Mitt Romney's whirlwind tour of Europe and Israel did not go well. He repeatedly suggested that "bad culture" and a "love of freedom" are variables which determine why some societies succeed and others fail. As many observers have smartly pointed out, this is a common problem for conservatives. They are apparently incapable of understanding (or acknowledging) the relationship between culture, institutions, individual agency, and life outcomes.
Thus, Mitt Romney's blind spot on this issue is quite typical. For example, Rick Santorum's observation(s) about how black Americans are parasites who live off of white people was interlaced with the suggestion that if "inner city" people just got married they would get jobs and the economy would improve. Of course, Santorum is confusing outcomes and causal variables.
Ironically, Romney's flattening of history and simple-minded view of societal development is actually pretty funny. He ignores how Israel has kept Palestine in near-Apartheid conditions. The Germans, Poles, and Brits who love "freedom" also live in countries where there is much more government intervention in the economy, and which feature a more robust social safety net than the United States.
In developing his claims about why societies succeed or fail, Romney quoted two books that he considers among his favorites. These are Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, as well as The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes.
Both texts are favorites among talking point conservatives and others who want to count themselves among the "literate" classes. Based on his piss poor understanding of the arguments presented by Landes and Diamond I would suggest that 1) Romney quickly--and dishonestly--read these books to prove his own priors; 2) Romney read an executive summary of these books and gleamed something he could use; or 3) Romney never read either of these books and repeated what his aides or a colleague told him to say about them.
[Updated: in today's NY Times, Diamond himself suggests that Romney likely did not read Guns, Germs, and Steel.]
Mitt Romney may not have the common touch. However, he is just like many regular people in how he wants to sound like a stupid person's idea of what it means to be smart. This posturing works well for his conservative base given that they also hold hackery such as Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism in such high regard, and consider intellectual snake oil flimflam salesmen like pseudo-historian David Barton to be serious thinkers.
Guns, Germs and Steel, as well as The Wealth and Poverty of Nations are part of a pantheon of books that are discussed by many, but in fact are never really engaged or read in much depth. For a certain crowd, texts such as those look good on the bookshelf, mentioned online in a comment or blog post, or thrown about to score points in a partisan debate. However, if you ask for specifics, said folks often have little to offer except what the dust jacket and reviewers say.
As a public service (or even a confessional of sorts), let's make a list of books that many people want to claim as having read, but we damn well know they did not finish...or in many cases even really begin.
In no particular order here are a few of my immediate suggestions:
1. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy
2. The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
3. Any book written by Ayn Rand
4. The End of History by Francis Fukuyama
5. On Tyranny by Leo Strauss
6. What's the Matter With Kansas by Thomas Frank
7. The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman
8. The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek
9. The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Du Bois
10. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
11. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes
12. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
13. Rules of Radicals by Saul Alinsky
14. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics by John Mearsheimer
15. The Israel Lobby by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt