E. O. Wilson and Spontaneous order

Jump right to the 17:28 mark if you don’t care to spend some quality time with a delightful old man.


“We share with insects the mysterious instinct to build complex societies… [talks about an ant colony filled with concrete then dug out of the earth…] Here was a labyrinthine web of underground highways, mini-colonies, gardens, and garbage dumps. But it was the scale of it that was breathtaking. This was an ant metropolis, a Manhattan of the insect world.

“Now, how could an animal with a brain smaller than a pinhead possibly construct and maintain a city of this size and complexity?”

Because spontaneous order! This view is why Don Lavoie cites E.O. Wilson so much. Both are fascinated (as we all should be) with systems where the interaction of its constituent parts yields outcomes more complex than any subset of those constituent parts could come up with. These complex outcomes result from relatively simple information transmission mechanisms so that behaviors of each part influence and are influenced by the rest of the system.

Asylum Seekers and Western Military Intervention

Recently, Brandon Christensen, the capable Editor here tried to take me behind the woodpile, again! (Note for our overseas readers: To take someone behind the woodpile usually a child – is to spank him to try to improve his attitude.) This is what happened: NOL re-published two of my essays “Hypocrisy” and “Muslim Refugees in Perspective” where I asserted (again) that many Muslim societies are failed societies or otherwise sick. Brandon asserted (again) that any apparent linkage between Islam in general and social pathologies is just that, an appearance. Instead he seems to argue, Muslim societies that are in any kind of trouble owe their trouble mostly (or much?) to Western intervention in general and to American intervention in particular, with a special emphasis (I am guessing) on military intervention.

There is a partial test of these competing beliefs in an examination of refugee applications to Germany during a recent period.

Between January and August 2015, Germany received 147,500 applications for asylum from the top ten countries of origin of the applicants. (I am rounding numbers to the next hundred.)* Of these, 79% came from predominantly Muslim countries.

Almost half of the asylum seekers from Muslim countries – 48% – came from Syria, a mostly Muslim country where the US and the West had notably not intervened (or only superficially) by August 2015, the end of our period of observation. If you will recall, the US president has earlier drawn a red line beyond which the Syrian dictator couldn’t go on waging war on his people. The Syrian dictator ignored the warning and nothing happened. That’s as non-interventionist as it gets!

Of the asylum seekers from predominantly Muslim countries, 23% came from Iraq and from Afghanistan together, two countries that have in fact experienced American and Western (even international) military intervention in the past twenty years.

Reminder: It’s worth remembering that the intervention in Afghanistan was launched to dislodge a regime installed by force of arms that sheltered terrorists, according to the Al Qaida terrorists themselves, and according to the regime itself. Several years earlier, the same terrorist group sheltered by Afghanistan – Al Qaida – had declared war on the United States, incidentally.

Of the remainder of asylum seekers from predominantly Muslim countries, 29% came from Kosovo. That’s more than from Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

Reminder: In 1998, the national Communist Serbian dictator Milosevic ordered all ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, more than 90% of the population to leave under threat of death. This episode of ethnic cleaning cost about 10,000 lives. NATO, led by the US quickly intervened militarily and forced Milosevic to leave the (overwhelmingly Muslim) Kosovar in peace.

NATO had previously intervened militarily in Bosnia, another part of the dissolving Yugoslav Republic, to save the non-Serb population from Serb ethnic cleansing . Of the total population, a plurality, about 40%, were Muslims. (There are no Bosnian asylum seekers visible in the sample I am discussing here. Bosnia is mentioned only as a reminder of the diversity of Western military interventions.)

Following these Western military interventions, both Bosnia and Kosovo became independent Republics with strong Western backing. They remained Muslim or mostly Muslim.

Would anyone dare argue that Western action to stop the massacres of first Bosnians and then Kosovar are responsible for the fact that now almost entirely Muslim Kosovo is currently producing many asylum seekers? I suppose, this is defensible: Had NATO not intervened militarily, Kosovars would been massacred by Milosevic in larger numbers, and then, they would have fewer people, – mathematically available – to contribute as asylum seekers.


