Where the state came from

One of the questions that led me to libertarianism was “what is the state?” More than that: Where did it come from? How it works? What’s the use? Analogous questions would be “what is politics?” and “what is economics?” If my classroom experience serves as a yardstick for anything, the overwhelming majority of people never ask these questions and never run after answers. I do not blame them. Most of us are very busy trying to make ends meet to worry about this kind of stuff. I even sought an academic training in politics just to seek answers to these questions. For me it’s nothing to have answers, after all, I’m paid (albeit very poorly paid) to know these matters. Still, I wish more people were asking these types of question. I suspect that it would be part of the process to review the political and economic situation in which we find ourselves.

Many times when I ask in the classroom “what is the state?” I receive in response that Brazil is a state. In general I correct the student explaining that this is an example, not a definition. The modern state, as we have it today, is mainly the combination of three factors: government, population, and territory. The modern state, as we have it today, can be defined as a population inhabiting a specific territory, organized by a centralized government that recognizes no instance of power superior to itself. Often, in the academic and popular vocabulary, state and government are confused, and there is no specific problem in this. In fact, the two words may appear as synonyms, although this is not a necessity. It is possible to distinguish between state and government thinking that the state remains and governments go through.

The state as we know it today is a product of the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age. I believe that this information alone should draw our attention enough: people have lived in modern states only in the last 500 years or so. Throughout the rest of human history other forms of political organization have been used. I am not saying (not here) that these other forms of organization were better than the modern state. I am simply saying that the modern state is far from being natural, spontaneous, or necessary. Even after 1500 the modern state took time to be universally accepted. First, this model of organization spread throughout Europe at the beginning of the Modern Era. It was only in the late 18th century and early 19th century that this model came to be used in the American continent. The modern state spread globally only after the decolonization movement that followed World War II. That is: the vast majority of modern states are not even 70 years old!

What is the purpose of the state? At least in my experience, many people respond by “providing rights” or “securing rights.” People think about health, education, sanitation, culture, security, etc. as duties of the state towards society. It is clear that many people think about health, education, housing, etc. as rights, which in itself is already questionable, but I will leave this discussion for another time. The point I want to put here is that empirically states have only cared about issues like health and public education very recently. In the classic definition of Max Weber (late 19th century), the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. In other words, virtually anyone can use violence, but only the state can do it legally. That is: the primordial function of the state is to use violence within a legal order. Other functions, such as providing health and education, came very late and only became commonplace with the welfare state that strengthened after World War II.

I find it always interesting to see how we live in a young world. Basically the entire world population today lives in some state and expects from this state a minimum level of well-being. However, this reality is only about 70 years old. The idea that we need to live in states that provide us with a minimum of well being is not natural and far from obvious. To understand that the modern state is a historical institution, which has not always existed, it is fundamental to question its validity. Moreover, to note that the functions of the state that seem obvious to us today did not exist 70 years ago leads us to question whether it is valid to expect things such as health and education from the state.

My personal perception is that the modern state (defined by territory, population, and government) is better than any alternative that has already been proposed. However, the state of social well-being is only a sugar-watered socialism. Socialism, by definition, does not work, as Ludwig von Mises very well shows. Partial socialism is as likely to function as full socialism. Expecting the state to use violence within legal parameters is valid and even fundamental. But to expect that this same state may successfully diversify its activities entering the branches of health, education, culture, etc. is a fatal conceit.

Once, Cubans were (maybe) richer than Americans

In light of what we see today, this is hard to believe. However, as a result of Castro’s death, I accidentally became interested in the history of this fascinating island and the more I discover, the more shocked I am at “the path” that Cuba has taken. One of these reasons is provided below by Victor Bulmer Thomas in his Economic History of Latin America since Independence. Now, Thomas uses a different approach than the commonly used Maddison data (he believes the assumptions are too heroic). He uses indicators correlated with GDP per capita to fill in the gaps and he finds that Cuba was generally richer than the United States for most of the 19th century (see below):


Now, I am not convinced by the figure Thomas presents. However, I am also skeptical of the levels presented by Maddison (where Cuba is roughly 60% as rich as the US in 1820). In between are some more reasonable estimate (see this great discussion in this book as well as this discussion by Coatsworth).  Moreover, there is the  issue of slavery which distorts the value of using GDP per capita because of high levels of inequality (however, it distorts both ways since the US was also a slave economy up to the Civil War).

Nonetheless, this tells you about the “path not taken” by Cuba.

A very short response to Bruno Gonçalves Rosi’s reflection on Latin American Conservatism

With his “The Problem with Conservatism in Latin America, Bruno Gonçalves Rosi brings to NOL a very interesting debate on politics and history. In the case of Hispanic America the controversy is quite severe: during the 17th-century Spain and its colonies were undergoing an incremental process of liberalization and modernization known as “Bourbon Reforms.” These reforms implied a language unification (adopting Castilian – later named “Spanish” – as the national language), an increasing centralization of political administration, and free trade between Spain and its colonies, among other aspects.

