"Book Review: Hanging By The Thread,
by Donald B. Anderson"

Ryan Decker

SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Summer 2010)





Citation for the book: Donald B. Anderson, Hanging By The Thread, Orem, Utah: Granite Publishing, 2010.

Hanging by The Thread is the first novel by Donald B. Anderson. A CES educator from Utah, Anderson’s motivation for the book seems to be twofold. First, he recently “put himself through what he refers to as a self-appointed Master's Degree in Freedom Studies,” reading the works of Ezra Taft Benson, Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, and others. [1] Second, the financial crisis which began in 2007 and government responses to its fallout have caused frustration and, sometimes, paranoia among many on the right of the political spectrum. Prompted by a family member and hoping to illustrate laissez-faire doctrine about the consequences of government intervention in the economy, Anderson drew on his self-training and national political and economic conditions to create what he calls “a freedom thriller that educates.” [2] Following the regular narrative of the novel, Anderson includes ten lectures expounding his economic ideology through a fictional professor of economics.

The Amazon.com “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” section for the book includes three titles by Glenn Beck, one title by Cleon Skousen, and a complement of books on the founders and founding of America. [3] Indeed, readers most likely to enjoy the novel will come from the ranks of Latter-day Saint patriots predisposed to the book’s message about economic conservatism. Anderson has posted a trailer which explains how he attracted this coterie at www.hangingbythethread.com. The book was released nearly concurrently with a similar ideological thriller by Beck; but while Anderson is certainly more genuine and likeable than the divisive media giant, Anderson’s book, which takes place in Utah, is unlikely to have appeal outside of Mormon circles.

Hanging by The Thread seemingly aspires to the tradition of Ayn Rand, who used fictional anecdotes to provide argument and evidence for her laissez-faire philosophical conclusions. While simplistic and lacking in external validity, Rand’s work is at least internally consistent and focused on her intended arguments. Most of Anderson’s story, in contrast, is not focused on the issues surrounding economic policy he trumpets in advertisements, and when he attempts to directly argue for his ideas (in the lectures) the arguments lack rigor. Though I am personally sympathetic to many of his views on economic policy, I found his method of persuasion less than helpful (as I will detail below). Noted libertarian economist William Easterly has argued, “It doesn’t do the free market side any favors if all of its advocates are willing to overlook sloppy logic and evidence and just follow clan-like loyalties based on the final conclusions. We will only move beyond the 'religious war' if both the anti-market and pro-market sides are rigorously honest about the strengths and weaknesses of their own arguments.” [4] We will see that Anderson has not done the free market side any favors.


Our story begins in an American dystopia characterized by extensive government involvement in the economy—wealth redistribution, price fixing, trade protectionism, and heavy regulation. As the story evolves, we find that this state of affairs is the result of a deliberate plan by a highly centralized, highly secret organization called The Thread, led by a man known to his followers only as Judas. Though The Thread has managed to consolidate power over federal offices in complete, uninterrupted secrecy for a decade (the most notably and frequently mentioned of which are the White House, the National Security Agency, and the Federal Reserve system), a key Thread operative absent-mindedly allows The Thread’s master plan to fall into the hands of a recent BYU political science graduate and freedom lover, Colton Wiser. The master plan bears the title—you guessed it—Master Plan for the Rising of The Thread, and it contains the nefarious details about the organization’s gradual consolidation of political control and the plot to violently finalize that control the following day. Like many books in this genre, the story of The Thread often requires a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of readers. The notion that this organization could consolidate power and have such large membership with complete secrecy for a decade, then have a powerful member misplace a crucial document (bearing such a title) is asking a lot, but the premises allow for a thrilling story in any case. Not being a consistent consumer of fiction thriller novels, I will leave that critique to other readers.

Amazingly, despite having college degrees, Colton and his two friends find the “economics” in the document incomprehensible and take it to a BYU professor of economics, Harry Isaacson. Having graduated from BYU with majors in both political science and economics, I can assure readers that political science graduates are not so poorly trained as to need a professor to explain what “economic freedom” means, nor do many economics professors teach classes on conservative ideology. Indeed, the interaction between the professor and the boys, along with their general naivete, is plagued by a lack of realism reminiscent of the Hardy Boys. Regardless, throughout the story Isaacson expounds the economic aspects of The Thread’s evil plot to destroy freedom.

