“Fuck Your Vote!”

That’s what I have been hearing ever since the morning after the presidential election. That what I keep hearing on most cable television and on National Public Radio. That’s what I see in most of what I read, and that’s what I am told is being published in the liberal print media I stopped reading long ago. That’s also what I find when I go slumming in left-wing sectors of Facebook.

No one has actually told me directly, in those exact words, “Fuck your vote,” not yet, but that’s what the ceaseless hounding of Pres. Trump means: My vote for him ought to be ignored; it can’t possibly count. If you had not had any news for six months, you would think that there had been a coup in the United States; that a horrid, caricature capitalist had taken over the country by stealth and by force, both. You would guess that the intellectually and morally live segments of American society were resisting a brutal takeover as best as they could. You would not guess there had been a hotly disputed election, fielding 16 viable candidates on one side.

A grass-root movement with a strategy

The verbal lynching to which Pres. Trump is subjected on a 24-hr cycle is not a conspiracy. There is no secrecy to it. It’s all overboard. It’s a regrouping of the political establishment, of the 90% leftist media, of the 90% leftist academia, of the vast tribe of government bureaucrats, of the many others who live off tax revenue, of the labor unions leaders, of the teachers’ unions, especially. So, after a fashion, it’s a genuine grass root movement. It’s a grass root movement of the well-bred and of the semi-educated who spend all their time – always did – feeling “appalled.”

It’s not a conspiracy but it’s a deliberate plot. It has a strategy: Hound him until he loses his cool completely. Harass him to the point where he cannot govern at all. At worst, we can keep him so busy his intended policies kind of vanish. The Santa Cruz AM station where I had a political show for three years has its own well-known, semi-official leftist caller, “Billy.” Billy thinks he is well informed and a genuine, deep-thinking intellectual because he is leisurely. In fact, he does not work for a living; he lives off his rich wife instead. (I would not make this up.) He called the station about two weeks before this writing to sound off on one thing or another that the president had done or said. Then, he declared straightforwardly, “We are hounding him out of office,” and also, with commendable clarity, “It’s a slow coup.” I would not have dared used these words in my conservative (“libéral” en Français) polemical writing, too provocative, possibly exaggerated.

Or take this short, childishly coded message I picked out from from an ordinary left-liberal’s Facebook page:

“47 could end up being Pelosi if we drag it out til 18.”

Translation: the current minority leader in the House could become the next president (the 47th). If we drag what out? For overseas readers and for American readers who went to the beach when the US Constitution was taught in high school: What has to happen before the minority leader of the House of Representatives becomes president outside of a presidential election? The constitutional order of succession if the president dies, in any way of manner, or becomes incapacitated, or is remove from office for any reason is this: Vice-President, Speaker of the House. In the partial elections of 2018, Nancy Pelosi may become Speaker of the House again. She would automatically become president if and only if both President Trump and Vice-President Pence were eliminated. Hence the FB message: Keep up the harassment. Note: Some readers might think I am making this up. I will give the name and FB address of the person from whom this is taken to anyone asking me privately.

What does not revolt me: Donald Trump is a bad person

What is it that makes me angry? Let me begin by telling you what does not make me deeply angry.

First, everyone here and abroad has every right to dislike Mr Trump personally, Trump the man. There is a lot I don’t like about the man myself. He talks too much; he is ignorant of many things; his ignorance does not stand in the way of his having strong opinions about the very same things; he often talks before he thinks; he brags too much; he is too frequently crude. (Actually, I am of two minds about the latter. Official crudeness may be the form that starting to roll back political correctness must take.)

I did not vote for Donald Trump because I loved him but mostly because of the character of the only, single alternative to him at the time of the presidential election. (Keep in mind that Sen. Sanders was not on the ballot. Remember what happened to him?) I had no illusions from day one. I knew that Mr Trump is not at all like suave President Obama, for example, who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize within barely ten months of taking office.* I voted for Trump also for policy reasons. I thought there was a good chance he would appoint a conservative Supreme Court Justice, as promised. He did, within days. I thought he would deregulate to some extent. He is doing just that. I thought we stood a better chance of having serious tax cuts with him than with the Democratic candidate. I still think so. Tax cuts are the most direct path to vigorous economic growth, I believe. (Shoot me!)

