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!

Elite Anxiety: Paul Collier’s “Future of Capitalism”

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.
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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.

Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy

Understanding how political parties function is an area where recent research in political science has contributed major insights. Political parties are a fairly recent phenomenon. Prior to the 19th century, there were factions and loose groupings – the Optimates and Populares in Republican Rome, Tories and Whigs in late 17th century England, and Girondins and Jacobins in the French Revolution – but not organized parties. They were looser groupings that centered around dominant individuals – a Marius or Sulla, a Lord Shaftsbury, or a Brissot or Robespierre; but not parties with structured platforms and a deep well of local support.

I recently reviewed Daniel Ziblatt‘s recent book Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy for the Journal of Economic History (gated and ungated). Ziblatt provides new insights into the key role played by conservative parties in the formation and stabilization of democracy in Western Europe. Ziblatt’s thesis is that where conservative parties were able to become entrenched and organized political forces, the prospects for liberal democracy were fairly good. But where conservative parties remained weak, democracy was likely to remain poorly institutionalized. Under these circumstances, elites simply had too much to lose from acquiescing in universal suffrage.

Ziblatt contrasts the fate of England where a popular conservative party did take on solid roots in the late 19th century with that of Germany. As I write in my review:

“The central insight Ziblatt emphasizes throughout is game theoretic: the absence of a party to organize around meant that economic elites lacked the ability to strategically defend their interests and hence became willing to ally with any forces that might help them protect their property. While in Britain, the well-institutionalized Parliamentary Conservative party moderated and sidelined the more reactionary and xenophobic elements in British life, the absence of such a strong party meant that in Germany, the right tended towards antisemitism and other forms of extremism . . . “

“. .  . Stable and lasting democratization required “buy-in” from old regime elites and this buy-in can only occur if there are institutional mechanisms in place that are capable of assuaging their fears and moderating the influence of extremists. In late 19th and early 20th century Europe, strong professional conservative parties served this purpose. In the absence of such a party the transition to democracy will likely be temporary and unstable.”

Do read the full review.

Pinker wrote a nice rejoinder

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

NOL Pinker Edwin
Buy it

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

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

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

What is the best book about Argentina?

A couple of days ago, Tyler Cowen asked which is “the best book about each country:”

To count, the book must have some aspirations to be a general survey of what the country is or to cover much of the history of the country.   So your favorite book on the French Revolution is not eligible, for instance…

He explicitly skips South America. I can’t blame him, as I’ve never found a book that fully captures (the interrelationship between) the five things that make Argentina Argentina:

1. The fight between Buenos Aires and the Interior for fiscal resources. This was the main cause behind the civil wars of the XIXth century, and the eventual solution — the creation of a federal state that could check the power of Buenos Aires, and where the provinces of the interior would be politically over-represented — continues to be a defining feature of the country’s political economy to this day.

2. The division between “unitarios” and “federales,” which also began in the XIXth century. Although this cleavage was ostensibly about how to organize the country territorially, we should not forget that “politics is not about policy:” the actual division was about the relative status of different social groups. Specifically, he federales fell in the “Trumpian” side of the spectrum, praising the common, unsophisticated man “from here” as opposed to the high-brow cosmopolitanism promoted by the unitarios. Again, this division did not end in the XIXth century; Argentina’s political history during the XXth and beyond — and most notably the phenomenon Peronism — simply cannot be understood without making reference to this opposition.

3. The great immigration. Between the end of the XIXth and the beginning of the XXth century, Argentina embarked in a great social experiment that sought to transform the country by importing huge numbers of European immigrants. During this period, Argentina was the country that most immigrants received as proportion of its population, being second only to the US in the absolute number of immigrants it received. The assimilation of such immigrants was mostly successful, but also had profound consequences in terms of demographics, language, culture, cuisine and surnames (where do you think mine comes from?), as well as the way Argentineans perceive themselves: as a middle-class country of immigrants in which hard work allows you to get ahead in life.

4. Nationalism. One of the unintended consequences of the great immigration was the (government-sponsored) construction of a new national identity, defined in terms of territory rather than blood, race, or national history. This is the origin of Argentines’ sickly relationship with national boundaries, most patently seen in relation to the Malvinas/Falklands issue.

5. Pretorian politics. Between 1930 and 1983, Argentina was governed by no less than five different military regimes (in 1930, 1943, 1958, 1966 and 1976, respectively). The last of them (1976-1983) was especially murderous, as the military  systematically “disappeared” thousands of guerrilla members, political activists, union leaders and Left-wing sympathizers in a vain attempt to engineer a new political system. It is impossible to make sense of the political, social and cultural attitudes that have predominated in the country since 1983 without understanding this past.

