The Westphalian myth

Was the Peace of Westphalia and its implications for state sovereignty one big myth?

The apparently ineradicable notion (repeated even by many recent historians of the war) that the Peace of Westphalia sanctioned the “sovereignty” of Switzerland and the Netherlands and their independence from the empire demonstrates this. In the case of the Swiss it is based on a willful (and sometimes uninformed) interpretation of the relevant clause in the treaties, giving it a meaning that its drafters did not intend. And as to the Dutch the treaties do not even deal with them.

The complete autonomy of Switzerland vis-a-vis the empire was uncontroversial in practice, and the Swiss were reluctant to have anything to do with the peace congress. If they eventually allowed themselves to be represented there by the burgomaster of Basel, it was because this city had only joined the Swiss confederation after the other cantons had had their autonomy recognized in a treaty of 1499. The supreme courts of the empire (more particularly, the Imperial Cameral Tribunal) did not consider Basel to be exempt from their jurisdiction and allowed lawsuits against Basel and its citizens, a situation that had caused continual irritation. For this reason Basel insisted on having the immunity of the entire confederation reconfirmed in such a way that it would cover Basel, too. The request was granted, and a clause to that effect included in the treaties. This clause, which explicitly names Basel as its initiator and beneficiary, restates the immunity (exemptio) of the Swiss cantons from the jurisdiction of the empire and their complete autonomy (plena libertas).

Read the rest (pdf). All you Holy Roman Empire fans will enjoy it, too.

The collapse of socialism and the sovereignty gap

When socialism collapsed in the late 1980s-early 1990s, many debates and contentions were settled, but the issue of sovereignty has only grown in importance thanks in large part to more economic integration. The European attempt at federation, undertaken after the fall of socialism, has not gone well precisely because it cannot close the Westphalian sovereignty gap. The bloodshed in the non-liberal world has largely been a product of the inability of states to fragment, an inability which is encouraged by notions of Westphalian sovereignty and institutionalized by IGOs such as the United Nations or World Bank.

If states wish to break away, but are prohibited from doing so by enormous costs (such as violent aggression from the state it wishes to break away from, or hostility from illiberal states that can use IGOs as mediums to act on those hostilities), then a federation which welcomes states into its union, and which is strong enough to deter aggression, would be a welcome, liberal development.

This is from my forthcoming article in the Independent Review. Here’s a sneak peak (pdf) at the whole thing. I’m guest editing a symposium on the subject at Cosmos + Taxis, in case any of you want to write a response, or add to the conversation…

Forthcoming: Reviving the libertarian interstate federalist tradition

One of my papers was accepted for publication in the libertarian journal The Independent Review. Here’s an excerpt:

This essay aims to fill that gap by making four arguments:

1. Prominent classical liberals and libertarians have long recognized the importance of interstate federalism for not only individual liberty but security for liberal polities in the international arena as well.

2. The American federalists of the late 18th century faced the same problems we face, and the distinct interstate order that they patched together to solve those problems is not an outmoded Leviathan; it is the missing piece of the puzzle to the libertarian and classical liberal tradition of interstate federalism.

3. The piecemeal federation of political units under the U.S. constitution would achieve more freedom for more people, and this interstate federalism should be enthusiastically embraced as the foreign policy principle for libertarians and classical liberals.

4. The American Proposal would solve the security (and cost-sharing) dilemma for liberal polities, but it would also contribute to a decline in the worrisome trend of presidential government in the United States.

I gotta give props to the editors and the referees of the journal. I know they didn’t like my argument, but they were fair, helpful, and a whole lotta fun. I’ll have more on this soon. In the mean time, here’s a sneak peak (pdf).

The Blind Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs usually make decisions with incomplete information, in disciplines where we lack expertise, and where time is vital. How, then, can we be expected to make decisions that lead to our success, and how can other people judge our startups on our potential value? And even if there are heuristics for startup value, how can they cross fields?

The answer, to me, comes from a generalizable system for improvement and growth that has proven itself– the blind watchmaker of evolution. In this, the crucial method by which genes promulgate themselves is not by predicting their environments, but by promiscuity and opportunism in a random, dog-eat-dog-world. By this, I mean that successful genes free-ride on or resonate with other genes that promote reproductive success (promiscuity) and select winning strategies by experimenting in the environment and letting reality be the determinant of what gene-pairings to try more often (opportunism). Strategies that are either robust or anti-fragile usually outperform fragile and deleterious strategies, and strategies that exist within an evolutionary framework that enables rapid testing, learning, mixing, and sharing (such as sexual reproduction or lateral gene transfer paired with fast generations) outperform those that do not (such as cloning), as shown by the Red Queen hypothesis.

OK, so startups are survival/reproductive vehicles and startup traits/methods are genes (or memes, in the Selfish Gene paradigm). With analogies, we should throw out what is different and keep what is useful, so what do we need from evolution?

First, one quick note: we can’t borrow the payout calculator exactly. Reproductive success is where a gene makes more of itself, but startups dont make more of themselves. For startups the best metric is probably money. Other than that, what adaptations are best to adopt? Or, in the evolutionary frame, what memes should we imbue in our survival vehicles?

Traits to borrow:

  • Short lives: long generations mean the time between trial and error is too long. Short projects, short-term goals, and concrete exits.
  • Laziness: energy efficiency is far more important than #5 on your priority list.
  • Optionality: when all things are equal, more choices = more chances at success.
  • Evolutionarily Stable Strategies: also called “don’t be a sucker.”
  • React, don’t plan: prediction is difficult or even impossible, but being quick to jump into the breach has the same outcome. Could also be called “prepare, but don’t predict.”
  • Small and many: big investments take a lot of energy and effectively become walking targets. Make small and many bets on try-outs and then feed those that get traction. Note– this is also how to run a military!
  • Auftragstaktik: should be obvious, central planning never works. Entrepreneurs should probably not make any more decisions than they have to.
  • Resonance: I used to call this “endogenous positive feedback loops,” but that doesn’t roll off the tongue. In short, pick traits that make your other traits more powerful–and even better if all of your central traits magnify your other actions.
  • Taking is better than inventing: Its not a better startup if its all yours. Its a better startup if you ruthlessly pick the best idea.
  • Pareto distributions (or really, power laws): Most things don’t really matter. Things that matter, matter a lot.
  • Finite downside, infinite upside: Taleb calls this “convexity”. Whenever presented with a choice that has one finite and one infinite potential, forget about predicting what will happen– focus on the impact’s upper bound in both directions. It goes without saying– avoid infinite downsides!
  • Don’t fall behind (debt): The economy is a Red Queen, anyone carrying anything heavy will continually fall behind. Debt is also the most likely way companies die.
  • Pay it forward to your future self: squirrels bury nuts; you should build generic resources as well.
  • Don’t change things: Intervening takes energy and hurts diversity.
  • Survive: You can’t win if you’re not in the game. More important than being successful is being not-dead.

When following these guidelines, there are two other differences between entrepreneurs and genes: One, genes largely exist in an amoral state, whereas your business is vital to your own life, and if you picked a worthwhile idea, society. Two, unlike evolution, you actually have goals and are trying to achieve something beyond replication, beyond even money. Therefore, you do not need to take your values from evolution. However, if you ignore its lessons, you close your eyes to reality and are truly blind.

Our “blind” entrepreneur, then, can still pick goals and construct what she sees as her utility. But to achieve the highest utility, once defined, she will create unknowable and unpredictable risk of her idea’s demise if she does not learn to grow the way that the blind watchmaker does.

“Polycentric Sovereignty: The Medieval Constitution, Governance Quality, and the Wealth of Nations”

It is widely accepted that good institutions caused the massive increase in living standards enjoyed by ordinary people over the past two hundred years. But what caused good institutions? Scholars once pointed to the polycentric governance structures of medieval Europe, but this explanation has been replaced by arguments favoring state capacity. Here we revitalize the ‘polycentric Europe’ hypothesis and argue it is a complement to state capacity explanations. We develop a new institutional theory, based on political property rights and what we call polycentric sovereignty, which explains how the medieval patrimony resulted in the requisite background conditions for good governance, and hence widespread social wealth creation.

By Alexander Salter & Andrew Young. Read the whole excellent thing here. I wonder how much the author’s conception of “polycentric sovereignty” has in common with Madison’s compound republic?

Salter & Young do a great job bringing decentralization back into the overall “economic growth and political freedom” picture. Over the past two decades, political centralization as a good thing has been making a comeback under the guise of “state capacity.” This isn’t a bad trend, but it has left several large gaps in understanding how economic development and political freedom works. (For example, how to prevent centralized states from pursuing illiberal ends, or using illiberal means to pursue supposedly liberal ends.)

This article brings decentralization back into the picture, using Elinor and Vincent Ostrom’s conception of polycentricity as a model. However, I don’t think they spend enough time on Vincent Ostrom’s understanding of the American compound republic. The American federalists were concerned with exactly the same thing that we are concerned about now: how to maintain a proper balance of centralized power and decentralized power so that liberty may flourish. I’ve emphasized the important part with italics. The liberty aspect gets de-emphasized to make room for the sexier “economic growth” aspect, but political freedom is still paramount when it comes to thinking through matters of politics.

The American federalists, and especially Madison, came up with the compound republic to address the centralized/decentralized debate. Scholars continue to underrate its genius and usefulness for capturing humans as they are. Ostrom’s book on the Madisonian compound republic is worth your time and money. Read it in tandem with this book on the Federalist Papers and this book on the formation of the American republic and this short paper on the continued viability of the compound republic to today’s world. Once you’ve done the readings, start writing (or better yet: blogging!).

What I learned at the doctorate

The 19th century Brazilian political system was dominated by two parties: Conservatives and Liberals. Although these parties were formally established only in the late 1830s or early 1840s, part of my thesis involves understanding that these parties existed, albeit in an embryonic form, since independence in 1822.

What I noticed is that since independence, conservatives have had a more realistic view of international relations. For them, securing the territory (and the government’s dominance over it) was crucial. Liberals had a more, well, liberal view of international relations. Although they did not deny the traditional formulation of the state (territory, population, government, recognition by other nations), they were more optimistic about the possibility of cooperation with other countries.

The view of conservatives and liberals about international relations matched their ideas about domestic politics very well: conservatives advocated a more centralized and stronger government, with greater control over the territory. One of their great fears was the possibility of Brazil’s fragmentation into several small countries, as happened with Spanish America. Their defense of the monarchy was linked to this: a monarch with greater powers would guarantee the maintenance of the territory. Liberals advocated a more decentralized government, with greater freedom for individuals, and also greater freedom for provinces, which would not be controlled so directly by the central government. The fear of fragmentation of the territory was lesser, and some liberals understood that if individual provinces decided to leave the union, well, that was their right.

These views on international and domestic politics also matched the way liberals and conservatives viewed the United States. Early in the country’s history, conservatives tended to see the United States as a young, unimportant republic. The proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine changed this attitude a little, but it remained a fact that conservatives preferred to direct Brazilian foreign policy towards Europe. Liberals, for their part, saw an example to be followed in the USA, with their conscious departure from the European way of doing politics, especially their federalism. Throughout the 19th century, as the United States grew in power, these attitudes changed, but not by betraying the basic understanding that the two parties had about international relations: conservatives feared possible US imperialism, especially in relation to the Amazon. Liberals were less jealous about the national territory, and in any case, they did not see the United States as a threat.

The great irony I found in my thesis is that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, liberal and conservative ideas about the United States converged. The monarchy was overthrown and the republic proclaimed in Brazil in 1889. The liberal and conservative parties were formally extinct. Part of my thesis involves saying, however, that despite this formal extinction, liberal and conservative attitudes continued to exist in both domestic and international politics. In domestic politics, Republicans represented, at least in part, a radicalization of liberal ideas. Foreign policy was initially marked by this radicalization, but that soon changed. After a very troubled 1890s, the Baron of Rio Branco took the reins of Brazilian foreign policy in 1902.
Rio Branco was a frankly conservative individual. Early in life he chose not to get involved in domestic politics, partly because he did not want to be in the shadow of his father, Viscount of Rio Branco. He followed the diplomatic career. However, as I have already explained, the views of conservatives in domestic politics found a clear counterpart in foreign policy, marked above all by the defense of the territory. And this was the foreign policy of the Baron of Rio Branco.

