- Modern China: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping Connor Gahre, Origins
- Modern America: Flirting with isolation Henry Nau, Claremont Review of Books
- Modern Britain: Success and failure with inequality Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
- Can American dads have it all? Ross Douthat, New York Times
Paul Collier, the controversial Oxford professor famous for his development work and his acclaimed books Exodus and The Bottom Billion, is back. But the author of Exodus and The Bottom Billion is long gone. The compelling writing and carefully reasoned world that made Bottom Billion impossible to put down has somehow disappeared. In The Future of Capitalism, Collier is tired. He is bitter. And he is sometimes quite mad – so mad that his disdain for this or that group of thinkers or actors in society consumes his otherwise brilliant analytical mind.
Instead of having his editors moderate those of his worst impulses, he doubles down on his polemic conviction. Indeed, he takes pride in offending people in all political camps, believing that it supports the book’s main intellectual point: ideologues of every persuasion are dangerous, one-size-fits-all too constricted for a modern society and we should rather turn to a communitarian social democratic version of pragmatism – by which he means some confused mixture of ideas that seem to advocate “what works” on a case-by-case basis.
Yes, it’s about as nutty as it sounds. And he is all over the place, dabbling in all kinds of topics for which he is uniquely unqualified to offer advice: ethics, finance, education, family, social policy and on and on and on.
One reason The Future of Capitalism went awry might have been the remarkable scope: capturing all the West’s so-called ‘Anxieties’ – and their solutions – in little over 200 pages of non-academic prose. Given the topic, a very unfitting sort of hubris.
Apart from the feeble attempt at portraying a modern society that has “come apart at the seams,” there’s no visible story, no connection between the contents of one paragraph and the next and hardly any connection between one chapter and another. Rather, it’s a bedlam of foregone conclusions, appeals to pragmatism, dire stings to ideological ‘extremists’ on either side and a hubris unfitting for someone like Collier. I guess this is a risk that established academics run at the end of their careers, desperately trying to assemble all their work into One Grand Theory.
The most charitable thing I can say about Collier’s attempt is that it offers a lot of policy prescriptions – tax unearned land rents, tax-and-redistribute productivity increases, expand housing supply through local governments, have governments direct the Silicon Valley-clusters of tomorrow, cap mortgage finance, benefits for families, expand ethical responsibilities of firms, encourage marriage, create a new G6 (EU, US, Russia, India, Japan, China) that could overcome the global collective action problem (good luck with that!), expand Germanic vocational training and workers’ representation on company boards, embrace patriotism but never nationalism, detach ownership from control and place control with stakeholders (workers, suppliers, local homeowners).
The common denominator seems to be an imperative to do all these things that seem to have worked well in some time or place or utopia, conveniently ignore institutional or cultural reasons, while espousing all ideological positioning and political capture.
Just voicing the suggestions ought to spark at least some fruitful conversations.
Chapter 8, ostensibly concerned with the Class Divide, is an illuminating case study. It takes Collier about 36 pages (out of 37) to mention ‘class’ (not that I blame him: the concept is way too nebulous and politically infected to be meaningfully dealt with in such short space). Instead, Collier discusses all kinds of topics whose relevance to class is quite unclear: public policy for single mothers, German vocational training, lawyers and the rule of law, a Yorkshire project to encourage reading in school kids – not to mention a ten-page digression into the institution of marriage for stable families.
When his polemics, dry writing, unsupported analysis or incomprehensive treatment of a topic hasn’t put me off (I gave up on the book at least four times during the last couple of months), some of the picture Collier paints does resonate with me. There is a social and geographical divide in Britain: the economically flourishing South-East, dominated by the well-educated English and the cosmopolitan accents of almost every language on the planet, is posited against the collapsing towns of the backward Midlands or the North. If this divide is real – in support of which Collier offers next-to-no evidence – it is not clear to me that it wasn’t already captured in, say, David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere or Branko Milanovic’s Global Inequality, or for that matter the countless of magazine articles trying to outline the fractures that Brexit unearthed about British society. Considering the effort those authors put into mapping their divides, Collier’s attempt seems frivolous.
He can do better. Much better.
My fellow Notewriter Rick is organising a summer reading group around Feyerabend’s Against Method. The equivalent Collier reading group could be aptly named Against Ideology.
I’ll get to Feyerabend, but first Solzhenitsyn:
However, the root destruction of religion in the country, which throughout the twenties and thirties was one of the most important goals of the GPU-NKVD, could be realized only by mass arrests of Orthodox believers. Monks and nuns, whose black habits had been a distinctive feature of Old Russian life, were intensively rounded up on every hand, placed under arrest, and sent into exile. They arrested and sentenced active laymen. The circles kept getting bigger, as they raked in ordinary believers as well, old people, and particularly women, who were the most stubborn believers of all and who, for many long years to come, would be called “nuns” in transit prisons and in camps (37).
It’s true that Christians were viciously persecuted by socialists in the USSR, and what makes matters worse is that few historians, and fewer journalists, point this out. Bishops and patriarchs living in mansions were the official targets of socialist purges, mind you, but mendicants, village priests, and old church ladies were the ones who actually got dragged away and put to work for The Cause. Why? Because they actually believed. They already had a moral compass, so there was no need for a strong state. In socialist countries, alternatives ruin plans. So in socialist countries, alternatives get snuffed out.
As I read through the Gulag Archipelago I can’t help but think of the Russia I hear about on NPR and read about online. Russia is the left’s new boogieman, for obvious reasons. But I wonder, with Solzhenitsyn in mind, just how close the Orthodox Church actually is to Putin and his henchmen. I’m sure the top brass are close to Putin, but what about the village priests and the others? Did socialism wipe out the old, more mystical Christianity that was prevalent in the Russian countryside before the Revolution? Are there any mendicants left in post-socialist Russia? All those decades of violent repression, starvation, ethnic cleansing, and forced labor, and the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church hums along as if nothing ever happened. The actual believers, on the other hand, are gone, along with the unique culture they spread throughout the Russian Empire and, via the mediums of literature and art, the world.
Sorry if this is a little disjointed. Summer has finally arrived on the California central coast. So, I have been trying to recover my toxic masculinity for the beach, not smooth sailing!
Mr Biden declared that President Trump poses an “existential threat” to the nation. This is not what bothers me because it’s unlikely Mr Biden understands the word “existential.” His team put it up for him to read or he cribbed it mindlessly from someone else’ speech, the way he does.
I am beginning to get a bad feeling about the Biden presidency for another, subtle reason so, pay attention. It’s not so much the continuing gap in the polls between him and Mr Trump, although that too, but only in the second position of my worries. What’s most disturbing is the continuing gap in the polls between Mr Biden and all other Democrat candidates.
Ex-Vice-President Biden is like a caricature of Mr Nobody. In politics for fifty years, he has mostly demonstrated a talent for being re-elected. His name is associated with few important pieces of legislation and the ones that are remembered are currently causing him problems. One such is the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, of 1994 which, critics from his party say, resulted in the needless incarceration of many black males. Of course, in his two terms as vice-president, he was vastly overshadowed by his boss, Barack Obama. The thought could cross your mind legitimately that he was selected for the post, in large part for his, this talent, a great capacity for being overshadowed.
I think I may be describing precisely the reason why he is thus far outpacing other Dem candidates. Briefly put: You can’t have everything. Mr Biden ‘s main quality is that he is – for a politician – NORMAL to the point of mediocrity. Repeating myself: In this context, mediocrity is another word for normal.
He is an older white man with a well known political track record (with little to see), one unlikely to generate surprises. His face and his voices are familiar, if nothing else because of his two terms as a vice-president. He is famous for his gaffes but that makes him perhaps a little endearing, like the dear old uncle who invariably drops cream cake on his tie at every family dinner. His main liability may well be his propensity to touch others, including children. But, hey, nobody is perfect and, one suspects, other male candidates – most of them or all of them – probably have much bigger skeletons in their closets, doesn’t every guy?
Just compare Mr Biden to the two current runners up – far behind him, Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elisabeth Warren. The first would, on the surface, also qualify as pretty normal. He looks like a handsome grandfather. He has been married to the same woman forever. He speaks well. He is abnormal mostly in a virtuous way: He did not get rich in office. But, but, most of the time, when he opens his mouth this terrible 1949 narrative comes out of it. (I chose that date because it precedes the death of Stalin and the torrent of revelations about the realities of Soviet socialism that followed it.) Mr Sanders has not learned a freaking thing in 70 years! That’s a lot, even for starry-eyed progressives. It’s a bit much even for millennials who feel existentially cheated (this word again) and thus have their own reasons to consider the absurd.
Or take Ms Warren. Actually, she had an honorable career as an academic. (I checked, little bitch that I am!) She expresses herself clearly. The bits and pieces of her extreme left-wing program make superficial sense, considered out of context, one-by-one. Tell the truth, I am a little frightened of Warren for this reason. However, I cannot believe that independents will forget or ignore the lamentable Pocahontas story. Either, she is a long distance liar who used an imagined ethnic identity to advance her career (and therefore, cheated real ethnic candidates, in the putrid calculus of racial advancement). Or, and this may actually be worse, she fooled herself for all of her adult life into believing that her archetypal WASP face was but a mask covering up strong Native American features. Her reactions on the occasion of the fiasco of her DNA analysis results make the latter explanation credible. She could have stopped publication and quickly changed the subject when it came out that her chances of having Native American genes were about the same as those of a recent immigrant from China. Instead, she dug in her heels. Ms Warren has spectacularly bad judgment. I mean that she is far from normal, that way.
So, I am telling you that Mr Biden’s advantage, perhaps his single advantage, may be that he appears normal, even impressively normal, Central Casting normal, I am tempted to say – but that would be cheap- abnormally normal. That would explain his advance against other Dem candidates in spite of the fact that he violates many tenets of current received wisdom about the Democratic Party: He is a man, an old man, white, heterosexual, (probably, he only sniffs females’ hair), not transgender, not even socialist.
Mr Biden’s normalcy may also explain the polls gap with Mr Trump in a projected one-on-one contest for the presidency. In fact, it’s difficult to think of anything else that explains both the gap between Mr Biden and his Dem rivals and the gap between himself and Mr Trump.
It’s possible that this shift in the electoral game has gone largely unperceived thus far because both left and right commentators are distracted. The pro-liberal media are entranced by the antics of the newest and of the oldest members of Congress. Surely, Bernie Sanders’ 1949 economic and social ideas are more riveting than Mr Biden’s normalcy. Certainly, the many surrealistic pronouncements by the best-looking female member of the House are more exciting than Mr Biden’s normalcy. And then, there is the continuing fascination with the left’s desire to hurt Mr Trump, somehow, sometimes, impeachment or not impeachment.
I, myself, may be typical of a mistake conservatives have been making systematically that would blind us to the importance of Biden’s normalcy. Let me explain. I am not a Trump cultist, not by a long shot. I think Mr Trump is rude, crude, unreliable in his words; I think he often speaks before he thinks, many of the things he asserts are just not true. I decided early in his administration that these kinds of features and mishaps would not bother me. I still think they are unimportant against the background of his successes that liberals don’t like, such as his two Supreme Court appointments, and next to his successes that even liberals ought to like, such as low unemployment and solid economic growth. And then, of course, there is just no way I will miss Mr Trump’s only realistic 2016 alternative, the thoroughly crooked Ms Hillary Clinton.
For the past two years, I have been on kind of automatic exercising my rationalist bias. I have been dismissing the obviously hypocritical mass media and its caste-based hatred of Mr Trump. I have treated lightly the howls of pain of the few liberals with whom I remain in contact. I have been seeing them first as expressing loser’s rage, an especially painful rage because the loss was unexpected. Second, the inability of the few liberals with whom I am still in contact to justify their howling on factual grounds also contributed to making me dismissive. Every time I asked one of them to give a single instance of Mr Trump acting illegally, or unconstitutionally, as they abundantly claimed he did, they failed lamentably. And, of course, I believe that immaturity is one of the sources of liberalism.