Unfortunately, no book comes even close to capturing all these factors simultaneously. That said, the ones that best approach this ideal are the following:

1. Juan José Sebreli, Crítica de las Ideas Políticas Argentinas [A Criticism of Political Ideas in Argentina]. As far as I’ve seen, it’s only available in Spanish, however.

2. Larry Sawers, The Other Argentina. The Interior and National Development. As far as I know, it hasn’t been translated; please tell me I’m wrong.

3. Nicolas Shumway, The Invention of Argentina. There is also a Spanish edition.

PS. If you’re going for some XIXth-century work, don’t get swayed by the beguiling prose of Sarmientos’s Facundo; it’s too dominated by mood affiliation. Juan Bautista Alberdi’s Bases y Puntos de Partida para la Organización Política de la República Argentina [Bases and Starting Points for the Political Organization of the Argentine Republic] is a far better choice.

*The Islamic Enlightenment* | A critical review

De Bellaigue, Christopher. (2017) The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason 1798 to Modern Times. Liveright Publishing Corporation (Norton & Company) New York, London.

In 1798, in view of the Pyramids, a French expeditionary force defeated the strange caste of slave-soldiers, the Mamlukes, who had been ruling Egypt for several centuries. The Mamlukes charged the French infantry squares on horseback, ending their charge with the throwing of javelins. The Mamlukes were thus eliminated from history. The French lost 29 soldiers. In the conventional narrative, the battle woke up the whole Muslim world from its long and haughty slumber. The defeat, the pro-active reforms of Napoleon’s short-lived occupancy, and the direct influence of the French scholars he had brought with him lit the wick of the candle of reform or, possibly, of enlightenment throughout the Islamic world.

De Bellaigue picks up this conventional narrative and follows it to the beginning of the 20th century with a dazzling richness of details. This is an imperfect yet welcome thick book on a subject seldom well covered.

This book has, first, the merit of existing. Many people of culture, well-read people with an interest in Islam – Islam the sociological phenomenon, rather than the religion – know little of the travails of its attempted modernization. Moreover, under current conditions of political correctness the very subject smells a little of sulfur: What if we looked at Muslim societies more closely and we found in them some sort of intrinsic inferiority? I mean by this, an inferiority that could not easily be blamed on the interference of Western, Christian or formerly Christian, capitalist societies. Of course, such a finding could only be subjective but still, many would not like it, and not only Muslims.

Second, and mostly unintentionally, possibly inadvertently, the book casts a light, an indirect light to be sure, on Islamist (fundamentalist) terrorism. It’s simple: Enlightened individuals of any religious background are not likely to be also fanatics willing to massacre perfect strangers. Incidentally, I examine this issue myself in a fairly parochial vein, in an essay in the libertarian publication Liberty Unbound: “Religious Bric-à-Brac and Tolerance of Violent Jihad” (January 2015). With his broader perspective, with his depth of knowledge, De Bellaigue could have done a much better job of this than I could ever do. Unfortunately he ignored the subject almost entirely. It wasn’t his topic, some will say. It was not his period of history. Maybe.

Continue reading

The Dictator’s Handbook

I recently pointed you towards a book that has turned out to be a compelling and interesting read.

At the end of the day, it’s a straightforward application of public choice theory and evolutionary thinking to questions of power. Easy to understand theory is bundled with data and anecdotes* to elucidate the incentives facing dictators, democrats, executives, and public administrators. The differences between them are not discrete: they all face the same basic problem of compelling others’ behavior while facing some threat of replacement.

Nobody rules alone, so staying in power means keeping the right people happy and/or afraid. All leaders are constrained by their underlings. These underlings are necessary to get anything done, but they’re also potential rivals. For Bueno de Mesquita and Smith the crucial facts of a political order are a) how big a coalition (how many underlings) the ruler is beholden too and b) how replaceable the members of that coalition are.

The difference between liberal and illiberal orders boil down to differences in those two parameters. In democracies with a larger coalition and less replaceable coalition members, rulers behave better.

 

I got a Calculus of Consent flavor from Dictator’s Handbook. At the end of the day, collective decision making will reflect some version of “the will of the people… who matter.” But when we ask about the number of people who matter, we run into C of C thinking. Calling for bigger coalitions is another way of calling for an approach to an effective unanimity rule (at least at the constitutional stage).

In C of C the question of the optimal voting rule (majority vs. super majority vs. unanimity) boils down to a tradeoff between the costs of organizing and the costs of externalities imposed by the ruling coalition. On the graph below (from C of C) we’re comparing organization costs (J) against externality costs (I) (the net costs of the winning coalition’s inefficient policies). The idea is that a unanimity rule would prevent tyranny of the majority (i.e. I is downward sloping), but that doesn’t mean unanimity is the optimal voting rule.

