Jair Bolsonaro was elected president in Brazil. Donald Trump in the US. In other countries, similar politicians are gaining popular support. Some are calling these politicians “populists”. I don’t really know what they mean by this term. The populists that I know better are Getúlio Vargas, Brazil’s president for almost 20 years in the mid-20th century and Juan Peron, a leading political figure in Argentina in the same time period. What they had in common? Both fought the communist influence in Latin America, favored the labor movement and were anti-liberal. They were also extremely personalist, leading to something that could be understood as a cult of personality. I completely fail to see important similarities between Trump and Bolsonaro on the one hand and Vargas and Peron on the other. But I can see some similarities between Trump and Bolsonaro. The latter two both came to power against what the left became in the last few decades.
Once upon a time, there was a young German philosopher called Karl Marx. He was very well read but wasn’t very bright on economics. Anyway, he decided that he would correct the classical liberal economic theory of Adam Smith. The result was that Marx concluded that in the center of the economy, and actually in the center of history itself, was the class struggle between the workforce and the bourgeoisie. Of course, although appealing on the surface, Marx’s economic theory is pure nonsense. Maybe Marx himself knew it, for at the end of his life he was more interested in living a peaceful life in London than in leading a revolution. But this didn’t stop Marxists from starting Revolutions throughout the world, beginning in Russia.
Ludwig Von Mises brilliant pointed out that Marxism would never work as the economic foundation of a country, for it ignored private property. Without private property, there is no price formation and without prices economic calculation is impossible. In doing so, Mises founded the Austrian School of Economics. The economic debate between Austrians and Marxists ensued, but arguing with a Marxist is like playing chess with a pigeon. He will climb on the board, knock down the pieces and believe that he won. Regardless, facts don’t care about your feelings, and reality proved again and again that Mises was right.
However, at the same time, something else was happening. In Italy, a Marxist named Antonio Gramsci concluded that armed revolution was not the best way to power. He believed that a cultural approach would be better. Some German scholars in Frankfurt concluded pretty much the same. Their question was “why the proletariat will not follow us?”. The answer was that they were too alienated by capitalist culture.
Following Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, Marxists all over the world gave up studying economics and decided to study culture. They concluded that everyone can feel oppressed. The class struggle seized to be between factory workers and factory owners and turned into a fight between man and woman, black and white, gay and straight. Identity politics was born.
And that’s how the “populists” came to power. It is not so much that the common people (and especially conservatives and libertarians) are crazily in love with Bolsonaro or Trump. It is just that people eventually get tired of being called oppressors. The left, once legitimately concerned with the conditions of the poor, ignored that the best solution for poverty is the free market. Instead, they decided they would crush the common people they swore to protect, calling them homophobic, misogynists and so on. Common people answered by voting for whoever was on the other side of the political spectrum.
Last week my friend and colleague Mario Rizzo, a scholar central to the revival of contemporary Austrian economics, turned 70. This occasion prompted a spontaneous outpouring of praise for his work, as well as messages of gratitude for his support of students and fellow academics over his decades as an intrepid professor with his home firmly at NYU. They are collected over at ThinkMarkets. Jeffrey Tucker has written an excellent summary of Mario’s intellectual contributions at the American Institute for Economic Research. Below is a segment of my birthday message:
In my home, the United Kingdom, classical liberal thought has until recently been virtually unheard within much of academia. As a student and think-tank researcher ravenous for liberal approaches to public policy, I gorged on Mario’s blog posts from ThinkMarkets. Together with Marginal Revolution and Cafe Hayek, ThinkMarkets was a critical lifeline for me facing an intellectual world dominated by various visions of authoritarianism and only slightly more benign variants of paternalism.
Thanks to Mario’s selfless contributions to the revival of Austrian economics, that intellectual world is changing, even in the UK. His co-founding of the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics and hosting the Program on the Foundations of the Market Economy at NYU has provided support and inspiration for countless young scholars.
