Some Thoughts on State Capacity

State capacity is an important topic and the subject of much recent attention in both development economics and economic history. Together with Noel Johnson I’ve recently written a survey article on the topic (here). At the same time, many libertarians and classical liberals are uncomfortable with the concept (see here and here). I think these criticisms are useful but misplaced. Addressing them will hopefully move the debate forward in a useful fashion.

Here I will just focus one issue. This is the argument recently made by Alex Salter that state capacity is a black box. Alex notes correctly that we have a detailed and convincing theory for how markets can lead to economic growth (by directing resources to their most efficient use). In contrast, according to Alex:

“State capacity, by itself, addresses neither the information issue nor the incentive issue. While governance institutions obviously began centralizing at the beginning of the modern era, this is just a morphological description of what happened to institutions. On its own, that’s insufficient as a causal explanation”.

I think Alex and other critics are on the wrong track here. State capacity is not alternative explanation for economic growth to that offered by markets. The relevant question is what impeded market development before, say, 1700, and what enabled the growth of markets after around 1700. The evidence provided by a body of research suggests that prior to 1700 market development was impeded by political fragmentation both within and between states. Critics of the state capacity argument should engage with this literature.

A second claim Alex makes is that we lack a theory for why the more centralized states that arose after 1700 were less rent-seeking and predatory than their weaker and more internally fragmented predecessors. But in fact we have a fairly good understanding of many of the mechanisms responsible for the demise of the more costly forms of recent seeking that characterized medieval and early modern Europe. This understanding is based on the work of James Buchanan and Mancur Olson.

The basic argument is this. Medieval and early modern states were mostly devices for rent-extraction and rent-seeking. But this rent-extraction and rent-seeking was largely decentralized. They collected taxes through a variety of costly and inefficient means (such as selling monopolies). They then spent the tax revenue on costly wars.

Decentralized rent-extraction was costly and inefficient. For example, it is well known that weights and measures varied from place to place in preindustrial Europe. What is less well known is that there were institutional reasons for this, as each local lord wanted to use his own measures in order to extract more surplus from the peasants who were forced to grind their grain using his mill. Local cities similarly used their own systems of weights and measures in order to extract surplus from traveling merchants. This benefited each local lord and city authority but imposed a large deadweight loss on the economy at large.

The logic of internal tariffs was similar. Each local lord or city would choose their internal tariffs in order to maximize their own income. But we know from elementary microeconomics that in this setting each local authority will set these tariffs “too high” because they will not take into account the effect of their tax rate on the tax revenue of their neighbors who also set their tariffs too high.

When early modern European rulers invested in state capacity, they sought to abolish or restrict such internal tariffs, to impose uniform taxes, and to standardize weights and measures. This resulted in a reduction in deadweight loss as when the king set the tax rate he considered the tax revenue he gets from his entire realm, and internalized the negative externality mentioned above.  The reasoning is identical to that which states that a single combined monopolist may be preferable to an up-stream and down-stream monopolist. When it comes to a public bad (like rent-seeking) a monopolist is preferable to competition.

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.

Geopolitics and Asia’s Little Divergence: State Building in China and Japan After 1850

Crossposted at the Medium

Why did Japan successfully modernize in the 19th century while China failed to do so? Both China and Japan came under increasing threat from the Western powers after 1850. In response, Japan successfully undertook a program of state building and modernization; in China, however, attempts to modernize proved unsuccessful and the power of the central state was fatally weakened. The failure to build a modern state led to China’s so-called lost century while Japan’s success enabled it to become the first non-western country to industrialize. In a paper with Chiaki Moriguchi (Hitotsubashi University) and Tuan-Hwee Sng (NUS), we explore this question using a combination of historical evidence and formal modeling.

On the surface this East Asian “little divergence” is extremely puzzling. Qing China, as late as the end of the eighteenth century, was a powerful centralized empire. An impersonal bureaucracy selected by exams, and routinely rotated, governed the empire. In contrast, the institutions of Tokugawa Japan are usually described as feudal. The shogun directly ruled only 15% of the country. The remainder was divided into 260 domains ruled by lords known as daimyo who collected their own taxes, possessed their own armies, and issued their own currencies. To the outside observer China would have seemed much more likely to have been able to establish the institutions or a centralized state than Japan.

