Tim Harford's The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irratinal World is as insightful as any book you will read this year.
My advice to young Austrian economists who want to write books and articles that matter is the same advice that was given to me, though I didn't always follow it, by Mancur Olson when I was a fresh faced economist. "Pete," Olson said to me, "you have to stop telling other economist what to do. Worry about the sins of omission by other economists, never about their sins of commission. Focus instead on the omissions and turn them into your sins of comission to see if they are sins or not." I am quoting from memory, but I believe that is the direct quote. Similarly, Peter Berger once asked me, "If you have $1 million to do research what would you do?" I answered something about ethnography and economics. He smiled and basically said "No you wouldn't. Wouldn't you want to save economics?" I replied that I thought both projects were interconnected. Berger smiled and knowingly said to me "Economics is unsalvagable you know." Then he proceeded to tell me fascinating stories of his interactions with economists on the topics of culture and religion. Berger, if you don't know, is one of the most engaging scholars you could ever meet -- a complete joy to be around. Perhaps only Kenneth Boulding (who was one of my teachers) could rival Berger for combining seriousness of purpose with sheer joy in the life of the mind and communicated with a great sense of humor.
Anyway, why do I write this? As economists influenced by the Austrian school, we tend to find ourselves in the position of trying to stress points that others are ignoring in economic conversation. But as Olson was trying to tell me, when we go into methodological debates or philosophical discourse (no matter how important these are) we do limit our audience and effectiveness. We would do better by doing a serious study of methodolgy when we are starting out our careers to decide how we want to proceed in our work, but then getting on with our work as economists and political economists. After we do some work, then we can critically reflect back again on our methodological perspective to see if it aided or inhibited useful work.
Harford's The Logic of Life is actually the sort of work that those schooled in Misesian and Hayekian economics can be, and should be writing. Use economics to make sense of the world around us --- write in clear and entertaining prose. Harford's model of rational choice is very Austrian (he doesn't call it that) -- but it is not the fiction of homo-economicus, or the lightening calculator of pleasure and pain, or the omniscient agent with perfect self-control. Instead, as William Jaffe once wrote about Menger's man is the same as Harford's, he is "caught between alluring hopes and haunting fears." He is, however, the pivotal chooser and as such the unit of analysis.
What Harford does in this book is walk through several of the main papers in economics written over the past few decades and provides the basic intuition that is behind the papers. In the case of some of these papers, I think Harford's reasonable interpretation excuses the excesses of formalism that in those papers cloud the basic economic intuition rather than illuminate it. In other instances, he captures not only the essence of the argument, but the reason the author approached the topic the way they did. In all instances, he makes more plain language sense of the econoimc argument than the professional economists on which he is drawing.
In his earlier book, The Undercover Economist, Harford mainly addressed the world directly and made sense of it thorugh the economic way of thinking. In his new book, he addresses the world around him and mediates between the world and the literature in economics, and improves our understanding of both in the process.
Rather than writing essays on why other economists don't get this or that point within the Austrian tradition, I wish I had written this book. I should have listened to Mancur Olson so many years ago. But as Berger recognized in me, there is something of a missionary zeal in me with regard to economics that Sennholz instilled so many years ago that I cannot shake even when it would have been in my rational self-interest to do so. Like Menger's man, I too am caught between alluring hopes and haunting fears. Maybe this year I can break out of the cycle.