Halliday’s ‘The World’s Twelve Worst Ideas’

I came across a collection of essays and blogs by the late Fred Halliday, entitled Political Journeys (2007), published in the last few years of his life. Halliday, who died in 2010 at only 64 years of age, was one of my professors in the International Relations Department at the London School of Economics in the mid-nineties. By some standards he was the big departmental star, not only as a researcher, but also as a public intellectual.

Like most professors he was firmly left wing, a former communist who moved somewhat to the centre. To his credit, his teaching was immaculate: you could not tell his political ideas from his lecturing or the extensive international political theory reading list he gave. He was known for his expertise of the Middle East, revolutions, and his feminism. But he was also a good theorist, and his book Rethinking International Relations (1994) is especially a real treat.

While going through Political Journeys my eyes fell on a piece about ‘the world’s twelve worst ideas in 2007’. Most of them still stand, also from a classical liberal and libertarian viewpoint, and warrant a full discussion by themselves. Yet for now I just list them here, in descending order, with short explanations between parentheses when not self-explanatory:

12. human behaviour can be predicted (against the scientific fallacy in the social sciences)

11. the world is speeding up (large areas I human life still consume the same amount of time as ever before, despite acceleration in other areas)

10. we have no need for history

9. we live in a ‘post-feminist epoch’ (still a need for feminism, given the position of women in most parts of the world)

8. markets are a natural phenomenon, which allow for the efficient allocation of resources and preferences (clearly I strongly disagree with Halliday here, although he seems to mix up real free markets and those characterised by government interference)

7. religion should again be allowed, when not encouraged, to play a role in political and social life (points to the fight against the influence of religion on public life)

6. in the modern world we do not need utopias (aspiration to a better world as necessary part of the human condition)

5. we should welcome the spread of English as a world language (while practical it comes with cultural arrogance by the Anglo-Saxons)

4. the world is divided into comparable moral blocs or civilisations (there is indeed a set of common values shared across the world)

3. diasporas have a legitimate role to play in national and international politics (refutes the idea that diaspora have a special insight into their homeland, and Halliday then points to the negative and backward role in the resolution of the conflicts in their countries of origin)

2. the only thing ‘they’ understand is force (plain colonial and hegemonic thinking)

1. the world’s population problems and the spread of AIDS can be solved by ‘natural’ means (against those who oppose condoms use and other contraceptives)

From the Comments: What’s worth reading from Karl Marx?

Given all the time I wasted reading Marx, I’d say I lost big time. If I had it to do over again I’d read Grundrisse and stop.

This is from Terry Amburgey, a now-retired Professor of Management from the University of Toronto’s business school. He got his PhD from the same sociology program as Jacques.

Here is a link to Grundrisse (pdf), and note that Marx spends a good deal of time near the end of his manuscript on “the Frenchman,” Frédéric Bastiat. Oh, and Grundrisse has over 800 pages of reading in it.

Pinker wrote a nice rejoinder

Steven Pinker, the Harvard professor, recently published Enlightenment Now. The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

NOL Pinker Edwin
Buy it

It is a fine book that basically sets out to do what its subtitle promises. It does so covering a wide range of ideas and topics, and discusses and rejects most arguments often used against Enlightenment thought, which Pinker equates with classical liberalism.

Those who know the work of Johan Norberg of the Cato Institute, the late Julian Simon’s writings, Jagdish Bhagwati’s magisterial In Defense of Globalization, or last but not least, Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Trilogy will be updated on the latest figures, but will not learn much in terms of arguments.

Those new to the debate, or searching for material to defend classical liberal ideas and values, will find this a very helpful book.

2018 Hayek Essay Contest

The 2018 General Meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society will take place from September 30 – October 6, 2018 at ExpoMeloneras and Lopesan Hotels in Meloneras, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands. As with past general meetings, the Mont Pelerin Society is currently soliciting submissions for Friedrich A. Hayek Fellowships. The fellowships will be awarded through the Hayek Essay Contest.

The Hayek Essay Contest is open to all individuals 36 years old or younger. Entrants should write a 5,000 word (maximum) essay that addresses the quotation(s) and question(s) detailed on the contest announcement (available at the above link). The deadline for submissions is May 31, 2018. The winners will be announced on July 31, 2018. Essays must be submitted in English only. Electronic submissions should be sent in PDF format to this email address (mps.youngscholars@ttu.edu). Authors of winning essays must present their papers at the General Meeting to receive their award. The essays will be judged by an international panel of three members of the Society.

Please feel free to share this announcement with any individuals who may have an interest in submitting an essay for consideration of a fellowship award. All questions may be directed to the MPS Young Scholars Program Committee by email at mps.youngscholars@ttu.edu or phone at +1.806.742.7138.

MPS Young Scholars Program Committee

On the popularity of economic history

I recently engaged in a discussion (a twittercussion) with Leah Boustan of Princeton over the “popularity” of economic history within economics (depicted below).  As one can see from the purple section, it is as popular as those hard candies that grandparents give out on Halloween (to be fair, I like those candies just like I do economic history). More importantly, the share seems to be smaller than at the peak of 1980s. It also seems like the Nobel prize going to Fogel and North had literally no effects on the subfield’s popularity. Yet, I keep hearing that “economic history is back”. After all, the Bates Clark medal went to Donaldson of Stanford this year which should confirm that economic history is a big deal.  How can this be reconciled with the figure depicted below?