A short digression: As I was writing this cri du coeur, the liberal media were exulting about President Trump’s loss of a few points of general approval. (Actually, it’s about the same as Bill Clinton’s at the same period in their presidencies.) They don’t mention that there is zero evidence that he has lost any ground among those who voted for him, that they feel any voter remorse. Myself, I like him better than I did when I voted for him. He has begun to make America stand up again. He has been a bulwark against several forms of hysteria – including Endofworldism – to a greater extent than I counted on.

What does not revolt me: Opponents trying to stop and sink his program

The second thing to which I do not object in the treatment of President Trump is legislative maneuvering. Democrats and dissident Republicans have every right to block and undermine Mr Trump’s legislative programs, be they tax cuts or “the wall.” (Personally, I want the first ones and think of the second as a silly idea.) The media have every right and sometimes an obligation to support this exercise in checks and balances between executive and legislative that is at the heart of the US constitution. No problem there either. I understand that when you win the presidency, in the American system, that’s all you have got, the presidency. After that, you have to convince Congress to pay for what you want, for what you (conditionally) promised.

What annoys me without revolting me: the courts’ usurpation

The Founding Fathers decided that courts had to be able to curtail or block just about any executive or legislative action. This, to make extra sure that neither branch of government could ever create unconstitutional law. This, to avoid the tyranny of the majority. It often rankles but that’s how our constitutional democracy works. Accordingly, the third going on that annoys me but that I accept is the several courts’ endeavors to stop the president from taking the measures he thinks necessary to keep the country safe. (I try to distinguish between dislike and a negative judgment of illegitimacy. This distinction is a the heart of the problem about which I am writing.) I accept, for example the decisions of the two or three courts who stopped the presidential executive order banning the admission of peoples from a handful of countries. I accept them, although:

Public opinion and – I think – one court, call it a ban “on Muslims,” even if only 9% of all Muslims worldwide would be affected; although half of those are citizens of a country – Iran – that is the declared enemy of the US and officially a sponsor of terrorism as far as we (Americans) are concerned.** and ***.

I accept it although there is nothing in the Constitution that prevents the executive branch from stopping people entering the US based on their religion.

I accept it although there is no part of the US Constitution that recognizes any rights to foreigners who are neither under American jurisdiction nor at war with the US.

I accept it although there is a statute, a law, that explicitly gives the president the right to ban the entry of anyone for any reason.

I accept these court orders but my acceptance is a testimony to my strong commitment to constitutional democracy.

Now, on to what I object to deeply and irreversibly in the attacks on the president.

Extirpating electoral legitimacy

What really, really disturbs me are the nearly daily attempts at removing, at extirpating the legitimacy of the 2016 presidential election results, the desperate and brutal, unscrupulous attempts to make people believe that Mr Trump is not really president. They make me livid because they are not attacks on Mr Trump but rather, they are attacks on me. They are assaults on my right to exercise my constitutional right to cast my vote and to have it counted. And also the rights of sixty-three million Americans**** who voted as I did. The slow coup against Mr Trump defies reason and it resembles nothing I have seen in fifty years in this country. It does remind me of several historical precedents though. (Look up “March on Rome,” you will be amazed.)

More than the mechanics of democracy is at stake. The principle of government by the consent of the governed itself is under assault, the attack is systematic and unrelenting. When I cast one of approximately sixty-three million votes for Donald Trump, I thought I was choosing the lesser of two evils. That’s nothing new; I don’t remember ever voting in a national election for someone who inspired enthusiasm in me. And perhaps, that’s the way it should be. Enthusiasm about a person may not be even compatible with democracy. Free men and women don’t need saviors and they are leery of leaders, even of leadership itself. Be it as it may, I cast my vote as I did and no one (that’s “no”) has the right to try and nullify it, to cancel it. As I write this self-evident truth, I fear that many of the people still having hysteria about the 2016 Democrats’ failure are not sophisticated enough to understand the difference between opposing the consequences of my vote through accepted, traditional parliamentary and judicial maneuvers on the one hand, and nullifying my vote, on the other hand.

Fascism is neither of the left or of the right. It thrives on moral confusion and on bad logic. Hysteria is its main sustenance.

“The Russians” made them lose everything

The daily assault on the Trump legitimacy changes form almost every day. Right now, it has been focusing for several weeks on alleged Russian intervention in the presidential election.

It matters not to the Trump haters that in 2016 Democrats lost everything they could lose besides the presidential election: governor races, state legislatures, Congress. This swath of defeats seems to me to indicate that the Democratic Party in general was not popular, forget Trump. If “the Russians” had actually handed out the presidency to Mr Trump, there would still be a need to explain the Democrat routs at all other levels. Did “the Russians” also organize the rout, including of county boards of supervisors, and at all other minute local levels?

It does not matter that Mrs Clinton was never made to explain how and why she caused to erase or ditch 30,000 emails belonging to the government, a cynical suppression of evidence if there was ever one.

A considerable work of imagination

Thus far, the mud has been thrown at Mr Trump and at his whole team, at any one who has ever met him perhaps in connection with “Russian” interference in the presidential election. Mud has no shape; it’s amorphous. I don’t know about him but when I suspect someone of something, the something has a shape, at least a rough description. You never say, “I suspect you,” but, “I suspect you of X or of Y.” The Trump accusers have never been able to reach even that primitive level of concreteness. None of them has (yet) been stupid enough to suggest that the Russian secret services hacked or tricked up the voting machines in the hundreds of jurisdictions that would be needed to make a difference. So, what have “the Russians” done, really?

The most tangible thing they have against the Trump campaign to-date is a supposition, a product of the collective imagination, and it need not even involve Trump or his agents at all. What we know is that someone hacked the Democratic National Committee emails. Some contents were leaked by Wikileaks which did not say where it got it from. Wikileaks has friendly links with Russia. It’s possible Russians hackers gave it the info. If this is what happened, here is what we still don’t know:

We don’t know that those imagined Russian hackers worked for Pres. Putin. Entrepreneurial Russian hackers have been dazzling us for twenty years. The DNC email seems to have been poorly protected, anyway. A Putin intervention is superfluous in this story.

Furthermore: Do you remember what Wikileaks disclosed (thanks to “the Russians.”)? It showed that the Democratic establishment engineered, by cheating, the defeat of candidate Sanders in the Democratic primary elections. In my book, the anonymous, perhaps Russian, hackers deserve a medal, an American medal for casting light on dysfunction and plain dishonesty within an American political party. The Congressional Medal of Honor is not out of the question, in my book.

Moreover: The leftist media keep referring to “collusion” between members of the Trump campaign and some unnamed Russians. Sounds sinister, alright. But as the Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, – a Democrat – pointed out recently, “collusion” is not illegal. It’s what you collude to do (rob a bank) that makes it criminal. Colluding to eat a pizza is not criminal. Mr Trump and his entourage are daily accused -without proof – of having committed acts that are not illegal.

The first Comey testimony

The 06/08/17 open, public Senate Judiciary hearing of dismissed FBI Director Comey was awaited by the left and media, and also by some genteel Republicans, like the Roman plebe awaited the lions’ feasting on the Christians. That hearing was a disappointment too. I am writing here as if I thought every word uttered by Mr Comey were exactly true (100% true) although there is no reason to do so. The hearing showed ex-FBI Director to be a leaky wimp, of shaky integrity caught in corrupt and difficult circumstances, first under Obama with the Clinton Follies, then with the unpredictable Trump presidency. It did showcase a great deal of inappropriate behavior by President Trump. But the hearing did not even begin to point to any illegal behavior on the part of the president, not to a single whiff of illegality. If you don’t trust my legal judgment (although I watch many crime shows on TV), refer again to Democrat and Harvard Law School professor Dershowitz who thinks as I do on this issue. The fact is that hardly anyone, possibly no one, voted for Mr Trump because of the appropriateness of his behavior or of his statements. If anyone was about to do so during the election, the airing by the Clinton campaign of a tape describing Mr Trump’s manual approach to seduction would have cured that illusion.


Personally, I think there is nothing to investigate. Nevertheless, I hope the Special Counsel (a friend of Comey’s, it turns out) will do his job of investigating the possibility that President Trump did whatever he is supposed to have done with I know not what Russians. There is a chance that merely having a single person in charge – what the left demanded – will reduce the daily din of anti-Trump insults. There is even a possibility that it will allow Pres. Trump to get to work on some more of the projects***** for which I gave him my vote. If the investigation reveals real illegal behavior by Mr Trump, felony-level crimes, I think he should be peaceably removed from office, with Vice-President Pence taking over as required by the US Constitution. Anything else, any other succession would be a form of fascism. Any other scenario of Trump removal turns my attention to the Second Amendment (me and hundreds of thousands of gun-crazy, church going “deplorables.”)

