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.


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.