Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Fair Play, by Steven E. Landsburg

When I first started this book, I had many thoughts. First, I remembered the quote from John Hodgman's Area of My Expertise* about becoming a first-time dad: "I am now required to devote my creative life solely to writing about my daughter--how brilliant and beautiful she is, and how her naive wisdom and amusing antics have changed the way I look at life. Everyone, I am sure, will find this fascinating." Then I thought, "Landsburg's displaying the type of hyper-affection typical of newly-divorced parents for their children; they take all the emotion they'd been spending on their spouses and shower it on their kids." But then I thought, "I wonder if he's dying. This reads more like Randy Pausch's Last Lecture* than even The Last Lecture did. I better hold back in my criticism, in case Landsburg ends up dead and I look like an ass."

But this book is from 1997 and as of today Landsburg is still alive, so criticisms aweigh!

What's interesting is that, even with all the weird sappy sentimentality and strange parenting skills on display, I really, really like this book. It's as if he's decided he doesn't care which of his neighbors he offends, he's going to tell you exactly why nearly every aspect of American government is rotten to the core. And I can't get enough of it.

The basic idea, as I understand it, is that people explain fairness to their kids differently from how they expect it to operate in government. In that sense, kids understand the world better than adults do. He points out that he's never heard a parent tell a child that the proper response to a kid owning a bunch more toys is to take them away, but the same parents think a tax code that does the same thing to other people's money is "fair."

There isn't as much economics-for-the-sake-of-economics in this book as in The Armchair Economist, which probably makes it more accessible to the average reader. However, in his previous book Landsburg presented libertarian views as a plausible alternative that might be attractive, whereas in this book he presents them as the only views that make sense. I think readers might not like that when they see that he's right and they cannot continue to entertain their old political ideas without deciding to be logically inconsistent.

Rating: 6.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

* - I was once taught by a grammar book (and this rule makes sense, so I follow it), that when making a book with a title beginning in "The," "A," or "An" the possession of the author, to drop the article. Thus Randy Pausch wrote The Last Lecture, but it is Randy Pausch's Last Lecture. While the alternative is more stilted, this method changes the title of the book, which isn't supposed to happen. But then most people drop the article for alphabetizing purposes, so I'm going to keep doing things this way.

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