How it will end

I don’t see a reasonable finish to all this unless the president is found guilty of something. When the smoke finally clears, when the investigation of President Trump’s collusion to do whatever with whatever Russians ends, I think there is no chance that the matter will be finally put to rest. If the Special Counsel that liberals clamored for concludes that Mr Trump and his whole entourage never committed any illegal act in connection with the 2016 election, there will still be voices pointing out that an intern on Trump’s campaign once ate Russian caviar on a date, which raises serious questions! Or something.

The undisputed fact, that Mr Trump’s improprieties revolt many who voted for the only real alternative, is not an argument for overthrowing an elected government. They are the same people who tried to elect – directly or indirectly – an old woman apparently in failing health, a lackluster former Secretary of State, at best, a person who campaigned incompetently, a candidate for the highest office who never managed to articulate her vision of government, a person who cheated during the primary election, one who ended up losing against a rank political amateur who spent less than half the money she spent on campaigning. With a large majority of voters guilty of such a poor choice, this country has bigger fish to fry, I would think, than presidential rudeness and/or insensitivity.


Dear Trump–hating fellow citizens: One thing that did not cross my mind when I voted was that should my candidate win – a long shot at the time – there would be a massive, multi-pronged endeavor to make believe that I had not voted, or that I had voted other than the way I voted, or that my vote somehow did not count. I thought I was living in a democracy. I assumed the democracy was lodged not only in the rules we follow to form governments but in the hearts of my fellow-citizens. I assumed that the rules were internalized, that they were part of the moral baggage of everyone including those whose vote countered mine.

If you will not accede to the modest wish that my vote should be honored, why bother with elections at all? They are costly and disruptive, they often disappoint, sometimes more than half of the population, and they provide many opportunities for the expression of deplorable taste. Why not, for example, convene a governing directory selected by an assembly of university professors, of well-bred employees’ union leaders, of Democratic politicians, and of media personalities (excluding Fox, and also Rush Limbaugh, of course), all chaired by the Editor-in-Chief of the New York Times?

* Just because you ask, I will tell you that I am guessing that the silly old men of the Norwegian Nobel Committee actually thought they were giving the Prize to the American left electorate for electing a Negro (“neger,” in Norwegian). It’s also a fact that Mr Obama always looks good in a suit.

** To my overseas readers: It was not Pres. Trump who designated officially Iran as a sponsor of terrorism. It happened several presidential administrations back, many years ago.

*** I wonder if the said executive order would have been acceptable to the courts if President Trump had thrown in say, a Buddhist country or two, and a pair of Catholic countries from South America, for example, like this: ban on admission to the US for citizens of Somalia, Yemen, Laos, Syria, Paraguay, Iran, etc.

**** Note to my overseas readers: That’s 2.8 million fewer than won by candidate Clinton. In the US system the candidate who obtains the largest number of votes cast by citizens (the “popular vote”) does not necessarily win the presidency. We have indirect elections instead. This may seem strange but the fact is that neither big party has ever really tried to change the constitution in this respect. So, after the two Obama victories, no one in the Democratic party said, “We have to change this system to make sure the popular vote prevails.” And if we had a popular vote system, all candidates would have campaigned differently. Mr Trump might have won the popular vote handily, or Mrs Clinton may have won with a margin of ten million votes or more; or the Libertarian Party may have received enough votes to deny either candidate a majority. There are many other possibilities in the world of “what if….”

***** Some of his campaign promises are being fulfilled at a fast clip in spite of the ceaseless persecution to which the president is subjected. The loosening of the regulatory hands of the Federal Government on the economy’s neck, for example, is going well.

Could the DUP push UK Conservatives towards a ‘Norway Option’?

Last year, Britain voted to leave the European Union under a banner of anti-immigration and protectionism. Since then, both social democrats and classical liberals have been waiting to catch a break. Ever the optimist, I hope they may have just got one, from an unlikely source, the Democratic Unionist Party. They are a Northern Ireland-based Protestant party that is usually at the margins of national British politics. Thanks to the outcome of the latest general election, they may be in a position to force the British Conservatives towards a more trade and immigration friendly Brexit.