The thing is that Rio Branco chose a liberal, Joaquim Nabuco, to be Brazil’s ambassador to Washington. Both Rio Branco and Nabuco understood that Brazilian foreign policy should focus on the USA, but for different reasons. On the international stage of the 1900s, Rio Branco believed that an alliance with the USA, albeit informal, was the best way to guarantee Brazil’s security against European imperialism. Nabuco did not ignore this aspect of international relations, but he also believed in a higher ideal: that the approach to the USA could represent a counterpoint to the bellicose European international relations, leading to the progress of civilization. So the irony was this: both Rio Branco, the conservative, and Nabuco, the liberal, wanted to get closer to the USA, but for very different reasons.

Studying to write my thesis was a very pleasant process. I liked the characters I met, I liked the stories and I liked the theme I chose. During the doctorate I was intellectually more mature, and I managed to have a high degree of independence in the way I conducted my research. In other words, I did not allow myself to be led by theoretical perspectives with which I did not agree. And I also think that what I learned has real practical implications. I am glad that it was not my responsibility to decide on Brazilian foreign policy in the 19th century, but I understand that conservatives were often being fearful. I know that they were often being hypocrites. Of course, hindsight is always beneficial, but I believe that liberals were generally right.

There is a catch to this story: Brazil was the last country in the West to abolish slavery, in 1888. Until then, an unimaginable number of slaves crossed the Atlantic to work mainly on coffee and sugar cane fields. This is a dimension of the history of Brazil to which I regrettably gave little importance at the time I was writing. Today I see things differently: the country of slavery yesterday, not for nothing, is the country of socialism today. And I think it’s important to think about how such a strong dependence on slavery probably affected the way domestic and international politics were made.

 

Be Our Guest: “Providing healthcare isn’t practicing medicine”

Jack Curtis has a new Guest Post up. An excerpt:

It was expected that doctors would have some charity patients from those less well off. You also expected that he would do everything possible for your care because that reputation was the reason you wouldn’t call someone else next time. That was reinforced by the priceless value set on human life by the prevailing Judeo-Christian ethos. No, this is not fiction; such was medical practice in Los Angeles in my youth. A simplification certainly, but it conveys the essential: Human ills and injuries were serviced by medical doctors whose state licensing and professional organizations approximated medieval guilds.

Please, read the rest.

On a different note, Jack’s excellent thoughts will be the last installment of NOL‘s experimental “Be Our Guest” feature. I just couldn’t find the time to get a decent turnaround. If you still want to have your say, and nowhere to say it, jump on in the ‘comments’ threads.

Cyclical History

An interesting result from behavioral/experimental economics is that bubbles can happen even with smart people who should know better. But once those people go through a bubble, they do a better job of avoiding bubbles in the future.

I think this result has major implications for society more broadly and I think we’re seeing it play out in the news. In the ’70s people learned a lot of hard lessons about things like stagflation (and racism–but ask a sociologist about that) that made the following decades easier. But those people gradually retired and were replaced with people who weren’t inoculated to certain ideas (like the idea of inflating your way out of a supply-side recession).

We’re now living in a world where the median voter and her elected representatives have unlearned those hard lessons. And so we’re going to live through the 1970’s again. Hopefully. If we’re not so lucky we might live through the 1930’s again.

On Abraham Kuyper’s Political Liberalism

My article “Abraham Kuyper and Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer as Anti-Rationalist Liberals” has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Church & State and will hopefully be in print in 2021.

In this article, I explore F. A. Hayek’s division of pre-1848 liberalism into two contrasting worldviews — rationalist and anti-rationalist. I argue that both Groen van Prinsterer and Kuyper, two important Dutch Anti-Revolutionary writers, were anti-rationalist liberals.

Both of them are on the record denouncing “liberalism”, but both refer mostly to French liberalism of the rationalist kind. And both admired Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, cited by Hayek as great exponents of anti-rationalist liberalism.

I hope this article will lead to an interesting conversation as to why the contemporary Kuyperian movement seems to be much more left-wing than the original anti-revolutionaries.

A pre-print version of the article can be viewed on the Oxford Academic website.

 

Evolution in Everything: Handwriting

There’s a whole set of simple but profound lessons that, if I were being lazy, I might call “the economic way of thinking.” We move through a hand-me-down world, solving some problems and creating new problems, adjusting and adapting, and shaping the world that we pass on to the next generation.

I just stumbled on a lovely example in an article about ballpoint pens and the end of cursive. A technological change changed the nature of handwriting, but the structure of human capital lagged behind. Specifically, the widespread adoption of ballpoint pens meant the old way of writing–how to hold the pen, how to form the letters, etc.–was poorly suited to the tool being used. This should have been an opportunity to test unchecked assumptions (e.g. about what the “correct” way to write is) but instead an inefficient practice (cursive writing with a bic pen) persisted in the face of increasing obsolescence.

I particularly like the idea of trying something new (fountain pens) can lead to a realization that some old method has a lot more going for it than was obvious to the non-alert.

I wonder how many other mundane skills, shaped to accommodate outmoded objects, persist beyond their utility. It’s not news to anyone that students used to write with fountain pens, but knowing this isn’t the same as the tactile experience of writing with one. Without that experience, it’s easy to continue past practice without stopping to notice that the action no longer fits the tool. Perhaps “saving handwriting” is less a matter of invoking blind nostalgia and more a process of examining the historical use of ordinary technologies as a way to understand contemporary ones. Otherwise we may not realize which habits are worth passing on, and which are vestiges of circumstances long since past.

How the Ballpoint Pen Killed Cursive

Learning takes time. So in a dynamic society, it’s natural that there will always be some sort of practice outliving its utility. The only other way I see is stagnation: no new methods, no new problems, and we eventually setting into a “making the best of it” equilibrium.