Joined by Colton’s uncle Jim, an FBI agent, the boys and the professor find themselves hunted by Thread-controlled government agents with incredible technological resources (those of the NSA). The following morning, The Thread begins initiating violent terrorist activities in major American cities which are meant to eventually include New York, Seattle, and, of course, Salt Lake City. The team must unravel the mystery of The Thread’s rise to power and prevent more violence and terror as they run for their lives. The story moves rapidly and the reader will have no trouble staying interested and alert with anticipation. Further discussion of the plot may spoil the story; suffice it to say that The Thread’s members do not hesitate to use violence in pursuit of their political and economic goals, and the good guys will exhibit great courage and resourcefulness in defense of their ideals of freedom.

Anderson claims that “the theme of Hanging by The Thread is the link between economic freedom and human happiness.” [5] However, the story itself departs markedly from this claim and other advertisements which preceded the book. Ultimately, the book is about unlikely fugitives trying to uncover and prevent a terrorist plot. Government measures to reduce economic freedom are portrayed as methods used by The Thread to increase Americans' dependency on government; beyond that, the extensive discussion of the importance of economic policy scattered throughout the dialogue, in the appended lectures, and in advertisements seems incongruous in the context of the actual plot of the novel. References to The Thread’s control of the Federal Reserve and the money supply, for instance, are hardly relevant to the story (the lectures are even void of discussion of the import of these mentions). Perhaps Anderson discovered that an “economic thriller,” as the book claims to be, would not be very thrilling at all, so he sought to construct what are actually tenuous connections between economic policy and a thrilling account of terrorism and intrigue. Regardless, his attempts to showcase his ideology during the story appear artificial and overly ambitious, though the author’s inaccurate claims about the nature of the book are likely to be its primary draw.


The frequent references to economic freedom, though, point to a larger trend in the ideology of some conservative Latter-day Saints. The election of Barack Obama and the political economy of the financial crisis have prompted disturbing paranoia among those steeped in the political commentary of then-Elder Benson and Cleon Skousen. [6] The financial crisis led to unprecedented actions by the United States government. Some of them, like the Federal Reserve and Treasury involvement in the recapitalization of banks, were driven by genuine fears of far-reaching catastrophe in the real sector as a result of the destruction of the financial sector and were supported by a significant and credible body of economics research. [7] Others, like the $800 billion fiscal stimulus and the augmentation of redistributionary mechanisms, were more politically motivated and controversial. [8] In any case, though, steps taken to address the economic and political consequences of an economic crisis are not reasonable motivation for paranoia about a socialist Armageddon. A book of this nature is likely to fuel such ideas among those who are drawn to it by its advertisements. Indeed, the recent financial crisis is often cited in the book as having created the unique circumstances which allowed The Thread to begin its rise to power, contributing to the apocalyptic outcome so commonly predicted in right-wing media.

Anderson portrays the violent methods of The Thread as a natural consequence of the American people allowing an interventionist welfare state to develop. Though he admits that “there are legitimate questions about the validity” of the famous statement, attributed to Joseph Smith, about the Constitution someday “hanging by a thread,” Anderson nonetheless employs the line as a warning against letting political views opposite of his prevail in the public forum. [9] The tendency of those who share Anderson’s views to attach moral implications to economic political preferences and to exhibit excessive paranoia about the cataclysmic consequences of any non-libertarian economic policy is disturbing. While I share many of Anderson’s views and agree that policies like minimum wages and excessive income redistribution do not maximize economic efficiency, these very policies arguably saved capitalism from political rejection and are not necessarily the result of Satan’s influence, as Anderson argues through Dr. Isaacson. [10]

Anderson is clearly not alone in advancing these troubling views. Commentators like Glenn Beck have gained massive followings through a peculiar libertarian brand of populism and by employing the word “socialism” so freely as to destroy any meaning it ever had. The further demonization of those with left-of-center political preferences reduces the sophistication of political dialogue and actually reduces the ability of economic conservatives (including this reviewer) to persuade others of their views. While Anderson (through Isaacson) is careful to explicitly mention the goodness of those on the political left as a disclaimer, his simplistic portrayal of the political economy of the welfare state as leading to conspiracy and violence carries troubling implications about his assumptions about the character (and gullibility) of American progressives—particularly those in government.