But, my approach may be too rational by half. When a liberal accuses Pres. Trump of being a would-be dictator, his words may not matter; he may just be expressing the depth of his indignation within the scope of a limited political vocabulary. He may be simply shouting out his disarray in the face of the abnormality of the current American political situation. His words may not mean what they are supposed to mean; they may simply mean, “I am disoriented and scared!”
So, Mr Trump’s main adversary, in 2020, may not be the uninformed and woolly socialism of the left of the Dem Party. It may not be the climate alarmism of practically all its candidates, which leaves the mass of the American public notably cool. (Yes, that’s on purpose!). It may not be the resonating but hard to pin down claim for greater equality, or “social justice.” In his 2020 campaign, Mr Trump may have to fight the lure of a return normalcy incarnated by Mr Biden. Frankly, the prospect makes me nervous.
If the coming race is all about restoring the republic to normalcy, Mr Trump’s road is going to be rocky. (Strangely, someone in his entourage seems to have such foreboding. The 6/15-16/19 Wall Street Journal describes a markedly conventional organization of the 2020 Trump presidential campaign designed to make the president appear more normal – my choice of word.)
In practical terms, in this context, the strategic questions will be as follows: Are there enough Dem voters who would not otherwise bother who will be enticed to vote by Mr Biden’s conventional looks and actions? Are there enough independents who will take the Trump policy achievements for granted, and who are rebuked by the Democratic Party’s new extremism but who will nevertheless vote Democrat because the Party’s candidate, the colorless, marginally live Joe Biden – seems normal?
And if you are one of those conservatives who airily dismiss polls because of the previous presidential campaign, think again; the pollsters called the popular vote just about right in 2016.
This is an expanded post that stems from a conversation I have been having with Bruno and Jacques in the ‘comments’ threads. The conversation is more about the nation-state than the unilateralism/federation non-debate, but I thought that’s why it’d make a good post.
Nation-states are often considered to be sacred territory to conservative libertarians (see Jacques or Edwin, for example), even if they don’t use the word “sacred.” A nation-state is a geographic territory that is supposed to be made up of a single nation. Thus the French live in France, the Germans in Germany, the Greeks in Greece, etc. You can see the problem with this logic right away: what about the people who don’t fit into the idea of what a nation should be? How do religious minorities, for example, or your neighbor who speaks only Romanian, fit in? How are they a part of the nation? (Ludwig von Mises wrote one of the better critiques of the nation-state way back in 1919, using the Austro-Hungarian Empire as an example.)
Nation-states arose in Europe after centuries of horrific warfare and genocidal campaigns, such as the Holocaust, and only came into being elsewhere in the world with the fall of the European empires after World War II. These empires, which never had a good grasp on the territories they claimed as their own to begin with, rebuilt the international order around the ideas of state sovereignty and the nation-state. Part of this had to do with the fact that their own empires had reverted to a form of nation-state (the UK, France, etc., instead of the British, or French, Empire), and part of it had to do with the idea that Asians and Africans deserved a stage on the international scene. (This latter idea was pushed by left-wing Europeans and Asians and Africans who believed their colonies could easily make the transition from colony to nation-state.) The colonies of the European empires, which had been patched together slowly over hundreds of years, did not take nationality into consideration in matters of governance, unless it was to explicitly crush any notions of nationhood among the colonized.
So, the nation-states of Europe and, to a much lesser extent, North and Latin America, have a long history of violence, politics, law, and trade (among other factors) that bolster their legitimacy as organizational entities and their place in the world. The states that formed in the ashes of the European empires had no nations to speak of and entered a world order that wanted to treat these new states as if they did have such a nation.