I am very fortunate to be among that multitude.
I encountered what would later become important elements of Mark Pennington’s book Robust Political Economy in two articles that he wrote on the limits of deliberative democracy, and the relative merits of market processes, for social and ethical discovery, as well as a short book Mark wrote with John Meadowcroft, Rescuing Social Capital from Social Democracy. This research program inspired me to start my doctorate and pursue an academic career. Why did I find robust political economy so compelling? I think it is because it chimed with my experience of encountering the limits of neo-classical formal models that I recount in my chapter, ‘Why be robust?’, of a new book, Interdisciplinary Studies of the Market Order.
While doing my master’s degree in 2009, I took a methodology course in rational choice theory at Nuffield College’s Center for Experimental Social Science. As part of our first class we were taken to a brand new, gleaming behavioural economics laboratory to play a repeated prisoners’ dilemma game. The system randomly paired anonymous members of the class to play against each other. We were told the objective of the game was to maximise our individual scores.
Thinking that there were clear gains to make from co-operation and plenty of opportunities to punish a defector over the course of repeated interactions, I attempted to co-operate on the first round. My partner defected. I defected a couple of times subsequently to show I was not a sucker. Then I tried co-operating once more. My partner defected every single time in the repeated series.
At the end of the game, we were de-anonymised and it turned out, unsurprisingly, that I had the lowest score in the class. My partner had the second lowest. I asked her why she engaged in an evidently sub-optimal strategy. She explained: ‘I didn’t think we were playing to get the most points. I was just trying to beat you!’
The lesson I took away from this was not that formal models were wrong. Game theoretic models, like the prisoners’ dilemma, are compelling and productive analytical tools in social science, clarifying the core of many challenges to collective action. The prisoners’ dilemma illustrates how given certain situations, or rules of the game, self-interested agents will be stymied from reaching optimal or mutually beneficial outcomes. But this experience suggested something more complex and embedded was going on even in relatively simple social interactions.
The laboratory situation replicated the formal prisoners’ dilemma model as closely as possible with explicit rules, quantified ‘objective’ (though admittedly, in this case, low-value) payoffs, and a situation designed to isolate players as if they were prisoners in different cells. Yet even in these carefully controlled circumstances, it turns out that the situation is subject to multiple interpretations and understandings.
Whatever the textual explanation accompanying the game, the score on the screen could mean something different to the various players. The payoffs for the representative agents in the game were not the same as the payoffs in the minds of the human players. In a sense, my partner and I were unwittingly playing different games (although I lost within either rules of the game!).
When we engage with the social world, it is not only the case that our interests may not align with other people. Social interaction is open-ended. We do not know all the possible moves in the game, and we do not know much about the preference set of everyone else who is playing. Indeed, neither they nor we know what a ‘complete’ set of preferences and payoffs would look like, even of our own. We can map out a few options and likely outcomes through reflection and experience but even then we may face outcomes we do not anticipate. As Peter Boettke explains: ‘we strive not only to pursue our ends with a judicious selection of the means, but also to discover what ends that we hope to pursue.’
In addition, the rules of the game themselves are not merely exogenous impositions on us as agents. They are constituted inter-subjectively by the practices, beliefs and values of the actors that are also participants in the social game. As agents, we do not merely participate in the social world. We also engage in its creation through personal lifestyle experimentation, cultural innovation, and establishing shared rules and structures. The social world thus presents inherent uncertainty and change that cannot be captured in a formal model that assumes fixed rules of the game and the given knowledge of the players.
It is these two ideas, both borrowed from the Austrian notion of catallaxy, that makes robust political economy distinct. First, neither our individual ends, nor means of attaining them, are given prior to participation in a collective process of trial and error. Second, the rules that structure how we interact are themselves not given but subject to a spontaneous, evolutionary process of trial and error.
I try to set out these ideas in a recent symposium in Critical Review on Mark Pennington’s book, and in ‘Why be robust?’ in Interdisciplinary Studies of the Market Order edited by Peter Boettke, Chris Coyne and Virgil Storr. The symposium article is available on open access and there is a working paper version of my chapter is available at the Classical Liberal Institute website.
I have recently returned home from 4 days of Prague, Czech Republic, where I attended two conferences: Austrian Economics Meeting Europe and the Prague Conference on Political Economy. After having been secluded from Austrian economists and Libertarians for almost 2 years, it felt like a homecoming to be surrounded again by people who share similar thoughts. This was after all the only place in the last two years where I was able to fully express my (´controversial´) ideas about society. Being surrounded by tremendously smart people – you have to be rather smart and geeky to give up part of your free time or professional work in order to visit conferences and discuss philosophy, politics and economics – within the beautiful city of Prague made it a wonderful experience.
The AEME came about after the summer of 2014 when those from Europe who visited Mises University that year decided to come together again to discuss classical liberal ideas in the spirit of Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek and Murray Rothbard. The first AEME event took place in 2015 in Vienna, Austria, the city where the Austrian School of economic thought emerged from the works of Carl Menger, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, Friedrich von Wieser, and others. The Austrian School is famous for its methodological struggle against the Prussian Historical School and their idea that economics is culture- and time-specific and therefore does not contain universal validity. The Austrian School is also famous for such theoretical contributions as the subjective theory of value (as opposed to Marx’ labour theory of value), theory of marginal utility, opportunity cost doctrine, Austrian business cycle theory, the time structure of production and consumption, methodological individualism and the economic calculation problem that was first formulated by Ludwig von Mises in 1920 and later expanded upon by Friedrich von Hayek to show that pricing systems in socialist economies were necessarily deficient. From a socio-political perspective, the School argues for limited government and some even for libertarian anarchism.
What was great about the second AEME is that it took place right before the PCPE conference at the CEVRO Institute. Most of us who attended AEME have stayed two extra days to attend the PCPE conference as well. The CEVRO Institute is a private university founded in 2005 that is located in the very centre of the city of Prague. The university prides itself in its emphasis on freedom, markets, and its innovative character that is for example manifested in its PPE (Philosophy, Politics, Economics) programme taught by such international illustrious professors as Michael Munger who is also director of Duke University’s PPE programme, Peter Boettke who is the director of the F.A. Hayek Program at George Mason University, David Schmidt who is director of the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom at the University of Arizona, Boudewijn Bouckaert who was the former dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Ghent, and Josef Sima who is the president of the CEVRO Institute. The institute has invited several prominent speakers for its conference. Prof. Mark Pennington (London School of Economics) was for example invited to present “Why most things should probably be for sale”. Prof. Benjamin Powell who is the director of the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University, the University to which I almost applied to to pursue my PhD in the academic year of 2015 but eventually decided to work as a software engineer, was there as well to speak about “Migration, Economic Calculation, and the European Situation.” Prof. Mario Rizzo (New York University) had the honour to be the keynote speaker and spoke about “The four pillars of new paternalism” which was followed by commentaries from Prof. Pascal Salin, former president of the Mont Pelerin Society.
The second day of the PCPE conference, there were 27 speakers spread over 9 sessions on such topics as economic theory, anarcho-capitalism, the Austrian School, entrepreneurship, cryptocurrencies, the role of family and more. I was one of the speakers and spoke on the “Philosophical investigation of seasteading as the means to discover better forms of social organization”. The thesis of my talk was that one core focus of political philosophy is to deal with the realities of value pluralism and political disagreements. I contended that the most common form of social organization, representative democracy, does not satisfactorily deal with these realities. Therefore, we should look for political possibilities beyond representative democracies and that in order to discover these possibilities, we should experiment with new forms of social organizations. By approaching the issue from a meta-system level perspective and realizing that governments are resistant to structural societal changes we should then introduce competition into the industry of governments. Seasteading, the creation of habitable dwellings on the oceans, could serve as a means to introduce more competition in the industry and lessen political tensions between citizens who hold different comprehensive doctrines.