The discovery of each of these inefficiencies creates some pocket of entrepreneurship. Sometimes it’s a massive, market oriented bit of entrepreneurship–like Bic industrializing the process of making cheap, reliable pens. Sometimes it’s a niche community of hobbyists (who might be incubating the next big thing). But that entrepreneurial reaction to inefficiency is pretty exciting. Realizing how my bad handwriting is the outcome of a technical problem makes me want to try fountain pens.

Mass Hysteria and the Great Economy-Killing: Lessons from 1856 South Africa

Xhosa 1

In 1856, a teenage Xhosa girl Nongqawuse (1841-1898) had a prophetic vision that spread like a fire among that nation that resided in South Africa. The prophecy came amid a lung virus infection that spread among some Xhosa stock; it was rumored that the sickness came from the imported European cattle.  In her vision, which the girl duly delivered to her people, two spirits of ancestors had visited her and ordered Xhosa people to destroy all their cattle, corn, tools and foods.  The spirits insisted that these had been all contaminated. In return, the ancestors would bring the dead back to life, drive away the hated British, and launch the paradise on the earth, which was to bring the limitless supply of food, stock, and household items.

The spirits also “ordered” people  not to do any work but to wait and see the fulfillment of the prophecy.  At first, some Xhosa skeptics laughed at this, but soon when her uncle, a powerful and charismatic witchdoctor Mhalakaza, vouched for her and validated the prophecy by his expert opinion, people took it seriously, especially after all powerful chiefs sided with the uncle.  In fact, by killing his own cattle, Mhalakaza set a personal example. The supreme chief Sarili added to this his own spin by insisting that, besides the cattle slaughter, all European clothing should be ditched because it was unclean.  He insisted that his people, indigenous in their “naked attire” and coated in red clay, were “clean” compared to the whites who wore clothes.   Moreover, the “doctor” set a deadline for the paradise to materialize. It was to happen at the end of 1856 on a day of a full moon.

Xhosa 2

Society became divided into “believers” and “non-believers” who were a minority.  The greater part of the Xhosa became agitated and followed the command of the superior forces by slaughtering over 400,000 cattle and destroying their food supplies along with other “contaminated” items.  They also decided to sow no crops for future.  When on the designated day of the full moon no miracle arrived, fearing for his life, Mhalakaza disappeared.  From his hideout he had a message sent to the people that the spirits were angry with the Xhosa who did not slaughter all their stock.  For this reason, the fine new cattle did not emerge from the ground and the dead did not resurrect.  Within twelve months, with about 100,000 people starving themselves to death, the Xhosa population dropped by 80%.  For more about the Xhosa stock “pandemic” craze, see Jeffrey Brian Peires, The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856-1857 (Johannesburg and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).

Xhoas 3

A PPE pandemic reading list

I haven’t written for a while – other duties get in the way – but I’d like to suggest this reading list in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics for the present time of crisis and perplexity. The main reason is that everyone seems to be an expert in Economics, Epidemiology, and Political Philosophy these days, assuming that from “facts” we can easily derive “values” and answer the question, “what is to be done?” I think this is at best a naïve attitude and at worst the same rationalistic hubris we experience everytime a political issue is simplified and reduced to a matter of “science”. Yes, there are facts and they shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s not easy to decide what is to be done, morally and politically, in light of those facts.

The first item on the list is Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. A classic, and a reminder that people choose all the time to sacrifice some degree of liberty in the altar of survival (or a chance to survive), but also a reminder that Leviathan may turn from friend to foe, from protector to persecutor – and there is very little we can do about it. The second item is John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, which then explores this topic in light of the fact that civil government shouldn’t have absolute power. It makes an attempt to show us how that power can, or should, be limited within a certain sphere of responsibility. Though it’s still there to protect us.

In this time of pandemic, people feel tempted to panic. People and politicians are calling for dramatic measures, and one reason is that the use of government coercion – which, according to Locke, ought to be limited – might be necessary to force people to cooperate, for example, by staying home. This is a proposed solution to the dilemmas of collective action posed by the problem that some may “free-ride” on the rest, and, as a result, the disease will keep spreading, frustrating any attempt to slow it down. Against dramatic, desperate and, perhaps, arrogant, use of political power, and in favor of prudence and wisdom, Edmund Burke’s collection of writings from the period of the French Revolution can be a beacon of light. On the other hand, explaining the dilemmas of collective action and suggesting ways of solving them, Mancur Olson offers an insightful look at incentives and group behavior in The Logic of Collective Action.

However, the idea that government coercion is the only solution to dilemmas of collective action (such as imposing a quarantine, for example) doesn’t hold water. In fact, other economists follow Olson in saying the problem is real and challenges a strict individualist way of thinking, but, adding to Olson’s point, they also acknowledge the role of private action and sanctions in fostering cooperation. Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons is a wonderful study that opens up a number of possibilities for private enforcing of collective action to preserve and promote the frugal allocation of common goods. This can be complemented by The Quest for Community, an overlooked work by sociologist Robert Nisbet, where it becomes clear that, between individuals, the state, and the market, there’s room for other associations and communities that strengthen civil society – particularly in this challenging time. Nisbet’s lesson invites liberty-loving people to reflect on whether a hyper-individualistic view of the world ends up pitting helpess individuals against Leviathan instead of offering the buffer zone of community in between. This is something Alexis de Tocqueville discussed in the 19th century.

And just for the sake of dealing with the issue that “is” doesn’t easily lead to “ought”, and that science might have facts and an explanation for them, but does not easily conduce to a proper discussion on values policy, I must finish this PPE pandemic reading list with F. A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. On Chapter 4, for example, Hayek introduces a constrast between “rationalist liberalism” and “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Rationalist liberals assume too easily that knowledge of the facts on the ground will give them what they need to re-design a society governed by reason. Hayek warns us against this technocratic assumption and offers a defence of “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Anti-rationalist liberals understand the importance of spontaneous order and of constraining power (even at a time of crisis) while prudently balancing the values of liberty and safety in light of past experience and tradition.