The Isaacson lectures found in the back of the book are unlikely to occur in any university classroom—certainly not in the BYU economics department. The lectures are delivered more like a Sunday school lesson than a college course, and the students are notably simple-minded in their questions and criticisms of Isaacson’s claims. Regarding economics, the professor’s lessons are basic expositions of neoclassical economic theory (the positive conclusions of which I am more likely to agree with than to dispute), but they lack nuance and acknowledgment of the merits of dissenting arguments. For instance, some people do benefit from trade protection—specifically, those workers (generally low skilled) in developed countries who lose their jobs and face what can be a prolonged loss of economic resources and, therefore, economic freedom when labor is outsourced abroad. Does the rational pursuit of tariffs by those who “lose” from trade really indicate the influence of Satan? In all his studies of economics, Dr. Isaacson apparently never came across the landmark 1991 paper by Jeffry Frieden explaining how the incentives faced by various domestic interests influence economic policy—no moralizing accusations are needed. [11] This is not to argue in favor of trade protection—this reviewer is a proponent of the reduction of trade barriers—but it is a plea for nuance and intellectual honesty in the teaching of economics. The policies Anderson advocates have costs as well as benefits.

Through his inclusion of an economics professor in the story and his use of that professor to teach the lessons of the catastrophe, Anderson seems to be closely associating the discipline of economics with freedom as he defines it. Economics, though, is more about tradeoffs, incentives, and the allocation of resources than it is about a simple definition of freedom. [12] Many people have rational—and perfectly moral—reasons to oppose laissez-faire economic policy, and teachers of economics have an obligation to explain the tradeoffs inherent in economic models (and at BYU they do just that). Further, credible academic instructors must provide evidence for their claims. Isaacson once notes, for example, that “governments that maintain freedom as a supreme economic principle end up with a lot of economic equality” without providing evidence for such a consequential assertion (or evidence that such a government has ever existed! According to our own CIA, the US ranked after the Ivory Coast and Cameroon and before Uruguay on its measure of income inequality.). The result is a set of lectures more ideological than intellectually rigorous.

The primary weakness of Anderson’s ideological presentation is his use of “economic freedom” as the ultimate end of public policy. His definition of the term is reasonable enough: freedom “to make choices, so long as in doing so I do not infringe the rights of others. If I am economically free, I can freely buy and sell, produce and exchange, own and trade. . . . I am entitled to the fruits of my labors and responsible to bear the burden of my poor choices.” [13] But using this term as the ultimate end of an ideological agenda is hopelessly impractical. The world is not so orderly as that. Those who are born with nothing have little power to buy and sell or produce and exchange [14]; the acquisition of marketable skills and the ability to engage in markets would be very costly without public education which is paid for by wealth redistribution.

Indeed, given Mormonism’s history with United Order experiments and aspirations towards Zion, this notion of the poorest in material or labor resources being unable to gain significantly from market exchange is particularly relevant for Anderson’s Latter-day Saint readers. Can laissez-faire capitalism ensure that there are no poor among us? Do the sick, the elderly, and children have a chance of gaining from such a system if they have nothing of economic value to contribute? What about those, often women, who are charged with the care of society’s weakest, frequently without any economic compensation whatsoever? Latter-day Saint doctrine provides a remedy for this problem: we are frequently reminded in scripture that we did not earn the material and labor resources we have (Mosiah chapter 4 is a good starting place for this discussion). “The lunch is free,” as Hugh Nibley frequently noted [15], so we should avoid assertions about the poor always being responsible for their situation and instead focus on alleviating their poverty. The notion that people do not necessarily deserve their material circumstances coupled with the fact that those who have nothing cannot benefit from markets are entirely overlooked by Anderson’s bold assertions about the merits of a laissez-faire approach to wealth distribution--which oversight is odd for someone who espouses a religion wherein consideration of "the least of these my brethren" and "the widows and the fatherless" is a bright benchmark of adherence to the faith. The complete economic freedom which Anderson would make the principal aim of public policy leaves the weak, the vulnerable, and the unpaid caregivers of society with no opportunities for improving their situations.