If I could mention one thing that has made the most remarkable impression on me, it would be the warning issued by Prof. Stephen Baskerville (Patrick Henry College, USA) that the most immediate threat to our liberties is feminism and the social justice movement. He maintained in his talk that there is an ensuing crisis of the family which is perpetuated by the state. According to Prof. Baskerville, family courts can enter homes uninvited, take away people’s children, confiscate their property, and incarcerate them without trial, charge or counsel. With over 50% of all first marriages ending in divorce and more than half of all these divorces involving children, the greatest threat to our liberties is the colluding social work state bureaucracies with radical feminism. These groups have colluded to suppress information on such injustices. Listening to Baskerville’s talk, I felt the great urgency to engage in an intellectual battle against feminism and the social justice movement.
Other than the many intellectually invigorating moments, the city itself provided many magnificent sites. To mention several sights: we visited a beer garden, experienced a classical music concert at the Mirror Chapel, walked over the Charles Bridge, and visited the Prague Castle.
All in all, the city of Prague, AEME and PCPE were an unforgettable experience! It has already been decided that next year’s AEME conference will take place in Krakow, Poland. The conference will be open for anyone who is interested in Austrian economics and libertarianism. For more information on AEME and the papers that were presented in the previous editions, you can find our website here. In case you are interested in studying at the CEVRO Institute and its MA PPE programme with specializations in “Austrian Economics”, “Studies of Transition”, and “International Politics”, you can visit their website here.
Part of my research is located between philosophy and specific disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. I’m currently working on a project on several facets of economic life in the ancient Near East. I’m very serious about it, and even did some study in Akkadian, Sumerian, and Hebrew to understand some of the debates on the interpretation of primary sources.
Some crucial questions that anybody in my situation have to ask relate to theory: Was there any such thing as an economy, to begin with? Okay, the answer is straightforward: people were indeed allocating scarce resources, trading them, producing them, and so on. I don’t know of anyone who doubts that, and in case anyone tries, I’d point them to the enormous amount of ancient Mesopotamian contracts, receipts and court cases dealing with the issue, not to mention the famous “law codes” of Hammurabi and other kings.
The answer to next question, though, is less obvious: Can we apply contemporary economic theory to interpret, understand, explain, model, etc. economic behaviour in the ancient world? So far, I’ve identified three schools of thought on this matter in the field of Ancient Near Eastern Studies.
First, there are those who focus on particulars on the “micro” level. Their research is predominantly concerned with the publication, translation, and commentary on hundreds and hundreds of inscribed clay tablets containing valuable information about everyday life in the ancient world. These scholars won’t have much to say in terms of generalisation, because the questions they address are a degree further removed from the questions we tend to ask, say, in economics or sociology.
A common type of research in this line (and, frankly, a type of research I wouldn’t mind executing someday) looks at the complete set of cuneiform tablets found in a specific place and tries to elucidate some patterns within that set of texts. I’ve heard, for example, of someone who did his PhD on the archives of a certain family in Babylon which was involved in trade. That scholar didn’t stop at telling the story of that family, but also synthesised a considerable amount of information about economic transactions and the everyday struggles for that town in that particular period. He also pointed out some interesting linguistic features present in the contracts, letters, and receipts that he transcribed, translated and published as part of his thesis.
In this kind of research, the emphasis is on detailed observation and description, and on a modest type of generalisation to a mid-range view of the local situation. It doesn’t really deal with the economy in general and, arguably, doesn’t make much room for any of today’s economic theories to be used.
The second school of thought borrows from economic sociologists and anthropologists the idea that any economy is intrinsically linked to the way a specific society operates in a given period of history. The works of Karl Marx, Max Weber and, more recently, Karl Polanyi and Immanuel Wallerstein are examples of broad statements of this thesis. Polanyi, in particular, has applied some of this thinking to ancient economies, arguing that, in the ancient Near East, there was no such thing as a “market” in the modern sense. If that’s indeed the case, then the task is to develop a new economics (or at least a new economic theory) to account for phenomena which are particular to that historical context.