Three Additional readings:

Buzan, Waever and De Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (1997). In a liberal democracy, the state steps in suspending some civil liberties only if it can persuade citizens that there’s a threat that justifies it. This book offers a framework to interpret how such threats are constructed in official and non-official discourse, and to what extent this construction of a threat can be effective.

Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan (2013). 25th anniversary edition. Looks at US history and how government employed crises to its advantage and the advantage of the ruling elites. In particular, security and economy related issues are dealt with.

Sanford Ikeda, Dynamics of the Mixed Economy (2002). Shows that a time of crisis might be a time for further interventionism in the economy, as Higgs (see above) suggests, but might also be a time for disintervention, as seems to be the case with part of the agenda today (FDA deregulation, etc.) This is based on Ludwig von Mises’ view that interventionist economies are not very stable and are always swinging as a pendulum between socialism and capitalism.

 

A History of Plagues

As COVID-19 continues to spread, fears and extraordinary predictions have also gone viral. While facing a new infectious threat, the unknowns of how new traits of our societies worldwide or of this novel coronavirus impact its spread. Though no two pandemics are equivalent, I thought it best to face this new threat armed with knowledge from past infectious episodes. The best inoculation against a plague of panic is to use evidence gained through billions of deaths, thousands of years, and a few vital breakthroughs to prepare our knowledge of today’s biological crises, social prognosis, and choices.

Below, I address three key questions: First, what precedents do we have for infections with catastrophic potential across societies? Second, what are the greatest killers and how do pandemics compare? Lastly, what are our greatest accomplishments in fighting infectious diseases?

As foundation for understanding how threats like COVID-19 come about and how their hosts fight back, I recommend reading The Red Queen concerning the evolutionary impact and mechanisms of host-disease competition and listening to Sam Harris’ “The Plague Years” podcast with Matt McCarthy from August 2019, which predated COVID-19 but had a strangely prophetic discussion of in-hospital strategies to mitigate drug resistance and their direct relation to evolutionary competition.

  • The Biggest Killers:

Infectious diseases plagued humanity throughout prehistory and history, with a dramatic decrease in the number of infectious disease deaths coming in the past 200 years. In 1900, the leading killers of people were (1) Influenza, (2) Tuberculosis, and (3) Intestinal diseases, whereas now we die from (1) Heart disease, (2) Cancer, and (3) Stroke, all chronic conditions. This graph shows not that humans have vanquished infectious disease as a threat, but that in the never-ending war of evolutionary one-upmanship, we have won battles consistently since 1920 forward. When paired with Jonathan Haidt’s Most Important Graph in the World, this vindicates humanity’s methods of scientific and economic progress toward human flourishing.Death rates

However, if the CDC had earlier data, it would show a huge range of diseases that dwarf wars and famines and dictators as causes of death in the premodern world. If we look to the history of plagues, we are really looking at the history of humanity’s greatest killers.

The sources on the history of pandemics are astonishingly sparse/non-comprehensive. I created the following graphs only by combining evidence and estimates from the WHO, CDC, Wikipedia, Our World in Data, VisualCapitalist, and others (lowest estimates shown where ranges were presented) for both major historic pandemics and for ongoing communicable disease threats. This is not a complete dataset, and I will continue to add to it, but it shows representative death counts from across major infectious disease episodes, as well as the death rate per year based on world population estimates. See the end of this post for the full underlying data. First, the top 12 “plagues” in history:

Capture disease top 12

 

Note: blue=min, orange=max across the sources I examined. For ongoing diseases with year-by-year WHO evidence, like tuberculosis, measles, and cholera, I grouped mortality in 5-year spans (except AIDS, which does not have good estimates from the 1980s-90s, so I reported based on total estimated deaths).

Now, let’s look at the plagues that were lowest on my list (number 55-66). Again, my list was not comprehensive, but this should provide context for COVID-19:

Capture covid

As we can see, the 11,400 people who have died from COVID-19 recently passed Ebola to take the 61st (out of 66) place on our list of plagues. Note again that several ongoing diseases were recorded in 5-year increments, and COVID-19 still comes in under the death rates for cholera. Even more notably, it has 0.015% as many victims as the plague in the 14th Century,

  • In Context of Current Infectious Diseases:

For recent/ongoing diseases, it is easier to compare year-by-year data. Adding UNAIDS to our sources, we found the following rates of death across some of the leading infectious causes of death. Again, this is not comprehensive, but helps put COVID-19 (the small red dot, so far in the first 3 months of 2020) in context:

Capture diseases by year

Note: darker segments of lines are my own estimates; full data at bottom of the post. I did not include influenza due to the lack of good sources on a year-by-year basis, but a Lancet article found that 291,000-645,000 deaths from influenza in a year is predictable based on data from 1999-2015.

None of this is to say that COVID-19 is not a major threat to human health globally–it is, and precautions could save lives. However, it should show us that there are major threats to human health globally all the time, that we must continue to fight. These trendlines tend to be going the right direction, but our war for survival has many foes, and will have more emerge in the future, and we should expend our resources in fighting them rationally based on the benefits to human health, not panic or headlines.

  • The Eradication List:

As we think about the way to address COVID-19, we should keep in mind that this fight against infectious disease builds upon work so amazing that most internet junkies approach new infectious diseases with fear of the unknown, rather than tired acceptance that most humans succumb to them. That is a recent innovation in the human experience, and the strategies used to fight other diseases can inform our work now to reduce human suffering.

While influenzas may be impossible to eradicate (in part due to an evolved strategy of constantly changing antigens), I wanted to direct everyone to an ever-growing monument to human achievement, the Eradication List. While humans have eradicated only a few infectious diseases, the amazing thing is that we can discuss which diseases may in fact disappear as threats through the work of scientists.

On that happy note, I leave you here. More History of Plagues to come, in Volume 2: Vectors, Vaccines, and Virulence!

