From the comments: “liberty, evolution, and morals”

I’m reminded of an MR entry by Tyler Cowen a couple of months ago in which he remarks that the “energetic young talent” in libertarianism now often seems more intent on “projects for building entire new political worlds” — charter cities, blockchain — than on theory, political, economic, etc. (

I think there’s truth in that. But theory is still needed. It’s what gives us our organizing principles and inspiration.

That’s just the trouble with the bloggers mentioned, and I don’t mean the blog format. It’s the smallish scope of thinking: books on voting behavior, the university education system, immigration and open borders. This sort of thing is fine, but it’s not fundamental theory.

The purist libertarianism (rights absolutism, the “non-aggression axiom”) exemplified by Rand, Nozick, and Rothbard has been a dead end, I think. It is readily grasped, and it has the capacity to inspire, but it isn’t true. And the gradual realization of this has led to its collapse.

This collapse has left us somewhat rudderless. That’s how I feel, anyway. We need a new paradigm. The way to think about society is evolutionarily, or so it seems to me. That points to Hayek. But he had little to say about morals, and libertarianism should provide a moral vision. What is needed is a way to put these two together.

(The best evolutionary theorist of society—that I know of—is Joe Henrich. Both his books, The Secret of Our Success, and The WEIRDest People in the World, are terrific. But of course he’s neither a libertarian nor a moralist.)

This is from David Potts, responding to yours truly in the comments.

I have to think about this a bit more.

Libertarianism and the new generation

Computer use as an adult: check my bills, check my savings, look at pricing for home improvements, check the scores, send & answer emails, read blogs if I’m lucky.

Has there been any foundational libertarian academic work done in the last 35 years? I mean, when I was in college, you read Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Mises, and Nozick. These were the people you read if you wanted to familiarize yourself with common libertarian sentiment on questions of public policy (“economics”), ethics, foreign affairs, and cultural shifts.

What do the kids read nowadays? I’m in favor of overhauling the canon. I’d keep Nozick and Rand, but whose work should we consult on matters of public policy (“economics”) and foreign affairs? I think I’m going to have to be the one who answers the foreign affairs question, but what about econ? Whose work is the new Mises/Friedman? Whose going to overtake Rothbard and come up with a libertarian manifesto for a new generation?

Has our time come and gone already? If we don’t need new voices and fresh perspectives, then we’ve already lost the war of ideas.

Tuesday night Orwell

This comes from Michalis’ always excellent “Monday links” series:

There was a deep difference, though, between Burnham and Orwell, which Menand mentions but doesn’t make enough of. They were both notably tough-minded; that is, they shared an intense dislike of cant and wishful thinking. But Burnham was a thoroughgoing nihilist: he thought that all ideals were sentimental rubbish, that lasting peace was a pipedream, and that power was the only reality in politics. Orwell, on the other hand—though in Nineteen Eighty-Four he portrayed nihilism more brilliantly than anyone else ever has or, probably, ever will—was nevertheless the most idealistic of men, with solidarity and generosity seemingly written into his source code. 

This is from George Scialabba, a noted and popular American critic. Good find, Michalis, and the Cold War era is crazy. We’re just starting to scratch the surface of the details, but it seems like Cold War-era politics were way more divisive than they were today (Scialabba, for example, can’t help but insult his political enemies in this piece). Which is strange, because today’s pundits and politicians are always harping on and on about how we need to come together and stop being so divisive…

Supranational (political) entrepreneurs

[…] the basis of the functional (Coasian) theory of international regimes advanced by Robert Keohane: If interstate transaction costs were very low, relative to the gains at stake for each actor, decentralized negotiation among voluntary actors with property rights would generate efficient outcomes. In summary, we may define informal supranational entrepreneurship as exploitation by international officials of asymmetrical control over scarce information or ideas to influence the outcomes of multilateral negotiations through initiation, mediation, and mobilization. […] Most existing studies of entrepreneurship fail to address this central puzzle. They focus on characteristics of supranational entrepreneurs and their actions, not the nature of alternatives.

The link (pdf) is here, and it’s a good read despite the jargon. You’ll notice that neither the Federalist Papers nor Hayek are cited in the piece. Libertarians have a chance to become relevant again in international affairs, if only they came to re-embrace the ideas of Madison, Smith, and Hayek, by abandoning non-interventionism and alliance free-riding and recognizing that federation is both a foreign policy and a type of government.

State formation in Korea and Japan

State formation in Korea and Japan occurred a thousand years before it did in Europe, and it occurred for reasons of emulation and learning, not bellicist competition. Korea and Japan emerged as states between the 4th and 8th centuries CE and existed for centuries thereafter with centralized bureaucratic control defined over territory and administrative capacity to tax their populations, field large militaries, and provide extensive public goods. They created these institutions not to wage war or suppress revolt – the longevity of dynasties in these countries is evidence of both the peacefulness of their region and their internal stability. Rather, Korea and Japan developed state institutions through emulation and learning from China. State formation in historical East Asia occurred under a hegemonic system in which war was relatively rare, not under a balance of power system with regular existential threats. Why? We focus here on diffusion through a combination of emulation and learning: domestic elites copied Chinese civilization for reasons of prestige and domestic legitimacy.