Of the asylum applicants from Muslim countries, 45% came from Albania, Eritrea, Pakistan, and Nigeria together, all countries with no US or other Western intervention of any kind in recent years ( I mean since 1950, the earliest I really remember!)

Albania alone contributed more asylum seekers, 33,900, than Iraq and Afghanistan together, 26,700. There have been no US or Western intervention in Albania.

Of course, distance alone makes it easier for Albanians than for Iraqis and for Afghans to reach Germany. But, by the same reasoning, why are there few asylum seekers from Croatia that is even closer to Germany, or from Romania. that isn’t much farther? (Croatia and Romania all have tiny Muslim populations.) Contrary to this line of reasoning, I must say, there were 21,000 asylum seekers from Serbia, a country with a small Muslim minority. Muslim dominated societies do not have a monopoly on severe social pathologies. I never asserted otherwise.

We know from the cut-off point of the table of the ten countries that were the largest suppliers of asylum applicants that the highest possible number of asylum seekers from non-Muslim Croatia, or from Romania (or from non-Muslim Bulgaria, or from troubled Greece) would be 3,976. That would be about 1/10 of asylum seekers from mostly Muslim Albania.

I see in these figures moderate support for the idea of the sickness of Muslim societies. I find little support, on the other hand, for the competing idea that Western and American intervention are responsible for the difficulties those societies are encountering.

I anticipate several criticisms of this provisional conclusion.

First, quantitative association like these don’t “prove” anything. Of course they don’t. Perhaps, there is a third factor, or series of factors not related to either Islam or Western intervention that explain why Muslim societies are such rich providers of asylum seekers. I am listening.

Second, the short recent period January to August 2015, maybe historically unrepresentative. There is a near- infinity of other possible periods the examination of which might show no disproportionate numbers of refugees from Muslim counties. (Ask me why a “near infinity.”)

Third, Germany is not the whole world. A more inclusive data base showing all asylum applications from all countries to all countries might demonstrate no preponderance of refugees from Muslim countries. In fact, such a data base might indicate that refugees from Muslim countries are actually under-represented among asylum seekers world-wide.

I hope someone performs one or the other study. I would easily change my mind according to the results. I am not wedded to the idea of widespread sickness of Muslim societies. Frankly, I don’t even like it. I surely have no ideological investment in this view. It’s just that there is currently no other view that is even modestly supported by anything but ideological intransigence.

Finally, there are probably those who would argue that large numbers leaving their countries at great personal risk to seek refuge in an alien country the language of which they probably don’t even know, that such an exodus says nothing about the countries of origin. Go ahead, say it; make my day! I can’t wait.

The conclusions of this simple analysis is difficult for many otherwise intelligent people to accept, even provisionally. Three reasons that I see for the rejection.

First it seems politically incorrect. We have become so confused by leftists identity politics that many are unable to distinguish between race, an unchanging attribute of a person, and religion, an individual choice. He used to be black; he still is. I used to be a Catholic. I am not anymore. That simple! (Of course, I did not risk the death penalty as do Muslims in some Muslim countries for committing apostasy.)

Second, professional intellectuals – who may or may not be very intelligent – have a horror of being caught believing the same things as do the great unwashed masses. It’s bad enough that they must assent to the assertion that the sun rises in the east, same as a plumber or a cop! The masses are “Islamophobic;” I must stay away regardless of the evidence!

Third, and much more subtly, my discussion with Brandon is part of an ongoing discreet struggle taking place on the edge of the libertarian movement. Libertarians of all stripes believe that war is a major factor in increasing the power and the scope of the state vis-à-vis civil society. (I share this belief.) Libertarian purists like Brandon end up becoming a kind of qualified pacifist, like this:

Perhaps, if I am completely sure that people who have sworn to disembowel me are actually climbing over the back wall of my property after having set my neighbor’s house on fire with my neighbors inside, perhaps, then, I will think of defending myself.