Disease Start Year End Year Death Toll (low) Death Toll (high) Deaths per 100,000 people per year (global)
Antonine Plague 165 180 5,000,000 5,000,000 164.5
Plague of Justinian 541 542 25,000,000 100,000,000 6,250.0
Japanese Smallpox Epidemic 735 737 1,000,000 1,000,000 158.7
Bubonic Plague 1347 1351 75,000,000 200,000,000 4,166.7
Smallpox (Central and South America) 1520 1591 56,000,000 56,000,000 172.8
Cocoliztli (Mexico) 1545 1545 12,000,000 15,000,000 2,666.7
Cocoliztli resurgence (Mexico) 1576 1576 2,000,000 2,000,000 444.4
17th Century Plagues 1600 1699 3,000,000 3,000,000 6.0
18th Century Plagues 1700 1799 600,000 600,000 1.0
New World Measles 1700 1799 2,000,000 2,000,000 3.3
Smallpox (North America) 1763 1782 400,000 500,000 2.6
Cholera Pandemic (India, 1817-60) 1817 1860 15,000,000 15,000,000 34.1
Cholera Pandemic (International, 1824-37) 1824 1837 305,000 305,000 2.2
Great Plains Smallpox 1837 1837 17,200 17,200 1.7
Cholera Pandemic (International, 1846-60) 1846 1860 1,488,000 1,488,000 8.3
Hawaiian Plagues 1848 1849 40,000 40,000 1.7
Yellow Fever 1850 1899 100,000 150,000 0.2
The Third Plague (Bubonic) 1855 1855 12,000,000 12,000,000 1,000.0
Cholera Pandemic (International, 1863-75) 1863 1875 170,000 170,000 1.1
Indian Smallpox 1868 1907 4,700,000 4,700,000 9.8
Franco-Prussian Smallpox 1870 1875 500,000 500,000 6.9
Cholera Pandemic (International, 1881-96) 1881 1896 846,000 846,000 4.4
Russian Flu 1889 1890 1,000,000 1,000,000 41.7
Cholera Pandemic (India and Russia) 1899 1923 1,300,000 1,300,000 3.3
Cholera Pandemic (Philippenes) 1902 1904 200,000 200,000 4.2
Spanish Flu 1918 1919 40,000,000 100,000,000 1,250.0
Cholera (International, 1950-54) 1950 1954 316,201 316,201 2.4
Cholera (International, 1955-59) 1955 1959 186,055 186,055 1.3
Asian Flu 1957 1958 1,100,000 1,100,000 19.1
Cholera (International, 1960-64) 1960 1964 110,449 110,449 0.7
Cholera (International, 1965-69) 1965 1969 22,244 22,244 0.1
Hong Kong Flu 1968 1970 1,000,000 1,000,000 9.4
Cholera (International, 1970-75) 1970 1974 62,053 62,053 0.3
Cholera (International, 1975-79) 1975 1979 20,038 20,038 0.1
Cholera (International, 1980-84) 1980 1984 12,714 12,714 0.1
AIDS 1981 2020 25,000,000 35,000,000 13.8
Measles (International, 1985) 1985 1989 4,800,000 4,800,000 19.7
Cholera (International, 1985-89) 1985 1989 15,655 15,655 0.1
Measles (International, 1990-94) 1990 1994 2,900,000 2,900,000 10.9
Cholera (International, 1990-94) 1990 1994 47,829 47,829 0.2
Malaria (International, 1990-94) 1990 1994 3,549,921 3,549,921 13.3
Measles (International, 1995-99) 1995 1999 2,400,000 2,400,000 8.4
Cholera (International, 1995-99) 1995 1999 37,887 37,887 0.1
Malaria (International, 1995-99) 1995 1999 3,987,145 3,987,145 13.9
Measles (International, 2000-04) 2000 2004 2,300,000 2,300,000 7.5
Malaria (International, 2000-04) 2000 2004 4,516,664 4,516,664 14.7
Tuberculosis (International, 2000-04) 2000 2004 7,890,000 8,890,000 25.7
Cholera (International, 2000-04) 2000 2004 16,969 16,969 0.1
SARS 2002 2003 770 770 0.0
Measles (International, 2005-09) 2005 2009 1,300,000 1,300,000 4.0
Malaria (International, 2005-09) 2005 2009 4,438,106 4,438,106 13.6
Tuberculosis (International, 2005-09) 2005 2009 7,210,000 8,010,000 22.0
Cholera (International, 2005-09) 2005 2009 22,694 22,694 0.1
Swine Flu 2009 2010 200,000 500,000 1.5
Measles (International, 2010-14) 2010 2014 700,000 700,000 2.0
Malaria (International, 2010-14) 2010 2014 3,674,781 3,674,781 10.6
Tuberculosis (International, 2010-14) 2010 2014 6,480,000 7,250,000 18.6
Cholera (International, 2010-14) 2010 2014 22,691 22,691 0.1
MERS 2012 2020 850 850 0.0
Ebola 2014 2016 11,300 11,300 0.1
Malaria (International, 2015-17) 2015 2017 1,907,872 1,907,872 8.6
Tuberculosis (International, 2015-18) 2015 2018 4,800,000 5,440,000 16.3
Cholera (International, 2015-16) 2015 2016 3,724 3,724 0.0
Measles (International, 2019) 2019 2019 140,000 140,000 1.8
COVID-19 2019 2020 11,400 11,400 0.1

 

