The nonexistent moral decay of the west

Humankind’s struggle with moral is of course nothing new, it rather inherent to our nature to revolt against the meaningless world and the manmade system of reason. Furthermore, moral values vary over a specific period of time swinging from rather high moral standards to very low ones. Regarding morality as an abstract compass guiding our thought, goals and behaviour, Economist, in general, are not known for dealing in depth with the metaphysical reason behind our behaviour yet they explore and explain human actions through our surrounding incentives, which also structure and direct our action. Economist such as Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson or William J. Baumol have explored these changes in human behaviour through changing incentive structures thoroughgoingly.

However, folks mourning the moral decline of today’s west often fail to provide concrete evidence for their argument. They either cherry-pick events or legislatures to infer a macro trend inductively or they lose themselves in difficult language trying to somehow save their argument by making it incomprehensible. I cannot help feeling that mourning the moral decay of the west has somehow become a shibboleth for eloquently expressing the “Things used to be way better back then” narrative. However, I admit that there were probably a couple of sociological papers who have covered this issue very well which I am unaware of. Contrary, the public debate was dominated by a few grumpy intellectuals holding the above-named attitude. I was recently provided with a very concrete set of indicators to measure moral decline while digging through Samuel P. Huntington’s infamous classic “The clash of civilization” from 1996. He states that there are five main criteria which indicate the ongoing decline of moral values in the West. [1]

After being provided with a concrete framework to quantify the moral decline of the west, I was keen to see how the moral decline of the west has developed in the 20 years since the book has first been published in 1996. Although I also take issue with some of these indicators to measure moral decline, I avoid any normative judgement in the first part and just look at their development over time. Furthermore, since Samuelson himself mostly takes data from the USA representing the West, I might as well do so too for the sake of simplicity. So, let’s see what happened to moral values in the West in the last years by checking each of Huntington’s indicator one by one.

1. Increasing antisocial behaviour such as acts of crime, drug use and general violence

Apart from the global long-term trend of declining homicides, we can also observe a recent downward trend in the reported violent crime rate since 1990 in the USA. Scholars agree that the crime rate is in an extreme decline. Expanding the realm towards Europe, you will see similar results (see here).

1Source: Statista

Despite these trends, the public (as well as some intellectuals as well I assume) vastly still holds a distorted perception of the crime rate. The sharp decline in actual crimes strongly contradicts the fact that a majority of the people still uphold the myth of increasing crime rates.

2

Source: Pew Research Center

Regarding drug use in the USA, it is important to mention that the absolute amount of illicit drugs consumed has slightly gone up since 1990. This development is mostly driven by an increasing  consumption of marijuana: Use of most drugs other than marijuana has stabilized over the past decade or has declined., states the National Institute on drug abuse in 2015.

Contrary, the number of deadly injections are increasing. However, the share of the population with drug use disorders has remained on the same level of 5.3% over the last 20 years.

2. Decay of the family resulting in increasing divorce rates, teenage motherhood and single parents

It is hard to measure the “Decay of the family” itself. Luckily, Huntington further concretizes his claim by naming some of the measurable effects. There is nothing much to do to refute these statement except for looking at the following graphs.

a) Firstly, the divorce rate is sharply declining.

3

Source: Statista

b) Second, teenage pregnancy rates are also dropping since 1990.

4Source: National Vita Statistics Report

c) Third, the number of Americans living in single parenthood is not increasing drastically since 1990.

5Source: Statista

I often take issue when (especially conservative) scholars mourn the declining importance of family. Even if there are certain indicators which would back up Huntington’s claims, he does not name them himself. While it is indeed true that “family” as an institution is undergoing changes, there is no evidence (at least named by Huntington) to back up the claim of a decline of its importance.

3. Declining “social capital” and voluntarism leading to less trust.

It is indeed true, that the adult volunteering rate declined from early 2000 to 2016 from 27.4% to 24.9%. Interestingly, it recently bounced back to a new high in 2018, hitting the 30% target. Really the only point where one must agree to Huntington’s claim is the decrease of interpersonal trust as well as trust in public institutions. This trend is indeed very worrisome considering that trust is a major factor for flourishing societies.

4. The decline in work ethic

The research here is a little bit tricky and points in both directions. Although there has been wide academic coverage of the millennial work ethic scholars could not find a consensus on this issue. Its is especially difficult to extract the generational influence from other key determinants of work ethic, such as position or age. Academics warn to mistake the ever-ongoing conflict between young vs. old with the Boomer vs. Millenial conflict. I haven’t settled my opinion on this one. These Articles from Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today provide a good overview of both sides of the medal.

5. Less general interest in Education

This indicator is particularly interesting for me because as a member of the 90’ generation, I have experienced quite the opposite in Germany. But let’s have a look at the data.

Despite ranking only in the middle in a global country comparison, the US students still made a huge leap in terms of maths and reading proficiency, which only slowed down in 2015:

6

Source: Pew Research Center

Furthermore, the overall educational level of the USA continues to rise, resulting in the fact that  “the percentage of the American population age 25 and older that completed high school or higher levels of education reached 90% [for the first time ] in 2017.” Contrary, there are still major differences when one looks at features like race or parent household (See here), but the overall trajectory of the educational level is sloping upwards.

What do these criteria measure?