In April, Prime Minister (for now) Theresa May called a snap election. She didn’t need to face the electorate until 2020, but decided to gamble, thinking that she would increase her working majority of Conservative MPs. Instead, as we discovered yesterday after the polls closed, she did the opposite, reducing the slim majority that David Cameron won in 2015 to a mere plurality. This was against one of the most radically left-wing opponents in decades, Jeremy Corbyn.

This was a dismal failure for the Conservatives but the result is a relatively good sign for liberals. I feared that Theresa May’s conservative-tinged anti-market, anti-human rights, authoritarian corporatism was exactly what centrist voters would prefer. It turns that Cameron’s more liberal conservativism actually won more seats. Not only is an outward-looking liberalism correct, de-emphasizing it turns out not be a popular move after all.

Without a majority, the Conservatives need to form a coalition or come to an informal agreement with another party. This seems likely impossible with Labour, the Scottish Nationalists or the Liberal Democrats who have all campaigned heavily against the Conservatives and disagree on key issues, such as whether Britain should leave the European Union at all. This leaves the DUP.

In terms of ideology, the DUP is far to the right of most British Conservatives. Their opposition to gay marriage, abortion, and occasional support for teaching creationism, means that they have more in common with some Republican Christian groups in the United States than the secular mainstream in the rest of the United Kingdom. Historically, at least, they have links with pro-unionist paramilitaries that have terrorized Irish Catholic separatists.

There is, however, one way in which the DUP are comparatively moderate. While content with the UK leaving the European Union, they want to keep the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (an EU member) open. Closing it would reduce critical cross-border trade with an economically dynamic neighbor and re-ignite violent tensions between the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland.

How could this be achieved? Leaving the EU while keeping a relatively open trading and immigration relationship is similar to the so-called Norway Option. Norway is within the single market but can exempt itself from many parts of EU law. In return, it has no direct representation in EU institutions. If the EU could accept such an arrangement, then the DUP may be able to make Conservatives commit to it.

Of course, the DUP will extract other perks from their major partners as part of any deal. But their social policy preferences are so far to the right of people in England, Wales and Scotland that this will hopefully have to take the form of fiscal subsidies to their home region (economically damaging but could at least avoid infringing civil liberties).

It might seem paradoxical that an extreme party may have a moderating influence on overall policy. However, social choice theory suggests that democratic processes do not aggregate voter, or legislator, preferences in a straightforward way. Because preferences exist along multiple dimensions, they are neither additive nor linear. This can produce perverse and chaotic outcomes, but it can also generate valuable bargains between otherwise opposed parties. In this case, one right-wing party produces an authoritarian Brexit. But two right-wing parties could equal a more liberal outcome.

That’s the theory. Has something like this ever happened in practice? Arguably, Canada is an outstanding example of how a minority party with many internally illiberal policy preferences produces liberal outcomes (see the fascinating Vaubel, 2009, p.25 for the argument). There, the need to placate the separatist movement in Quebec involved leaving more powers to the provinces in general, thus keeping Canada as a whole much more decentralized than Anglo-Canadian preferences alone could have assured. Will the DUP do the same for Britain? We can but hope.

Summing up: the year of irrationality

Brandon says I’ve got one last chance to write his favorite post of the year. But it’s the end of a long semester and I’m brain dead, so I’m just going to free ride on his idea: a year end review. If I were to sum up the theme of this year in a word, that word would be irrational.

After 21 months of god awful presidential campaigning, we were finally left with a classic Kodos vs Kang election. The Democrats were certain that they could put forward any turd sandwich and beat Trump, but they ultimately lost out to populist outrage. Similar themes played out with Brexit, but I don’t know enough to comment.

Irrationality explains the Democrats, the Republicans, and the country as a whole. The world is complex, but big decisions have been made by simple people.

We aren’t equipped to manage the world’s complexity.

We aren’t made to have direct access to The Truth; we’re built to survive, so we get a filtered version of the truth that has tended to keep our ancestors out of trouble long enough to get laid. In other words, what seems sensible to each of us, may or may not be the truth. What we see with our own eyes may not be worth believing. We need more than simple observation to actually ferret out The Truth.

