Tocqueville on the Russians

There was a winter storm that blew through Austin last night. The entire city, which isn’t big population-wise (1.5 million give or take) but large geographically, shut down and I have the day off. So, I am working hard on my weekly column for RealClearHistory, and came across this sociological gem of Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote the best book on America, ever:

The American struggles against the natural obstacles which oppose him; the adversaries of the Russian are men; the former combats the wilderness and savage life; the latter, civilization with all its weapons and its arts: the conquests of the one are therefore gained by the ploughshare; those of the other by the sword. The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free scope to the unguided exertions and common-sense of the citizens; the Russian centres all the authority of society in a single arm: the principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter servitude.

Keep in mind that Tocqueville’s book was published in 1835. During the Cold War, this passage, which is the last paragraph in Volume 1 of Tocqueville’s 2-volume treatise, this passage was almost a necessary introduction to anything related to Soviet-American interactions.

Now, I fear, my generation must also heed Tocqueville’s prophecy about Russian and American society. Trump is a loudmouthed demagogue, but he is restrained by the people, most of all his base, which, for all its many faults, is democratic in its mores. Free-thinking Russians left Russia en masse while they could, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, for the West and their children and their children’s children will grow up free. The Russian people will continue to serve a despotism they think they need to survive. There is a conspiratorial, somber, and pessimistic tone in the voice of most Russian authors, even those who have managed to make a life for themselves in the West, and I get it.

When I think of Russia, with all its beautiful biodiversity, its people, and its potential, I brood.

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What is the best book about Argentina?

A couple of days ago, Tyler Cowen asked which is “the best book about each country:”

To count, the book must have some aspirations to be a general survey of what the country is or to cover much of the history of the country.   So your favorite book on the French Revolution is not eligible, for instance…

He explicitly skips South America. I can’t blame him, as I’ve never found a book that fully captures (the interrelationship between) the five things that make Argentina Argentina:

1. The fight between Buenos Aires and the Interior for fiscal resources. This was the main cause behind the civil wars of the XIXth century, and the eventual solution — the creation of a federal state that could check the power of Buenos Aires, and where the provinces of the interior would be politically over-represented — continues to be a defining feature of the country’s political economy to this day.

2. The division between “unitarios” and “federales,” which also began in the XIXth century. Although this cleavage was ostensibly about how to organize the country territorially, we should not forget that “politics is not about policy:” the actual division was about the relative status of different social groups. Specifically, he federales fell in the “Trumpian” side of the spectrum, praising the common, unsophisticated man “from here” as opposed to the high-brow cosmopolitanism promoted by the unitarios. Again, this division did not end in the XIXth century; Argentina’s political history during the XXth and beyond — and most notably the phenomenon Peronism — simply cannot be understood without making reference to this opposition.

3. The great immigration. Between the end of the XIXth and the beginning of the XXth century, Argentina embarked in a great social experiment that sought to transform the country by importing huge numbers of European immigrants. During this period, Argentina was the country that most immigrants received as proportion of its population, being second only to the US in the absolute number of immigrants it received. The assimilation of such immigrants was mostly successful, but also had profound consequences in terms of demographics, language, culture, cuisine and surnames (where do you think mine comes from?), as well as the way Argentineans perceive themselves: as a middle-class country of immigrants in which hard work allows you to get ahead in life.

4. Nationalism. One of the unintended consequences of the great immigration was the (government-sponsored) construction of a new national identity, defined in terms of territory rather than blood, race, or national history. This is the origin of Argentines’ sickly relationship with national boundaries, most patently seen in relation to the Malvinas/Falklands issue.

5. Pretorian politics. Between 1930 and 1983, Argentina was governed by no less than five different military regimes (in 1930, 1943, 1958, 1966 and 1976, respectively). The last of them (1976-1983) was especially murderous, as the military  systematically “disappeared” thousands of guerrilla members, political activists, union leaders and Left-wing sympathizers in a vain attempt to engineer a new political system. It is impossible to make sense of the political, social and cultural attitudes that have predominated in the country since 1983 without understanding this past.

Unfortunately, no book comes even close to capturing all these factors simultaneously. That said, the ones that best approach this ideal are the following:

1. Juan José Sebreli, Crítica de las Ideas Políticas Argentinas [A Criticism of Political Ideas in Argentina]. As far as I’ve seen, it’s only available in Spanish, however.

2. Larry Sawers, The Other Argentina. The Interior and National Development. As far as I know, it hasn’t been translated; please tell me I’m wrong.

3. Nicolas Shumway, The Invention of Argentina. There is also a Spanish edition.

PS. If you’re going for some XIXth-century work, don’t get swayed by the beguiling prose of Sarmientos’s Facundo; it’s too dominated by mood affiliation. Juan Bautista Alberdi’s Bases y Puntos de Partida para la Organización Política de la República Argentina [Bases and Starting Points for the Political Organization of the Argentine Republic] is a far better choice.