Figure 1: Qing China and Tokugawa Japan

For much of the early modern period (1500–1700) China and Japan possessed military capabilities that made them more than a match for any western power. This changed dramatically after the Industrial Revolution and their vulnerability exposed by the Opium War (1839–1840) and the Black Ships Incident of 1853, respectively. During the First Opium a small number of British ships overpowered the entire Chinese navy, while Commodore Perry’s show of force in landing in Japan in 1853 convinced the Japanese of western naval superiority. Within a few years, political elites in both countries recognized the need to modernize if only to develop the military capacity required to fend off this new danger.

* * *

Figure 2: Commodore Perry in Japanese eyes

In China, after the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion, there were attempts at modernizing — notably the Self-Strengthening movement associated with Li Hongzhang and others. Recent scholarship has reevaluated this movement positively. At the purely military-technological level it was in fact quite successful. The Jiangnan Arsenal and the Fuzhou Shipyard saw the successful importation of western military technology into China and the Chinese were soon producing modern ships and weaponry. However, these developments were associated with a process of political decentralization as local governors took on more and more autonomy. The importation of military technology was not associated with more far-reaching societal or political reforms. There was no serious attempt to modernize the Qing state.

In contrast, Japan, following the Meiji Restoration, embarked on whole scale-societal transformation. The daimyo lost all power. Feudalism was abolished. Compulsory education was introduced as was a nationwide railway system. A new fiscal system was imposed in the teeth of opposition from farmers. The samurai were disarmed and transformed from a military caste into bureaucrats and businessmen.

Qing China and the newly modernized Meiji Japan would collide in the first Sino-Japanese war (1894–1895). Before the war, western observers believed China would win in part because of their superior equipment. But the Chinese lacked a single national army. It was the Beiyang army and the Beiyang fleet that fought the entire Japanese military force. The fact that Japan had undergone a wholesale transformation of society enabled them to marshal the resources to win a rapid victory.


Figure 3: The Jingyuan, one of the ships in the Baiyang fleet

* * *

Why did the Japanese succeed in modernizing while Qing China failed to do so? Historians have proposed numerous explanations. In our paper, however, rather than focusing on cultural differences between Japan and China, we focus on how different geopolitical incentives shaped their decisions to invest in state capacity and state centralization.

Before the mid-19th century China only faced a threat from inner Asia from where historically nomadic invasions had routinely invaded and threatened the sedentary population of the Chinese plain. Due to this threat, historically China tended to be a centralized empire with its capital and the bulk of its professional army stationed close to the northern frontier (see Ko, Koyama, and Sng (2018)). In contrast, Japan faced no major geopolitical threats prior to 1850. This meant that it could retain a loose and decentralized political system.

After 1850 both countries faced major threats from several directions. China was threatened on its landward borders by Russian expansionism and from the coast by Britain and France (and later Germany and the United States). Japan was threatened from all directions by western encroachment.

We build a simple model which allows for multidirectional geopolitical threats. We represent each state as a line of variable length. States have to invest in state capacity to defend against external geopolitical threats. Each state can use centralized fiscal institutions or decentralized fiscal institutions.

If there is strong threat from one direction, as China faced prior to 1850, the dominant strategy is political centralization. In the absence of major geopolitical threats decentralization may be preferable as was the case in Tokugawa Japan.

The emergence of a multidirectional threat, however, changes things. A large country facing a multidirectional threat may have to decentralize in order to meet the different challenges it now faces. This is what happened in China after 1850. In contrast, for a small state with limited resources, an increase in the threat level makes centralization and resource pooling more attractive. For a small territory like Japan, the emergence of non-trivial foreign threats renders political decentralization untenable.