Our imperfect perceptions build on imperfect reasoning faculties to make imperfect folk economics. But what sounds sensible often overlooks important moving parts.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

Only a small minority of the population will ever have a strong grasp on any particularly complex thing. As surely as my mechanic will never become an expert in economics, I will never be able to do any real work on my car. The trouble arises when we expect me or my mechanic to try to run the country. The same logic applies to politicians, whose job (contrary to what your civics teacher thinks) is to get re-elected, not to be a master applied social scientist. (And as awful as democracy is, the alternative is just some other form of political competition… there is no philosopher king.)

But, of course, our imperfect perception and reasoning have gotten us this far. They’ve pulled us out of caves and onto the 100th floor of a skyscraper*. Because in many cases we get good enough feedback to learn a lot about how to accomplish things in our mysterious universe.

We’re limited in what we can do, but sometimes it’s worth trying something. The trouble is, I can do things that benefit me at your expense. And this is especially true in politics (also pollution–what they have in common is hot air!). But it’s not just the politicians who create externalities, it’s the electorate. The costs of my voting to outlaw gravity (the simplest way for me to lose a few pounds) are nil. But when too many of us share the same hare-brained idea, we can do some real harm. And many people share bad ideas that have real consequences.

Voting isn’t the only way to be politically engaged, and we face a similar problem in political discourse in general. A lot of Democrats are being sore losers about this election rather than learning and adapting. Trump promised he would have done the same had he lost. We’re basically doomed to have low-quality political discourse. It’s easy and feels (relatively) good to bemoan that the whole world is going to hell.

We’re facing rational irrationality. Everyone is simply counting on someone else to get their shit together, because each of us individually is more comfortable with our heads firmly up our asses.

It’s a classic tragedy of the commons and it should prompt us to find some way to minimize the harm of our lousy politics. We’ve been getting better at this over the centuries. Democracy means the levers of power can change hands peacefully. Liberalization has entailed extending civil and economic rights to a wider range of people. We need to continue in this vein. More freedom has allowed more peace and prosperity.


So what do we do? I’d argue that we should focus on general rules rather than trying to have flawed voters pick flawed politicians and hope for the best. I don’t mean “make all X following specifications a, b, and c.” I mean, if you’re mad, try and sue someone. We don’t need dense and exploitable regulations. We don’t need new commissions. We just need a way for people to deal with problems as they arise. Mind you, our court system (like the rest of our government) isn’t quite ready for a more sensible world. But we can’t be afraid to be a little Utopian when we’re planning for the long run. But let’s get back to my main point…

We live in an irrational world. And it makes sense that it’s that way; rationality is hard. We can see irrationality all around us, but we see it most where it’s cheapest: politics and Facebook. The trouble is, sometimes little harmless irrational acts add up to cause real harm. Let’s admit we’ve got a problem with irrationality in politics so we can get better.

*Although that’s only literally true in 17 cases.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Madonna offers oral sex for those who vote Hillary Clinton
  2. Trump-inspired ‘pussy’ ad banned in San Francisco subway
  3. The poverty of democracy
  4. The battle for the Arctic
  5. Countries rush for upper hand in Antarctica
  6. Why not world government? (Part 2)
  7. Meet China’s state-approved Muslims
  8. The good, the bad, and the ugly of Somaliland secession

The legacy of autocratic rule in China

What is the long-term legacy of political persecutions? Here I want to present the main findings of my recent research with Melanie Meng Xue (UCLA Anderson). Our research is an attempt to undercover how a legacy of political persecution can shape social capital and civil society by studying imperial China. The full version of the paper is available here.

We know from other research that particular institutions, policies, and events can have a detrimental and long-lasting impact on economic and political outcomes (e.g. Nunn 2011, Voigtländer and Voth, 2012). But it is hard to find a setting where we can study the long-run impact of autocratic institutions. A key feature of autocracy is the use of persecutions to intimidate potential opponents. In our paper, Melanie and I argue that the intensification of imperial autocracy that took place in the High Qing period (1680-1794) provides an ideal setting to study the impact of such persecutions.