Figure 18.  Click to open in new window.

But instead of asking “what’s efficient” let’s think think about what we can afford out of society’s production, then ask who makes what decisions. In a loose sense, we can think of a horizontal line on the graph above representing our level of wealth. If we** aren’t wealthy enough to organize, then the elites rule and maximize rent extraction. We can’t get far up J, so whichever coalition is able to rule imposes external costs at a high level on I.

But I‘s height is a function of rent extraction. Rulers face the classic conundrum of whether to take a smaller piece of a larger pie.

The book confirms what we already know: when one group can make decisions about what other groups can or must do, expect a negative sum game. But by throwing in evolutionary thinking it shed light on why we see neither an inexorable march of progress nor universal tyranny and misery.

As you travel back in time, people (on average) tend to look more ignorant, cruel, and superstitious. The “default state” of humanity is poverty and ignorance. The key to understanding economics is realizing that we’ve bootstrapped ourselves out of that position and we aren’t done yet.

The Dictator’s Handbook helped me realize that I’d been forgetting that the “default state” of political power is rule by force. The liberalization we’ve seen over the last 500 years has been just the first part of a bootstrapping process.

Understanding the starting point makes it clear that more inclusive systems use ideas, institutions, capital, and technology to abstract upward to more complex levels. Something like martial honor scales up the exercise of power from the tribe (who can The Chief beat up) to the fiefdom (now the Chief has sub-chiefs). Ideology and identity can tie fiefdoms into nation-states (now we’ve got a king and nobility). Wealth plus new ideologies create more inclusive and democratic political orders (now we’ve got a president and political parties). But each stage is built on the foundation set before. We stand on the shoulders of giants, but those giants were propped up by the non-giants around them.

Our world was built by backwards savages. The good news is that we can use the flimsier parts of the social structure we inherited as scaffolding for something better (while maintaining the really good stuff). What exactly this means is the tricky question. Which rules, traditions, organizations, and processes are worth keeping? How do we maintain those? How/when do we replace the rest? And what does “we” even mean?

Changing the world involves uncertainty. There are complex interrelations between every part of reality. And the knowledge society needs is scattered through many different minds. To make society better, we need buy-in from our neighbors (nobody rules alone). And we need to realize that the force we exert will be countered by an equal and opposite force some plural, imperfectly identifiable, maybe-but-probably-not equal, and only-mostly-opposite forces. There are complex and constantly shifting balances between different coalitions vying for power and the non-coalitions that might suddenly spring into action if conditions are right. Understanding the forces at play helps us see the constraints to political change.

And there’s good news: it is possible to create a ruling coalition that is more inclusive. The conditions have to be right. But at least some of those conditions are malleable. If we can sell people on the right ideas, we can push the world in the right direction. But we have to work at it, because there are plenty of people pitching ideas that will concentrate power and create illiberal outcomes.


*I read the audiobook, so I’m basically unable to vouch for the data analysis. Everything they said matched the arguments they were making, but without seeing it laid out on the page I couldn’t tell you whether what they left out was reasonable.

**Whatever that means…

Political Decentralization and Innovation in early modern Europe

My full review of Joel Mokyr’s A Culture of Growth is forthcoming in the Independent Review. Unfortunately, it won’t be out until the Winter 2017 issue is released so here is a preview. Specifically, I want to discuss one of the main themes of the book and my review: the role of political decentralization in the onset of economic growth in western Europe.

This argument goes back to Montesquieu and David Hume. It is discussed in detail in my paper “Unified China; Divided Europe’’ (forthcoming in the International Economic Review and available here). But though many writers have argued that fragmentation was key to Europe’s eventual rise, these arguments are often underspecified, fail to explain the relevant mechanisms, or do not discuss counter-examples. Mokyr, however, has an original take on the argument which is worth emphasizing and considering in detail.

Mokyr focuses on how the competitive nature of the European state system provided dynamic incentives for economic growth and development. This argument is different from the classic one, according to which political competition led to fiscal competition, lower taxes, and better protection of property rights (see here). That argument rests on a faulty analogy between competition in the marketplace and competition between states.  The main problem it encounters is that while firms can only attract customers by offering lower prices (lower taxes) or better products (better public goods), states can compete with violence. Far from being competitive, low tax states like the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth were crushed in the high-pressure competitive environment that characterized early modern Europe. The notion that competition produced low taxes is also falsified by the well-established finding that taxes were much higher in early modern Europe than elsewhere in the world.

