In 2022 I read a lot of recent political philosophy works, history, and existential philosophy. There are a bunch of books that don’t fit into those categories too. Out of everything these were my favorite reads:
Political Order and Political Decay
In this book Fukuyama first asks “What does it take to create a modern, well functioning state?” He answers this by laying out a conceptual framework in the style of classical liberalism with three main axes: an effective state (e.g. capability to exercise power), rule of law, and democratic accountability. He chronicles the journey of many states as they developed along these dimensions, some successfully, some moderately successfully, and some not at all. China, as an example, had an effective state long before Europe but has yet to acquire democratic accountability or rule of law. America, by contrast, had democratic accountability far before it had an effective state – something that ironically impeded its ability to develop an effective state as clientilism corrupted its political institutions. The historical contingencies in the development of various states are striking and give new lenses for which to view our world.
After exploring how political order arises, Fukuyama turns to its decay – a process that most (all?) of us living in Western have some intuitive sense of. By decay Fukuyama means¬ an inability for institutions to adapt to changing conditions over time. He spends ample time on American political developments. He locates its decline in growing inequality and concentration of wealth allowing for the purchase of political power, which in turn can be used to further their own interests. The flipside of this, and another cause, is the permeability of political institutions to interest groups which allows small unrepresentative groups of actors to exercise undue influence on policy.
It is interesting to take Fukuyama’s framework and apply it to crypto, where I spend most of my time. Some projects in crypto face development challenges that are more similar to governing a country than a company and I think crypto has much to learn from history and political philosophy. Fukuyama’s framework has also given me newfound appreciation and understanding for Optimism, which I see now from the lens of creating an effective state for the Internet.
Thanks to Joanne Lim for the book recommendation!
Camus at Combat
During World War 2 French philosopher Albert Camus was editor in chief of Combat, an underground French newspaper for the resistance movement while France was under occupation by the Nazis. Camus at Combat is a collection of his writings for Combat, where he narrates the time’s events with erudition. They provide a glimpse inside the mind of a deeply humanist and reflective thinker at a time of unparalleled moral crisis and disruption. In reporting on a concrete horror of war Camus interprets events in grand terms and appeals to transcendent ideals. Take his message on the eve of Paris’ liberation as an example:
Paris is firing all its ammunition into the August night. Against a vast backdrop of water and stone, on both sides of a river awash with history, freedom’s barricades are once again being erected. Once again justice must be redeemed with men’s blood.
Paris – this enormous, dark, sweltering city with its stormy skies and stormy streets – seems more illuminated now than the City of Light that was once the envy of the entire world. It is aglow with all the fires of hope and pain, with the flame of lucid courage, and with all the splendor not just of liberation but of the liberty to come.
The book does not end here or end with the war either, instead continuing on alongside the ensuing transformation of society post-war. Across these years Camus grapples with issues arising from liberation, justice for Nazi collaborators, food and housing shortages, international institutions, colonial injustices, the death penalty, role of the free press, and more. Throughout it all Camus’ thinking retains its force, clarity, and basic humanism – providing an edifying inspiration even today.
From Rebel to Ruler
Given the importance of the CCP to today’s world, it is a shockingly understudied institution. From Rebel to Ruler is a chronicle of the first 100 years of the Chinese Communist Party, offering insight into the origins, development, workings, and prospects of the CCP. The book follows successive senior leaders of China along with the major political and economic developments of their time. It feels similar to how a history of the US would be written, with Presidents providing a natural way to organize the story.
The remarkable resiliency of the CCP over time was particularly striking to me. Time and time again the CCP has faced existential peril, somehow surviving each challenge and repeatedly reinventing itself. Sometimes this resiliency and reinvention is in contradiction with even recent CCP past! But nonetheless, the CCP has led China to a level of influence and prosperity which would have been unimaginable in the past. This level of resiliency and capacity for reinvention should give anyone predicting the CCP or China’s collapse pause.
Other good books from 2022
I read a lot of other books that were good, but the above are my favorites for 2022. Here are some follow ups that are notable:
I also spend a lot of time rereading Fear and Trembling this year once again after spending a lot of time doing so in 2020, but since it isn’t new for me I won’t add it to my favorites. Overall I read 48 books and the above is a pretty good selection of the kinds of books I read. If you’re interested in the other books I read I’ve added them to a spreadsheet here.