On Nancy MacLean’s Thesis

Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains continues to yield surprises. Just a few days ago, Phil Magness now shows a “typo” that plays a significant role in MacLean’s thesis.

Despite all these detailed scrutiny of her work, it is not clear that MacLean understand the type of error is being pointed out about her book. There are two types of errors regarding a thesis: (1) the thesis is correctly defined, but the proof is flawed, or (2) the thesis is incorrectly defined, in which case there is no need to test the thesis. What MacLean and her supporters don’t seem to realize is that Democracy in Chains is built on the second error, not on the first one. Instead of ignoring her critics, MacLean should be up to the academic game and engage accordingly. Her behavior is very telling. If her research is so solid, what’s the problem?

Consider he following example. Let’s say you find a book built on the thesis that Milton Friedman was a french communist who lived in the 18th century. You don’t need to read this book to know that the author is wrong on her argument. This book on Friedman is both factually (Friedman did not live in the 18th century and was not French) and theoretically (Friedman was not a communist) wrong. This is how wrong MacLean’s thesis on Buchanan is for anyone with some minimal exposure to his work and Public Choice.

There a few reasons why someone would still read Democracy in Chains. For instance, if the book is a preach to the choir To try to understand how such a misguided thesis can actually be supported by by an author with so little knowledge and expertise on Buchanan and Public Choice. Etc. But a reason why MacLean thinks that their critics are unwilling to consider her thesis is because she is unaware her error is the second one mentioned above. Her thesis is just wrong from the go.


White Supremacists

“White supremacy” has become a central part of the left’s narrative. In an hour and a half of casual news watching on television in early October 2017, for example, I heard three references to white supremacy. That’s more than I did in the decade 2005 to 2015, I believe.

One utterance came from the sports channel ESPN’s African-American commentator Jemele Hill who called president Trump a “white supremacist.” She added that he surrounded himself with white supremacists. Perhaps, by implication of the term “surround,” she meant several millions of his 63 million voters, or even all of them. This kind of verbal hysteria is not new and neither are intemperate television commentators but, in the recent past, such breathless declarations would have been laughed out of the park or negatively sanctioned, or both. Not anymore. Ms Hill’s statement was not exactly an isolated incident either.

In the first two weeks of October 2017, I hear the word “supremacist” on radio or television at least once a day. I am sure it has not happened before in my fifty years in this country (as an immigrant). This new tolerance makes some sense in political context.

For the inconsolable of Pres. Trump’s election, I suspect – but I don’t know for a fact – that the claim is by way of passing the baton at a time when the investigation on “Russian collusion” to elect him, now in its thirteenth month, is going nowhere. If he did not betray the country, what can we accuse him of that’s difficult for decent minded people to forgive, they ask? Digging into this country’s complex and troubled past is always a good bet if you are looking for dirt to throw at an American.

Mr Trump’s own intemperate comments – although never directed at the usual African-Americans targets of real supremacists – helped identify a valuable, superficially semi-plausible charge. The sudden emergence in the collective consciousness of unhappy young white Americans on the occasion of the 2016 election also contributed. (“…in the collective consciousness…;” they were around before that.) Unhappy young whites can but with little effort be turned into the racist rednecks of countless movies. Thus, the white supremacy narrative may be part of a half-blind collective endeavor to discredit for the long term the social forces thought to be associated with the sensational defeat in 2016 of a moderate liberal (and a feminist to boot; more on this below).

My first impression of the reality of a white supremacist movement, based on reading and listening to radio – including National Public Radio – about five days a week, besides watching television, is that there isn’t actually much going on nationwide in this respect. Yet, I am mindful of the fact that I live in “progressive” Santa Cruz, in liberal California. In neither place would one expect to bump casually into white supremacists. And if there were one, he would probably just clench his teeth and keep his mouth shut. In lily-white Santa Cruz, on the contrary, a black supremacist would probably be elected mayor on the first try without really campaigning. (OK, I may be exaggerating a little, here.)

