It’s been a heck of a year. Thanks for plugging along with Notes On Liberty. Like the world around me, NOL keeps getting better and better. Traffic in 2019 came from all over the place, but the usual suspects didn’t disappoint: the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, India, and Australia (in that order) supplied the most readers, again.
As far as most popular posts, I’ll list the top 10 below, but such a list doesn’t do justice to NOL and the Notewriters’ contribution to the Great Conversation, nor will the list reflect the fact that some of NOL‘s classic pieces from years ago were also popular again.
Nick’s “One weird old tax could slash wealth inequality (NIMBYs, don’t click!)” was in the top ten for most of this year, and his posts on John Rawls, The Joker film, Dominic Cummings, and the UK’s pornographer & puritan coalition are all worth reading again (and again). The Financial Times, RealClearPolicy, 3 Quarks Daily, and RealClearWorld all featured Nick’s stuff throughout 2019.
Joakim had a banner year at NOL, and four of his posts made the top 10. He got love from the left, right, and everything in between this year. “Elite Anxiety: Paul Collier’s ‘Future of Capitalism’” (#9), “In Defense of Not Having a Clue” (#8), and “You’re Not Worth My Time” (#7) all caused havoc on the internet and in coffee shops around the world. Joakim’s piece on Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (#2) broke – no shattered – NOL‘s records. Aside from shattering NOL‘s records, Joakim also had excellent stuff on financial history, Richard Davies, and Nassim Taleb. He is also beginning to bud as a cultural commentator, too, as you can probably tell from his sporadic notes on opinions. Joakim wants a more rational, more internationalist, and more skeptical world to live in. He’s doing everything he can to make that happen. And don’t forget this one: “Economists, Economic History, and Theory.”
Tridivesh had an excellent third year at NOL. His most popular piece was “Italy and the Belt and Road Initiative,” and most of his other notes have been featured on RealClearWorld‘s front page. Tridivesh has also been working with me behind the scenes to unveil a new feature at NOL in 2020, and I couldn’t be more humbled about working with him.
Bill had a slower year here at NOL, as he’s been working in the real world, but he still managed to put out some bangers. “Epistemological anarchism to anarchism” kicked off a Feyerabendian buzz at NOL, and he put together well-argued pieces on psychedelics, abortion, and the alt-right. His short 2017 note on left-libertarianism has quietly become a NOL classic.
Mary had a phenomenal year at NOL, which was capped off with some love from RealClearPolicy for her “Contempt for Capitalism” piece. She kicked off the year with a sharp piece on semiotics in national dialogue, before then producing a four-part essay on bourgeois culture. Mary also savaged privileged hypocrisy and took a cultural tour through the early 20th century. Oh, and she did all this while doing doctoral work at Oxford. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with in 2020.
Aris’ debut year at NOL was phenomenal. Reread “Rawls, Antigone and the tragic irony of norms” and you’ll know what I’m talking about. I am looking forward to Dr Trantidis’ first full year at NOL in 2020.
Rick continues to be my favorite blogger. His pieces on pollution taxes (here and here) stirred up the libertarian faithful, and he is at his Niskanenian best on bullshit jobs and property rights. His notes on Paul Feyerabend, which I hope he’ll continue throughout 2020, were the centerpiece of NOL‘s spontaneity this year.
Vincent only had two posts at NOL in 2019, but boy were they good: “Interwar US inequality data are deeply flawed” and “Not all GDP measurement errors are greater than zero!” Dr Geloso focused most of his time on publishing academic work.
Alexander instituted the “Sunday Poetry” series at NOL this year and I couldn’t be happier about it. I look forward to reading NOL every day, but especially on Sundays now thanks to his new series. Alex also put out the popular essay “Libertarianism and Neoliberalism – A difference that matters?” (#10), which I suspect will one day grow to be a classic. That wasn’t all. Alex was the author of a number of my personal faves at NOL this year, including pieces about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, constructivism in international relations (part 1 and part 2), and some of the more difficult challenges facing diplomacy today.
Edwin ground out a number of posts in 2019 and, true to character, they challenged orthodoxy and widely-held (by libertarians) opinions. He said “no” to military intervention in Venezuela, though not for the reasons you may think, and that free immigration cannot be classified as a right under classical liberalism. He also poured cold water on Hong Kong’s protests and recommended some good reads on various topics (namely, Robert Nozick and The Troubles). Edwin has several essays on liberalism at NOL that are now bona fide classics.