In the case of the Spanish colonies in America, the Bourbon Reforms implied that Spanish-born subjects were preferred over American-born ones to take up public duties, and also that American products could not compete with Spanish ones. Up until then, commerce among Spain and its American colonies was restrained to gold and a narrow scope of goods. Free commerce had been allowed only in cases of extreme scarcity (for example, between Buenos Aires and South Africa) and for a very short lapse of time. The Bourbon Reforms put a severe strain on the incipient local production of the Hispanic American colonies that had flourished as consequence of closed markets. Sometimes inefficient local processes of production were outperformed by more competitive Spanish goods. But in other cases, efficient local industries were banned because they were regarded as a menace to Spanish ones.

Thus, the reactions to the Bourbon Reforms were of two opposite kinds: the Liberals rejected them because they limited the free trade only to Spain and its colonies and the modernization process was too slow. Liberals demanded free trade with all countries. On the other side, the Conservatives sought to go back to the Habsburg era: they rejected Modernity and free trade and demanded protectionism. The Emancipatory process of Spanish America was carried out by the conjunction of the Liberal and the Conservative reaction against the Bourbon Reforms. Once independence was fulfilled, the two parties became acutely antagonist to each other…perhaps up until today.

The history of Latin American Conservatism and Liberalism is worth our attention not only because of political history itself, but because it gives us a model to ponder the processes of departure from political and economic commonwealths that have been seen in the recent years -and perhaps are not closed yet.

Household size and growth since 1870 (albeit in Canada)

Two days ago, I posted something on how much we were estimating growth since the 1950s. While organizing another research paper that I am trying to finish, I realized that I could make a follow-up to this based on previous research of mine.

A few months ago, I published (alongside Vadim Kufenko and Klaus Prettner) a short note in Economics Bulletin where we showed that the large differences in household size in Canada that existed up to 1975 led many to overestimate the level of differences between provinces. Moreover, we pointed out that because household size were converging at the same time as incomes, we argued that the rate of convergence from 1945 onwards was slightly overestimated. That paper convinced us to do the same between all the OECD countries (we are assembling the data right now).  But this was an argument about variance, what if we simply plot the “per capita” income of Canada with the “per adult equivalent” income of Canada since 1870.

By using the Maddison dataset combined with the data from my article, it took me a few seconds to get the graph below. What is important to notice in this graph is that, incomes per adult equivalent (measured in 1990 Geary-Kheamis dollars) have increased 40% less than incomes per person. Since adult equivalents are a better measure of living standards (because you capture the economies of scale associated with household size), we can easily say that we have been underestimating the level of improvement in Canada (it is still substantial however).


“Watch” the (industrial) revolution!

I don’t know how I missed such a valuable article, but O’Grada and Kelly have this fascinating piece on the price of watches in England from the early 18th century to the early 19th century in the Quarterly Journal of EconomicsStarting from Adam Smith’s quote that the price of watches had fallen 95% over roughly one hundred years, they collected prices of stolen watches reported in court records.  They find that Smith was wrong. The drop was only 75% (see the sarcasm here).


Why is this interesting? Because it shows something crucial about the industrial revolution. This was a complex good to build which required incredible technical advances – many of which could be considered general purpose technologies which could then be used by other industries for their own advances (on the assumption that other entrepreneurs noticed these technologies). But, more importantly, it provides further evidence against the pessimistic view of living standards in Britain at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. These “new” goods became incredibly cheaper. Along with nails, glass, pottery and shipping , watches did not weigh heavily in the cost of living of the British. However, they did weigh heavily as industrial prices which meant that costs of production were falling progressively which augured well for the beginning of the industrial revolution*.

Literally, you can watch the industrial revolution in that paper! (sorry, bad pun)

* By the way, I use the term because it is conventional but a revolution is a clean break. The British industrial revolution was not saltation as much as it was a steady process of innovation from the early 18th century up to the mid 19th century. The real “revolution” in my eyes is that of the late 19th century. The technological changes from 1870 to 1890 are the most momentous in history and if there was any technological revolution in the past, this was it.

Did the Thirty Glorious Years Actually Exist?

Okay, I am going for a flashy title here. I should have asked whether the Thirty Glorious were as glorious as they are meant to be. This is a question that matters in debates about both inequality and the often-bemoaned growth slowdown.

In the past (say before 1950), labor force participation was quite low (relative to today) by virtue of large family sizes and most married women not working. However, when they were at-home, these married women produced something. That something was simply not included in our national accounts. When they entered the labor force, they produced less of that something. However, since it had never been measured, we never subtracted that something from the actual output generated from their increased participation.