*The Islamic Enlightenment* | A critical review

De Bellaigue, Christopher. (2017) The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason 1798 to Modern Times. Liveright Publishing Corporation (Norton & Company) New York, London.

In 1798, in view of the Pyramids, a French expeditionary force defeated the strange caste of slave-soldiers, the Mamlukes, who had been ruling Egypt for several centuries. The Mamlukes charged the French infantry squares on horseback, ending their charge with the throwing of javelins. The Mamlukes were thus eliminated from history. The French lost 29 soldiers. In the conventional narrative, the battle woke up the whole Muslim world from its long and haughty slumber. The defeat, the pro-active reforms of Napoleon’s short-lived occupancy, and the direct influence of the French scholars he had brought with him lit the wick of the candle of reform or, possibly, of enlightenment throughout the Islamic world.

De Bellaigue picks up this conventional narrative and follows it to the beginning of the 20th century with a dazzling richness of details. This is an imperfect yet welcome thick book on a subject seldom well covered.

This book has, first, the merit of existing. Many people of culture, well-read people with an interest in Islam – Islam the sociological phenomenon, rather than the religion – know little of the travails of its attempted modernization. Moreover, under current conditions of political correctness the very subject smells a little of sulfur: What if we looked at Muslim societies more closely and we found in them some sort of intrinsic inferiority? I mean by this, an inferiority that could not easily be blamed on the interference of Western, Christian or formerly Christian, capitalist societies. Of course, such a finding could only be subjective but still, many would not like it, and not only Muslims.

Second, and mostly unintentionally, possibly inadvertently, the book casts a light, an indirect light to be sure, on Islamist (fundamentalist) terrorism. It’s simple: Enlightened individuals of any religious background are not likely to be also fanatics willing to massacre perfect strangers. Incidentally, I examine this issue myself in a fairly parochial vein, in an essay in the libertarian publication Liberty Unbound: “Religious Bric-à-Brac and Tolerance of Violent Jihad” (January 2015). With his broader perspective, with his depth of knowledge, De Bellaigue could have done a much better job of this than I could ever do. Unfortunately he ignored the subject almost entirely. It wasn’t his topic, some will say. It was not his period of history. Maybe.

Continue reading

The Dictator’s Handbook

I recently pointed you towards a book that has turned out to be a compelling and interesting read.

At the end of the day, it’s a straightforward application of public choice theory and evolutionary thinking to questions of power. Easy to understand theory is bundled with data and anecdotes* to elucidate the incentives facing dictators, democrats, executives, and public administrators. The differences between them are not discrete: they all face the same basic problem of compelling others’ behavior while facing some threat of replacement.

Nobody rules alone, so staying in power means keeping the right people happy and/or afraid. All leaders are constrained by their underlings. These underlings are necessary to get anything done, but they’re also potential rivals. For Bueno de Mesquita and Smith the crucial facts of a political order are a) how big a coalition (how many underlings) the ruler is beholden too and b) how replaceable the members of that coalition are.

The difference between liberal and illiberal orders boil down to differences in those two parameters. In democracies with a larger coalition and less replaceable coalition members, rulers behave better.

 

I got a Calculus of Consent flavor from Dictator’s Handbook. At the end of the day, collective decision making will reflect some version of “the will of the people… who matter.” But when we ask about the number of people who matter, we run into C of C thinking. Calling for bigger coalitions is another way of calling for an approach to an effective unanimity rule (at least at the constitutional stage).

In C of C the question of the optimal voting rule (majority vs. super majority vs. unanimity) boils down to a tradeoff between the costs of organizing and the costs of externalities imposed by the ruling coalition. On the graph below (from C of C) we’re comparing organization costs (J) against externality costs (I) (the net costs of the winning coalition’s inefficient policies). The idea is that a unanimity rule would prevent tyranny of the majority (i.e. I is downward sloping), but that doesn’t mean unanimity is the optimal voting rule.

Figure 18.  Click to open in new window.

But instead of asking “what’s efficient” let’s think think about what we can afford out of society’s production, then ask who makes what decisions. In a loose sense, we can think of a horizontal line on the graph above representing our level of wealth. If we** aren’t wealthy enough to organize, then the elites rule and maximize rent extraction. We can’t get far up J, so whichever coalition is able to rule imposes external costs at a high level on I.

But I‘s height is a function of rent extraction. Rulers face the classic conundrum of whether to take a smaller piece of a larger pie.

The book confirms what we already know: when one group can make decisions about what other groups can or must do, expect a negative sum game. But by throwing in evolutionary thinking it shed light on why we see neither an inexorable march of progress nor universal tyranny and misery.