We then consider the incentives to modernize. Modernization is costly. It entails social dislocation and creates losers as well as winners, the losers will attempt to block any changes that hurt their interests. We show that for geographically compact polities, it is always a dominant strategy to modernize in the face of a multidirectional threat as the state is able to manage local opposition to reform. This helps to explain why all members of the Japanese political elite came around to favoring rapid modernization by the late 1860s.

Consistent with our model, modernization was more difficult and controversial in China. The Qing government and particularly the Empress Dowager famously opposed the building of railroads. The most well-known example of this was the Wusong Road in Shanghai. Built using foreign investment it was dismantled in 1877 after locals complained about it. The Qing state remained reactive and prepared to kowtow to local powerholders and vested interests rather than confront them. Despite local initiatives, no effort was made at wholesale reforms until after China’s defeat at the hands of Japan in 1895.

Figure 4: The Wusong Railroad in 1876

* * *

By 1895 it was too late, however. The attempts of the Qing state to reform and modernize led to its collapse. Needless to state, East Asian’s little divergence would have lasting consequences.

Japan’s modernization program astonished foreign observers. Victory over Russia in 1904 propelled Japan to Great Power status but also set Japan on the path to disaster in the World War Two. Nevertheless, the institutional legacy of Japan’s successful late 19th century modernization played a crucial role in Japan’s post-1945 economic miracle.

Following the collapse of the Qing dynasty China fragmented further entering the so-called warlord era (1916–1926). Though the Nationalist regime reunified the country and began a program of modernization, the Japanese invasion and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) devastated the country. The end result was that China came to be reunified by the Communist party and to experience more conflict and trauma until it began to embrace market reforms after 1979.

From the Comments: Ottoman autocracy, Turkish liberty

Jacques, if you want to look at a libertarian/classical liberal case for the Ottoman Empire you should look at Islam without Extremes (Norton 2013) by Mustafa Akyol. I can’t claim to have got round to reading it myself, but I have seen Akyol’s summaries of his argumnents.

The power of Akyol’s argument in term of Turkey’s political scene has been somewhat undermined by his support for the AKP governemnt until after the Gezi Park protests. He is very critical of the AKP now, but as he was previously known as an AKP apologist (and enthusiast for Intelligent Design theory) it’s doubtful how much of an asset he is to Turkey’s rather small pro-liberty scene.

In any case I do not endorse myself straight on Ottomanist libertarianism and there are reasons it does not have much of a hold in Turkey’s pro-liberty scene though there are a few who think like this. The problems are endless and complex because the Ottoman system lasted from the 14th to 20th centuries and you can’t really talk about the same system, or at least few historians think you can. The millet system is a term applied late in Ottoman history, while the system was at its peak in terms of the size of the empire, along with it general prestige in the world, in the sixteenth century. Of course at that time, it could be said to have established some version of some liberty with order as good as many Christian states, and to me more power ful than any. I don’t think even at its height though you could say the Ottoman empire had more liberty than the most law governed and tolerant places in ‘Christendom’ and certainly while European thinkers respect the Ottoman system at its height it very much looked like an example of strong orderly monarchy, not decentralised liberty.

Even at its peak the Ottoman system obliged Balkan Christian families to send one son away at a very early age to be brought up as Muslim convert soldier-bureaucrat slave of the Sultan. The Janissary system, a very privileged kind of slavery and forced conversion, but that is what it was. The Sultan employed black eunuch slaves, transported from Africa, again a privileged position but not really an example of liberty.

Jumping forward, the Ottoman system started to imitate the west in some respects from the late eighteenth century, following military defeats to Russia. The biggest act of ‘reform’ was the violent repression/massacre of the Janissaries which formed a whole class of soldiers, bureaucrats and Istanbul firemen who were also market traders on the side, blocking the Sultan’s ideas of reform, including the formation of a more modern military.