Year Malaria Cholera Measles Tuberculosis Meningitis HIV/AIDS COVID-19
1990 672,518 2,487 670,000 1,903 310,000
1991 692,990 19,302 550,000 1,777 360,000
1992 711,535 8,214 700,000 2,482 440,000
1993 729,735 6,761 540,000 1,986 540,000
1994 743,143 10,750 540,000 3,335 620,000
1995 761,617 5,045 400,000 4,787 720,000
1996 777,012 6,418 510,000 3,325 870,000
1997 797,091 6,371 420,000 5,254 1,060,000
1998 816,733 10,832 560,000 4,929 1,210,000
1999 834,692 9,221 550,000 2,705 1,390,000
2000 851,785 5,269 555,000 1,700,000 4,298 1,540,000
2001 885,057 2,897 550,000 1,680,000 6,398 1,680,000
2002 911,230 4,564 415,000 1,710,000 6,122 1,820,000
2003 934,048 1,894 490,000 1,670,000 7,441 1,965,000
2004 934,544 2,345 370,000 1,610,000 6,428 2,003,000
2005 927,109 2,272 375,000 1,590,000 6,671 2,000,000
2006 909,899 6,300 240,000 1,550,000 4,720 1,880,000
2007 895,528 4,033 170,000 1,520,000 7,028 1,740,000
2008 874,087 5,143 180,000 1,480,000 4,363 1,630,000
2009 831,483 4,946 190,000 1,450,000 3,187 1,530,000
2010 788,442 7,543 170,000 1,420,000 2,198 1,460,000
2011 755,544 7,781 200,000 1,400,000 3,726 1,400,000
2012 725,676 3,034 150,000 1,370,000 3,926 1,340,000
2013 710,114 2,102 160,000 1,350,000 3,453 1,290,000
2014 695,005 2,231 120,000 1,340,000 2,992 1,240,000
2015 662,164 1,304 150,000 1,310,000 1,190,000
2016 625,883 2,420 90,000 1,290,000 1,170,000
2017 619,825 100,000 1,270,000 1,150,000
2018 1,240,000
2019
2020 16,514

13 Books for 2020 – What A Year!

2020 is turning into quite the publishing year.

Perhaps every year is like this and I just haven’t been paying attention before. Now, as I actively scan publisher sites and newsletters for upcoming books, there seems to be an abundance of super-interesting new stuff: how is anybody – even someone like me who does this for a living – supposed to keep up?

#1: The year began at full (or stagnating…?) speed with University of Houston professor Dietrich Vollrath‘s Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy is a Sign of Success, With praise by Tyler Cowen and reviews in The Economist and the Wall Street Journaland actually a lot of good discussions on Twitter – I’m sad that I haven’t taken time to read it. Later, perhaps, on the off-chance that nothing else on this incredible lists comes in the way.

#2: Next up was Diane Coyle‘s Markets, State, and People. Coyle, the endlessly interesting public intellectual/economist and newly(-ish) appointed Professor of Public Policy at Cambridge, is someone we all should read: she manages to be controversial and still balanced, provocative but still interesting. This book, however, seems to be in line with all the other “Third Way” books of last year: Acemoglu and Robinson’s The Narrow Corridor; Raghuram Rajan’s The Third Pillar; Branko Milanovic’s Capitalism, Alone. Crowded field. As I haven’t even gotten around to her previous book on GDP yet, I imagine I’ll read that one first whenever I carve out some time for Coyle.

The curse of modernity is quickly adding up.

#3: Changing gears somewhat at least in terms of topics I have started reading Charles Murray‘s Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class and it’s exactly as provocative as you might think. Delivered, however, with the seriousness of scientific investigation and a massive chip on his shoulder. Still, exactly the kind of antidote to madness that fuels a lot of my priors. I’ll write up a comment or two whenever I finish this 528-page tome.

#4: In a similar vein is the Dutch writer and historian Rutger Bregman‘s Humankind: a Hopeful History, scheduled to be released in June. As Bregman isn’t somebody that I usually agree with, I’m very excited to read this take of his, which is hopefully a mix of Paul Bloom’s End of Empathy, Ruth DeFries’ The Big Ratchet and Paul Seabright’s The Company of StrangersSort of like Yuval Harari’s Sapiens but better (and no, I’m not on Team Harari despite this excellent long-read in The New Yorker).

#5: Going back a little bit to what I think is chronologically the next book to be released (on Tuesday March 10 in the U.S., but not until April in the U.K.) is Robert Bryce’s A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of NationsHaving recently written a piece on electricity generation and being into the weeds about climate change and emissions, I’m very curious about this take on electricity as a critical source for our prosperity. I hope it reads a little like an improved version of Zubrin’s best chapters in Merchants of Despair.

#6: March is also the month for Angus Deaton and Anne Case‘s Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Amazon says it’s already out in the U.K.) Their hugely successful and highly relevant pet project for the last few years, Deaton and Case’s case(!) for how rising morbidity rates indicate a collapse of the fabric of society is a pretty standard one by now: globalization, economic inequality, the hollowing-out of tight-knit communities and the various forces that may have fueled this.

The reviews are already popping up left and right (WSJ, Financial Times) and their session was the most exciting and most talked-about at the ASSA meeting in San Diego. As I understand it, the latest findings is that American life expectancy that pesky ever-increasing number that fell in recent years, in no small part due to overdoses and opioids has recovered and is now again on the up-tick. Maybe Deaton and Case’s book will be one for an odd historic event rather than foreshadowing “The Future of Capitalism” (also, what’s up with shoving ‘Future of Capitalism’ into your titles?!).

#7: In a similar topic, Robert Putnam yes, the Harvard professor famous for Bowling Alone and the idea of social capital is back with another sweeping analysis of what’s gone wrong with American society. The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, coming out in June, is bound to make a lot of waves and receive a lot of attention by social commentators.

#8: Officially published just yesterday is John Kay and former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King‘s Radical Uncertainty: Decision-Making for an Unknowable Future. Admittedly, this is the book I’m least excited about on this list. Reviewing King’s 2016 End of Alchemy where King discussed his experiences of the financial crisis and the global banking system for the Financial Times, John Kay discussed exactly that: the title? “The Enduring Certainty of Radical Uncertainty.” Somebody please press the snooze button. Paul Krugman’s 4000 word review of End of Alchemy ought to be enough; I’d be surprised if Kay and King brings something new to the table in thus poorly-titled release (though, of course the fringe already loves it).

The Really Good Stuff

While the above eight titles are surely worth at least some of your time, the next five are worth all of it.

#9: I’ll begin with my two biggest hypes: Matt Ridley‘s How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom, coming out May 14th in the U.K. and May 19th in the U.S. The author of The Rational Optimist and The Evolution of Everything is back with another 400-page rundown of a deep-seated and hyper-relevant topic: how do societies innovate and progress? What conditions assist it, and which obstacles prevent it? 