Federico produced a number of longform essays this year, including “Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders” and “Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives” (the latter went on to be featured in the Financial Times and led to at least one formal talk on the subject in Buenos Aires). He also contributed to NOL‘s longstanding position as a bulwark against libertarian dogma with “There is no such thing as a sunk cost fallacy.”
Jacques had a number of hits this year, including “Poverty Under Democratic Socialism” and “Mass shootings in perspective.” His notes on the problems with higher education, aka the university system, also garnered plenty of eyeballs.
Michelangelo, Lode, Zak, and Shree were all working on their PhDs this year, so we didn’t hear from them much, if at all. Hopefully, 2020 will give them a bit more freedom to expand their thoughts. Lucas was not able to contribute anything this year either, but I am confident that 2020 will be the year he reenters the public fray.
Mark spent the year promoting his new book (co-authored by Noel Johnson) Persecution & Toleration. Out of this work arose one of the more popular posts at NOL earlier in the year: “The Institutional Foundations of Antisemitism.” Hopefully Mark will have a little less on his plate in 2020, so he can hang out at NOL more often.
Derrill’s “Romance Econometrics” generated buzz in the left-wing econ blogosphere, and his “Watson my mind today” series began to take flight in 2019. Dr Watson is a true teacher, and I am hoping 2020 is the year he can start dedicating more time to the NOL project, first with his “Watson my mind today” series and second with more insights into thinking like an economist.
Kevin’s “Hyperinflation and trust in ancient Rome” (#6) took the internet by storm, and his 2017 posts on paradoxical geniuses and the deleted slavery clause in the US constitution both received renewed and much deserved interest. But it was his “The Myth of the Nazi War Machine” (#1) that catapulted NOL into its best year yet. I have no idea what Kevin will write about in 2020, but I do know that it’ll be great stuff.
Bruno, one of NOL’s most consistent bloggers and one of its two representatives from Brazil, did not disappoint. His “Liberalism in International Relations” did exceptionally well, as did his post on the differences between conservatives, liberals, and libertarians. Bruno also pitched in on Brazilian politics and Christianity as a global and political phenomenon. His postmodernism posts from years past continue to do well.
Andrei, after several years of gentle prodding, finally got on the board at NOL and his thoughts on Foucault and his libertarian temptation late in life (#5) did much better than predicted. I am hoping to get him more involved in 2020. You can do your part by engaging him in the ‘comments’ threads.
Chhay Lin kept us all abreast of the situation in Hong Kong this year. Ash honed in on housing economics, Barry chimed in on EU elections, and Adrián teased us all in January with his “Selective Moral Argumentation.” Hopefully these four can find a way to fire on all cylinders at NOL in 2020, because they have a lot of cool stuff on their minds (including, but not limited to, bitcoin, language, elections in dictatorships, literature, and YIMBYism).
Ethan crushed it this year, with most of his posts ending up on the front page of RealClearPolicy. More importantly, though, was his commitment to the Tocquevillian idea that lawyers are responsible for education in democratic societies. For that, I am grateful, and I hope he can continue the pace he set during the first half of the year. His most popular piece, by the way, was “Spaghetti Monsters and Free Exercise.” Read it again!
I had a good year here, too. My pieces on federation (#3) and American literature (#4) did waaaaaay better than expected, and my nightcaps continue to pick up readers and push the conversation. I launched the “Be Our Guest” feature here at NOL, too, and it has been a mild success.
Thank you, readers, for a great 2019 and I hope you stick around for what’s in store during 2020. It might be good, it might be bad, and it might be ugly, but isn’t that what spontaneous thoughts on a humble creed are all about? Keep leaving comments, too. The conversation can’t move (forward or backward) without your voice.
- If you want to be welcome, do not demand entry Natalie Solent, Samizdata
- US regionalism and nationalism: the case of the Midwest Halvorson & Reno, Fieldsites
- Heterogeneous drivers of heterogeneous populism Colantone & Stanig, VoxEU
- How talk of witches stirs emotions in Nigeria Adaobi Nwaubani, BBC
I hope y’all had a chance to check out Ussama Makdisi’s essay on Ottoman cosmopolitanism from one of the nightcaps a few days back. It was excellent, and serves as good complement to Barry’s work on the Ottoman Empire here at NOL.