As you can see, there is little to no evidence to empirically back up the claim of western moral decay. Furthermore, while many case studies have shown that lack of interpersonal trust, lack of education or a declining work ethic can pose a great threat to society, I refuse to see a connection (a no known to me study disproves me here) between (recreational) drugs consumption, alternative family models, increasing hedonism and moral decline. Thus I believe that many advocates of the moral decay theory regard it as an opportunity to despise developments they personally do not like. I do not imply that everyone arguing for the moral decline of the west is unaware of the global macro-trends which heavily improved our life, but I highly doubt their assumption, that we are currently in a short-to-medium term “moral recession”. Even when one upholds the very conservative statements such as drug consumption adding to moral decline, is hard to argue that we are currently witnessing a moral decay of the west. Contrary, It may be true that Huntington has observed something different in the period before publishing “The clash of civilization” in 1996. Of course, I myself witness the ongoing battle against norms on the increasing hostility towards the intellectual enemy in the west, but one should always keep in mind the bigger picture. Our world is getting better – in the long- and in the short-run; There is no such thing as a moral decline of the West.


[1] Huntington, Samuel P. (2011): Kampf der Kulturen. Die Neugestaltung der Weltpolitik im 21. Jahrhundert. Vollst. Taschenbuchausg., 8. Aufl. München: Goldmann (Goldmann, 15190). P. 500

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 8): Conclusion

Far from the custom of assigning to cultural factors, or educational, or geographic or relative to the particular constitution of the ruling elites, the three works reviewed – Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, by Douglass C. North; The Elusive Quest for Growth, by William Easterly and Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson, state an explanation of the progress and decline of nations articulated on abstract incentives, which serve as a structure in which frame the rational agent makes his choices. The four authors have a common reference to methodological individualism, but such an individual agent does not make decisions in a vacuum, but inserted within a framework of incentives.

That such incentives, to act as points of reference for individual action, should materialize historically, does not mean that such conditions for action come from a particular circumstance of time and place, but that they depend on an abstract structure that relates to different terms and that is present in every phenomenon of human interaction.

To finish, it is worth referring to the conclusions reached by North in his referenced work: the case of the two successive Spanish Americas, the Habsburg and the Bourbons. The first extended from the discovery and colonization of America to the early eighteenth century. The viceroyalties of America enjoyed great political autonomy – Spanish immigration had been little and a “Creole” elite had developed – and they were closed to trade, which was limited to the “export” of gold to Spain. With the arrival of the Bourbons at the beginning of the 18th century and the implementation of their Reforms – which from the economic point of view were a resounding success both in Spain and in America – the relationship was reversed: political power passed into the hands of the “Peninsular Spaniards” and an opening of a more fluid trade between the metropolis and its colonies was launched. North explains that the independence movements could be successful due to a transitory alliance between the sectors that wanted to return to the Habsburg system and those who wanted to deepen the modernizing and free-market impulse of the Bourbons. Once achieved independence, these two currents came into conflict, which, according to the author, would extend until today.

According to North’s thesis on Spanish America, there would be two political patterns in tension: on the one hand, an elitist politician who is open to the economy and on the other a “popular” current that is traditionally protectionist. In the second half of the 19th century, success belonged to the “Bourbon pattern” and, in the 20th Century, the “Habsburg pattern” prevailed. In terms of Acemoglu & Robinson, it would be the dispute between a combination of extractive political institutions with inclusive economic institutions and another combination of inclusive political institutions with extractive economic institutions. Of course, in practice, moments of extractive political and economic institutions were also known, as well as short-lived experiences of inclusive institutions, both politically and economically.

The notion of polarized societies used by Easterly can serve as a way to deepen this analysis. It is much clearer to find problems of countries with societies divided into distant and dissimilar regions, in which the policy is expressly articulated as a function of tribes or ethnic groups and which the dispute over public policies expressly favors or harms a another ethnic group. However, as it has been stated, it is not ethnicity or nationality that determines the low economic and institutional performance of a country, but the polarization structure itself, whatever the functions in which such polarization is expressed (language, religion, ethnicity, ideology, etc.). Understanding these latter is fundamental to be able to provide a common thread for a principle of solution.

Just as on the political level an express agreement can be reached on the way to choose who exercises public power and under what conditions, Easterly states a series of conditions related to economic institutions whose agreement would allow for economic growth, regardless of the region, culture, or education of the ruling class of each country. Throughout The Elusive Quest for Growth you can find mentioned to free trade as a main factor of progress, monetary stability and exchange freedom as examples of clear and equitable rules, a state that participates in large infrastructure works but that refrain from arbitrating in the distribution of economic rents among various groups, a low level of public indebtedness, stability in property rights and an independent justice that allows individuals to innovate and save, as well as support programs and incentives to members of society who are immersed in poverty traps.

As mentioned, many times the policy -especially when, in the terms of Acemoglu & Robinson, it is inclusive- consists of the composition of interests of various kinds for the purpose of articulating a government program. From the work of the authors commented here, it can be inferred that, just as there is an agreement on the political plane regarding the rules of the democratic game, which include periodic elections, limited re-elections and division of powers, among others, there should also be a consensus in a body of economic institutions that should be left out of political negotiation, so that economic policy is as neutral as possible against the conflicting interests of which a country with a polarized society is composed.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 7, and here is the entire, Longform Essay.]