It is also not the case that political fragmentation is always and everywhere good for economic development. India was fragmented for much of its history. Medieval Ireland was fragmented into countless chiefdom prior to the English conquest. Perhaps we can distinguish between low-intensity but fragmented state systems which tended not to generate competitive pressure such as medieval Ireland or South-East Asia and high-intensity fragmented state systems such as early modern Europe or warring states China. But even then it is not clear that a highly competitive and fragmented state system will be good for growth. In general, political fragmentation raised barriers to trade and impeded market integration. Moreover a competitive state system means more conflict or more resources spent deterring conflict. For this reason political fragmentation tends to result in wasteful military spending. It can be easily shown, for instance, that a much higher proportion of the population spent their lives in the economically wasteful activity of soldiering in fragmented medieval and early modern Europe than did in either the Roman empire or imperial China (see Ko, Koyama, Sng, 2018).

Innovation and Decentralization

What then is Mokyr’s basis for claiming that political fragmentation was crucial for the onset of modern growth? Essentially, for Mokyr the upside of Europe’s political divisions was dynamic. It was the conjunction of political fragmentation with a thriving trans-European intellectual culture that was crucial for the eventual transition to modern growth. The political divisions of Europe meant that innovative and heretical thinkers had an avenue of escape from oppressive political authorities. This escape valve prevented the ideas and innovations of the Renaissance and Reformation from being crushed after the Counter-Reformation became ascendant in southern Europe after 1600. Giordano Bruno was burned in Rome. But in general heretical and subversive thinkers could escape the Inquisition by judiciously moving across borders.

Political fragmentation enabled thinkers from Descartes and Bayle to Voltaire and Rousseau to flee France. It also allowed Hobbes to escape to Paris during the English Civil War and Locke to wait out the anger of Charles II in the Netherlands. Also important was the fact that the political divisions of Europe also meant that no writer or scientist was dependent on the favor of a single, all powerful monarch. A host of different patrons were available and willing to compete to attract the best talents. Christina of Sweden sponsored Descartes. Charles II hired Hobbes as a mathematics teacher for a while. Leibniz was the adornment of the House of Hanover.

The other important point that Mokyr’s stresses is Europe’s cultural unity and interconnectedness. As I conclude in my review, Mokyr’s argument is that

“the cultural unity of Europe meant that the inventors, innovators, and tinkers in England and the Dutch Republic could build on the advances of the European-wide Scientific Revolution. Europe’s interconnectivity due to the Republic of Letters helped to give rise to a continent-wide Enlightenment Culture. In the British Isles, this met a response from apprentice trained and skilled craftsmen able to tinker with and improve existing technologies.  In contrast, political fragmentation in the medieval Middle East or pre-modern India does not seem to have promoted innovation, whereas the political unity of Qing China produced an elite culture that was conservative and that stifled free thinking”.

It is this greater network connectivity that needs particular emphasize and should be the focus of future research into the intellectual origins of growth in western Europe. At present we can only speculate on its origins. The printing press certainly deserves mention as it was the key innovation that helped the diffusion of ideas. Mokyr also points to the postal system as a crucial institutional development that enabled rapid communication across political boundaries. Other factors include the development of a nascent European identity and what Chris Wickham calls, in his recent book on medieval Europe, “the late medieval public sphere” (Wickham, 2016). These developments were important but understudied complements to the fragmented nature of the European state system so frequently highlighted in the literature.

Highly recommended work on Ayn Rand

Most scholarship on Ayn Rand has been of mediocre quality, according to Gregory Salmieri, the co-editor of A Companion to Ayn Rand, which is part of the series “Blackwell Companions to Philosophy.” The other co-editor of the volume is the late Allan Gotthelf, who died during it’s last preparatory stages.

The reasons for the poor scholarship are diverse. Of course Rand herself is a large element. She hardly ever participated in regular academic procedures, did not tolerate normal academic criticism on her work and strictly limited the number of people who could authoritatively ‘explain’ her Objectivist philosophy to herself and Nathaniel Branden. Before her death she appointed Leonard Peikoff as ‘literary heir’. She inspired fierce combat against the outside world among her closest followers, especially when others wrote about Rand in a way not to their liking. The result was that just a small circle of admirers wrote about her ideas, often in a non-critical way.

blog ayn rand

On the other hand, the ‘rest of the academy’ basically ignored her views, despite her continued popularity (especially in the US), her influence, particularly through her novels, and large sales, especially after the economic crisis of 2008. For sure, Objectivists remain a minority both inside and outside academia. Yet despite the strong disagreement with her ideas, it would still be normal to expect regular academic output by non-Randians on her work. Suffice it to point to the many obscure thinkers who have been elevated to the academic mainstream over the centuries. Yet Rand remains in the academic dark, the bias against her work is strong and influential. This said, there is a slight change visible. Some major presses have published books on Rand in the past years, with as prime examples the books by Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (2009), and Anne C Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made (2010). And this volume is another point in case.