Jumping forward again, the Ottoman sultan most revered by Turkey’s current Ottomanists on the whole, Abdulhamit II, suspended the national assembly, pursued a program of bureaucratic-military-technical centralisation, which included the early massacres of Armenians to which you refer. In the end he was overthrown as a ruker (not as holder of the title of Sultan) by westernising reformers (Committee of Union and Progress/Young Turks) who ended up continuing a centralising reform process which alienated people outside the Muslim Ottoman elite and the Anaotlian heartlands of the Empire. Jumping back to the period between the suppression of the Janissaries and Abdulhamit II’s rule, the Greek Independence movement was resisted with staggering levels of violence and cruelty (the Greek insurgents were not always fastidious in their methods either, it must be also be said). By the nineteenth century, the Ottoman system of relative tolerance towards non-Muslims on a communal rights basis was looking less impressive compared with a growing European tendency towards tolerance based on individual rights.

The ‘millet system’ at its peak provided a way Muslims, Christians and Jews could live together, but mostly as separate communities able to continue communal traditions, within a hierarchy in which Muslims had the real power. As with looking to models of liberty in ‘feudal’, medieval Europe, we may see some liberty benefits in the elements of localism and communal autonomy under a monarchy, but in both cases we are not talking about a system of individual rights or free interaction, we are talking about individuals constrained by communal traditions and hierarchies, along with the hierarchies between communities. If we value individual rights under common legal rights then this is not a model for us, even if we can see some lessons.

Even at its peak the Ottoman system blocked the spread of printing, one of the major elements of modern liberty. The reasons for the block combine the power of religious conservatism and the guild interests of manuscript copyists which seems to me to sum up the problems of even peak time Ottomanism for liberty. It was a system based on an assemblage of local, communal and guild privileges finding change difficult except through dramatic acts of autocratic rulers. The transition from Empire to French-modeled republic, but less liberal than the France of the time, in the 20s and 30s under Atatürk was itself the last great example of this and was a product of the difficulties the Ottoman system had with peaceful consensual change, even if it did have a few good moments on that score (e.g. the 1840 Tanzimat reforms).

Finally the Ottoman system was condemned by its own failure to defend itself, the last Sultan could only give into the victorious powers of World War One, while the republican-nationalists, who emerged from the most educated sections of the Ottoman elite, were able to mobilse a successful military struggle (the Independence War) even without control of the state apparatus. A system which can’t win a war is not a successful system, regardless of how sad the importance of war in human history is.

Arguments now about reviving the Ottoman Empire are surely self-evidently hypothetical only for anyone who does not take Erdoğan’s more bombastic statements seriously. In what way would the Middle East resolve anything by rule from Istanbul, particularly as part of a centralised state ruled by Erdoğan? If the question is should the Ottoman Empire have been prolonged at the end of World War One, the Ottoman government of the war undermined that possibility by massacres of Arabs, along with the leaders Faisal gave to Arab nationalists, aided by devious British and French policy.

The Ottoman Empire was in the Balkans before it was in the Middle East. Ottoman sultans used the title Kaiser-i rum (Emperor of Rome) after the Fall of Constantinople before they adopted the title of Caliph (leader of the faithful) after the later conquest of the Hezaz (i.e. the region containing Mecca and Medina). There is nothing natural or inevitable about a Turkey leaning predominantly towards the Middle East and nothing inherently desirable about Beirut, Amman, Riyadh, Damascus, etc coming under the dominance of Turks; there is nothing obviously healing for Arab Shiite Muslims in living under a Sunni Caliph in a palace on the Bosphorus, not now and not in 1919.

Ottomanist libertarianism makes most sense for those inclined to paleolibertarianism based on dispersal of power between homogenous traditionalist localised communities. I don’t see it has so much to offer to other kinds of libertarian. If we think about more modern liberal forms, there was some interest in Britsh style liberalism (already at that time in transition from classical liberalism to left liberalism) amongst the last Ottomans, most notably Prince Sabahattin, but this was a minority within a weakened elite, discredited by collaboration with British occupation at the end of World War One, which never had anything like a politics capable of mobilising the elite (very influenced by French republicanism politically and intellectually by the sociological expression of French republicanism in the work of Emile Durkheim), never mind the population as a whole.