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 7): Breaking the mold

This role of entrepreneurs also depends on an abstract characteristic of technological knowledge: it works in a manner contrary to that of most goods, since it is more productive to the extent that it is more widespread in the population. This characteristic of the abstract nature of technological knowledge is related to the phenomenon of the combination of skills (matching of skills): the negative side of creative destruction lies in substitution phenomena (a computer program of inventory management increases the productivity of work saving the salaries of the army of employees who used to carry them with pencil and paper), but the positive side comes from the phenomena of complementarity.

As William Easterly exemplifies, the cardiac surgeon will be more productive in a first world hospital, where he will have specialized nurses, other qualified doctors like him, a sophisticated system of hospital administration, and so on, being the only cardiac surgeon in a hospital. city ​​of the third world, where it does not have professionalized nurses, nor the help of other medical colleagues, working in a hospital in which he himself has to deal with administrative issues. If there were only substitution relations, it would be convenient for a doctor to practice his profession in the most remote place possible. However, as relations of complementarity of knowledge exponentially increase the productivity of the professionals involved, the doctor will find it more convenient to practice in a health center that has the largest number of doctors and paramedics possible.

The latter does lead to the phenomenon of “traps”: any rational agent, who maximizes the utility of their choices will be discouraged to deepen their studies if they perceive that they can not give any use to their education. There are the cases in which a person discovers that in his country there is no technology or the necessary number of professionals to develop a specific activity, or that, existing, you will find prohibited the exercise of their profession based on restrictions regarding their race, caste, social class, sex, etc. Since, rationally, a person who is included in a particular group under which he will be found forbidden or will be hindered the exercise of his profession, he will find as the most rational of their alternatives to abandon their studies, so that their chances of progress will no longer be limited only by legal or social barriers, but because of their lack of suitability for high-paying functions. Such are the so-called “poverty traps.”

There are also wealth traps. There are those cases in which the individual knows that he is within a favored group or in which he knows a large number of professionals and, therefore, invests time and money in his education because he knows that he has high chances of success, which will then be confirmed. Obviously, such phenomena of divergence generates another problem, addressed both by Easterly and by Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson, which is that of polarized societies.

Easterly affirms that it is the exchange of goods and services, through the mutual benefits that they report to the parties that participate in it, the main source of wealth generation. Where individuals are allowed to exchange, in a stable institutional framework with a stable currency, is where prosperity flourishes. However, Easterly recognizes that bad luck can devastate nations, as are the cases of geological and climatic phenomena such as earthquakes, tsunamis or mudslides, as well as recognizing that the situations of individuals involved in a poverty trap can only be resolved through an active public policy that not only provides education, but also establishes the conditions so that the recipients of that educational system can count on certain expectations that they will be able to apply that knowledge acquired through education and that, consequently, it is reasonable to study.

Just as the bad star can affect the economic performance of the countries, so can a favorable conjuncture, such as the case of a transitory improvement in terms of exchange of a given country. But this favorable circumstance can become a counter-march. Easterly explains that, for a simple statistical matter, it is very difficult for both a nation and an individual to always remain on the crest of the wave, over the years everything tends to return to the average. The problem occurs when a country -or a person, too- got used to a certain level of spending in the boom years and intends to maintain it through debt or emisionism. We come to the cases in which, according to Easterly, the government can “kill the growth.” Public debt and inflation generate capital consumption and, consequently, poverty.

Another way that governments have to discourage growth is through corruption. Not only because it means a transfer of resources from productive activities to unproductive activities, but because it also means a bad signal for citizens. However, in cases of corruption, as noted above, wealth at least changes hands. There is another case, even more pernicious, in which the government’s actions, whether motivated by corruption or inspired by good intentions, destroy wealth, without even redistributing it: this is the case of inconsistent public policies derived from highly polarized societies.

Public policies that aim to favor a given industry, but at the same time need to agree on measures with other sectors of the economy, whose purpose is to compensate for the losses generated by those policies, can lead to a tangle of inconsistent regulations that, instead of transfer riches from one sector to another, directly destroy them. For example: exchange controls harm the export sector, since they generate black markets. The exporters will have costs that will be partly quoted according to the black market prices (which are higher) and they will have to liquidate the value of their exports at the official exchange rate, which will be lower. Regulations of this kind may not involve acts of corruption, but they do destroy wealth, which there is no way to recover.

Easterly lists numerous examples of everything that needs to be done to destroy growth. However, there is something that deserves to be especially highlighted: the progress or stagnation of nations does not depend on educational, cultural or geographic factors, but rather on the incentive framework that predominates. This incentive framework will always be abstract, that is, it can be applied at any time and place.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 6, and here is the entire, Longform Essay.]

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 6): Breaking the mold

Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson acknowledge that the weakest point of their theory consists of recommendations to “break the mold.” How to change the historical matrix that leaves the nations stagnant in extractive political and economic institutions, or that move them back from having inclusive economic institutions with extractive political institutions to being trapped in exclusively extractive institutions with the risk of falling into a failed state. This brings us to Douglass C. North and his theory of institutional change.

Although he published works before and after Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, this book can be taken as the archetypal expression of neo-institutionalism. In the United States, institutionalism, whose main speaker was the Swedish immigrant Thorstein Veblen, was the local expression of what in Europe was known as “historicism”: a romantic current, inspired by Hegelian idealism, which denied the universal validity of institutional rules and claimed the particularism of the historical experience of each nation. American historicism was called institutionalism, because it concentrated the sciences of the spirit in the empirical study of the institutions given in the United States.