A handful of libertarians of that ilk keep failing to recruit the millions of moderate conservatives who both want small government and believe the yoke of government will never be alleviated in a society that feels threatened. Let me repeat myself: The task of first halting the growth of government and then, of rolling back its scope and power can only be accomplished in a very well defended society. Much of this rolling back has been achieved in Somalia, by the way yet, Somalia is not a model.

In their desire to reject all kinds of war that are not obviously and dangerously defensive, libertarian purists will find fault with all wars, almost at any cost. If necessary, they will blind themselves to the obvious. The act of blaming on American and or Western intervention the self evident multiple failure of Muslim societies (with major exceptions), is just the latest example of this tendency to gauge out one’s own eyes to avoid the horrors of the truth.

“We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm. – W. Churchill”

* The data on seekers of asylum from Germany are from the German Federal Office for Migrations and Refugees published in the Wall Street Journal of 9/25/15, p. A12

“Turkish Savagery” is up at Liberty Unbound

For centuries, Europeans viewed the Turk as the most feared, yet least familiar enemy. Twice, the Ottoman hordes threatened Vienna, practically next door to Paris. For hundreds of years French Mediterranean towns and monasteries fortified themselves against Turkish pirates (who mostly never showed up). Algerian pirates, who were thought of generically as “Turks,” occasionally plundered the Irish coast. Once, a bunch of them even raided Iceland! Following his naval debacle at the Bay of Abukir, Napoleon brought Mamelukes, Turkish mercenary troops from Egypt, back to Europe. He used them as a weapon of terror against the insurgent Spaniards, a fact memorialized by Goya in his Tres de Mayo. In this atrocity painting, only the Spanish victims, who seem to be appealing to the viewer, have human faces. The Mameluke execution squad is shown from the rear, like a many-backed beast.

Read the rest.

A Matter of Legitimacy

Dictionaries give us two definitions of “legitimacy”: “the quality of being legal” and “the quality of being reasonable and acceptable”. The two meanings are intertwined: we expect reasonability from the laws and we infer the content of a law we do not properly know from what we regard as reasonable. Unreasonable laws are not acceptable to the people and Cesare Beccaria warned us about how unreasonable prohibitions engender more and new crimes.

Political Realism and Legal Positivism cross their paths when it is time to discuss what is the ultimate foundation of obligation, both political and legal: facts and force. An overwhelming force deployed upon individuals and peoples will always be able to impose what is reasonable and acceptable. For Thomas Hobbes, as fear is not a sufficient reason for annulment of covenants, the feeling of terror from the subject to the sovereign does not challenge the legitimacy of his power.

Libertarianism is, in principle, a political stance on the state that denies its legitimacy or, at least, denies unlimited sovereignty. And we stress “in principle” because we want to point out that not all versions of Libertarianism accomplish the said aims. In this regard, we want to single out one crucial trait of every Libertarian political theory: is it possible a stateless order of cooperative coordination between individual plans? Does its existence depend upon our own volition and agreement? We want to make a distinction between two strains of Libertarianism: the one which affirms the possibility of a stateless society and the one which does not.

Paradoxically, the affirmation of the possibility of a stateless order of cooperation legitimates the Hobbesian stance on unlimited sovereignty: having at their disposal the alternative of a stateless political order, individuals opt freely for a Leviathan. What we have to decide now is the extension of the power of the government, but at this point there is no restriction left to the power of the Leviathan to determine its own limits.

On the other hand, for the strain of Libertarianism that regards the absence of a state as impossible or not desirable ­because, for example, the justice is an artificial virtue that demands a government to enforce it­, the state is a fact that has no reasonable alternatives. As the theft that compels us to choose between our bag or our life, there are no reasonable options left to us but accepting the power of the state. As David Hume pointed out, tacit conventions as the stability of the possessions require a political order to enforce it. Therefore, the factual power of the state will be legit only as long as it enforces the tacit order of human cooperation that allows individuals to fulfil their plans. Notwithstanding this last strain of Libertarianism does not deny the legitimacy of the state, it does consistently deny the legitimacy of any type of unlimited sovereignty.

How does emigration impact institutions?

