A PPE pandemic reading list

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

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

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

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

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


Three Additional readings:

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

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

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

 

Nightcap

  1. The Use of Knowledge in Society F.A. Hayek, American Economic Review
  2. On conservative nationalism and foreign policy Emma Ashford, War on the Rocks
  3. Europe’s ‘solidarity’ crumbles in the face of a crisis Kai Weiss, CapX
  4. Bigger Brother: surveillance capitalism Tim Wu, New York Review of Books

Nightcap

  1. What’s the difference between Italy and the rest of the Western world? Scott Sumner, EconLog
  2. Viruses, civil rights, jails, and prisons Premal Dharia, Slate
  3. Is YIMBYism the answer to California’s housing crisis? Apoorva Tadepalli, New Republic
  4. Even Hayek quoted FDR Peter Canellos, Politico

Nightcap

  1. Police tailgating and entrapment Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  2. Singapore’s military elite Francis Sempa, Asian Review of Books
  3. Bill Barr, the man from the 1980s Ross Douthat, New York Times
  4. Open borders and hive minds (NIMBY) Bryan Caplan, EconLog

Nightcap

  1. Nationalization is as American as apple pie Thomas Hanna, Jacobin
  2. In China, every day is Kristallnacht Fred Hiatt, Washington Post
  3. How Mengzi bested the Golden Rule Eric Schwitzgebel, Aeon
  4. Countries are not anecdotes Scott Sumner, EconLog

Nightcap

  1. Second-hand: the new global garage sale Susan Blumberg-Kason, Asian Review of Books
  2. Learning to love America Jacques Delacroix, NOL
  3. Why I don’t trust the police” Michelangelo Landgrave, NOL
  4. Chicago cops Paul Buhle, Counterpunch

Hong Kong protests: justified but futile in the end

The world is closely watching the developments in Hong Kong. Brave youngsters are testing the limits and patience of the Hong Kong authorities, first protesting against the extradition law, enabling Hong Kong citizens to be sent to China in case of serious allegations, and now with much broader demands for several kinds of liberties. Anybody with who cares for personal and political freedom can only watch in great sympathy, knowing that this is a modern day version of a number of small Davids against the towering power of the Chinese autocratic Goliath, with the Hong Kong authorities as its stumbling middle man.

I happened to be in Hong Kong for a few days, just for touristic purposes, in the first half of the past week. Arriving from mainland China on Monday, we encountered the protests a number of times. The protests caused major traffic jams, making it impossible to leave the train station in the regular way. Yet a small detour on the metro sufficed to reach our hotel. Later that night, we tried to reach one of the night markets, which turned out to be impossible: not only had the traders already packed their stuff, because a prominent protest location was just around the corner, students had also blocked the road and made sure our taxi returned nicely to where it came from.

protest 3

In the hotel we could watch live footage from confrontations between the police and the protesters, with the latter throwing stones and rocks against a police station just a few hundred meters from our hotel in Kowloon City. At times, it seemed there were as many journalists as there were protesters, which is of course an encouraging sign from the perspective of press freedom. The next day we went to Hong Kong University, but only the Student Union was in full protest mode, there were no visible signs of other unrest at the campus.

There were lots of protests at night though, as the coverage in the main Hong Kong quality paper South China Morning Post made clear.

One of the main questions this week was whether the Chinese army or police force would interfere. The local Chinese army commander hinted at it, while about 12,000 policemen gathered in nearby Shenzhen, just across the border in the mainland. The Hong Kong authorities, notably executive leader Carrie Lam and several police commanders, emphasized they were perfectly capable of handling this situation themselves. Given the developments in the past months one can question this, but the hesitation of Beijing to interfere is comprehendible. They do not want unrest, in the wake of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic later this year, while they know that direct action will make it impossible to get realigned with Taiwan in the foreseeable future, which has been a main goal of any Chinese leader since Mao, current leader Xi Jinping in particular.

Lam hinted at a press conference that the protests only foster the quick termination of the ‘one country two systems’ situation, agreed as part of the handover Treaty with the British in the nineteen eighties. One of the important elements is that Hong Kong keeps its own liberal laws and regulations for the first 50 years after the transfer of sovereignty in 1997.

Earlier protests died down, without much change achieved, mainly because the protesters did not succeed in broadening their movement to the wider public in Hong Kong. Although there was a supporting demonstration of public servants last Friday, this may happen again. On Wednesday, small traders already complained about the income they lose due to all the protests. And there are the mysterious groups of men in white t-shirts who beat up the protesters.

However, in the midterm, the protests will be futile. In the end this is an internal Chinese issue. Sure enough, there will be international protests, and depending on the outcome of the current crisis, perhaps also economic sanctions against China, if it just ends the protests by police or army action. These international protests are mainly symbolic though. Economic sanctions are the instruments of the impotent, not the powerful. Never have they worked to change a regime, or to make live very miserable for the leaders of a country. They do hit the population, but his and her concerns are easily overlooked in the international arena. The sad but undeniable truth is that no foreigner is going to die for Hong Kong. The great powers will treat this an internal Chinese affair. The USA already said so. No foreign power will intervene in China if the terms of the Sino-British Treaty are tampered with. At present, it is far more likely that Hong Kong will lose its special status, perhaps also earlier than the 50 years agreed, than that China will change into the liberal direction. The world may protest, but in the end the Chinese will have their way.