On the contrary, North’s school is called “neo-institutionalist” because it does exactly the opposite: it studies the phenomenon of institutions from a behavioral point of view and, therefore, universal. As already noted here, for North institutions are limiting the choice of the rational agent in his context of political, economic and social interaction. These limitations are abstract; that is, they are not physical, like the law of gravity, nor do they depend on a specific and specific order of authority. Examples of these abstract limitations can be found in social customs and uses, in moral rules, in legal norms insofar as they are enunciated in general and abstract terms.

Attentive to such diversity, Douglass C. North groups institutions in formal and informal. Within the formal institutions we find, unquestionably, the positive law, in which its rules of formation and transformation of the statements that articulate them can be identified very clearly. In a modern democracy, laws are sanctioned by the legislative body of the State. Meanwhile, the rules of formation and transformation of statements concerning morality are more diffuse – previously, Carlos Alchourrón and Eugenio Buligyn, in Normative Systems, had used this distinction to support the application of deontic logic to law, since deontic statements of law are much more easily identifiable than those of morality.

On the other hand, North distinguishes two types of institutional change: the disruptive and the incremental. An example of disruptive institutional change can be a revolution, but it can also be a legislative reform. The sanction of a new Civil Code, entirely new, can mean a disruptive change, while partial reforms, which incorporate judicial interpretative criteria or praetorian creations, can be examples of incremental changes.

Institutional changes do not necessarily have to come from their source of creation or validity. Scientific discoveries, advances in transport and telecommunications, information technologies, are some of the innovations that can make certain institutions obsolete or generate a new role or interpretation for it, depending on the open texture of the language.

Therefore, following the tradition of Bernard Mandeville and Adam Ferguson, neo-institutionalism admits that there are unintended consequences in the field of institutional change. Not only the incremental change of institutions, be they formal or informal, depends largely on changes in the cultural and physical environment in which institutions are deployed. Also the disruptive and deliberate change of a formal institution can generate unforeseen consequences, since it is articulated on a background of more abstract informal institutions.

Both Acemoglu & Robinson and North acknowledge that there is no universal law of history that determines institutional change -i.e., they deny historicism, as Karl R. Popper had defined it at the time-; what we have, on the other hand, is an “evolutionary drift,” a blind transformation of institutions. In this transformation, political will and environmental conditions interact. The latter not only limit the range of options for the exercise of “institutional engineering,” but also introduce an element of uncertainty in the outcome of such institutional policies, the aforementioned unintended consequences.

Much more complex is to identify which components are included in that black box that is called “environment” (environment). In principle, there could reappear the creatures that both William Easterly and Acemoglu & Robinson had banished from their explanations: the geography, culture and education of the ruling elites; more sophisticated elements such as the one referred to in the previous paragraph could also be incorporated: technological change. However, the discoveries of science would have no impact if the institutional framework pursued “creative destruction”, seeking to protect already installed activities from competition, or a lifestyle threatened by technological innovation.

We arrive here at a seemingly paradoxical situation: the institutions’ environment is the institutions. Using the Douglass North classifications system, one could try as a solution to this paradox the assertion that formal institutions operate on the background of informal institutions, which escape political will, and that disruptive institutional changes occur in a context of other institutions that are transformed in an incremental way. From this solution to reintroduce culture as a factor of ultimate explanation of institutional change, only one step remains.

At the other extreme, following the typologies used by Acemoglu & Robinson, the institutions can be political or economic and these in turn can be extractive or inclusive, jointly or alternatively. Inclusive economic institutions within a framework of extractive political institutions can result in a limitation of creative destruction and, consequently, produce a regression to extractive economic institutions. In the institutional dynamics of Acemoglu & Robinson, history can both progress and regress: from economic institutions and extractive policies it can be involuted even to situations of failed state and civil war. To reach the end of history, with inclusive institutions, seems to depend on the conjugation of a series of favorable variables, among which is the political will; while to fall back into chaos and civil war it is enough to let go. Without looking for it, the conceptual background of Why Nations Fail rehabilitates the thesis of Carl Schmitt insofar as it presupposes that in the background of human interaction there is no cooperation but conflict.

For his part, William Easterly in The Elusive Quest for Growth does not ask these questions, but simply works under a hypothesis that already has it answered: whenever there is human interaction, there will be a framework of incentives and such a framework of incentives will have certain universal characteristics. Douglass C. North’s central concern in Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance, as well as that of Acemoglu & Robinson in Why Nations Fail, was to establish patterns of events and conditions that made some nations be prosperous while others could not emerge from stagnation. That is, they are works that must necessarily be about the differences between one country and another and, therefore, emphasize the different conditions. Notwithstanding that both North and Acemoglu & Robinson expressly shun culturalist explanations, but instead postulate abstract models and typologies of institutions and institutional change to be applied universally, when the moment of exemplification arrives, they must necessarily resort to the differences between countries and regions. While it is true that both books resort to the description of the problems of the southern United States when illustrating how certain institutions generate results similar to those of third world countries, the culturalist explanation is always available.

In contrast, William Easterly in his The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics focuses almost exclusively on countries with low economic performance and only tangentially refers to cases of high performance. Therefore, in his work, the empirical analytical tools used to dissect it are well separated. To do this, Easterly will not only use a utility-maximizing rational agent model, but will also enunciate abstract models of universally valid human interaction.