One of the strong points of The Blackwell Companion on Ayn Rand is that the contributions meet all regular academic standards, despite the fact that the volume originates from the Randian inner circle. It offers proper explanation and analysis of her ideas and normal engagement with outside criticism. The little direct attack on interpretations or alleged errors of others is left to the end notes, albeit sometimes extensively. Let us say, in friendly fashion, that it proves hard to get rid of old habits!

It should not detract from the extensive, detailed, clearly written and plainly good quality of the 18 chapters in this companion, divided in 8 parts, covering overall context, ethics and human nature, society, the foundations of Objectivism, philosophers and their effects, art and a coda on the hallmarks of Objectivism. The only disadvantage is the large number of references to her two main novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, which makes some acquaintance with these tomes almost prerequisite for a great learning experience. Still, as a non-Randian doing work on her political ideas, I underline that this companion offers academically sound information and analysis about the full range of Rand’s ideas. So, go read it if you are interested in this fascinating thinker.

Silent Majorities: Mass Incarceration Edition

What vexed [political scientist Michael] Fortner was that The New Jim Crow seemed to be two different books. One did a powerful job showing how mass incarceration undermines black communities and perpetuates racial inequality. The other — and this was the vexing part — advanced a political theory about how we got here. That history stressed the resilience of white supremacy. First came slavery; when slavery ended, a white backlash brought Jim Crow segregation; when Jim Crow crumbled, a backlash to the civil-rights movement spawned yet another caste system, mass incarceration. Each time, writes Alexander, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University, proponents of racial hierarchy achieved their goals “largely by appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower-class whites.”

“I remember feeling like, where are the black folks in this story?” Fortner says. “Where are their voices? They’re constantly victimized. They’re not powerful. And then I thought about, well, who the hell brought down the original Jim Crow? It was black power. It was black folk organizing, mobilizing successfully against racial structures in the South, in the North. And what happened to all that power? What happened to all that agency? It sort of disappeared.”

Except it didn’t. By examining historical records, Fortner found that black people had retained their power when it came to crime policy. At one place, in one moment, their voices were critical: Harlem in the years leading up to the Rockefeller drug laws. It was there that residents were besieged by heroin addiction and social disorder — what a late-1960s NAACP report called a “reign of criminal terror.” And it was there that a “black silent majority” of working- and middle-class residents rallied to reclaim their streets. New York’s ambitious governor seized on their discontent to push for harsh narcotics policies that would enhance his standing within the Republican Party. The result: some of the strictest drug statutes in the country, mandating long minimum sentences for a variety of drug crimes.

More here. By Marc Perry writing in the Chronicle Review.

Larry Siedentop’s Straw Dog

I finally had the chance to finish reading Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism.

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It is a great book, and especially informative for those not well-versed in the intellectual history of political ideas within (mainly) Christian thought. The arguments starts with the Ancient traditions, to the early years of Christianity, all the way to the fifteenth century. According to Siedentop (p. 332) the main goal of the book is:

‘to show that in its basic assumptions, liberal thought is the offspring of Christianity. It emerged as the moral intuitions generated by the Christianity were turned against an authoritarian model of the church. The roots of liberalism were firmly established in the arguments of the philosophers and canon lawyers by the 14th and 15th centuries: belief in the fundamental equality of status as the proper basis for a legal system; belief in that enforcing moral conduct is a contradiction in terms; a defense of individual liberty, through the assertion of fundamental or ‘natural rights’ and, finally, the conclusion that only a representative form of government is appropriate for  a society resting on the assumption of moral equality’.

Siedentop clearly succeeds in making this point. As said, the book can be warmly recommended. The question is, however, why does he care about this issue? Siedentop (pp. 334-338) clarifies that he wants to fight the dominant idea that liberalism sprang from the Renaissance, and that liberalism almost equates secularism, or is even anti-religion, at least in the public sphere.

You do not need to be a scholar of the liberal history of ideas to raise more than a few eyebrows here. What liberalism is Siedentop taking up for argument? He is unclear about this, as he does not care to define this liberalism, nor does he provide references to liberal thinkers. That is where the trouble starts.