Hello everyone. As usual I’ve come to ask for feedback on my latest research. I can’t emphasize enough how much it helps to blog it out, if only because it forces me to sit down and try to summarize things in a few hundred words.

My current research is looking at the effect emigration has, if any, on institutions. Institutions come in various forms. The state is an institution, but family, religion, and even organized crime are too. Broadly speaking institutions are those rules that govern society, both formal and informal. Institutions have increasingly been acknowledged as being one of the key (if not the key) determinants of a nation’s wealth.

Despite the importance of institutions, we know relatively little about them. By no means is this due to a lack of trying, and in there have been some earnest attempts to tackle the issue. Acemoglu’s Why Nations Fail is one such attempt.* For the time being the goal in institutional studies is to properly explain how and why institutions form.

My goal is to neither explain the origin of institutions or to measure their impact on economic well being. I take it for granted that good (and bad) institutions populate the world. Instead I am interested in how different institutions interact with one another.

My former boss at Cato has looked at how immigration has influenced a destination country’s (the USA) institutions. He finds little effect. In my project I try to look at the problem from the opposite end – how does emigration influence an origin country’s institutions. To measure the impact of emigration I use remittance data.

Remittances come in two form. There are monetary remittances, which are cash transfers from emigrants to their family members and friends back home. There is a broad economic literature on the former and its affect on development outcomes. There is however little (if any- I haven’t found any at least) economic work on social remittances. Social remittances is the transfer of ideas from emigrants to their family members and friends. In general the economic remittance literature has not yet attempted to connect itself with the institution literature despite both being part of the larger development literature.

Most work on social remittances has been done by sociologists. Thus far though most of the work has been qualitative and/or focused on how social remittances tie migrant communities with their origin countries. There has been little work on how this communication translates to changes in institutions.

Political scientists are currently taking the lead on the question. Earlier this year Abel et al. published a paper looking at how remittances affect democratic transition. They find that increased monetary remittances decreases voter turn out and thus weakens the political base of populist-based autocracies. Another recent paper by Miller et al. find that emigration increase the possibility of civil war by giving opposition parties an external funding source.

I think Abel and Miller’s work the best thus far in seeing how emigration affects institutions. My biggest concern with Abel’s paper is that he looks at democratic transition events, but there is no reason why democracy must lead to better institutions. Hong Kong and Singapore alternate as the most economically free states in the world, but neither is a bastion of democracy. India is the world’s largest democracy and by most metrics has awful institutions.

Miller’s work on the other hand looks at how the probability of civil war increases, but civil war in itself is not always bad. On occasion war is necessary for the improvement of institutions**.

To remedy my concerns I look at how remittances marginally influence institutions. I use the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom in the World summary index as my measure of a country’s institutions. My regression tables are found below. All observations are for north American (including central America but excluding the Caribbean) countries from 1994-2012.

Column 1 is a simply regression between a country’s EFW score and remittances as a percent of GDP. Initially we find a negative correlation between the two – a 1 percentage point increase in remittances is associated with a 0.01 point decrease in its EFW score. Is this a sign that brain drain, the emigration of high skilled migrants, is reducing the institutional qualify of origin countries? Not quite – it’s simply caused by the lack of control variables. At this point remittances is a proxy for a country being undeveloped.

Columns 2-4 are me playing around with various control variables. The interaction of phone subscriptions with remittances is my attempt to proxy for social remittances. Presumably emigrants are more likely to call back home, and exchange ideas, if their family members and friends have a phone to be contacted at. The 1 year lagged EFW index symbolizes the ‘stickiness’ of institutions: in the short run institutions do not drastically change.

Column 5 is simply column 4 re-run using clustered errors and country fixed effects. Country fixed effects, for those of you who have been spared endless hours of statistical classes, is a technique that allows us to account for unobserved characteristics of a country that do not change across the observed time span. This is usually done to account for such things as culture or geography.

In this final iteration we find that a one percentage point increase in remittances increases a country’s EFW index score by 0.05 points. This is a marginal effect, but its not irrelevant. See the Cato Institute’s interactive map of economic freedom. The difference between the United States and Russia is about one point despite the former presumably being a bastion of freedom.