Making the wealthy more free by exempting them from redistributionary taxation, then, makes the poor less free by depriving them of opportunities to become market actors. Is it possible that short-term economic safety nets—redistribution—may actually enhance economic freedom for some? In other words, there are tradeoffs involved in the application of freedom as the end of public policy. Again, one can be sympathetic to the policy preferences espoused by Anderson and still be concerned about his failure to acknowledge the costs, tradeoffs, and general messiness of his ideas. His arguments are deeply unsatisfying.


Hanging By The Thread includes enough suspense and unpredictability to keep you interested. Like any fiction, the book will be enjoyable to those who can sufficiently suspend disbelief. But the plot is not an “economic thriller” as advertised, and the ideological arguments in the text are deeply unsatisfying.

I share Anderson’s concerns about the increasing involvement of government in economic matters. Markets are complex systems whose mechanics are unlikely to be well understood by politicians. Prices reflect information about the preferences and resources of millions of actors engaged in voluntary exchanges; the price mechanism rations goods and services with incredible efficiency. When free of perverse incentives introduced by government, markets can correct imbalances automatically. The recent health care bill, the stimulus package, and the general rhetoric coming out of Washington indicate that many policymakers lack respect for market mechanisms and believe humans with often little relevant competence and dubious motives are capable of centralizing the processing of massive amounts of decentralized information and distributing resources in ways which maximize welfare (this is what Hayek called “the fatal conceit”). This trend is cause for concern: interventions in markets can create counterproductive incentives and be extremely difficult to reverse. Free markets are the best engine for growth: innovation is driven by market incentives and the ability to act voluntarily, increasing productivity—the key driver of growth—and increasing the ability of people to consume.

But markets also exact costs on people and can reduce the economic freedom of many. Markets are not democratic—their outcomes are heavily weighted in favor of those with the largest resource endowments. While Anderson seems to believe that people acquire resources only as a result of their own labor and are automatically punished by bad decisions, the unfortunate reality is that people enter the world with wide-ranging levels of resources and opportunities. Those who start with more have greater market power and are sometimes immune to the discipline of the market. This truth should give us pause when using economic freedom as the end of our policies: the exercise of freedom by some can restrict the freedom of others, so “economic freedom” is not appropriate as the sole rationale of public policy.

This failure to acknowledge costs and tradeoffs limits the appeal of Anderson’s arguments for laissez-faire policies. These concepts are complicated, especially when applied to the messy world of public policy and unequal opportunities. Additionally, his attempts to attach religious value to his views, placing those who disagree under the influence of sinister, even satanic, forces and labeling their ideas as “socialism,” is both lacking in truth and unlikely to persuade the astute reader. Finally, the implicit idea that basic government interventions lead down a slippery slope to apocalyptic consequences is alarmist and unconvincing. Together, these flaws weaken Anderson’s argument for pure free market policies. How we acquire knowledge matters—intellectual honesty and moderation can go a long way toward crafting a persuasive argument. Anderson’s story and lectures serve more to reinforce ideological priors than to educate through reason. The appeal is to dogmatism and, sometimes, fanaticism at the expense of responsible thought and exposition. Those hoping to persuade others of the merits of laissez-faire approach would do well to avoid weak, divisive explanations for their views.