In the first part of the work, Easterly describes the failed panaceas of growth: direct aid, investment, education, population control, loans to make adjustments and subsequent debt forgiveness. Affirms that such policies invariably failed because they did not take into account the basic principle of the economy that indicates that people respond to incentives (people respond to incentives, a statement that is repeated as a mantra throughout the book). While acknowledging that in some cases of extreme poverty and bad luck it is necessary for governments to take direct action to help people escape from poverty traps, the author proposes as the main means for people to take a path of prosperity: work to establish the right incentives. It clarifies, however, that this should not be a new panacea but a principle to be implemented little by little, displacing the layers of vested interests impregnated with the wrong incentives and allowing the entrance of the right incentives.

These incentives, right or wrong, do not depend on the culture, nor on the education of the elites, nor on geography. On the contrary, they consist of abstract models of human interaction, which can materialize at any time or latitude. Since the main interest of The Elusive Quest for Growth is, precisely, growth, such models concern this matter, but nothing prevents future research from identifying other abstract patterns of behavior that allow us to infer incentives to address other issues, such as crime, equity, violence, etc.

Some incentive structures that Easterly describes in relation to the problem of growth are the following: conditions for increasing returns – instead of decreasing ones – that come from technological innovation, which in turn depend on phenomena identified as “leakage of technological knowledge” (leaks of technological knowledge), “combination of skills” (matches of skills) and traps (traps) of poverty -although there are also wealth traps.

Technological knowledge has the capacity to filter into a population because it is mainly abstract. It can be exemplified in an accounting system, the practice of carrying inventories, literacy, techniques and procedures for the production, distribution and sale of products, etc. If the technological knowledge consisted exclusively of physical machinery, then yes it would be to a point where yields would become decreasing. On the contrary, understanding technological knowledge as consisting of “abstract machines”, it acquires the characteristics of a public good: it is not consumed with its use nor can it be exclusive. This is how technological knowledge can be extended in a society, multiplying the productivity of its members without entering into diminishing returns.

Also, following the ideas of the recent Nobel Prize in Economics Paul Romer, Easterly highlights that technological change can generate increasing returns thanks to the work of an endogenous agent of the economy, the entrepreneur. Being the labor force a fixed factor of production with respect to machinery, it is expected that, at a certain point, capital will generate diminishing returns, thus conditioning the growth rate of an economy (the main concern of The Elusive Quest for Growth). For its part, the entrepreneur is not only that agent of the economy who discovers new business, he also discovers new uses for existing capital goods. Easterly does not mention it, but this is also the main conclusion reached by Ludwig Lachmann in his work Capital and Its Structure. This work of the entrepreneurs, to find a new utility for a set of capital goods that had come to generate diminishing returns, making them continue to generate increasing returns is what frees the rate of growth of the economy from the limits of technological change and, in turn, makes it depend on the endogenous factor of the economy: the incentives for entrepreneurs to develop their activity -which some call creative destruction.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 5 and here is the entire, Longform Essay.]

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 5): “Spontaneous” institutions

When Friedrich A. Hayek referred to the coordination problems among rational agents as a consequence of the dispersion of information in the economic system -and that made him worthy of the Nobel Prize in Economics- he did not refer to an information problem that could be solved with better statistical tools. This is also a problem of the economics of information and what Hayek himself called “limit relative to knowledge,” since the frontiers of science could be continuously extended, generating more and more information. The limit that Hayek qualified as absolute for knowledge came from the increasing degrees of abstraction and complexity characteristic of any “extended society.” This to the point of calling such phenomena spontaneous orders, or abstract or extended. Such orders allowed the prediction of the general configuration of the system, but they made impossible the concrete prediction regarding the relative position of each particular element of the system. If one looks for an example of such an institutional arrangement, Hayek himself would point as such to the legal systems that structured the mercantile communities, not because they lacked legislation or a state that monopolized its enactment, but because it provided the members of such a mercantile community of a dispute resolution system whose complexity acted as a guarantee of impartiality.

There is much talk of the virtues of institutions as guarantors of predictability, or legal security, or political stability and clear rules of the game. All of them are positive qualities that express the favorable consequences of a negative quality -negative not in the sense of pernicious, but of absence of a particular characteristic- that can be defined as “absence of arbitrariness.” In general, the concept of freedom is related to that of “free will,” which is very desirable for those who exercise it, but it could become a hell for those who suffer the free will of a third party. The institutions are, as it was pointed out, abstract limitations to the social human action that are structuring of the political, economic, and social interaction; in other words, they limit the arbitrariness of the decisions of own and third parties.

In a certain sense, institutions limit individual freedom, whether we define it in a positive way -as the faculty to exercise its own free will in a legitimate way- or negative -like the absence of coercion to exercise one’s free will. However, for the definition of freedom as absence of domination or absence of arbitrary coercion (similar to that coined by Quentin Skinner), institutions cease to be limiting of individual freedom to be functioning as the abstract devices that make it possible.

An institution is made up of a set of rules that not only limits the action of the rational agent and the action of a third party, but also limits, fundamentally, the actions of the political authority. The said procedural due process, for example, belong to the category of institutions that limit governmental action: no one can be punished except by a judgment based on a law prior to the fact of the process and dictated by its natural judges. The due process is not exhausted in this formulation, but this already constitutes in itself a strong restriction to the power of the government over the citizens. These limits make foreseeable the actions of the government that can interfere in the free will of the individuals and, therefore, define their spheres of autonomy.