Qing China

The High Qing period was one of great political stability, imperial expansion, and internal peace. Economic historians like Bin Wong and Ken Pomeranz have shown that China possessed a flourishing market economy during this period; it experienced Smithian economic growth and a massive demographic expansion. Rulers such as the Kangxi (1661-1722) and Qianlong Emperors (1735-1794) are seen as among the most successful in Chinese history. Nevertheless, as ethnic Manchus, these rulers were extremely sensitive to possible opposition from the Han Chinese. And during this period Qing tightened control over the gentry and implemented a policy of the systematic persecution of dissent. (Figure 1 depicts the Manchu conquest of China.)

The Qing conquest of China

The Literary Inquisitions

The focus of our paper is on the impact of persecutions conducted by Qing China against individuals suspected of expressing disloyalty. We study the impact of these state-orchestrated persecutions on the social fabric of society. This allows us to speak to the kinds of concerns that authors like Hannah Arendt and George Orwell expressed about the long-run impact of totalitarianism in the 20th century.

These persecutions are referred to by historians as ‘literary inquisitions’. Existing scholarship suggests that the resulting fear of persecution elevated the risks facing writers and scholars, and created an atmosphere of oppression and a culture of distrust which deterred intellectuals from playing an active role in society. But these claims have never been systematically investigated. Putting together several unique datasets for historical and modern China, we explore the impact of literary inquisitions on social capital in Qing China and trace its long-run impact on modern China through its effect on cultural values.

Jonathan Spence provides an excellent account of one of the most famous and unusual inquisition cases in his book Treason by the Book

To conduct our analysis, we use data on 88 inquisition cases. We match the victims of each case (there are often multiple victims per case) to their home prefecture. This data is depicted in Figure 1. Since prefectures varied greatly in their economic, social, and political characteristics we conduct our analysis on a matched sample. This ensures that the prefectures “treated” by a literary inquisition are similar in terms of their observables to those we code as “untreated”. As our data is a panel, we are able to exploit variation across time as well as variation in space.

While individuals could be persecuted for a host of reasons, these were all but impossible to anticipate ex ante. Cases were referred to the emperor himself. Frederic Wakeman called this “the institutionalization of Imperial subjectivity.” The standard punishment in such cases was death by Lingchi or (slow slicing) and the enslavement of all one’s immediate relatives. In some cases, however, the guilty party would be executed by beheading. These persecutions aimed to deter opposition to Qing rule by signaling the ability of the Emperor to hunt down all potential critics or opponents of the regime.


The Impact of Literary Inquisitions on Social Capital

We initially focus on the impact of persecution on the short and medium-run using our historical panel. We first examine the effects on the number of notable scholars.  In our preferred specification we find that a literary inquisition reduced the number of notable scholars in a prefecture by 33 percent relative to the sample mean.

We go on to show the effect of persecutions on collective participation among the gentry in China. Our measure of collective participation in civil society is the number of charitable organizations. Charitable organizations played an important role in premodern China providing disaster relief and local public goods such as repairing local roads. They were non-governmental organizations and played an important role alongside the government provision of disaster relief. In our preferred empirical specification, we find that a persecution number of charitable organizations by 38 percent relative to the sample mean.

These results are in keeping with the argument that literary inquisition had a major psychological impact on Chinese society. They are consistent with the rise of “inoffensive” literary subjects during the Qing period that have documented by historians. To reduce the risk of persecution, intellectuals scrupulously avoided activities that could be interpreted as constituting an undermining of Qing rule. Instead they “immersed themselves in the non-subversive “sound learning” and engaged in textual criticism, bibliography, epigraphy, and other innocuous, purely scholarly pursuits” (Wiens, 1969, 16).

The Impact of Literary Inquisitions on 20th Century Outcomes

We go on to examine how the effects of these persecutions can be traced into the 20th century. In particular, we focus on the provision of basic education at the end of Qing dynasty. In late 19th and early 20th century China, there was no centralized governmental provision of primary schools.  Basic education remained the responsibility of the local gentry who ran local schools.

Thus the provision of education at a local level was dependent on the ability of educated individuals to coordinate in the mobilization of resources; this required both cooperation and trust. We therefore hypothesize that if the persecution of intellectuals had a detrimental impact on social capital, it should also have negatively affected the provision of basic education.

We find that among individuals aged over 70 in the 1982 census – hence individuals who were born in the late Qing period – a legacy of a literary inquisition is associated with lower levels of literacy. This reflects the impact of literary inquisition on the voluntary schools provided by the gentry and is not associated with lower enrollment at middle school or high school. We show that result is robust to controlling for selective migration and for the number of death caused by the Cultural Revolution.

