Ricardo and Ringo for a free-trade Brexit


My colleague, Shruti Rajagopalan, points out that today is the 200th Anniversary of the publication of David Ricardo’s  On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. It was here that the notion of comparative advantage began confounding protectionists and nativists. Shruti offers this famous example of it in practice:

Apparently, when asked if Ringo Starr is the best drummer in the world, John Lennon quipped, “Ringo isn’t the best drummer in the world. He isn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles.” And while Lennon may have fancied himself a better singer, guitarist, songwriter, and drummer, than Ringo, the Beatles are still better off with Ringo at the drums.

The essence of comparative advantage is that you don’t need to possess a great talent to benefit from trade within a group, whether we are talking about individual people or nations. So long as there exists some variation in relative talents, people will be able to benefit from specialization and trade.

This message is as relevant as ever. The British Parliament has just voted to hold fresh elections. This is supposedly to strengthen the Prime Minister’s hand when negotiating new terms of trade when Britain leaves the European Union. Politicians act as if trade is dangerous, always a threat to the national interest unless carefully constrained. They negotiate complex deals and regulation on market access, essentially holding their own consumers hostage, preventing them from buying foreign goods unless other countries agree to open their own markets. They fear that their domestic producers will be out-competed by superior, or cut-priced, businesses from abroad.

What comparative advantage shows is that even if that happened to be true for every single industry, domestic businesses could still specialize so as to be competitive on the world market, and improve domestic living standards at the same time. Britain could open its ports and wallets to foreign goods and services with no tariffs, even without any reciprocal deal from the EU, and yet still benefit from trade.

Why? Because it doesn’t matter if you have to be the drummer, just so long as you are in the band.

What makes robust political economy different?


I encountered what would later become important elements of Mark Pennington’s book Robust Political Economy in two articles that he wrote on the limits of deliberative democracy, and the relative merits of market processes, for social and ethical discovery, as well as a short book Mark wrote with John Meadowcroft, Rescuing Social Capital from Social Democracy. This research program inspired me to start my doctorate and pursue an academic career.  Why did I find robust political economy so compelling? I think it is because it chimed with my experience of encountering the limits of neo-classical formal models that I recount in my chapter, ‘Why be robust?’, of a new book, Interdisciplinary Studies of the Market Order.

While doing my master’s degree in 2009, I took a methodology course in rational choice theory at Nuffield College’s Center for Experimental Social Science. As part of our first class we were taken to a brand new, gleaming behavioural economics laboratory to play a repeated prisoners’ dilemma game. The system randomly paired anonymous members of the class to play against each other. We were told the objective of the game was to maximise our individual scores.

Thinking that there were clear gains to make from co-operation and plenty of opportunities to punish a defector over the course of repeated interactions, I attempted to co-operate on the first round. My partner defected. I defected a couple of times subsequently to show I was not a sucker. Then I tried co-operating once more. My partner defected every single time in the repeated series.

At the end of the game, we were de-anonymised and it turned out, unsurprisingly, that I had the lowest score in the class. My partner had the second lowest. I asked her why she engaged in an evidently sub-optimal strategy. She explained: ‘I didn’t think we were playing to get the most points. I was just trying to beat you!’

The lesson I took away from this was not that formal models were wrong. Game theoretic models, like the prisoners’ dilemma, are compelling and productive analytical tools in social science, clarifying the core of many challenges to collective action. The prisoners’ dilemma illustrates how given certain situations, or rules of the game, self-interested agents will be stymied from reaching optimal or mutually beneficial outcomes. But this experience suggested something more complex and embedded was going on even in relatively simple social interactions.

The laboratory situation replicated the formal prisoners’ dilemma model as closely as possible with explicit rules, quantified ‘objective’ (though admittedly, in this case, low-value) payoffs, and a situation designed to isolate players as if they were prisoners in different cells. Yet even in these carefully controlled circumstances, it turns out that the situation is subject to multiple interpretations and understandings.

Whatever the textual explanation accompanying the game, the score on the screen could mean something different to the various players. The payoffs for the representative agents in the game were not the same as the payoffs in the minds of the human players. In a sense, my partner and I were unwittingly playing different games (although I lost within either rules of the game!).

When we engage with the social world, it is not only the case that our interests may not align with other people. Social interaction is open-ended. We do not know all the possible moves in the game, and we do not know much about the preference set of everyone else who is playing. Indeed, neither they nor we know what a ‘complete’ set of preferences and payoffs would look like, even of our own. We can map out a few options and likely outcomes through reflection and experience but even then we may face outcomes we do not anticipate. As Peter Boettke explains: ‘we strive not only to pursue our ends with a judicious selection of the means, but also to discover what ends that we hope to pursue.’

In addition, the rules of the game themselves are not merely exogenous impositions on us as agents. They are constituted inter-subjectively by the practices, beliefs and values of the actors that are also participants in the social game. As agents, we do not merely participate in the social world. We also engage in its creation through personal lifestyle experimentation, cultural innovation, and establishing shared rules and structures. The social world thus presents inherent uncertainty and change that cannot be captured in a formal model that assumes fixed rules of the game and the given knowledge of the players.