As you travel back in time, people (on average) tend to look more ignorant, cruel, and superstitious. The “default state” of humanity is poverty and ignorance. The key to understanding economics is realizing that we’ve bootstrapped ourselves out of that position and we aren’t done yet.

The Dictator’s Handbook helped me realize that I’d been forgetting that the “default state” of political power is rule by force. The liberalization we’ve seen over the last 500 years has been just the first part of a bootstrapping process.

Understanding the starting point makes it clear that more inclusive systems use ideas, institutions, capital, and technology to abstract upward to more complex levels. Something like martial honor scales up the exercise of power from the tribe (who can The Chief beat up) to the fiefdom (now the Chief has sub-chiefs). Ideology and identity can tie fiefdoms into nation-states (now we’ve got a king and nobility). Wealth plus new ideologies create more inclusive and democratic political orders (now we’ve got a president and political parties). But each stage is built on the foundation set before. We stand on the shoulders of giants, but those giants were propped up by the non-giants around them.

Our world was built by backwards savages. The good news is that we can use the flimsier parts of the social structure we inherited as scaffolding for something better (while maintaining the really good stuff). What exactly this means is the tricky question. Which rules, traditions, organizations, and processes are worth keeping? How do we maintain those? How/when do we replace the rest? And what does “we” even mean?

Changing the world involves uncertainty. There are complex interrelations between every part of reality. And the knowledge society needs is scattered through many different minds. To make society better, we need buy-in from our neighbors (nobody rules alone). And we need to realize that the force we exert will be countered by an equal and opposite force some plural, imperfectly identifiable, maybe-but-probably-not equal, and only-mostly-opposite forces. There are complex and constantly shifting balances between different coalitions vying for power and the non-coalitions that might suddenly spring into action if conditions are right. Understanding the forces at play helps us see the constraints to political change.

And there’s good news: it is possible to create a ruling coalition that is more inclusive. The conditions have to be right. But at least some of those conditions are malleable. If we can sell people on the right ideas, we can push the world in the right direction. But we have to work at it, because there are plenty of people pitching ideas that will concentrate power and create illiberal outcomes.


*I read the audiobook, so I’m basically unable to vouch for the data analysis. Everything they said matched the arguments they were making, but without seeing it laid out on the page I couldn’t tell you whether what they left out was reasonable.

**Whatever that means…

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.

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.

Inventions that didn’t change the world

Have you ever learned about an amazing invention–whether it was the Baghdad battery or the ancient Roman steam engine or Chinese firecrackers–and wondered why it didn’t do more to change the world? In this podcast, we examine a selection of curiosities and explore hypotheses for why their inventors didn’t use them to full effect.

We move VERY quickly through a range of fascinating examples and hypotheses, and therefore leave a lot up to discussion. We hope to see your thoughts, feedback, and additions in the comments section!

For any invention that you want to learn more about, see the links below:

Knossos’ toilets

In the 2nd millennium BC, a “palace” (now thought to be a building that served as administrative, trade, and gathering hub) had running-water toilet flushing. Much like the Roman Cloaca Maxima, likely a HUGE public-health benefit, but basically died out. Does this show that military protection/staving off the “Dark Ages” was the only way to maintain amazing inventions?

Link: http://www.nature.com/news/the-secret-history-of-ancient-toilets-1.19960;

The Nimrud lens

Whether it was a fire-starter, a magnifying glass, or (for some overeager astronomy enthusaists), the Neo-Assyrian ground-crystal Nimrud lens is an invention thousands of years out of place. While the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all used lenses of different sorts, and glass-blowing was certainly popular by the 1st century BC in Roman Egypt, no glass lenses were made until the Middle Ages and the potential scientific and engineering uses of lenses–that can hardly be understated even in their 16th-to-18th-century applications–had to wait another couple millennia. Many devices like the Baghdad battery and Antikythera device are heralded for their possible engineering genius, but this seems like a simple one with readily available applications that disappeared from the historical record.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nimrud_lens

Hero of Alexandria’s steam engine

In the 1st century AD, Hero was a master of simple machines (that were mostly used for plays) and also invented a force pump, a wind-powered machine, even an early vending machine. However, he is likely most famous for his Aeolipile, a rotating steam engine that used heated water to spin an axle. The best attested use of this is for devotion to the divine and party tricks.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeolipile

The ancient mechanical reaper

Ancient Gallo-Romans (or just Gauls) invented a novel way of grain harvesting: rather than using sickles or scythes, they used a mechanical reaper, 1700 years before Cyrus McCormick more than tripled the productivity of American farmers. This antiquated device literally but the cart before the oxen and required two men to operate: one man to drive the beasts, and another to knock the ears off the stalk (this reaper was obviously far less sophisticated than McCormick’s). This invention did not survive the Volkswanderung period.

http://www.gnrtr.com/Generator.html?pi=208&cp=3

http://reapertakethewheel.blogspot.com/2013/03/impacts-of-invention.html

Note: the horse collar (which allowed horses to be used to plow) was invented in 1600-1400 BC in China AND the Levant, but was not applied widely until 1000 AD in Europe. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horse_collar.