Of course, although an institution by itself provides stability and predictability to the system and this generates dividends in terms of the coordination of expectations and individual plans, not all institutions are equally efficient if the mentioned predictability is taken as an evaluation parameter. A system of multiple castes, for example, depends on numerous but ambiguous indicators for the identification of each individual, necessary for the purpose of determining what rights and obligations that person owns. In contrast, a modern system, at the other end of the arch, which equates, with the exception of certain political rights, citizens with inhabitants, and agrees equal rights and obligations for anyone who proves distinctive features of humanity, drastically reduces the “transaction costs” of a system of social control structured around abstract institutions.

The summum of arbitrariness can be identified in despotic systems, in which the free will of the ruler or the group of rulers finds no abstract limit in the law -only concrete limits of other more powerful ones. In these systems, the rules are mere orders to the subjects that have a changing and unpredictable content. In any case, if there are positive laws, we are not facing the rule of law, but government through law. When a case of such extreme arbitrariness is exercised from one man to another, we call it slavery or, in the best of cases, servitude.

At the other pole of the arch we have, as has been pointed out, the modern system, which recognizes in each individual the inalienable right to exercise his free will within a sphere of autonomy that is equal for all. Thus, in a system of isonomy, knowing the limits of the sphere of autonomy itself, the limits of the spheres of autonomy of the third parties are known and, consequently, each individual can form expectations regarding a range of expected behavior of his fellows. They will have a high degree of certainty, as will their respective plans.

In the middle of the two poles of these two ideal types of legal-political systems we have the range of possible and specifically given societies, in which freedom as absence of arbitrary coercion (in the meanings given by both Skinner and Hayek) verify to a greater or lesser extent. What Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson do in this regard, is to open two axes of institutional analysis: the political and the economic, and in turn introduce the distinction between extractive and inclusive institutions. Extractive institutions would be halfway between despotism and isonomy: there are limiting rules of free will, but they are not equal for all, fundamentally restricting the right to access certain prerogatives: limitations on access to food, of political decisions or legal monopolies, to cite examples.

It is worth remembering that the birth of individual rights took place, primitively, as prerogatives that the powerful took from the despot. Such is the case of the Magna Carta of 1215. That is why it is said that rights do not pre-exist the individual but that they are conquered. These prerogatives that were pulling the sovereigns one by one and that is why there is no talk of “liberty” in the singular, but of “liberties”: of trade, of industry, of speech, of transit, etc. These prerogatives or liberties were initially torn from the ruler by militarily or financially powerful men and then extended to the rest of the inhabitants, to the point of recognizing their ownership every human being. Correlatively, by virtue of this process of institutionalization, in which each new prerogative was taken from the ruler, this implied a new limit to governmental power, so that the political system was evolving from tyranny to a constitutional system.

Following the course of this evolution, Acemoglu & Robinson work with the ideal substitute types of “failed state” and “modern state,” the complementary ideal types of “political institutions” and “economic institutions” and again with ideal substitute types of “extractive institutions” and “inclusive institutions.” Political democracy, with a plurality of voices and the extension of political rights, as to elect and be elected to public office, means the realization of inclusive political institutions. An economy that enjoys of sound money, a balanced public budget, openness to international trade, free access to markets, absence of legal monopolies and regulation of natural monopolies is the example of what inclusive economic institutions mean. For all this, we need a degree of political centralization crystallized in the modern state, which enforces the law, whose prescriptions must establish a public sphere whose administration the rulers must be accountable of.

Obviously, the analytical instruments of Acemoglu & Robinson are useful both in political and economic liberalism and, although they do not make a total use of almost three centuries of doctrinal and philosophical elaborations, their classification system is susceptible of being deepened by the incorporation of such concepts. For example, on the end of Why Nations Fail, the authors are at the crossroads of answering the question that serves as the title for the work. For this, they allude to the fact that certain critical situations cause a country to take one or another path: the development of inclusive political and economic institutions or the fate of stagnation, but that there is no such thing as a general law of history that determines that one or the other path will be taken forcibly at some specific historical moment.

This is how the authors invoke, timidly and tangentially, the current of cultural evolutionism, according to which the social customs and habits are evolving following the changes in environmental conditions, but without having a predetermined course, following an evolutionary drift. In the same way, they could have explained the institutionalization that the emerging state implies a modern state through the names and procedural principles that are previously in the uses and customs that make up private law. This is how Max Weber explained it and such studies can be used to delve into the historical analyzes formulated by Acemoglu & Robinson when answering why countries fail.

Notwithstanding this, these economists do establish certain patterns of institutional evolution that are apt to be applied when designing public policies or, plain and simple, a government program. In this sense, they allude to cases such as those of Argentina in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which had a resounding success at the moment of formal institutionalization through the enactment of a written constitution and the establishment of a central government of a federal nature. As explained by Acemoglu & Robinson, Argentina incorporated inclusive economic institutions, while it was slower to leave behind extractive political institutions. Initially, Argentina was strongly benefited by the “catch up” regarding the degree of progress of its economic partners, mainly England.