Undoubtedly there are some modern social-liberals who claim that liberalism is secular and that the state and lawmaking should be strictly neutral in religious terms. Arblaster in The Rise and Decline of Western Liberalism even explicitly refutes any liberal traces before the Renaissance. Unclear is how dominant these voices are, especially outside academia. One thing is certain, these do not comprise classical liberals.

In the Scottish Enlightenment, in many ways the birth grounds of classical liberalism, the place of religion in life, and religion as a source of morality, was discussed. In contrast to most other thinkers, -Smith included- Hume even criticized religion, albeit most openly  after his death in Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. Yet to my knowledge, no thinker actually denied the role of Christianity as a source of  important ideas, certainly not the  role of individuality.

Modern writers, who are more aware of classical liberalism as a tradition do not deny this either. Let me give a few examples.

Hayek in an essay on liberalism (in New Studies in Politics, Philosophy Economics and the History of Ideas) writes that it traces back to classical antiquity and certain medieval traditions. He actually attacks ‘some nineteenth century writers’ who denied ‘that the ancient knew individual liberty in the modern sense’. In his general overview entitled Liberalism, John Gray (then still in his liberal days), also neatly points to the pre-modern and early modern times for the development of liberal ideas as we now know them. David Schmidtz and Jason Brennan pay their due respect to these older sources in A Brief History Of Liberty and the same goes for George H. Smith in The System of Liberty, and David Boaz in The Libertarian Mind.

Of course, none of them made detailed studies of these influences because their books had different purposes than Siedentop’s. Yet all deal with it in a few paragraphs or even a separate chapter, making clear to their readers that (classical) liberalism has older roots then the Renaissance, that there are important Medieval and Ancient thinkers who all left their mark on the development of (classical) liberal thought.

Siedentop wrote a great book, that unfortunately is a straw dog as well: his portrayal of ‘liberalism’ is erroneous, either deliberately or not. It denies the views of the founding and one of the main liberal variants. That is sloppy, to say the least, for such a learned and experienced scholar. With the use of these general terms Siendentop’s attack is simply off target. He should have taken far more time to define the ‘liberalism’ and the liberal scholars subjected by his attack.

How about war, Professor Wall?

The Cambridge Companion to Liberalism

There is a lot of truth, insight and wisdom in this Cambridge Companion to Liberalism. But how on earth is it possible that there is no substantial mentioning, let alone analysis, of the political philosophy of liberalism and international relations? At least a weird omission by the editor, Professor Steven Wall, I must say….

My latest book review: Rafia Zakaria’s “History of Pakistan”

The other pertinent issue raised by Rafia is about the patriarchal structure, which is a political institution now sanctioned by religious practices and with social acceptance. The plight of women is considered to be a private affair but it is a political programme through which one gender controls the activities of the other. It defines values and sets up norms to control and regulate the body of women. This control and regulation becomes strong in conflict-affected societies where the level of violence is high. The stronger group tries to abduct and carry out violence against women from other communities while the minority, in the name of protection of its ‘honour’, puts all forms of restrictions on their women and carries out violence against them within their own community.

Read the rest.

Review of “The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture”

I just finished one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, so even though it’s been out since 2007 I’m going to review it: “The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture” by Brink Lindsey.  A second subtitle reads, “Why the Culture Wars Made Us More Libertarian.” It would be a shame if that subtitle put off some potential readers because the book isn’t a libertarian tract, not by a long shot. It’s a fine piece of sociological analysis, rigorous yet readable.

I lived through the post-war transformation of America but that doesn’t mean I really understood what was going on. I understand a whole lot better now thanks to Lindsey’s book. My mother struggled through the Great Depression, by necessity developing a scarcity mentality, some of which rubbed off on me. But as postwar abundance spread, overcoming scarcity was the driving motivation for fewer and fewer people. Instead, mass affluence became the norm. My cousin in Ohio, for example, spent his entire working life as a diesel mechanic for Ford Motor Co. Over the years he and his wife acquired a nice house, a boat, three cars, and took cruises abroad. He worked very hard, but so did his forebears, and they never had what he had.

Mass affluence gave people free time and energy to explore the meaning of life. The New Age, or the Aquarian movement as Lindsey calls it, burst forth in the 1970’s. Having participated peripherally in some of the “personal growth” movements of the time, I can attest to two things. First, most of it was nonsense. I’m chagrined to look back on some of the groups I got into, and glad that I never went overboard with any of them. Second, I’m grateful for some of the genuine growth I experienced during those times. Crucially, I never questioned the work ethic that I inherited from my mother. I grew a beard, but otherwise dressed conventionally and held a steady job.