It’s especially good for a few reasons. First, it has a useful explanation of the mandate system that London and Paris experimented with. Second, it’s comparative and brings in lots of different modes of governance. Third, there is an interesting discussing about citizenship (consult NOL for more on citizenship, too). Lastly, it explains well why the Arab world continues to wallow in extreme inequality and authoritarianism.
Makdisi represents a shift in thinking in Arab circles away from victimization and towards self-determination and responsibility: no longer are the French and British (and Jews) to be reviled and blamed for everything that’s wrong with the Middle East. There is a shift towards internationalist thinking. The Americans now play a positive role in what could have been (and still might be) a freer Middle East. The British and French have factions now and some of them were supportive of Arab voices, some of them not. Arab scholars are finally benefiting from the American university educational system, probably because there are so many Arabs studying in the US now.
Makdisi’s piece is not a libertarian interpretation, but it’s a start.
In the previous part of this three-part review, I looked at Davies’ first subsection (“Survival”) where he ventured to some of the most secluded and extreme places of the world – a maximum security prison, a refugee camp, a tsunami disaster – and found thriving markets. Not in that pejorative and predatory way markets are usually denounced by their opponents, but in a cooperative, resilient and fascinating way.
In this second part, subtitled “The Economics of Lost Potential”, Davies brings us on a journey of extreme places where markets did not deliver this desirable escape from exceptionally restrictive circumstances.
There might be many reasons for why Extreme Economies has become a widely read and praised book. Beyond the vivid characters and fascinating environments described by Davies, this swinging between opposing perspectives is certainly one. Whether your priors are to oppose markets or to favour them, there is something here for you. Davies isn’t “judgy” or “preachy” and the story comes off as more balanced because of it.
If the previous section showed how markets flourish and solve problems even under the most strained conditions, this section shows how they don’t.
We first venture to the Darien Gap, the 160-kilometre dense rainforest that separates the northern and southern sections of the Pan-American Highway – an otherwise unbroken road from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina.
To a student of financial history, “Darien” brings up William Paterson’s miserable Company of Scotland scheme in the 1690s; trying to make Scotland great (again?), the scheme raised a large share of scarce Scottish capital and spectacularly squandered it on trying to build a colony halfway around the world. In the first chapter of subsection ‘Failure’, Davies skilfully recounts the Darien Disaster, “Scotland’s greatest economic catastrophe” (p. 114).
Judging from Davies’ ventures into the jungle bordering Panama and Colombia, it wouldn’t be a far cry to call the present state of affairs a similar economic catastrophe. Rather than failed colonies, the failed potential of Darien lies elsewhere: its environmental challenges coupled with the trade and markets that failed to emerge despite readily available mutual gains for trade.
A stunning landscape of mile after mile filled with rainforests and rivers and the occasional lush farmland, the people of the Gap make a living through extracting what the land provides. If you’re deep into environmentalism, you might even say unsustainably so. Davies’ point is to illustrate a more well-known economic problem: when unowned or communally owned resources suffer from the tragedy of the commons – the tendency is for such resources to be overexploited and ultimately destroyed.
Whether through logging companies exceeding their quotas or locals chopping trees out of desperation to survive, the story in Darien is altogether conventional. At the edge of the Gap, “the people of Yaviza do what they can. [T]he environment is an asset, and for many people living in Yaviza getting by is only possible by chipping a bit off a selling it” (p. 120).
What’s striking here is that in times of need (as Davies himself showed in the chapter on Aceh) that’s exactly what we want assets to do! We can show this in down-to-earth, real-world examples like Acehnese women drawing on their jewellery as emergency savings, or in formal economic models such as the C-CAPM, the Consumption Capital Asset Pricing Model, familiar to every business and finance student.
On a much cruder level: if the mere survival of some of the poorest people on earth depend on chopping down precious trees – well, precious to far-away Westerners, anyway – accusing those people of destroying our shared environment is mind-blowingly daft. To rationalise that equation, you have to put a very large value on turtles and trees, and a very small value on human life.
Elinor Ostrom, whose Nobel Prize in economics was awarded to her work on common pool resources, emphasised three ways to solve tragedies of the commons: clear boundaries (i.e. individual property rights); regular communal meetings such that members can voice opinions and amicably resolve conflicts; a stable population so that reputation matters and we can socially police deviant behaviour (p. 125).