However, following these evolutionary patterns, sooner or later a crucial point is reached in which, in order for the economy to continue to progress, higher levels of competition must be developed that make it necessary to tolerate the impact of the so-called “creative destruction.” When the political system is extractive, it is much easier to resist innovation in the economic sphere when it threatens their economic rents. Arriving at that stage, there are the conditions given for the economic and political progress of a country to be reverted to extractive economic institutions.

That is to say, with inclusive institutions, both politically and economically, it becomes more difficult to find shortcuts to the sectors threatened by the creative destruction of all innovation that progress brings, in order to neutralize it. Once the regulatory, interventionist and protectionist apparatus that characterizes the extractive economic institutions is assembled, the contest moves to the political level: whoever has the springs of political power will distribute the benefits of the economic system. If we add to this a polarized society, it is not difficult to explain why the alternation of popular governments emerged from popular democracies and military civic coups. Specifically, in the case of Argentina, Acemoglu & Robinson add the factor of justice: for a country to be involved in such a spiral of institutional involution, it was necessary for justice to lose its independence from political power.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 4; here is the entire, Longform Essay.]

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 4): Institutions and the Rule of Law

Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson call the set of regulations that obstruct innovation “extractive institutions.” Of course, here again, extractive institutions are less harmful than the total absence of institutions. Not every change in the status quo can be interpreted as “creative destruction” or “entrepreneurship.” As Friedrich Hayek pointed out in Law, Legislation and Freedom, so that the most mutually compatible plans can be carried out, it is necessary that a well-defined set of expectations be systematically frustrated: the usurpations, the frauds, collusions, the paramilitary bands, etc., etc. The main thing is to have institutions that guarantee a minimum of order. Now, many times the institutions manage to be put into effect as a result of having the consensus of a certain number of interests that see in the law an opportunity to extract benefits. It is the distinction between Acemoglu & Robinson between the already mentioned “extractive institutions” and “inclusive institutions.” The latter are constituted by that set of rules that formally are equal for all and that materially protect private property, the value of money, competition understood as freedom of entry to markets, among other values ​​of modern capitalism.

The distinction between extractive and inclusive institutions can find its parallelism in the expressions of “Rule by Law” and “Rule of Law.” The first consists on the accommodation of general and abstract normative statements with a second intention: to benefit a group at the expense of society as a whole. It is common to hear the criticism that the law has a false neutrality and that therefore any defense of the “Rule of Law” must be ideological (in the Marxist sense of the term). However, what distinguishes the concept of “Rule of Law” from “Rule by Law” is that, for the first of the terms, the consequences are unlikely to be predicted in terms of their particular and even more individual, while the second has an intentionality, declared or hidden.

To give an example, the procedural due process has such a degree of abstraction that it can hardly be predicted who will benefit from those proceedings. However, a law that prohibits the importation of a product of domestic manufacture clearly aims to redistribute resources from consumers to the local producers (although this type of regulation usually also generates consequences that are very difficult to foresee and often contrary to its original intentional).

Critics of the Rule of Law state that it is not neutral, because it protects exclusively the interests of the proprietors. However, such criticism loses sight of the fact that in the Modernity, any inhabitant, even those who are not citizens, can have access to the right to property, regardless of whether or not they belong to a certain caste, class, or social class. This, unlike the legal and political systems of the so-called Ancien Régime, which limited access to private property in perpetuity and irrevocably to a certain group of people, or even more, to a certain clan or group of families. It does not matter if, in Modernity, a person does not own any particular good, as long as he can count on the expectation of being able to become one at some time. In this sense, private property understood in the modern sense as that right that any inhabitant can enjoy from having stability in their possessions to the point of only being stripped of it by their own consent or by following the procedural due process.

This unlike laws protecting infant industries, professions or trades, or promotion of certain activities that are deemed as socially necessary or valuable, which establish a regime of transfers of resources from one sector of society to another. As the School of Public Choice indicates, such laws encourage “lobbying” and reduce the efficiency in the allocation of resources. In such institutional arrangements, individuals and businesses do not prosper through the discipline of serving the consumer, but through political agreements. Economic agents continue to maximize, but at the expense of regulations that deliberately establish certain winners (the owners of protected activities) and certain losers (consumers and potential producers who are denied access to protected activities). Under these circumstances, the citizenry begins to perceive an arbitrary sense in the norms and have no moral issues with challenging them (any contraband, without commercial purposes, is a clear example of this). Obviously, when non-compliance with standards becomes so extensive, regulations become ineffective. Moreover, as James M. Buchanan put it in his brief essay “A policy in the interests of producers,” the stagnation generated by protectionism means that the winners of such a system – the protected producers – turn out to be less rich than they would be in an open and competitive institutional framework.

Sometimes protectionism seeks its foundation in a mistaken theory of “original accumulation.” (Joseph Schumpeter ruled out the validity of such proposals by pointing out that, although those could have had some basis until the 19th century, the development of capital markets made this theory completely obsolete.)

However, neither Douglass North, nor William Easterly, nor Acemoglu & Robinson, deal with the problem of original accumulation. They prefer to encompass such phenomena within the set of erroneous theories that serve to justify policies arising from political agreements in polarized societies. This means that a certain institutional arrangement, an economic growth policy, a stabilization program, a constitutional reform, foreign policy and so on, in a polarized society is not inspired by abstract and formal principles but in concrete goals that benefit certain sectors of society above others.