In this second kind of research, a key procedure is to ask what the ancients thought they were doing when they were engaged in economic activity. This is analogous to the anthropologist’s “thick description” of a culture in its own terms. Hermeneutics and interpretation should play a major role. We’d need to read those primary sources in search for clues about the ancient view of the economy. Did they imagine the economy as we imagine it today? Or was it something different in their view? What were the words and notions they used to describe economic activity? And so on.
However, how would we know what to look for in the first place? Wouldn’t the very notion of an “economy” be alien to the ancient mind, at least until much later with the Greeks and Romans? Because of this tricky implication, people in this line of research may choose to ignore any subjective or discursive features and may opt instead for a reduction of ideas to material factors, perhaps driven by a Marxist philosophy.
Then, thirdly, there’s the view that presupposes the applicability of contemporary economics to ancient economies. So far, I’ve come across two lines of research, both of which seem underexplored because of the lack of interest of economists in the ancient world, or lack of ability to tackle primary sources. The first line of research looks at the relationship between institutions and the general operation of the economy. I’d place this within the broader approach of neo-institutional economics, or also the so-called law and economics tradition of economic thought.
One interesting question that has been asked in this line of research has to do with the impact of government regulations in the everyday functioning of the economy. For example, how clear were property rights? If we look at the “law codes” of ancient Mesopotamia, we see a large number of definitions of what was allowed and what was forbidden, but were those rules enforced? Were they simply a suggestion? Sometimes, there’s a contrast between what the law code says and what local judges decided in a concrete court case. This way of researching ancient economies, in my view, is more productively executed as teamwork, with an economist and a specialist in ancient texts, languages, and archaeology joining forces.
A second way of applying contemporary economic science to ancient economies resembles the mainstream way of doing research. A model is constructed on the basis of some initial hypothesis, and then the hypothesis is tested against “data”. An important problem with this is that there’s a dearth of concrete and unambiguous information amenable to this sort of treatment. However, this is not the case for all periods. As a matter of fact, we do happen to have access to sizeable sets of information about prices and wages for Babylonia in the Hellenistic period. The crucial source is a set of records that people made correlating the position of the stars and planets with all sorts of information, including economic information. Some preliminary analysis of those series has suggested that prices, for example, behaved more or less like a mainstream economist would expect them to behave.
This issue of the dearth of data leads me to the following thought. I believe that even a mainstream economist should be open to the possibility of another style of economics in the study of ancient economies. I don’t think economists should give up studying them altogether. Some cross-theoretical dialogue with those engaged in other ways of thinking about ancient economies may be in order. However, I understand that many on both sides of the attempted dialogue will feel uncomfortable. After all, a mainstream economist and a Marxist don’t just disagree on method. They also disagree on politics, ethics, the meaning of life, and a number of other issues.
As a possible avenue of research, then, I’d like to suggest a more deductive approach in theory construction and a more discursive approach in the study of historical patterns. From the deductive system we’d know how an economy works in general, even if there are historically-specific possibilities to tackle. From the discursive approach we’d be able to make the most of the “data” that we do have in abundance – thousands of clay tablets with textual information – and with that illustrate the general points.
In my view, this would look like a combination of Austrian political economy with rigorous philological use of primary sources. It would be the sort of research programme to be tackled with a team of people, good libraries, near a museum and in constant dialogue, learning, and interaction. Both fields could potentially benefit from the original interdisciplinary research programme that would emerge.
Pages 48 – 53
Chapter Summary – A group of industrialists sit around a shadowy table plotting the downfall of our favorite rugged individualist.
I love how cliché this chapter is. Four figures sitting around a table, their faces shrouded in darkness as they scheme over the fate of the world, the sycophant politician sniveling his consent to their plans. This is one of those times where I am not quite sure if the fiction created the trope or the fiction is following the trope but it is okay either way, it is delightful to read.