I realize also that my reading habits as a conservative may not lead to chance encounters with supremacist tripe.* So, I wonder: What’s the actual situation? To try and explore this question more deeply, I use a two-step strategy. I look first for existing credible empirical reports on the topic. Second, I look for what should be the products of white supremacist groups, the tracks they should logically be expected to leave on the internet and elsewhere. But first, a brief historical detour. Continue reading

Markets for Secrets?

In a world without intellectual property, would it be possible to buy and sell secrets? I suggest the answer is yes. In this post, I provide both a theoretical framework for such markets, as well as pointing to real life examples of such markets already existing.


In a previous post, we talked about why information is the only public good. But of course, it’s possible to keep information private. Such private information is called a secret. Currently, entrepreneurs and inventors have two choices when they have what they believe is a profitable secret: they can either keep recipe, industrial process, or so on, a secret, and be protected by “trade secret” laws; or they can “publicize” their secret in exchange for a patent (which they can use to either issue injunctions against competitors or to extract royalties).

But there has been a lot of economics literature in recent years that challenges the status of intellectual property (IP). Most famously, there is Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine’s book Against Intellectual Monopoly, where they detail both an empirical and theoretical case against the economics of intellectual property. Furthermore, patent lawyer Stephan Kinsella’s book Against Intellectual Property gives a principled legal and ethical case against IP.

Continue reading

How fast does populism destroy economic freedom in Latin America?

The turn of the twentieth century has seen an increase in populist government in Latin America. That populism is no friend of free markets is well known. And even if their movement against free markets if fairly quick, it is common for individuals to loose track of how fast they are loosing their economic freedoms.

There are five cases of populist governments in Latin America that can work as benchmarks for the region. In particular, we can look at the behavior of governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela for the time frames depicted in the following table.

Table 1

During this time period, populist governments failed to increase GDP per capita consistently faster than the region. The only exception is Argentina. But its fast increase in GDP is largely explained as recovery after the 2001 crisis and by consuming capital stock, not as an expansion of potential output. It is no accident that Argentina met stagflation in 2007. In the last three issues of the Economic Freedom of the World (Fraser Institute) Argentina ranks among the bottom 10 free economies in the world.

The following figure shows the fall in ranking of each country in the Economic Freedom of the World.

Figure 1

We can translate the information shown in the above into loss of ranking position per year of populist government. This is what is shown in the next table.

Table 2

This table offers a few readings:

  1. Argentina is the country that fall in the ranking of economic faster than its peers.
  2. Ecuador shows a very slow fall. This is due to two reasons: (1) Ecuador already starts from a low ranking position. (2) The last year of the index (2015) shows an improvement (without this improvement the fall is quite sharp as well.) Ecuador does not represent a case of “good populism.”

What this table is showing is that if an individual is born in any of these countries ranking 1st in economic freedom the same year a populist government takes office, then the same country will rank at the bottom of the world before he retires. In the case of Argentina, in 27.8 years the country will be at the bottom of the list, this means that by the time this individual starts to work, Argentina will already have a very repressed economy. By retiring time, this individual will have no experience of living and working in a free economy.

This numbers are not just descriptive of populism in Latin American countries. They also serve as a sort of warning for Europe and the United States, regions that have already seen some signs of populist behavior in their governments and political groups in the last few years. Populism can be emotionally attractive, but is very dangerous for our economic freedoms.

Physical Goods, Immaterial Goods, and Public Goods

Public goods in economics have been a contentious theoretical issue since Paul Samuelson introduced the concept in 1954. The main sources of contention are what real world things are public goods, and who should provide them. In this post I propose a new way of looking at goods that will shed light on why public goods have posed such a problem. In particular, I propose that there is an important distinction between physical goods and immaterial goods; that public goods can only be immaterial goods; and that this unique feature of public goods does not preclude the market to provide the “socially optimal level.


Economists define a public good as something that is “non-rival” (meaning that one person’s consumption does not affect another person’s), and “non-excludable” (meaning that one person cannot stop another person from consuming the good.) Public goods are often contrasted with private goods, which are rival and excludable.

The implications are that public goods cannot be provided by a free market, because no one would have to pay for such a good, and so there would be so incentive to produce it. Therefore, the argument goes, the government ought to provide public goods.