It is these two ideas, both borrowed from the Austrian notion of catallaxy, that makes robust political economy distinct. First, neither our individual ends, nor means of attaining them, are given prior to participation in a collective process of trial and error. Second, the rules that structure how we interact are themselves not given but subject to a spontaneous, evolutionary process of trial and error.

I try to set out these ideas in a recent symposium in Critical Review on Mark Pennington’s book, and in ‘Why be robust?’ in Interdisciplinary Studies of the Market Order edited by Peter Boettke, Chris Coyne and Virgil Storr. The symposium article is available on open access and there is a working paper version of my chapter is available at the Classical Liberal Institute website.

The Latin American tropism

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.

The Paris in which I grew up (outside of the long summer vacations), was a gray, dank and dark place. It was an easy locale from which to fantasize about the sun-drenched tropics. Palm-trees were our favorite trees because we never saw any except at the movies. Of all the tropics, the Latin American tropics took pride of place. Perhaps that was because France had negligible colonial entanglement there and therefore, no colonial retirees to mug our fantasy with their recollections of reality. Or perhaps, it was because, well after the emergence of rock-and-roll in France, close dancing was still taking place to the sound of Latin music: Rumba, Samba, Tango. One sensuous experience easily becomes grafted onto another; the clinging softness of girls’ flesh became associated in our minds with that particular kind of music and thence, with a whole unknown continent. This cocktail of sensations biased me until now in favor of that continent.

At one of the stops where several foreign student buses met, I became smitten with a Bolivian girl and she with me. We were to each other the most exotic thing ever touched. She had luscious brown skin, thick, black, lustrous Indian hair, swinging hips, and a lovely round chest. Our buses met again several times and the passion was renewed each time. Although those encounters involved little more than many sloppy deep kisses and some furious mutual groping, indirectly, they were to shape an important part of my mental life, a favorable disposition toward the otherness of others, “xenophilia,” if you will.

On power-display bias and the historians

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book at Palgrave McMillan which discusses Canadian economic history. This excerpt relates to a point that I have made numerous times on this blog regarding the bias for power held by historians and how it often leads them to inaccurate conclusions (here and here):

When the great historian Lord Acton warned that, “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he was not only referring to imbuing certain fallible humans with excessive powers, but also as a caution to historians for their assessment of politicians. Too often, politicians become known for “greatness” because of their actions, regardless of how much they impoverished society or put in place measures that would ultimately erode their citizens’ quality of life. By the same token, some eminent figures remain unknown, relegated to a footnote in the history books, even though they have contributed in a more significant way to economic enrichment, cultural development, and social cohesion. Grand gestures and large-scale social projects inspired by good intentions do not always yield great results – or desirable ones.

If we truly want to assess the Quiet Revolution and the “Great Darkness” with any clarity, we must consider politicians’ actions in a more realistic scope, and sift through the quantitative and qualitative data that show how people thought and acted in the everyday. Through the use of rigorous tools, statistical methods and economic theories, we ought to consider how things might reasonably have developed otherwise without the Quiet Revolution. This is what I have tried to do in this book. (…)

The discourse on Quebec modernity that emerged along with the Quiet Revolution coincided with the emergence of a strong interventionist State. When we compare Quebec to other Western countries, however, our analysis reveals that the State did not play a major role in modernization here. After all, it was in a period when Quebec’s State apparatus was less active compared to the rest of Canada that it was able to progress in leaps and bounds. Of course, the State must have had some effect in certain areas, but the Quiet Revolution was not responsible for the bulk of positive outcomes that came to term during this period. Analyzing trends, causes, explanations and secondary forces at play in Quebec society’s metamorphosis definitely requires a degree of patience and effort. It would be much less onerous to take the easier path of only looking at the State’s activities as worthy of attention in this regard. If we fail to make these efforts, we risk succumbing to the “Nirvana Fallacy.” In order words, we tend to put the State on a pedestal: it becomes a kind of disembodied entity in a virtual reality where it plays the VIP or starring role. Comparing reality with a utopia necessary leads us to conclude that utopia is better, but this approach is utterly fruitless.


The Asian Age

I love Asia. Ever since my student days I have had a keen interest in South East Asia and China, with my course on the Politics of the Asia Pacific at the London School of Economics in the run up to the handover of Hong Kong as a high point. This was followed almost a decade later with four years of living in Manila, with time spend as a freelance journalist covering Philippine politics and society, as well as teaching for three years at the European Studies Program at the elitist Ateneo de Manila University. I also had the opportunity to travel to almost all countries in the region (with the notable exceptions of Laos, Taiwan and the Koreas, but one should keep something to be desired). I admire the resilience of the Asians, their humour, great work ethics, the beauty of their countries, and of course their sumptuous food.

As a classical liberal I always have a keen interest in the economic developments of the region, which to me serve as the prime evidence for the great and positive impacts freeing up economies have. The rise of Asia in essence is the empirical proof that classical liberal ideas work, that capitalism has the capacity to improve the life of millions of people, in a very short term. This despite the imperfect implementation of capitalism throughout the region, so there is much room for further improvement. In this light it is also interesting to see how long economic freedom and political lack of freedom can co-exist. Classical liberal ideas predict, most clearly expressed by Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom, that one follows the other. Economic and political freedom cannot be separated forever (nor forever suppressed together, as the experiences in the former Soviet bloc continue to make clear, even despite Putin’s increasing autocratic rule).