We have at our table:
James Taggert: Who is far less whiny when not in the presence of his sister.
Orren Boyle: Our socialist-industrialist representative in the story.
Wesley Mouch: Our aforementioned politician, in the pay of Hank Rearden but in the pocket of Orren Boyle.
And finally –
Paul Larkin: The man at Rearden’s dinner party last chapter.
Essentially they spend the chapter plotting against Hank Rearden and promoting a philosophy of non-competition among businesses. From a historical standpoint this is essentially what happened with Hoover and the industrialists leading up to the great depression. A series of price and wage controls were set up that distorted normal market activity leading to the boom-and-bust cycle as described by Ludwig von Mises. As a side-note it is an interesting historical misconception that Hoover “did nothing” during the great depression. Hoover was arguably the most meddling president up to that point in regards to the economy except perhaps for Abraham Lincoln, but total economic warfare is hard to beat.
But to get back on track here, for what it lacks in literary creativity this chapter makes up for with pure economic and political insight that is delightful to read. The most illuminating part is a speech, or perhaps rant, by Orren Boyle that goes as follows, some of Taggert’s responses are edited out for brevity:
“Listen Jim…” He began heavily.
“Jim, you will agree, I’m sure, that there’s nothing more destructive than a monopoly.”
“Yes.” Said Taggart, “on the one hand. On the other, theres the blight of unbridled competition.”
“That’s true. That’s very true. The proper course is always, in my opinion, in the middle. So it is, I think, the duty of society to snip the extremes, now isn’t it.”
“Yes,” said Taggart, “it isn’t fair.”
“Most of us don’t own iron mines: How can we compete with a man who’s got a corner on God’s natural resources? Is it any wonder that he can always deliver steel, while we have to struggle and wait and lose our customers and go out of business? Is it in the public interest to let one man destroy an entire industry?”
“No,” said Taggart, “it isn’t.”
“It seems to me that the national policy ought to be aimed at the objective of giving everybody a chance at his fair share of iron ore, with a view towards the preservation of the industry as a whole. Don’t you think so?”
“I think so.”
This exchange is a fantastic summary of the process involved when the government gives special privileges to favored industries under the guise of regulation. Essentially Rearden is out-competing his fellow steel producers and since they cannot compete under market conditions they intend to compete politically by ham-stringing his business through the legal process.
This process has happened time and time again throughout history and the ironic part is that these actions have almost universally been heralded as “anti-business” when in fact it is the businesses itself that propose this regulation. The first anti-monopoly laws in America were lobbied for by the competitors of the successful oil, rail, and steel businesses which resulted in the *rise* in prices of those goods. It seemed the “natural” monopolies were pro-consumer while the regulation was pro-business.
There are also historical comparisons to be made to the great depression. The whole concept of “protecting an industry” at the expense of a single, productive, individual was the cornerstone of “Hoover-nomics” especially in the farm industry. The industrial revolution brought about a massive increase in farming productivity which naturally led to a decline in prices and a surplus of labor in that industry that came to a head during the “dirty thirties”.
The natural course of the market would be for inefficient firms in that industry to liquidate; with the entrepreneurs and workforce moving to other industries. This would cause a short period of transitional unemployment as workers moved into similar or growing industries while the more efficient firms and prospective entrepreneurs would buy the liquidated capital goods of the inefficient businesses at a discount.
Consumer goods prices would fall to equilibrium where only firms able to produce goods below that price would be able to maintain production. This would have the net effect of expanding the labor pool and be a net gain for society as new areas of production would be made available by the increases in productivity. Instead, Hoover organized industrial cartels that maintained price and wage controls over the entire economy propping up inefficient businesses that continued to waste and malinvest resources resulting in what we know today as the great depression.
To summarize, this chapter is a fantastic must read five page tour de force of economic insight.
Next chapter: More Dagny, more snark, and more family drama.