Lancelot blubbered like schoolgirls, so why shouldn’t we?” This from the man who had to leave his own homily on the “weight of glory,” so touched was he by his own grace from the Divine. At only 121 pages long, Letters to an American Lady is a rare treasure, made only better by the passage of time.

And, writing of time. As I come close—ever so much closer; probably akin to the half-life of radium, at least from my publisher’s standpoint—to completing a manuscript on the life and times of the Oxford Inklings, I have the great and grand privilege of re-reading all of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, C.S. Lewis, Lord David Cecil, and others.

One of the best of the re-readings is of Tolkien’s magisterial but crazily neglected, The Fall of Arthur, edited expertly by his greatest follower (and son), Christopher Tolkien. Heroic to the nth degree, The Fall of Arthur calls on the very best of us, even in this world of sorrows and betrayal.

For the purest entertainment, I also listened via audible to a gripping science fiction novel, set in the Stranger Things universe, Gwenda Bond’s Suspicious Minds, set in Bloomington, Indiana, 1969 to 1970s. Arguably the most Bradbury-esque universe created in the last decade, Stranger Things is full of possibilities, and Bond not only explores them, but she also considers tactfully and artfully the role of personhood and race in a tumultuous time.

Writing of science fiction, I am absolutely smitten with Kevin J. Anderson’s latest novel, Spine of the Dragon (2019), a beautifully written and gripping read.

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