Almost nobody in the personal growth movements of the time understood that they owed their newfound freedom to mass affluence and that that affluence resulted from the capitalist system which many of them liked to deride. (An exception would be the tiny libertarian movement of the time which for some people was allied with the personal growth movement.) Most participants looked down their noses at hard workers like my cousin.

As it happens, the capitalist system not only survived the Aquarian onslaught but found ways to make a buck from it, adapting and softening its revolutionary fashions, music, and entertainment for a mass market. Capitalism, far from keeling over, co-opted the movement and moved on.

Then came the evangelical backlash, a movement I never had any truck with. The system survived the evangelicals’ attacks on personal liberties.  The upshot, says Lindsey, is that while these two forces pulled at the capitalist center (or the free-market center as I prefer to call it), the system survived and has actually thrived. Out of it all, we are learning to balance liberation and responsibility. Here’s how he puts it on p. 316 of the hardcover edition:

Out of the antitheses of the Aquarian awakening and the evangelical revival came the synthesis that is emerging today. At the heart of that synthesis is a new version of the middle-class morality—more sober, to be sure, than the wild and crazy days of “if it feels good, do it,” but far removed from old-style bourgeois starchiness or even the genial conformism of the early postwar years. Core commitments to family, work, and country remain strong, but the are tempered by broad-minded tolerance of the country’s diversity and a deep humility about telling others how they should live.

As you can tell, Lindsey is a masterful story teller. He adds statistics occasionally; more would have been welcome. I doubt that he will ever get his material published in a sociology journal. Not only is he “politically incorrect” but his writing is too clear and too compelling. By the way, do you see the dialectics in this passage? Lindsey never uses the word, but there it is: Aquarian thesis, evangelical antithesis, libertarian synthesis. Fascinating.

Reading the Laws, Part 4

If you haven’t been following along with the series, you can find the last three entries here:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

***

I recently began reading Joseph Campbell’s well known work, the Hero with a Thousand Faces, and in the section concerning the challenges of the hero, he uses the example of Theseus and the Minotaur. I instantly thought back to my first entry in this reader’s diary, for the characters of the dialogue are all on their way to the Temple of Zeus, in mimicry of the journey of King Minos, who would go there once every nine years to propitiate the sky god for his aid.

I will quote what I said initially:

“They [the three participants in the dialogue] find each other as strangers on the road to Knossos, where they are all heading to the temple of Zeus for some religious function. The Athenian suggests a discourse, befitting their age and mental alacrity, on the nature of law. Aping the pilgrimage of the mythic king Minos, who would travel every nine years to this very shrine for the purpose of receiving instruction from Zeus on the law, the other two heartily agree to the suggestion.

Plato’s first invocation, and the setting of his dialogue, readily complement each other. The first asks whether the law comes from man or from a god, while the second seemingly answers in favor of the gods, set as it is in direct apposition with Minos’ nine year journey to Zeus himself. Law, and all its attendant meanings, seems to spring from divine reason rather than human craftsmanship.”

Any serious student of literature could make that assessment, as it requires no previous knowledge about Greek culture, mythology, and history. The ability to make inferences, hopefully a faculty shared by all people, is sufficient. Coupling the plain interpretation of the passage with some concrete knowledge about the Ancient Greek cultural milieu will add further depth. I quote now from Campbell:

“…the king of the south Indian province of Quilacare, at the completion of the twelfth year of his reign, on a day of solemn festival, had a wooden scaffolding constructed, and spread over with hangings of silk. When he had ritually bathed in a tank, with great ceremonies and to the sound of music, he then came to the temple, where he did worship before the divinity. Thereafter, he mounted the scaffolding and, before the people, took some very sharp knives and began to cut off his own nose, and then his ears, and his lips, and all his members, and as much of his flesh as he was able. He threw it away and round about, until so much of his blood was spilled that he began to faint, whereupon he summarily cut his throat.

This is the sacrifice that King Minos refused when he withheld the bull from Poseidon. As Frazer has shown, ritual regicide was a general tradition in the ancient world. “In Southern India,” he writes, “the king’s reign and life terminated with the revolution of the planet Jupiter round the sun. In Greece, on the other hand, the king’s fate seems to have hung in the balance at the end of every eight years . . . Without being unduly rash we may surmise that the tribute of seven youths and seven maidens whom the Athenians were bound to send to Minos every eight years had some connexion with the renewal of the king’s power for another octennial cycle” (ibid., p. 280). The bull sacrifice required of King Minos implied that he would sacrifice himself, according to the pattern of the inherited tradition, at the close of his eight-year term. But he seems to have offered, instead, the substitute of the Athenian youths and maidens. That perhaps is how the divine Minos became the monster Minotaur…”