Even before the 1950s, this mattered considerably as growth tended to be heavily underestimated (by 0.3 percentage points from 1870 to 1890, overestimated by 0.38 points from 1890 to 1910 and by 0.06 percentage points from 1910 to 1930).This was at a time when variations between the household economy and the market economy were small. Imagine the importance of overestimates since the 1950s! In a short comment reply to Emily Skarbek last year, I pointed out that adjusting for the size of the household economy meant that 1/7th of Canada’s economic growth from 1960 to 1997 (see image below and this was before one additional surge of labor participation resulting from daycare and unemployment policy reforms).


Recently, I found an old book in my library. It is Kenneth Boulding’s Structure of a Modern EconomyIn it, he makes this exact same argument. Basically, actual output today is overestimated relative to output in the past. And there are many, many, many other articles on this. In all cases, the rate of growth is heavily reduced. In a way, that means that the Thirty Glorious are less glorious (which makes the growth stagnation argument seem more defensible).

And you know what? This is consistent with attempts to correct inequality measures. Most of the attempts made to correct inequality for age, number of workers per household, the size of household and prices, they generally increase very modestly the income growth of the bottom centiles and decrease appreciably the actual level of growth of incomes at the top. While these corrections reduce the level of inequality (and the growth thereof), they also reduce the growth rate of incomes.

Is it possible that the correction to make inequality measures more comparable over time are allow us to see the point about overestimating growth since the 1950s? It means that the Thirty Glorious aren’t that glorious (at the very least, they’re overestimated). It also means that someone who could follow some of the proposed corrections to national income accounts (generally, the best source for this is the Review of Income and Wealth) for every year since 1929 (starting date of the US national accounts which could be extended by using Kuznets’s national income measures from 1913 to 1929) could propose the “actual output” of the country and see how glorious the 1945-1975 period was. That is the work of economic historians to do!

On immigration, trade, and inequality: why nobody should care (that much)

Recently, I read snippets from George Borjas’s book, We Wanted Workers (I got distracted and reverted to reading Leah Platt Boustan’s Competition in the Promised Land).On its heels came this article by Dani Rodrik in Foreign Policy. Both work make the same case, that free movement of goods and people may imply some negative effects on inequality. Borjas argues that immigration increases inequality while Rodrik argues that low-skilled workers are displaced.

Both arguments are not convincing.

First of all, immigration will always increase inequality in one area. This is by definition. Unless the migrants follow the same distributional pattern as the host population, inequality will increase. If somebody from Cuba enters the United States at the tenth percentile, he increases inequality by swelling the ranks of low earners. If somebody from China enters the United States at the 90th percentile, he increases inequality by swelling the ranks of the high earners. However, from a global perspective (world population), inequality has actually dropped since the migrant has a greater income than in the past. After all, bringing a Haitian to the US may increase US inequality measures but the ten-fold increase in his income (this number comes from my colleague Ben Powell) means that worldwide inequality drops.

To be honest, I know that Borjas is probably aware of this point, but many of those who spin his work don’t get it. Borjas’s argument is little more sophisticated. His claim is that low-skilled workers (high school dropouts) see their wages go down while everybody else (high school graduates and university graduates) gains from immigration. This increases inequality because they are left behind economically. But this is where his argument is alike that of Rodrik and where it misses the target dramatically.

While I could be lazy and simply say that many other scholars place Borjas at the extreme of the spectrum of academics with regards to the effects of immigration on labor markets. Indeed, there are more scholars who find that low-skilled workers also gain from immigration all things being equal. But, I won’t be lazy. Let me assume, for the sake of argument, that the empirical result is valid. If unskilled workers are displaced, why can’t they find new employment elsewhere. If the effects of immigration are so positive for everybody else, it means that everybody else is substantially richer and they can demand more goods. Are there barriers preventing the unskilled from acquiring jobs? The answer is emphatically yes.

The ability to find a new form of employment following changes in the labor market depends on the frictions that exist on the labor market. Some of them are natural. We have to assume search costs (time, energy, some money) to look for a job and get the training for that job. But there are also barriers that create unnecessary frictions. The rise of occupational licencing is one of those (growing) frictions (see here, here and here). We could also point out that product regulations tend to affect the prices of goods that weigh more heavily in the consumption baskets of lower-income workers (here and here) thus pulling the poorest down. We could also point to the fact that states with right to work laws seem to have enjoyed more limited increases in inequality than the states without such laws (here). We could also underline the fact that housing regulations are making it harder for unskilled workers to move to dynamic areas, thus locking them in low-productivity areas (here). And the list could go on for a few more pages, but I think the point is made: there are tons of factors that make displacement a problem. However, those who worry about it when it comes from changes resulting from trade or immigration are concerned with a minor (and positive in the long-run) variable. In a way, Borjas and Rodrik are (rightfully) concerned about the poorest but they fail to identify the problem like if a doctor was concerned with his patient’s loss of sight rather than concentrating on the brain tumor that caused the loss.

Free trade and open borders generate massive benefits. But there are short-term costs as production methods and resources are being reallocated. Many government policies amplify exponentially these costs and delay reallocation. This creates the inequality they bemoan.