Three weeks ago, I wrote about books before 1750 that those looking to avoid the tyranny of the urgent should read. One person who saw the list asked about books from the past 250 years that would help us understand: a) why America has become a success and b) why the 20th century was in many ways a disaster. I do have four recommendations on each topic.
My first choice is heavy lifting at times but is worth it: "The Wealth of Nations," put out by England's Adam Smith in 1776. He showed that competition and free trade reduce poverty and spur helpful activity, since "man's self-interest is God's providence," which means that service with a smile is most likely when we profit by serving. Out of a Christian concern for the common man, Smith also attacked special interests who said they were acting to protect the poor but were actually using government to preserve their own standing.
Next up is an attempt to forestall the age of big government. Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France" predicted accurately that French revolutionary ideology would lead to terror and dictatorship in the 1790s. Britain's Burke advocated the political pursuit of limited goals grounded in historical experience, and opposed the Enlightenment approach (now called "progressivism") of attempting to rearrange social and political institutions according to abstract principles.
Burke's reflections can be read side-by-side with the work of the three Americans -- James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay -- who wrote "The Federalist Papers." They were defending the new American Constitution and the compromises Madison and its other authors had made as they attempted to design a structure for a free republic that, unlike those of the past, would last.
Then comes Alexis de Tocqueville's 1830s-vintage "Democracy in America." This French observer's emphasis on the importance of religious and community institutions in American life shows the deep roots of compassionate conservatism. Even more, his analysis shows how religious belief, civic associations and the sense that "among Americans are honest callings are considered honorable" all contributed to prosperity combined with liberty.