(Yes Brandon I should be posting this kind of thing, in refined and revised form, but I really don’t have time to do this properly at present, believe me I really am in extreme crisis mode with writing/editing deadlines), after a particularly busy semester, believe me I will be posting when I can, and I should be able to manage within the next few months, sorry I can’t say any more than that, but it is the reality.)

This is from Barry Stocker, responding to Jacques’ musings on the Ottoman Empire and libertarian arguments that are sometimes in favor of it. The rest of the thread is pretty good too, though Dr Delacroix has yet to respond…

The Ottoman Empire and Libertarianism

Every so often libertarians ask, in a speculative mode, whether the re-establishment of the Ottoman Empire would not be a formula for peace in the troubled Middle East. The question is interesting on several counts, one of which is that the regions affected by the Islamic State today, Arab and Kurdish alike, plus all of southern Iraq, plus Kuwait, plus Jordan and Palestine (including the current Israel), plus, more loosely, all of the Arabian Peninsula, were more or less under Ottoman/Turkish control until the end of World War One.

Libertarians allude to the “millet” system under which many different ethnic or national groups co-habitated peacefully for several centuries. Those are pretty much the same groups that have been eviscerating one another for several years and pretty much every time a strong and dictatorial leader does not clamp down on them. There is one large fault in this happy vision: the attempted genocide of the Armenians begun under full Ottoman power in 1895 and nearly completed as the empire was falling apart during World War One.

The millet system of governance should be of interest to libertarians who generally wish for less government, less expensive government, more responsive government and, especially, less intrusive government. Under the millet system, at least when it was fully functional, the Ottoman governor of say, the province of the empire that now encompasses Lebanon and Western Syria would summon yearly the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church. He would address him as follows:

“Your Eminence is well I trust, and his family, and I hope that his sons are brave a wise. I am happy to hear that Almighty God has blessed Your Eminence with many grandchildren. And I am told your community is thriving. Now, based on the figures your office gave me and based on my own information, I think that the Greek Orthodox community must deliver to our master the Sultan, one hundred pounds of gold and three hundred fit young men of military age this year. Agreed? Thank you for your visit and may you and your community, Your Eminence, continue to prosper under the benign, enlightened and fair rule of our great sultan.”

Then, the governor would ask over the main Ayatollah of the Shiite Muslims and deliver himself of a similar oration. And so on.

But I must pause for a confession. The quote marks around the above monologue are metaphorical. I am not reproducing a real monologue. Something like the monologue above must have been delivered thousands of times but I must admit I was not present to hear any of them. (On the other hand, I spent time in Turkey on vacation ten years ago and I regularly drink coffee with Turks. And, I like Turks in general.)

Again, the millet system is a good historical example of extreme decentralization and of minimally intrusive government. It was also very inexpensive to administer. It had little permanent bureaucracy to speak of that could grow upon itself and reproduce itself endlessly thus forever shrinking the area of individual autonomy. At the same time as the comparable Hapsburg Empire was developing a large bureaucracy, at the time when territorially much smaller France was perfecting the art of centralized bureaucracy, at the time when the small Kingdom of Prussia was developing the very model of modern bureaucracy that was to become a model for the whole world, the millet system endured in the Ottoman Empire. In general, the Ottoman government was small and it seemed to be treading lightly on the land, you might say. It sounded a little like a sort of libertarian dream.

But, wait a minute, I need to complete significantly the imaginary monologue of the Ottoman governor above. On parting, the governor would have probably added: “Enjoy life and enrich yourselves. Everything will be fine unless I hear too much about you. If I do, bad things will happen to your community.” Or, he did not even need to utter the words. Everyone knew about the bad things that would happen if disorder arose. Some of these bad things were community leaders’ heads on a spike in village centers.

The Ottoman Empire that relied on the light, non-invasive, decentralized millet system was also famous for the fierceness of its repression. And this haven of diversity disintegrated swiftly throughout the 19th century with a speed that must give pause.