The Darien Gap has none of those. Property rights are routinely ignored; the forest includes many different populations (indigenous tribes, farmers, ex-FARC fugitives, illegal immigrants); and those populations fluctuate a lot, meaning that most interactions are one-shot games where reputation becomes useless. End result: extensive, illegal, unsustainable logging mixed with armed strangers.
What I can’t quite wrap my head around is that almost all (market and non-market) interactions that all of us have daily are with strangers: the barista, the people we walk past on the street, the new client you just met or the customer support agent you just talked to. All of them are strangers. A large share of interactions with other humans in the last few centuries of human societies have been one-offs, yet very few of them have spiral into the lawlessness that Davies describes in Darien. Be it the Leviathan, secure property rights, the doux commerce thesis or some wider institutional or cultural reason, but the failure of Darien to establish well-functioning formal and informal markets of the kind we saw in the book’s first part are intriguing.
While a fascinating chapter, it might also be Davies’ worst chapter, factually speaking. He claims, mistakenly, that “globally, deforestation continues apace with 2016 the worst year on record for tree loss”. On the contrary, we’re approaching global zero net deforestation. More specifically, Davies claims that Colombia and Panama are particularly at risk here, with rates deforestation “increased sharply”. A quick look through UN’s Global Forest Resource Assessment report (latest figures from 2015), these two countries are indeed chopping down their forests – but by less than any other time period on record. Moreover, the Colombian net deforestation rate of 0.05% per year is easily exceeded by a number of countries; not even Panama’s dismal 0.3%/year (worse than the Brazilian Amazon) is particularly high in a global or historical perspective.
To make matters worse, the figure on p. 158 titled “The World’s Disappearing Tropics” might win an award for the most misleading graph of the year: by making the bars cumulative and downplaying the annual deforestation, it suggests that the forests are rapidly disappearing. The only comparison to relevant numbers (remember, Rosling teaches us to Always Be Comparing Our Numbers) is the tired “football pitches”. That’s hugely misleading. A vast amount of football pitches cleared in the Amazon this year still only amounted to 0.2% of the Brazilian Amazon; in other words, Brazilians could keep chopping down trees for a few good decades without making much of a dent to that vast rainforest.
Moreover, the only reference point we’re given is that over a period of almost twenty years, an area the size of France has been deforested – but that’s equivalent to no more than one-tenth of only the Amazon forest, and the tropics have many more forested areas than that. The graph aims to intimidate us with ever-rising bars signalling the loss of forests; with some proper numbers and further examination it doesn’t seem very bad at all. On the contrary, locals (and yes, international logging companies) use the assets that nature has endowed them with – what’s so wrong with that?
Finally, the “missing market” that Davies observes in the Gap involves countless of illegal immigrants from around the world that trek through the jungles in search of a better life in the U.S. We have cash-rich Indians, willing to pay people to guide them through unknown and dangerous terrain, and local tribes and farmers and ex-FARC members with such knowledge looking for income; setting up a trade between them ought to be elementary.
Instead, it’s not: “in this place of flux,” writes Davies, “reputation does not matter, interactions are one-offs” (p. 137). Overturning the market quip that “trading is cheaper than raiding”, in the Darien Gap raiding is cheaper than trading. One might of course object that the failures of rich countries to offer more liberal immigration rules for people willing to go this far to get there illegally is hardly a market failure – but a failure of government regulation and incompetent bureaucracies.
Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
A 12-million people city sprawled on the banks of the Congo river, so unknown to Westerners that most of us couldn’t place it on a map. Democratic Republic of the Congo, the country with more people in extreme poverty than any other, is frequently described as “rich”. Or, with Davies’ euphemism “unrivalled potential” (p. 143).
Congo, the argument goes, has “diamonds, tin and other rare metals, the world’s second-largest rainforest and a river whose flow is second only to the Amazon. [it] shares a time zone with Paris [and the] population is young and growing”. It is one of the poorest countries but “should be one of the richest” (p. 143).
No, no and no. Before any other consideration of the remarkable day-to-day trading and corruption that Davies’ interview subjects describe, this mistaken idea about wealth must be straightened out. Wealth isn’t what could be if this or that major obstacle wasn’t in the way (Am I secretly a great singer, if I could only overcome the pesky fact that I have a voice unsuited for singing and lack practice?). This is almost tautological; what we mean by a country being poor is that it cannot overcome obstacles to wealth.