I expect a lot of spontaneous order-type arguments, debunked Great Man fallacies, and some Mariana Mazzucato take-downs.

#10: The second hype, William Quinn and John Turner‘s Book and Bust: A Global History of Financial BubblesSince John first told me about this book over a year-and-a-half ago, I’ve been super excited – I’m a big fan of his work and I’m looking forward to receiving my review copy in the next couple of weeks. Publication date: August.

#11: For somebody who writes about bubbles and financial markets more than most people think healthy, I’m gonna get a warm-up in MIT professor Thomas Levenson‘s Money for Nothing: The South Sea Bubble & The Invention of Modern CapitalismWhat’s with all these books on historical financial bubbles? Yes, you’re right: 2020 marks the three-hundred year anniversary of the South Sea Bubble, that iconic period of John Law in France and the similar government funding scheme in England will surely receive a lot of attention this year.

#12: Some environmental stuff at last: Bjørn Lomborg, the outspoken author and voice of reason in the climate change space announced that his False Alarm: How Climate CHange Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts The Poor, and Fails To Fix the Planet will be published in June this year! While possibly the least boring book on this list, the title receives lowest possible marks. What overworked publisher decided that this page-long subtitle was a good idea?!

#13: Also, Alex Epstein of the Centre for Industrial Progress and host of Power Hour (one of my all-time favorite podcasts) has been working on an update to his hugely popular The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. As far as I understand, we’re to receive an updated and revised version in August the Moral Case for Fossil Fuels 2.0!


So. The next six months have at least thirteen pretty interesting books coming up. I imagine there are a bunch more for the rest of the year and a few I have completely overlooked.

Also, after this burst of links, Amazon should probably offer Notes On Liberty an affiliate program.

In sum: you can see my fields of interests overlapping here: (1) financial history and financial markets; (2) environment, climate change, and its solutions; (3) Big Picture society stories, preferably by interesting or quantitatively savvy authors. Not enough on the fourth big interest of mine: (4) money and monetary economics – particularly in historical contexts. Perhaps not, as David Birch’s Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin is on my desk, and I’m currently re-reading William Goetzmann’s Money Changes Everything both first released in 2017.

Also: the absence or underrepresentation of women (or ethnic minorities or any other trait you care a lot about) might disturb you: 2 out of 17 authors women (4 out of 27 authors mentioned) Needless to say, it must be because I’m sexist.

Post-script: Ha! As I just heard about Stephanie Kelton‘s upcoming book The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy, I’m gonna quickly add it to the list and satisfy both of my qualms above: not enough women (now: 3/18 authors!), and not enough monetary economics. Splendid!

Happy reading, everyone!

That day when the communists tried to seize power in Brazil

On March 31, 1964, the military seized power in Brazil. Between 1964 and 1985, five generals assumed the presidency of the country. The period is generally called the Military Dictatorship. Although it ended more than 30 years ago, this period is still influential in Brazil’s political environment. A part of the Brazilian right still praises the military regime as a golden period in Brazilian history. A part of the left still condemns the regime as the darkest period in our history. Jair Messias Bolsonaro, the current president of the republic, is an admirer of the military regime and considers that not only was this necessary but also beneficial for the country. Dilma Rousseff, the former president impeached in 2016, was an urban guerrilla during the military regime and as far as I know, she has never publicly regretted this episode of her biography. Hardly a week goes by without the mainstream media and left-wing observers warning that Bolsonaro intends to strike a blow and reinstitute the dictatorship. Although the military regime was undoubtedly striking in the Brazilian reality, I would like to remind you today that Brazilian history did not begin in 1964.

1935. Brazil is governed by President Getúlio Vargas. Vargas came to power in 1930 through a coup. Defeated candidate for the presidency that year, he did not accept the result of the elections and with the support of the army, he took the power. Vargas was provisional president until 1934 when he was indirectly elected by Congress to remain in office. Vargas is pressured on the one hand by Integralistas, a group with fascist characteristics, and on the other by the Communist Party of Brazil. Faced with this scenario, with support from the USSR, the communists led by Luiz Carlos Prestes decided to take power by force.

The attempted coup took place between November 23 and 27, 1935. Low-ranking leftist militaries revolted in barracks in several cities in the country, including the capital Rio de Janeiro. The military who participated in the coup attempt believed that the working class would support them. The Communist International, in particular, saw Brazil as a “semi-colonial” society, in which a revolt against the government would be enough to lead the population to a spontaneous upheaval. That’s not what happened. The coup d’état had no expressive support from the population and the revolutionaries were soon defeated by legalistic forces.

The consequences of the coup attempt were dire. Luiz Carlos Prestes could not accept that his movement had simply been poorly organized and that the population did not support communism. There had to be a culprit. Prestes decided that it was the fault of Elza Fernandes, code-named Elvira Cupello Colonio, then about 16 years old. Elvira joined the group of communists of the 1930s under the influence of her boyfriend, Antonio Maciel Bonfim, code-named Miranda, general secretary of the Brazilian Communist Party. Prestes suspected that she was a police informant and decided that she should be killed. Elvira was murdered by strangulation on March 2, 1936.

In response to the coup attempt, Vargas hardened his regime, effectively becoming a dictator in 1937. The entire period from 1930 to 1964 would be deeply influenced by him.

After 1935, the Brazilian army became progressively more anti-communist, culminating in the 1964 coup.

There is no doubt that the leaders of the movement were paid (and very well paid) by the Comintern. There is no doubt that they were aided by foreign spies, mostly Europeans.

I don’t want to fall into the Tu quoque fallacy here, but my experience is that Brazilian leftists hardly remember the country’s history before 1964. Many criticize the anti-democratic character of the regime that was established in the country that year. Many denounce that the 1964 coup was carried out with US support. But I don’t remember many leftists making similar criticisms to the 1935 coup attempt.

I don’t want to be unfair. I have friends who identify themselves as leftists and who value democracy. But I must say: socialism can start democratic, but it inevitably leads to dictatorship. This is the only way to have their plans realized. People don’t seem to have learned that in Brazil. Or in other parts of the world.