Deciding Whether to Buy a Book. . . .

Or, why I bought Yascha Mounk’s The People vs Democracy.


If you have only so much time to read and you’re watching your pennies, how do you decide whether to buy a new book outside your area of expertise? One way to go at that is to check out who’s reviewing the book. You may not know all the reviewers, but you can probably flag bias pretty quickly if you read a few of the online reviews. Next you have to ask yourself what you think about the bias. And then, decide. I bought Mounk’s book on the above basis!

Mounk’s recent book The People vs. Democracy has been reviewed or commented about positively in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, The Economist, Washington Post, The Atlantic and the New Yorker. That says “buy me.” I had read his earlier book with much admiration, and this was another fascinating study to buy and digest.

Mounk points out that democracy—not just in the US—is going through its worst crisis since..

the 1930s (Hitler and his National Socialist Workers’ Party). Born in Germany, lived in France, Italy and England, he now teaches at Harvard. Educated at Cambridge, the French School for Advanced Social Studies (basically a top research university member) and Columbia University. His first book has the insight that only that kind of background can present.

His big question in this book is why this crisis of democracy? As the Economist puts it, his book stands out in the field for the sheer quality of his answers.

Mounk argues that liberal democracy must be seen from two perspectives: protecting individuals from the tyranny of the majority and giving power to the people. For most of the twentieth century these two versions worked together very well. In contrast, liberal elites, today, are quite willing to exclude people from important decisions. In the mid-20th century, the income of the typical American household doubled. But since 1985 it remained flat with just a tiny majority of elites taking home the bacon. Though this is the key issue, there are a number of issues coming out of social media that also drive the problem.

In this book, as in his first book, Mounk is not especially convincing on how to resolve the issue. My take, and this is pure bias, is that academics are exceptionally good at defining and explaining problems, but not so good at resolving them. Typically, that takes public intellectuals and smart legislators, neither of which are in a large supply today.

Still, his books, including the earlier The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice and the Welfare State, are worth your pennies and very good reads.

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