Since there were suddenly a bunch of new states in the world without nations in them, elites in these new, post-imperial states had to begin nation-building. Barry has a great series, soon to be enshrined as a Longform essay, on Turkish nationalism here at NOL. James Gelvin, a historian at UCLA, has done some good work on nationalism in the Middle East (here is a review of one such work). Eugen Weber (UCLA) and David Bell (Princeton), both historians, have written excellent examples of how Paris went about molding people within France’s territory into French citizens.
In most of the post-imperial cases, elites were proponents of secularism and inclusivity. Elites in Iraq, Syria, and Iran, for example, made a concerted effort to protect the rights of minorities and women, even going so far as to include them in key aspects of governing these new states. Indeed, when the dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was chased from power by the Americans in 2003, Iraq’s Christians, women, and other minorities suffered most because the Hussein regime protected them from the (conservative and religious) majority. The same thing happened when the American-backed Shah of Iran was overthrown by Islamists in 1979. Elites in the post-imperial world wanted their societies to be nation-states (in fact, they needed them to be, so that they could get the attention of Western allies), but they thought they could get there through the prism of nationalism.
Minorities, rights, and nations
Nation-building in the post-imperial world has gone about as smoothly as it went in Europe. War has been an ongoing problem (most of it has been intrastate instead of interstate), and genocides have occurred. The intrastate wars are easiest to understand. Elites are trying to build a nation to populate a state (which is just a former colony of a European empire). Those that don’t fit in to the idea of what it means to be a part of X nation, perish, or are harshly oppressed (such as the Kurds in Iraq, Iran, and Syria, or the Balochs in Iran and Pakistan).
Religion has also been a problem. Most leaders in these new nation-states tried to establish secular regimes, but were also believers in democracy. Unfortunately, secularism and democracy are incompatible without liberty. If Saddam Hussein or Shah Pahlavi had tried to hold elections, Islamists would have been voted into office, just as they routinely are in Egypt and Palestine. India, a former British colony that was perhaps the most intimately connected to its imperial overlord, is sliding back into Hindu theocracy as well. Without robust protections for property rights (or “bundles of rights“), elections will continue to be oppressive for minorities thanks to religious conservatives.
This does not mean that Muslims are incapable of secular self-governance, either, as some libertarians are wont to argue. In fact, the first nation-states of Europe were governed by religious conservatives. The struggle between religious conservatives and liberals was a slow, violent evolution that eventually turned in favor of the liberals, especially after they began to secure their property rights more effectively.
Federation, status quo, imperialism
My argument is that it would better – i.e. more libertarian – to make citizens out of these post-imperial states, rather than members of a nation, by incorporating them into federal or confederal systems that have experience with large, disparate, democratically-governed populations. The United States should just start inviting people from all over the world to petition for statehood within its federation. The elites trying to govern the failed nation-states of the post-imperial world would not appreciate this, of course, but who cares? They would be better off as citizens, too.
The status quo is somewhere in between imperialism and federation. In my view, the status quo leans toward the latter, at least when it comes to the United States (the polity where I am a citizen). The invasion and occupation of Iraq wasn’t quite old-style imperialism, but neither was it an attempt at federation between at least two separate polities. One good thing that I thought was a lesson learned from the Iraqi disaster is that invading and occupying a foreign country is a bad idea. It’s an even worse idea when you declare that your enemy is the regime of a failed nation-state rather than the people living in it. That’s no way to fight a war. (This is a brutal notion, but a realistic one. If you’re going to invade and occupy a foreign country, and impose your will upon its inhabitants, and consider yourself a free and open society, you’re going to need a population that hates everything about that foreign country. If your population does not hate everything, or even just a few things, about said foreign country, why on earth would you invade and occupy it?)
I got my copy of Paul Feyerabend‘s Against Method in the mail last week. I’ll be blogging my thoughts as I read through it. Rick has already started in. Federico has some excellent stuff on the philosophy of science coming up, too. And, of course, Bill has already been blogging about Feyerabend. You’ll be hearing more from him, too. Andrei also has some thoughts on Feyerabend. Hopefully, some of the other Notewriters will chime in as well!