This is good, and it comes out of the most interesting journal in international relations today, but it doesn’t quite do it for me. I think China’s imperialism was far looser than contemporary scholars imagine, especially as China spread territorially outside of its cultural hearth. I think China’s imperial sovereigns were more akin to Emperors in the Holy Roman Empire than, say, Louis XIV. I do think that Japan and Korea mimicked China, which is exactly why both countries had relatively decentralized political systems up until the 19th and 20th centuries.

Contemporary scholarship has a soft spot for pre-modern (before 1500 AD) non-Western state systems, so you get stuff like this. Again, this is a great article, and you should read it right now, but I don’t buy it. I don’t think Japan and Korea were states that existed for centuries “with centralized bureaucratic control defined over territory and administrative capacity to tax their populations, field large militaries, and provide extensive public goods.” That’s too rich for my blood. There were cultural hearths and polities in Japan and Korea that tried to mimic China, but sovereignty was still far too fractal until the Europeans arrived with their formal imperialism. See this piece for an example of why I’m skeptical of the author’s claims.

James Madison continues to be underrated

d) While ethnic and linguistic fractionalization are associated with negative outcomes in terms of quality of government, religious fractionalization is not; in fact, if anything, this measure displays a positive correlation with measures of good governance. This is because measured religious fractionalization tends to be higher in more tolerant and free societies, like the United States, which in fact displays one the of the highest level of religious fractionalization. This result has no bearing, however, on the question of whether certain religious denominations are correlated with better politico-economic outcomes, an issue recently explored by Barro and McLeary (2002).

Woah. Here’s more:

Whether societal conflict is the result of fractionalization or polarization is largely an unresolved question in theory, calling for empirical work. The discussion of whether a country with many relatively small groups is more or less stable than one with only two equally sized groups is an old one, and goes back at least to Madison in the Federalist Papers of 1788 (nos. 10 and 11 see Hamilton et al., 1911). Without much of a stretch of Madison’s views, one can argue that a polarization measure is, according to him, the appropriate concept to capture heterogeneity.

Read the whole thing here (pdf).

“Libertarianism and international violence”

An oldie but goodie from RJ Rummel:

Based on theory and previous results, three hypotheses are posed:

1. Libertarian states have no violence between themselves.

2. The more libertarian two states, the less their mutual violence.

3. The more libertarian a state, the less its foreign violence.

These hypotheses are statistically tested against scaled data on all reported international conflict for 1976 to 1980; and where appropriate, against a list of wars from 1816 to 1974, and of threats and use of force from 1945 to 1965. The three hypotheses are found highly significant. Tests were also made for contiguity as an intervening variable and were negative. Finally, two definitions of “libertarian” are tested, one involving civil liberties plus political rights, the other adding in economic freedom. Both are highly positive, but economic freedom is also found to make a significant added reduction in the level of violence for a state overall or between particular states.

Here’s the link, and this turned into an article in Journal for Conflict Resolution. I think he’s wrong. I think it’s a shame that this argument is cited as an example of libertarian thought in international relations, or at least that it’s still cited as The Libertarian Example. It was good when it came out during the Cold War (in 1983). But it’s soooo Westphalian. Trying to bring Philadelphian sovereignty back into the picture is a tough slog.

From the Comments: India and misunderstanding socialism

This is from Jacques, who is responding to Tridivesh’s recent piece on vaccine apartheid:

I don’t like your title. US firms and other firms based in the West have managed to produce enough vaccines to vaccinate all of the citizens of their respective countries. Governments (democratically elected governments) have decided that the vaccines should be reserved for their own citizens first. That decision might be attacked because it’s a form of govt seizure but it’s not apartheid. India has one of the largest pharmaceutical industries in the world. That its government has not been able to provide vaccines even minimally for the Indian people is the Indian government’s fault and more broadly, traceable to the fact that Indian society is a mess. As anyone a little observant who lives in the US can tell, there is no shortage of intelligent and energetic Indians ( I live near Silicone Valley myself). India is a mess largely because of a systemic issues of its own making. My former Silicone Valley Indian colleagues are mostly complicit. The central problem is Indians’ addiction to what they think is socialism, in reality, mostly crony capitalism and a stupefying government bureaucracy. I would like that, I am hoping that, this dreadful crisis will prompt many Indians to reconsider. I am not optimistic though. No, I didn’t read your essay because of its offensive and mendacious title. PS I am married to an Indian woman. I spent more time in India than the average casual visitor. I like India.

Libertarian foreign policy for the 21st century

American libertarians are behind the times when it comes to foreign policy (also known as “international relations”). We’re still, to a large extent, stuck in a Cold War mentality. The non-interventionism of Murray Rothbard and Robert Higgs is still prevalent in our circles, but this non-interventionism is rooted in the bipolar power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union; it’s concerned with imperial overreach rather than liberty and republican security, which is understandable given the America’s role in the Cold War (the reactionary opposite to the Soviet penchant for exporting revolution).