For an international relations observer from Europe, the developments in the Asia Pacific are of particular interest, because the rise of Asia seems to go together with the fall of Europe as a geopolitical player. Or more precisely: the fall of the middle rank European powers, as the European Union itself is a significant player in trade politics only, the only field where it represents all member states and policy is determined at the European level, with a leading role for the European Commission.

The recent book Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century, by Financial Times journalist Gideon Rachman, deals precisely with this issue.


It is a great book, bringing together Rachman’s extensive experience in the US, Asia, and Brussels. Often, books written by journalists lack sound analysis for the mid to long term, and historical perspective. While Easternisation is not an academic tome either, it does provide sufficient deep analysis, especially by tackling developments in all important countries which play a role in the process. It is not just another volume of simply USA or EU bashing, as we have seen before with the huge literature on the alleged Japanese take-over of the US economy.

Rachman’s main argument is that the influence of the West, Europe in particular, has crumbled. This may lead to a major conflict in the Asia Pacific, most notably between China and the US, which also endangers the global economic order. Yet many other conflicts are also building up, in a region which heavily invests in armaments. In short, in the 21st century, ‘rivalries between the nations in the Asia Pacific will shape global politics, just as the struggles between European nations shaped world affairs for over 500 years from 1500 onwards’. I think this is an important message, which should be taken seriously by everybody. Certainly by the Europeans, who are in danger of just inhabiting the world’s largest open air museum within a few decades.  One thing is certain: the Asians will not wait for them to come to terms with the current shift of power.

The struggle for life

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.

In elementary school, grades were handed out in class in a terrifying monthly ceremony. The same deranged Principal would walk into each classroom in turn holding a thick pile of “livrets scolaires,” individual grade-booklets, rather than simple, one-shot report cards, under his arm. There was one livret per student per year with numerical scores and verbal comments for each subject matter, and a monthly overall ranking of students. The Principal would lay the grade-books upside down, in reverse order of students’ ranking for the month ending hence, lowest-ranking student first.

For several years, every month, without fail, the lowest-ranking pupil and the first on the mental scaffold was a runty, scrawny, rheumy-eyed boy who always sat in the last row, “Colinet.” The Principal would start ranting as he entered the room; his glasses would drop down his nose and he would deliver himself of the same furious tirade at the top of his voice against miserable, crouching Colinet. He was a large middle-aged man whose eyes became globulous when he was angry. He would foam at the mouth and spittle would dribble down his shirt as he promised Colinet the guillotine or worse. Colinet never got used to it. I sure did not. I almost crapped my pants several times although I was sitting near the front row and the Principal was staring over my head, straight at the back of the room, as he yelled and screamed. As he called out names from Colinet to the higher-ranking pupils, he would calm down, his voice would subside, and his comments became briefer. By the time he reached the livret of the tenth-ranker, his manner had become civilized as if there had been no raging storm minutes earlier.

In my family, there was a completely arbitrary rule that only the first six places were acceptable. I think my parents secretly thought only the first five were really acceptable but added the sixth because it made them feel magnanimous. Once the Principal had called out the ninth-ranked name, my body began to relax and I was breathing normally. If the Principal was down to the fifth livret and my name had not come up, the sweet song of victory began ringing in my heart. “Very good, my boy,” the Principal would say in a low, calm voice as he handed me my livret (to be signed by both parents).

Communism and reading

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.

My parents pro-Americanism must have been displayed often because faith in Communism was on the ascendancy during the miserable post-war years. That was when a significant fraction of French public opinion became mindlessly and reflexively anti-American, seemingly forever. Yet, rampant anti-Americanism hardly interfered with American cultural influence. The first movie I saw was a Charlie Chaplin, the first cartoon, Snow White. Every week, when I had been good, I had my copy of Mickey Mouse Magazine (“Mikay Mooze”), although there were excellent French and Belgian children’s periodicals. One of the best French-language children’s periodical had a Far-West serial, “Lucky Luke” that still amazes me for its historical and geographic accuracy. Somebody in the France of the fifties was an attentive student of Americana. Made-in-America action hero comics were forbidden fruits though. To this day, I don’t know why they were prohibited. Perhaps my mother thought them “vulgaires,” like many other things. Later, the first music I paid attention to was jazz.

Movies played a big role in shaping my world-view. I did not develop a sense for what was an American movie rather than a French movie until I was about fifteen. My real second language was thus the extremely bad, stilted French dubbing of American motion pictures. The dubbing is awful to this day. When the hero shoots the bad guy in the gut with a “Take this, you motherfucker!” it comes out in French like this: “This will teach you a lesson, mean man.” All dubbing is done in France by people who don’t know English well, I suspect. The same dozen voices are used over and over again. The dubbers are immortal, it seems. You might say that I was brought up in good part by a curiously distorted Hollywood.