Inoculation

Madhav, an Indian doctor, compiled hundreds of cures in his Nidana, including an inoculation against smallpox that showed an understanding of disease transmission (he would take year-old smallpox-infected flesh and touch it to a recently made cutaneous wound). However, the next 13 centuries did not see Indian medical understanding of viruses or bacteria, or even copied techniques of this, development. https://books.google.com/books?id=Hkc3QnbagK4C&pg=PA105&lpg=PA105&dq=madhav+indian+smallpox+inoculation&source=bl&ots=4RFPuvbf5Y&sig=iyDaNUs4u5N7xHH6-pvlbAY9fcQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwic8e-1-JXVAhUp6IMKHfw3DLsQ6AEIOjAD#v=onepage&q=madhav%20indian%20smallpox%20inoculation&f=false

At least, thank god, their methods of giving nose jobs to those who had had their noses cut off as a punishment survived: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_rhinoplasty

The Chinese:

List of all chinese inventions:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Chinese_inventions#Four_Great_Inventions

Gunpowder

Gunpowder was discovered by Chinese alchemists attempting to discover the elixir of life (irony, no?)

https://www.thoughtco.com/invention-of-gunpowder-195160

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Great_Inventions

(maybe a good corollary would be Greek fire, which was used effectively in naval warfare by the Byzantines, but which was not improved upon and the recipe of which is still secret: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_fire)

Printing

The Chinese invented the printing press possibly as early as the 6th century. However, unlike the explosion of literacy seen in much of Europe (particularly Protestant Europe–see our last podcast), the Chinese masses never learned to read. In fact, in 1950 fewer than 20% of Chinese citizens were literate. Compare this to Europe, where some societies saw literacy rates of as high as 90% (Sweden, Male population) in some societies within a few centuries of the introduction of the printing press. Why? There may be several reasons–cultural, religious, political–but in our opinion, it would have to be the characters: 100,000 blocks were needed to create a single set.

http://www.nytimes.com/2001/02/12/news/chinas-long-but-uneven-march-to-literacy.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_printing_in_East_Asia

They also invented pulped paper by the 2nd century BC: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Chinese_inventions.

The compass

Invented by 200 BC for divination and used for navigation by the Song dynasty; despite this and the availability of easily colonizable islands within easy sailing distance, the Chinese did not colonize Indonesia, Polynesia, or Oceania, while the Europeans did within the century after they developed the technology and first sailed there.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_compass.

The rudder

While they did not invent the rudder, they invented the “medial, axial, and vertical” sternpost rudder that would become standard in Europe almost 1,000 years before it was used in Europe (1st century AD vs 11th century).

Natural gas

The Chinese discovered “fire wells” (natural gas near the surface) and erected shrines to worship there.

https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-1-4020-4425-0_9568

They even understood their potential for fuel, but never developed beyond primitive burning and bamboo piping despite having advanced mining techniques for it by the 1st century BC.

Chinese miscelleni:

Hydraulic powered fan: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fan_(machine)#History

Cuppola furnace for smelting and molding iron: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupola_furnace.

Coke as a fuel source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coke_(fuel).

Belt-drive spinning wheel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coke_(fuel).

The Precolumbian wheel

The pre- and early Mayans had toys that utilized primitive wheels, but did not use them for any labor-saving purpose (even their gods were depicted carrying loads on their backs). This may have been because scaling up met with mechanical difficulties, but the potential utility of wheels in this case with a bit of investment literally sat unrealized for centuries.

https://tcmam.wordpress.com/2010/11/11/did-pre-columbian-mesoamericans-use-wheels/

The Tucker:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-tucker-was-the-1940s-car-of-the-future-135008742/

The following book contained some of our hypotheses:

https://books.google.com/books?id=ynejM1-TATMC&pg=PA399&lpg=PA399&dq=roman+and+greek+labor-saving+devices&source=bl&ots=BI6GVGTrxC&sig=8ZJqirOVUyjH7TNq0fcW6UUPn1k&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj55O7395XVAhVqwYMKHSb2Dy4Q6AEIKTAB#v=onepage&q=roman%20and%20greek%20labor-saving%20devices&f=false

 

The rest of our hypotheses were amalgamated from our disparate classes in economics and history, but none of them are our own or uncommon in academic circles. Thanks for listening!