European classical liberals are ahead of us, as they are in a more multipolar environment than us Americans, but they’re missing something too. They think the Westphalian status quo is just fine. They point to the European Union and they say, it’s better than nothing. But the world has changed since Westphalian confederations were en vogue. How does Westphalian nation-statism answer puzzles like Somaliland or Biafra or Balochistan?

It doesn’t.

American libertarians and European classical liberals have built their exit-centric approach to international relations upon Westphalian assumptions.

I think that an entrance-centric approach to the world would be a much better, more libertarian option.

Howdy, from Waco

I’m still here. I’ve been so busy lately. Trying to buy a home, trying to get the oldest child (who just turned four) into a good school, trying to advance my career, and trying to write some memorable shit.

There is a NOL podcast in the works. It’s really going to happen. I’m going to chat with Andrei about his new book, and Tridivesh wants in on the action, and Kevin is going to host an IP debate, and I’d like to get Nick and Edwin on about their new books, too.

I think Chris Dillow gives waaaaaay too much credit to “bourgeois politics” in this short piece on class. I don’t think there’s a concerted effort on the Right to keep everybody divided so that owners of property may live in peace and accumulate ever more wealth. This is a conspiratorial take, not a measured one.

Speaking of podcasts, I enjoyed this EconTalk episode with Katy Milkman. a behavioral scientist (psychology, I think). I usually find myself reading the transcript rather than listening to the actually podcast, and this case was no different. In fact, one of the reasons I have been so reluctant to launch a podcast here at NOL is because I’m just not a very good back-and-forth conversationalist. I’m much better at letters and emails and comments threads.

“The German Question” of the 19th century

I know most of NOL‘s American readers are familiar with the German question that puzzled the Allies after World War II, but there was a different German Question that puzzled statesmen and policymakers in the 19th century:

From 1815 to 1866, about 37 independent German-speaking states existed within the German Confederation. The Großdeutsche Lösung (“Greater German solution”) favored unifying all German-speaking peoples under one state, and was promoted by the Austrian Empire and its supporters. The Kleindeutsche Lösung (“Little German solution”) sought only to unify the northern German states and did not include any part of Austria (either its German-inhabited areas or its areas dominated by other ethnic groups); this proposal was favored by the Kingdom of Prussia.

And this:

While a number of factors swayed allegiances in the debate, the most prominent was religion. The Großdeutsche Lösung would have implied a dominant position for Catholic Austria, the largest and most powerful German state of the early 19th century. As a result, Catholics and Austria-friendly states usually favored Großdeutschland. A unification of Germany led by Prussia would mean the domination of the new state by the Protestant House of Hohenzollern, a more palatable option to Protestant northern German states. Another complicating factor was the Austrian Empire’s inclusion of a large number of non-Germans, such as Hungarians, Czechs, South Slavs, Italians, Poles, Ruthenians, Romanians and Slovaks. The Austrians were reluctant to enter a unified Germany if it meant giving up their non-German speaking territories.

This is from Wikipedia, and it appears that the German Question of the 20th century was still the same one as the 19th century. It took an invasion by the Soviet Union and the United States to decisively answer the question. Happy Easter!

How the abolition of slavery led to imperialism

I’ve been saying this for years, so it’s nice to see this out in the open. Behold:

Far from meaning the end of slavery as Western demand for enslaved persons fell, the 19th century saw slavery’s increase in West Africa as a different type of external demand arose. The abolition of the Atlantic slave trade north of the Equator in the first two decades of the 19th century transformed West African economies. It was one of the major factors in the series of economic crises and political revolutions that shaped West African politics until the advent of formal colonialism in the 1880s

This is from Toby Green, an excellent scholar of Africa in the UK.

“The Legacy of Colonial Medicine in Central Africa”

Between 1921 and 1956, French colonial governments organized medical campaigns to treat and prevent sleeping sickness. Villagers were forcibly examined and injected with medications with severe, sometimes fatal, side effects. We digitized 30 years of archival records to document the locations of campaign visits at a granular geographic level for five central African countries. We find that greater campaign exposure reduces vaccination rates and trust in medicine, as measured by willingness to consent to a blood test. We examine relevance for present-day health initiatives; World Bank projects in the health sector are less successful in areas with greater exposure.

Woah, this, from Sara Lowes and Edward Montero, is crazy (link fixed) and hopefully gives pause to colonialism’s few living defenders…

Nighttime blurb

I’ll be honest with you guys, this whole no “nightcap” thing is weird. Every day I have to remind myself that I don’t do nightcaps anymore. I wonder if I have any other habits that I don’t think about. I’m sure I do, but I don’t what they are.

I’ve got a piece on the pre-Westphalian interpolity order I’m working on. It’s slow going, but it’s going. If any of you are experts or (especially) enthusiasts on the Holy Roman Empire, I’d be obliged if you send tips my way. The best read on the Holy Roman Empire so far, for me, has been this one (pdf).

Go Bruins!