Whereas the king’s journey to the Temple of Zeus, in connection with the theme of Plato’s dialogue, connects kingship, divinity, and the law thematically for the reader, this passage from Campbell offers a related but different perspective: kingship is not a transmission of divine decrees into a phenomenal space, but is itself bound by a deeper law, a primordial order tied to the revolutions of the planets, and the bloody desires of the gods. Zeus did not give just give Minos the law, but also a limited time to enforce it, for it was dependent on his devotion, and eventual demise. By subverting the will of the divinity in diverting the sacrifice from its typical victim, the regent, to a novel set of seven youths, the king invites calamity: his wife copulates with the bull of Poseidon, bearing the Minotaur, which as Frazer and Campbell argue, is really the personification for the bloodlust of the king himself, effaced over time by myth.

The law cannot be deceived, and it always exacts its due, for it is not the enforcement of human decrees, but an element of the fabric of the universe. The word of Zeus is binding because Zeus is the pillar of existence and the basis of all, “the first and last, one royal body, containing fire, water, earth, and air, night and day, Metis and Eros. The sky is his head, the stars his hair, the sun and moon his eyes, the air his nous, whereby he hears and marks all things,” in the words of an Orphic hymn (quotation from A. Wayman, “The Human Body as a Microcosm,” History of Religions, Vol. 22, No. 2, (Nov., 1982), pp. 174). His words bear the weight of physical laws, which balk at defiance. If Plato had this myth in mind when he wrote the Laws, then his setting of the dialogue in such a place, at such a time, fives a different interpretation for his view of the law: law is the capricious will of the gods, which binds us with the finality of the law of gravity, the pious upholding it and prospering, the wicked flouting it and suffering, though its moral dictums are always enforced in the end, even if it is defied.

There is little to indicate that this was Plato’s intention. Though some Greeks moved into a sort of philosophical monotheism based on the preeminence of Zeus – see Stoic cosmology, for one example – belief in the entire Olympian pantheon was still widespread. If the law is the will of the gods, we must ask first, whose will? All of the gods, or just one, the father, Zeus? Surely all of them, since the poets always depicted the gods as bickering over their own spheres of influence, and with significant power endowed in each. But if all of them, how can their wills be the basis of law? For did not Poseidon support the Achaeans at Ilium, while Apollo took the side of noble Hektor? Plato went over these questions himself in his dialogue Euthyphro, which indicates to me that he would not endorse a viewpoint he ringingly denounced through his mouthpiece, Socrates, in his earlier dialogue. Furthermore, as I have pointed out earlier, it seems to vitiate the whole point of this book of the dialogue, which is to examine different systems of law and define the basis of good laws.

Despite this, there is something to go on here. As Plato’s Athenian has earlier argued, the old should be the only ones with the prerogative to discuss the laws, their bases, their validity, their use, while the young must be enjoined only to obey, lest respect for the law as an institution does not solidify in them. Edmund Burke has a similar argument in his Reflections. From page 29:

“Always acting as if in the presence of canonized forefathers, the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity. This idea of a liberal descent inspires us with a sense of habitual native dignity which prevents that upstart insolence almost inevitably adhering to and disgracing those who are the first acquirers of any distinction. By this means our liberty becomes a noble freedom. It carries an imposing and majestic aspect. It has a pedigree and illustrating ancestors. It has its bearings and its ensigns armorial. It has its gallery of portraits, its monumental inscriptions, its records, evidences, and titles. We procure reverence to our civil institutions on the principle upon which nature teaches us to revere individual men: on account of their age and on account of those from whom they are descended. All your sophisters cannot pro- duce anything better adapted to preserve a rational and manly freedom than the course that we have pursued, who have chosen our nature rather than our speculations, our breasts rather than our inventions, for the great conservatories and magazines of our rights and privileges.”

Burke argues for creating a civic religion around the institutions of the laws, which attains its respect from its age and pedigree, in the same way an old man garners respect by virtue of his advanced age. On my foregoing interpretation of Plato, tying the law to a far more awful and terrifying source than human judgment gives it greater security, for there is not just the fear of man’s retribution, but also god’s. Both these thinkers operate on the premise that the law does not necessarily attain respect from its goodness or its appropriateness. These are objective aspects, which can only be comprehended by an intellect habituated to high and lofty topics, and not by the vulgus, which is naturally stupid, and has no capacity for understanding such things. Better to inspire such people, always the bulk of a society, through the antiquity of the law, to awe them with its heraldry and trappings, to set them to quaking with the terrible countenance of the statue of Zeus, in the greatness of its size and the scale of its construction a visible reminder of the awesome power of the god, and of his vengeance.