[1] Anderson, Donald. “Bio.” Donald B. Anderson: Creating Fiction that Educates. http://www.donaldbanderson.com/bio.html (accessed June 26, 2010). [Back to manuscript]

[2] Anderson, Donald. “Hanging By The Thread,” Donny’s Blog, entry posted February 5, 2010, http://donaldbanderson.blogspot.com/2010/02/hanging-by-thread.html (accessed June 26, 2010). [Back to manuscript]

[3] I am not familiar with the algorithm employed by Amazon.com to generate this list, but it provides a simple reference point on Anderson’s readership thus far. [Back to manuscript]

[4] Easterly, William. “Can we move beyond a religious war over free markets?” AIDWATCH, entry posted June 14, 2010,  http://aidwatchers.com/2010/06/can-we-move-beyond-a-religious-war-over-free-markets/ (accessed June 26, 2010). [Back to manuscript]

[5] Anderson, Donald. “Economic freedom and happiness,” Donny’s Blog, entry posted June 4, 2010, http://donaldbanderson.blogspot.com/2010/06/economic-freedom-and-happiness.html (accessed June 26, 2010). [Back to manuscript]

[6] I will not comment directly on the views of these men, one of them a great spiritual leader and prophet. However, the reader should note that other general authorities have disagreed with these views, and the LDS Church does not have an official policy on this category of politics. For histories of the turbulence caused by then-Elder Benson’s public statements on politics, see the following:

Brown, Hugh. 1999. An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown. Ed. Edwin B. Firmage. Salt Lake City: Signature Books.

Prince, Gregory and Wm Robert Wright. 2005. David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

[Back to manuscript]

[7] This reviewer finds it fortunate that the chairman of the Federal Reserve during the recent crisis, Ben Bernanke, was a researcher of noted expertise on the effect of bank failures on output during the Great Depression. Though Anderson and others may disagree with the rationale for bank “bailouts,” the policy was supported by research and may have prevented political demand for far more interventionist policies. See the following evidence of the consequences of bank failure provided by Dr. Bernanke:

Bernanke, Ben. 1983. Nonmonetary effects of the financial crisis in the propagation of the Great Depression. The American Economic Review 73 (June): 257-76.

[Back to manuscript]

[8] Ironically, the recently resigned Council of Economic Advisors chair, Christina Romer, has (prior to her time in the White House) found evidence that contradicts the findings of her office once working for President Obama. Romer and her husband David Romer published a paper in 2008 suggesting that tax cuts are more effective in stimulating the economy than spending increases (this is shown by comparing the fiscal multiplier on tax cuts, found by the Romers to be in excess of 3, to the multiplier on spending, found by the White House to be less than 2). Valerie Ramey found that spending may also be even less effective than the Administration suggested. Regardless, concerns about the “stimulus” are more understandable than concerns about temporary loans to the financial sector. See the following:

Ramey, Valerie. 2009. Identifying government spending shocks: It’s all in the timing. NBER Working Paper No. W15464.

Romer, Christina and David Romer. 2007. The macroeconomic effects of tax changes: Estimates based on a new measure of fiscal shocks. NBER Working Paper No. W13264.

[Back to manuscript]

[9] Anderson, Donald. “Why the title?” Donny’s Blog, entry posted February 12, 2010, http://donaldbanderson.blogspot.com/2010/02/why-title.html (accessed June 26, 2010). [Back to manuscript]

[10] Thread page 307. See the following for an eloquent and nuanced argument about the importance of New Deal policies in preserving capitalism:

Black, Conrad. 2003. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom. PublicAffairs.

[Back to manuscript]

[11] Frieden, Jeffry. 1991. Invested interests: The politics of national economic policies in a world of global finance. International Organization 45 (Autumn), 425-52. [Back to manuscript]

[12] In fact, much of upper-division and graduate economics coursework at decent universities consists of the acquisition of technical skills—mathematical modeling and econometrics—for exploring these concepts. [Back to manuscript]

[13] Thread page 34. [Back to manuscript]

[14] For a rigorous analytical treatment of the notion that those with little or no resources cannot significantly benefit from market exchanges, see the following:

Mas-Colell, Andreu, Michael D. Whinston, and Jerry R. Green. 1995. Microeconomic Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 515-538.

Using the Edgeworth box discussed in the text, consider the case where one agent begins with zero endowments of all goods.

[Back to manuscript]

[15] Nibley, Hugh. 1989. Work we must, but the lunch is free. In The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley. Edited by Don E. Norton. Vol. 9: Approaching Zion. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company. [Back to manuscript]

Full Citation for This Article: Decker, Ryan (2010) "Book Review: Hanging By The Thread by Donald B. Anderson," SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Summer), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleDeckerThread.html, accessed [give access date].

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