*Why Nations Fail has been discussed on NOL several times before, see here and here.
** But let me emphasize that this is rarely the case and war should be the last option. We really do need to make our own NOL foreign policy quiz.

(1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
VARIABLES EFW Index EFW Index EFW Index EFW Index EFW Index
Remittances as a percent of GDP – Fraser EFW -0.01* 0.04*** 0.00 0.01** 0.05***
(0.01) (0.01) (0.00) (0.01) (0.01)
Fixed telephone subscriptions (per 100 people) 0.03*** 0.01* 0.01
(0.00) (0.00) (0.01)
Remittances * Phone -0.00 -0.00 -0.00**
(0.00) (0.00) (0.00)
EFW Index 1-year lag 0.81*** 0.78*** 0.54***
(0.04) (0.05) (0.05)
Income Per Capita in 000s, Constant 2005 dollars. 0.00* -0.00 -0.01
(0.00) (0.00) (0.05)
Constant 7.39*** 6.60*** 1.33*** 1.50*** 3.04***
(0.06) (0.06) (0.28) (0.32) (0.45)
Country Fixed Effects No No No No Yes
Observations 134 134 110 110 110
R-squared 0.03 0.66 0.91 0.91 0.93

Standard errors in parentheses in columns 1-4. Robust errors in column 5.

*** p<0.01, ** p<0.05, * p<0.1

How Can Crypto-currencies Democratize Society?

Yesterday, September 26th of 2015, I attended the Reinvent Money event in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, that was organized by Paul Buitink. The goal of the event was to bring people together for a grand discussion on the future of our monetary system. This discussion on monetary reforms is totally necessary if one considers the current problems with the euro and Greece, banking scandals, the rise of bitcoin and the blockchain technology, and peer-to-peer lending.

The speakers list consisted of many prominent thinkers and activists who could share with a crowd that was mostly in favor of crypto-currencies their thoughts about the current monetary system and whether money should be reinvented.

Willem Middelkoop was the first speaker and talked about the Big Reset of the monetary system that is currently orchestrated by high level officials. Jakob de Haan, head of the research department at the Dutch Central Bank, was the second speaker and stated that he does not believe in an upcoming Big Reset. While defending central banks, he argued that central banks are necessary in order to stabilize the currency and he sees five aspects that central banks should fulfill:

  1. central bank independence;
  2. central bank transparency;
  3. using monetary policy instruments to stabilize the economy;
  4. banking supervision of not only independent commercial banks, but of the whole economy. In his opinion, the central bank should supervise the entire economic system instead of primarily addressing individual institutions;
  5. macro-prudential policies to avoid crises.

Other speakers included Max Keiser, Stacy Herbert, Vit Jedlicka (president of Liberland), Stephan Antonopoulos, Simon Dixon, Joris Luyendijk, Prof. Antal Lekety and some others. Some wanted to go back to a gold-based monetary system, others truly wanted to reinvent money through crypto-currencies, and a few wanted the system to stay as it is structurally. As a voluntaryist, I was quite disappointed that the pro-crypto-currency speakers saw it as a means to democratize society. I don’t fully understand what they mean with the word ‘democratize’ and how crypto-currencies could do that, but I’ve noticed that those speakers saw it as a means to make our political system more democratic. Maybe, they mean ‘anti-authoritarian’ as crypto-currencies would indeed limit the monetary powers of the government and the central bank. However, I’ve always understood it as a de-political money system that is disruptive enough to do away with the myth that government is needed at all to stabilize our currency, and hence that it would bring us closer toward a voluntaryist society – not toward a more democratic system. A democratic system, in my opinion, means a system in which the majority rules. Crypto-currencies give every individual the full ownership of their money. Thus taking personal financial affairs entirely outside the scope of government meddling, also if that government is democratically chosen.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Hongcouver
  2. Making a Case for Bishops’ Authority in the Second and Seventeenth Centuries
  3. Global Warming is not a Crisis
  4. Dondante
  5. From masterpieces to selfies (top link)