All wealth has to be created; humanity’s default position is extreme poverty.
And natural resources do not equate to wealth – there is even more support suggesting the opposite – in which case Japan and Singapore ought to be poor and Venezuela and DRC rich. My own sassy musings are still largely correct:
As Mises taught us half a century ago – and Julian Simon more recently – wealth (or even ‘goods’ or ‘commodities’ or ‘services’) are not the physical existence of those objects somewhere in the ground, but the satisfaction and valuation derived by the human mind. The object itself is only a means to whatever end the actor has in mind. Therefore, a “resource” is not the physical oil in the ground or the tons of iron ore in the Australian outback, but the ability of Human Imagination and Ingenuity to use those for his or her goals. After all, before humans learned to harnish the beautiful power of oil into heat, combustion engines and industrial production, it was nothing but a slimy, goe-y liquid in the ground, annoying our farmers. Nothing about its physical appearance changed over the centuries, but the mental abilities and industrial knowledge of human beings to use it for our purposes did.
Still, “modern Kinshasa is a disaster everyone should know about” (p. 172). No country has done worse in terms of GDP/capita since the 1960s. And we don’t have to go far to figure out at least part of the reason: the first rule of Kinshasa, says one of Davies’ interviewees, is corruption (p. 145). Everyone “steals a little for themselves as the funds pass through their hands, and if you pay in at the bottom of the pyramid there are hundreds of low-level tax officials competing to claim your cash.” (p. 185). Mobutu, the country’s long-time dictator, apparently said “if you want to steal, steal a little in a nice way” (p. 159).
Whether small stallholders at gigantic market or supermarket-owning tycoons, workers or university professors, pop-up sellers or police officers, everyone in Kinshasa uses every opportunity they can to extract a little rent for themselves – out of desperation more than malice. And everyone hates it: “The Kinoise”, writes Davies, “understand that these things should not happen, but recognize that their city’s economy demands a more flexible moral code.” (p. 168).
Interestingly enough, DMC is not a country whose state capacity is insufficient; it’s not a “failed state”, an “absent or passive” government whose cities are filled with “decaying official buildings and unfilled civil-service positions.” (p. 148). On the contrary:
The government thrives, with boulevards lined with the offices of countless ministries thronged by thousands of functionaries at knocking-off time. The Congolese state is active but parasitic, a corruption superstructure that often works directly against the interests of its people.
Poorly-paid police officers set up arbitrary roadblocks and extract bribes. Teachers demand a little something before allowing their pupils to pass. Restaurant owners serve their best food to their civil service regulators, free of charge, to even stay in business. Consequently, despite an incredibly resilient and innovative populace, “these innovative strategies are ultimately economic distortion reflecting time spent inventing ways to avoid tax collectors, rather than driving passengers or selling to customers” (p. 162).
But, like the ingenious monetary system of Louisiana prisons, the most fascinating aspect of Kinshasa’s economy is its use of money. Arbitrage traders head across the river to Brazaville in neighbouring Republic of the Congo equipped with dollars which they swap for CFA – the currency of six central African countries, successfully pegged to the euro. With ‘cefa’ they buy goods at Brazaville prices, goods they bring back over the river and undercut exorbitant Kinshasa prices. Selling in volatile and unstable Congolese francs carries risk, so Kinshasa’s streets are littered with currency traders offering dollars – at bid-ask spreads of less than 2%, comparing favourably with well-established Western currency markets. Before most transactions, Kinoise stop by an exchange trader sitting outside restaurants or malls, to acquire some Congolese francs with which to pay. Almost, almost dollarisation.
In Kinshasa, people rely on illegal trading as a safety net when personal disaster strikes or the state’s required bribes become too extortionary. Davies’ point is a convincing one, that “a town, city or country can get stuck in a rut and stay there” (p. 174).
Judging from his venture into Kinshasa, it’s difficult to blame markets for that. I don’t believe I’m invoking a No True Scotsman fallacies by saying that a market whose participants spent half their time avoiding public officials and the other half bribing them to avoid arbitrarily made-up rules, is pretty far from a free market.
Believing the opposite is also silly – that markets and mutual gains from trade can overcome any obstacles placed before them. Governments, culture or institutions have power to completely eradicate the beneficial outcomes of markets – Kinshasa’s extreme poverty attests to that.
Glasgow, the last part of ‘Failure’, is discussed in a separate post.