As I explained in my twittercussion with Leah, I think that there is a popularity for using historical data. Economists have realized that if some time is spent in archives to collect historical data, great datasets can be assembled. However, they do not necessarily consider themselves “economic historians” and as such they do not use the JEL code associated with history.  This is an improvement over a field where Arthur Burns (former Fed Chair) supposedly said during the 1970s that we needed to look at history to better shape monetary policy. And by history, he meant the 1950s. However, while there are advantages, there is an important danger which is left aside.

The creation of a good dataset has several advantages. The main one is that it increases time coverage. By increasing the time coverage, you can “tackle” the big questions and go for the “big answers” through the generation of stylized facts. Another advantage (and this is the one that summarizes my whole approach) is that historical episodes can provide neat testing grounds that give us a window to important economic issues. My favorite example of that is the work of Petra Moser at NYU-Stern. Without going into too much details (because her work was my big discovery of 2017), she used a few historical examples which she painstakingly detailed in order to analyze the effect of copyright laws. Her results have important ramifications to debates regarding “science as a public good” and “science as a contribution good” (see the debates between Paul David and Terence Kealey on this in Research Policy for this point).

But these two advantages must be weighted against an important disadvantage which Robert Margo has warned against in a recent piece in Cliometrica.  When one studies economic history, one must keep in mind that two things must be accomplished simultaneously: to explain history through theory and bring theory to life through history (this is not my phrase, but rather that of Douglass North). To do so, one must study a painstaking amount of details to ascertain the quality of the sources used and their reliability.  In considering so many details, one can easily get lost or even fall prey to his own prior (i.e. I expect to see one thing and upon seeing it I ask no question). To avoid this trap, there must be a “northern star” to act as a guide. That star, as I explained in an earlier piece, is a strong and general understanding of theory (or a strong intuition for economics). To create that star and give attention to details is an incredibly hard task and which is why I argued in the past that “great” economic historians (Douglass North, Deirdre McCloskey, Robert Fogel, Nathan Rosenberg, Joel Mokyr, Ronald Coase (because of the lighthouse piece), Stephen Broadberry, Gregory Clark etc.) take a longer time to mature. In other words, good economic historians are projects that have have a long “time to build problem” (sorry, bad economics joke).  However, the downside is that when this is not the case, there are risks of ending up with invalid results that are costly and hard to contest.

Just think about the debate between Daron Acemoglu and David Albouy on the colonial origins of development. It took more than five years to Albouy to get his results that threw doubts on Acemoglu’s 1999 paper. Albouy clearly expended valuable resources to get the “details” behind the variables. There was miscoding of Niger and Nigeria, and misunderstandings of what type of mortalities were used.  This was hard work and it was probably only deemed a valuable undertaking because Acemoglu’s paper was such a big deal (i.e. the net gains were pretty big if they paid off). Yet, to this day, many people are entirely unaware of the Albouy rebuttal.  This can be very well seen in the image below regarding the number of cites of the Acemoglu-Johnson-Robinson paper on an annual basis. There seems to be no effect from the massive rebuttal (disclaimer: Albouy convinced me that he was right) from the Albouy piece.


And it really does come down to small details like those underlined by Albouy. Let me give you another example taken from my work. Within Canada, the French minority is significantly poorer than the rest of Canada. From my cliometric work, we now know that there were poorer than the rest of Canada and North America as far as the colonial era. This is a stylized fact underlying a crucial question today (i.e. Why are French-Canadians relatively poor).  That stylized fact requires an explanation. Obviously, institutions are a great place to look. One of the institution that is most interesting is seigneurial tenure which was basically a “lite” version of feudalism in North America that was present only in the French settled colonies. Some historians and economic historians argued that there were no effects of the institutions on variables like farm efficiency.  However, some historians noticed that in censuses the French reported different units that the English settlers within the colony of Quebec. To correct for this metrological problem, historians made county-level corrections. With those corrections, the aforementioned has no statistically significant effect on yields or output per farm. However, as I note in this piece that got a revise and resubmit from Social Science Quarterly (revised version not yet online), county-level corrections mask the fact that the French were more willing to move to predominantly English areas than the English were willing to predominantly French areas. In short, there was a skewed distribution. However, once you correct the data on an ethnic composition basis rather than on the county-level (i.e. the same correction for the whole county), you end with a statistically significant negative effect on both output per farm and yields per acre. In short, we were “measuring away” the effect of institutions. All from a very small detail about distributions. Yet, that small detail has supported a stylized fact that the institution did not matter.

This is the risk that Margo speaks about illustrated in two examples. Economists who use history merely as a tool may end up making dramatic mistakes that will lead to incorrect conclusions. I take this “juicy” quote from Margo (which Pseudoerasmus) highlighted for me:

[EH] could become subsumed entirely into other fields… the demand for specialists in economic history might dry up, to the point where obscure but critical knowledge becomes difficult to access or is even lost. In this case, it becomes harder to ‘get the history right’

Indeed, unfortunately.

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.

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.