The unraveling of the Ottoman Empire began around 1805 when the large and important Egyptian subdivision gained all but nominal independence through an armed revolt and even waged successful war on the Empire. During the rest of the 19th century, the areas of the Empire now comprising Greece, Bulgaria and Romania decisively seceded. In the meantime, much of the rest of the officially defined Empire drifted away, such as Libya and Tunisia. Later, during World War One, the British (Lawrence) and the French did not have much trouble talking the remaining Arab areas of the empire into open rebellion. And yes, there was an attempted massive genocide of Armenians, in two phases. The first phase was under full Ottoman power in the 1890s; the second, much larger step occurred during the waning days of Ottoman rule starting in 1915.

Now, one can argue – and historians routinely do – that the spectacular disintegration of the Ottoman Empire was due to external pressures from the rising, fast industrializing European powers. Yet, the fact that national (ethnic) entities took up every opportunity to leave the Empire does not speak well of the effectiveness of Ottoman administration. The fact that they sometimes did it a a cost of great bloodshed, the Greeks in particular, does not strengthen the idea of contentment of the administered. The fact is that the subject people of the Ottoman Empire including the many governed through the millet system described above seem to have left as soon as the opportunity arose.

The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire poses a conceptual problem: Did it fall apart in spite of the admirable millet system of government or because of it? Was internal peace maintained in the Empire for a long time because of the virtues of the millet system or because of the ever-present threat of a large and fierce army facing a divided and unarmed populace?

Was the Ottoman Empire taken apart from within, and also from without, because the administrative principles behind the millet system impeded the supply of the means of self-preservation?

Beyond this lies an even graver question for anyone with libertarian aspirations: Do systems of administration that share the main features of the millet system, decentralization, low cost, and low-level invasiveness contain the seeds of their own destruction? Does administrative lightness actually nurture violent intervention from above and/or from outside?

I don’t know the answers to these serious questions. I think libertarians of all feathers don’t discuss these and related issues nearly enough. I suspect libertarian circles harbor their own form of political correctness that paralyzes such essential inquiries. I do what I can. I know it’s not much.

We can’t engineer our way out of this

Folks on the left have been getting more interested in science lately (though history tells us that might be something to worry about). They’re right to celebrate the incredible results of scientific progress–but scientific victory isn’t uniform across disciplines.

In some areas (including just about all areas on the cutting edge), scientists disagree with one another.It’s a big, complex world we live in, and we don’t understand it fully. That disagreement doesn’t mean we should discount science entirely, but it does mean we should be careful with it.

Imagine a world where engineers disagreed about the capabilities of their techniques and the strength of the materials they use. Some might be beholden to special interests (which gives me an idea for a public choice version of the Three Little Pigs), others might be dogmatic/superstitious. But even without concerns of systemic issues, we should be hesitant to try to get to the moon. That disagreement should tell us that we aren’t certain enough in our knowledge to make anyone but volunteers put their lives in the hands of those engineers.

Social scientist in particular frequently disagree with each other. Most are trying earnestly to apply the scientific way of thinking to understanding the social world, and it’s worth considering their view points. But applying that knowledge should only be done in a decentralized way. Applying the incredible insights of behavioral economics from the top down is appealing, but it’s probably best to do it piecemeal.

Social engineering and social science are harder than physical engineering and the physical sciences. Part of the problem Western governments face is that they’re trying to engage in social engineering. And politicians are promising them greater degrees of social engineering to improve the well-being of their constituents.

The trouble is two-fold: 1) those social engineering techniques aren’t good enough, even if they’re sometimes appealing. 2) The cost to decision makers of buying snake oil is too low in voting booths.

To my friends who are looking to the government to make things better: whether your hope is for government to help people be better versions of themselves, or to stop bad guys, we should push as much of that policy to the local level as possible. It might be nice if the whole country were more like Berkeley or Salt Lake City, but trying to make it happen at the national level is a recipe for conflict, disorder, and doing more harm than good. Keep policy local.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. The ABC’s of really bad news
  2. Most ideologies have no use for distinguishing between prophet and politician
  3. The conservative split over Donald Trump
  4. Will we proceed with campaign slogans, or with reflection and hard work? A must read
  5. Healing through decentralization