An example of a private good is an apple. Imagine a world with just you, me, and an apple. If I take a bite out of the apple, there is now less apple for you to consume. That means it’s rival. If I put the apple in a locker to which only I know the combination, then again you are prevented from consuming the apple. This makes it excludable.  Continue reading

Sunday reading: Bertrand Russell

We have a lot of fresh faces in my philosophy club this semester. On one hand, the new perspectives remind our old heads about some of the basic questions we studied when we first arrived at university, and it’s nice to introduce new students to philosophy; on the other, it makes us behave like a wolf pack, moving at the pace of the slowest member. Sometimes, I want to be an elitist and focus on more complex areas, utilizing the knowledge of our most experienced members. This would mean we lose all of our new members. Ultimately, semester after semester, keeping a high membership (and keeping students participating) always proves to be more important.

This fall I assigned Bertrand Russell’s Problems of Philosophy, as an easy intro text. As he introduces ideas, he injects his own interpretations and potential solutions, and I find I usually disagree with him. However, Russell is great at moving between analytic argument and simple, digestible prose, so I started seeking his other writing out, as one of the canonical popularizers. Here is an essay I thought I’d share, on his meeting with Lenin, Trotsky and Maksim Gorky, when, as a self-identified Communist seeking out the new post-capitalist order, he inadvertently ended up completely disillusioned with the “Bolshevik religion.” He would publish The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism shortly after in 1920, condemning the historical materialist philosophy and system he saw just three years after the October Revolution.

Russell remained somewhere between a social democrat and a democratic socialist throughout his life (e.g., his 1932 “In Praise of Idleness” on libcom.org), but a vocal critic of Soviet repression. He was also a devout pacifist, which explains his early infatuation with the Russian political party which advocated an end to WWI. He died of influenza in 1970 after appealing to the United Nations to investigate the Pentagon for war crimes in South Vietnam.

From his article on meeting Lenin:

Perhaps love of liberty is incompatible with wholehearted belief in a panacea for all human ills. If so, I cannot but rejoice in the skeptical temper of the Western world. I went to Russia believing myself a communist; but contact with those who have no doubts has intensified a thousandfold my own doubts, not only of communism, but of every creed so firmly held that for its sake men are willing to inflict widespread misery.

On the Difference between Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and Increasing Central Planning

Once, in another place, I had pointed out the misunderstandings of the common interpretation of Hayek’s road to serfdom thesis. This was not an unintended process by which government intervention on markets inevitably leads to further and increasing interventions. That might be Ludwig v. Mises’ thesis, but not Hayek’s.

What Hayek stated in The Road to Serfdom was that the checks- and-balances system of modern constitutionalism appears as an obstacle to the quick achievement of the concrete ends that an interventionist policy aims for. Thus, the road to serfdom is an unintended process by which legal constitutional processes are eroded by decisions based on expediency.

On that occasion it was left pending to solve the question of where the confusion on the central thesis of “The Road to Serfdom” came from.

The source of the answer to this question is yet Ludwig v. Mises. The Road to Serfdom was first published in 1944, but, previously, in essays published in 1935, we find Hayek, still heavily influenced by L. v. Mises, stating opinions that are very similar to the common confusion about the meaning of the road to serfdom: “In fact, however, if by planning is meant the actual direction of productive activity by authoritative prescription to be used, or the prices to be fixed, it can be easily shown, not that such a thing is impossible, but that any isolated measure of this sort will cause reactions which will defeat its own end, and that any attempt to act consistently will necessitate further and further measures of control until all economic activity is brought under one central authority” (“Socialist Calculation I: The Nature and History of the Problem”, first published in Collectivist Economic Planning, London,  1935, and reprinted in Individualism and Economic Order, Chicago, 1948).

F. A. Hayek did not change his opinions of 1935 in The Road to Serfdom (1944), he just shifted the realm of his inquiry from economics to political philosophy. Nevertheless, it would be a crass error to judge Hayek’s political and legal theory -for good or for bad- using his former opinions as an economist.