Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, by Steven Pinker, Viking, 2018. The lives of humans have been getting better in many respects. This book is the best survey of the evidence. (For more, see Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, Johan Norberg’s Progress, or Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape.)
Cultural Evolution, by Ronald F. Inglehart, Cambridge University Press, 2018. One of the most important aspects of progress is our views about opportunity and inclusion for members of outgroups and our prioritization of personal liberty. Inglehart’s book documents these shifts and explains how and why they tend to occur once societies reach a certain level of affluence.
The Nordic Theory of Everything, by Anu Partanen, Harper, 2017. What’s the set of institutions and policies most conducive to human flourishing in a rich democratic country? The Nordic model. For a similar take, with less on-the-ground detail but a more systematic assessment of the evidence, see Lane Kenworthy, Social Democratic Capitalism, Oxford University Press, 2020.
Our Kids, by Robert D. Putnam, Simon and Schuster, 2016. Nearly everyone believes in equality of opportunity. What does equal opportunity mean? How near or far are we from achieving it?
Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison, by Bruce Western, Russell Sage Foundation, 2018. One reason for opposition to policies and institutions that help the least advantaged is the view that a person’s success or failure owes mainly to their effort. This book documents, better than any other I’ve seen, how common it is for people’s lives to be thrown radically off course by poverty, family disruption, neighborhood dysfunction, mental illness, violence, and other things over which they have little or no control.
Unequal Democracy, by Larry Bartels, 2nd edition, Princeton University Press and Russell Sage Foundation, 2018. A great introduction to American politics and to some of the ways in which it’s changed in recent decades.
Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein, Scribner, 2008. If it feels like the chaos, division, and hostility of the current moment are unprecedented, read this book.
Liar’s Poker, by Michael Lewis, W.W. Norton, 1989. Finance plays an outsize role in modern life. Lewis distills its essence.
Development as Freedom, by Amartya Sen, Oxford University Press, 1999. What does improvement in well-being consist of? Sen gives a compelling answer.
The Bottom Billion, by Paul Collier, Oxford University Press, 2007. The past generation has witnessed significant reduction in extreme poverty. But there has been little progress for about one-seventh of the world’s population. Why? And how can we change that?
Open Borders, by Bryan Caplan and Zach Wienersmith, First Second, 2019. Ending discrimination based on place of birth is probably the single most effective way to improve the largest number of lives.