Finally, we show that literary inquisitions generated a cultural of political non-participation. Drawing on two datasets of political attitudes – the Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS) and the Chinese Political Compass (CPoC) – we show that individuals in areas in which individuals were targeted during literary inquisitions are both less trusting of government and less interested in political participation.

Finally, we find that individuals in prefectures with a legacy of literary inquisitions are less likely to agree that: “Western-style multi-party systems are not suitable for China” (Q 43.). This suggests that in areas affected by literary inquisitions individuals are also more skeptical of the claims of the Chinese government and more open to considering alternative political systems. Similarly, individuals in affected prefectures are more likely to disagree with the statement that: “Modern China needs to be guided by wisdom of Confucius/Confucian thinking.”

In summary, our analysis suggests that autocratic rule reduced social capital and helped to produce a culture of political quietism in pre-modern China. This has left a legacy that persisted into the 20th century. These findings have implications for China’s current political trajectory. Some scholars anticipate China undergoing a democratic transition as it’s economy develops (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012). Others point to China as an example of “authoritarian resilience.” By showing that a long-history of autocratic rule and political persecutions can produce a culture of political apathy, our results shed light on a further and previously under-explored source of authoritarian resilience.

The right to lose

After a year of being shocked by Trump’s behavior, people are now finally out of meaningful things to be upset about. We’re down to “Trump isn’t going to accept the results if he loses?!” The tone on the FiveThirtyEight elections podcast (mostly from Clare Malone) was “How dare he?! He must accept the outcome of the election!”

He’s not going to storm the White House, he’s just going to be a sore loser. Why, at this point, should we expect him to lose gracefully? What benefit would that give anyone? He’s not weakening institutions, just being a big baby. We shouldn’t be surprised!

I’m not saying that Trump gets an out because he’s exceptional. I’ve got two related points: 1) Good deeds lose their meaning if they weren’t done by choice. We don’t have to celebrate him being a sore loser, but we shouldn’t try to stop him (whatever that might mean) either. 2) If you aren’t free to be wrong, you aren’t free. Yes, democracy isn’t actually about freedom, but we are still trying to be a free country.

Liberals and Conservatives should stop talking about guns

I’ve come across some great journalism on guns and gun control recently. Here’s the key points:

  • Most gun deaths are suicides. Many of these suicides would have happened were a gun not available, but many of them wouldn’t have.
  • Most gun homicides mostly affect young black men.
  • More guns does not equal less crime.
  • Gun accidents affect very few people.
  • Cost-benefit analysis would likely suggest improving safety other places would save more lives, given limited budgets. (e.g. changing attitudes on vaccinations)

A basic theme seems to be that government can do little on the margin to reduce gun deaths. Crime rates are uncorrelated with number of guns, or regulations in place. Upright citizens do not turn into Rambo when they see dastardly criminals mug little old ladies. Guns are actually sort of boring in practice.

It’s possible that the government could affect gun deaths with a comprehensive gun control policy backed by public opinion (the Australian option). But it would likely cost so much that you’d lose the budget and/or political capital to enact other reforms that would be less controversial and save more lives.

We don’t torture people in America, Todd. That’s called one of the amendments.

What about the second amendment? The real argument for the second amendment is that having armed Americans around is pretty practical in general, but also important to prevent tyranny. In practice, guns aren’t half as practical, in terms of personal or national defense as back then. The capability of America’s military is so extraordinary that American’s don’t stand a chance of fighting a corrupt American government.

Let’s acknowledge that the Bill of Rights, though surely important, is ultimately a piece of paper that is neither sacrosanct nor a practical guarantee of anything in particular. The founders were brilliant, but fallible. The constitution is frequently ignored by governments, and citizens often do little to discipline such governments. Second amendment advocacy is mostly a symbolic gesture that probably comes at the expense of using political capital to protect the fourth amendment (the one that should protect you when the government decides to take your guns, cold dead fingers or no).


There are weak arguments to made in favor of gun control and weak arguments to be made in favor of protecting the second amendment. But mostly this whole debate seems like a distraction from more important issues. Symbolically valuable? Sure, but at what cost? The cost is the political will to make a bigger difference somewhere else. There are more valuable freedoms to protect, better interventions to pursue, and more lives to be saved.