The examples of polarized societies, to which Easterly and Acemoglu & Robinson turn, come mostly from African countries since these are mostly created in the process of decolonization and comprise different ethnic groups and languages ​​within themselves, so polarization is much more evident: certain policies benefit a certain ethnic group over another. Easterly specifically cites the case of an African nation in which an ethnic group that represents 10% of the population lives in the region where a certain commodity is produced and whose export generates large revenues and, in the meantime, the government is elected, with some exceptions, by 90% of the remaining population, which imposes export rights on the said commodity, whose collection is destined to industrialization plans that systematically fail.

It is often tempting to explain the failure of such industrialization plans for the corruption evidenced in their execution. In fact, corruption cases are verified, but public policy would also fail even if those involved were incorruptible. Many times bad policies destroy much more wealth than political corruption. Corruption implies a transfer of resources and, therefore, an inefficient allocation of resources, while bad public policies result in the destruction of wealth.

However, examples of polarized societies in African countries can generate confusion around the main message of The Elusive Quest for Growth and Why Nations Fail. The economic performance of nations has nothing to do with geography, culture, or lack of preparation of the ruling elites to draw the plans of government. Easterly holds the main responsibility for the rise and fall of nations in incentives, while Acemoglu & Robinson point to the institutions that establish such incentive schemes. Regarding the opinion of Douglass C. North, although his line of research can lend itself to a “culturalist” interpretation, he himself recognizes the disruptive change of formal institutions as a determining factor of economic performance.

In summary, the three works discussed here have as a common denominator the role of incentives as a determinant of the economic performance of countries, above culture (which North would call “informal institutions”), geography, or the level of education of its elites. However, the case of polarized societies is presented as a critical point of such approaches.

José Luis de Imaz in Los que mandan (The ones who command) had defined politics as the activity consisting of articulating diverse interests according to a coherent plan of government. The definition of Imaz deserves to be put back into use, since it addresses the problem of polarization and also because its double edge allows to tie the loose ends left by the visions that we can group, with greater or lesser precision, under the “neo- institutionalist” (clearly the case of North, although it would be pending to discuss the label for Easterly and Acemoglu & Robinson).

Notwithstanding, that polarization is manifest in tribal or caste societies does not mean that it is not present in other societal forms. In the United States, the north and south; in Europe, the separatist movements; in Argentina, the interior and Buenos Aires. With greater or lesser intensity, manifestly or latently, politics is always structured on a space of tension of interests in competition for resources. Those who frequent the work of Carl Schmitt often claim that trade and law are “civilized” means for the exchange and dispute of such resources, politics and war are on the other side of the same question in terms of intensity of the conflict.

However, the term institutions – which define incentives – does not refer only to deliberate political agreements in pursuit of a specific purpose, such as a given public policy. The concept of institution also concerns a series of abstract and general principles whose final result at a particular level no one can foresee, because their level of abstraction imposes an insurmountable limit for the knowledge of its concrete consequences.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 3; Here is the entire, Longform Essay]

Relicts of the past? The current challenges for diplomacy

The last few weeks were quite a blast for me: I’ve interned at the German embassy in Rome. A new job in a new city. I thought to process the experiences I made here in one (or a few?) articles.

It’s been quite a rough month for Germany’s Foreign Affairs department. First, Daniel Kriener, the German ambassador in Venezuela, was forced to leave the country after welcoming Interim President Guiadó at the airport of Caracas. Interestingly, although plenty of other diplomats joined him, he was the only one to be declared a “persona non grata” for interfering in Venezuela’s internal affairs. A few weeks later, a deputy speaker of the German Bundestag (who is also a member of the liberal party) demands to expel the US ambassador Grenell for the same offence. Prior, the US diplomat has criticized Germany’s plan to break their promise of contributing more to NATO’s defence budget. Albeit I politically agree with both actions of the diplomats in these cases, they delineate the ongoing structural changes in the diplomacy sector. To illustrate this, I will first provide a theoretical framework to analyze ongoing diplomatic challenges before trying to examine the role of diplomacy in the future.

Principal-Agent Theory and decreasing relevance

I conceive diplomacy as mostly a principal-agent based problem. I believe that many problems in diplomatic negotiations can be traced back to the classic effects of asymmetric information. Since two principals, in this case two states, cannot negotiate with each other directly in most cases, these arbitrations are carried out between various agents. Those agents are of course not always the ambassadors. In a broad meaning, one can apply the principal-agent paradigm to diplomacy by every negotiating process initiated by the state.

Through the lens of the principal-agent paradigm, I perceive the main task of diplomacy to achieve a good negotiating position, for example through an informational advantage. However, due to globalization, state-to-state diplomacy has been drastically weakened. The negotiating game is now mostly carried out within other institutions with lower transactions costs. Two countries want a new trade deal? Just orientate on WTO Rules. Sue another country? Call the International Criminal Court. A few voices made reasonable arguments even for abolishing unnecessary embassies and only keeping the crucial ones. The Trump administration, for example, seems not eagerly committed to fill the around 18 vacant ambassador positions hastily.

Certainly, the globalization combined with the expansion of robust institutions leaves little space for traditional diplomacy as a driving force in interstate relations. This is not necessarily a bad development: As Paul W. Meerts points out, this can be a huge chance for weaker states since negotiating in multilateral rather than bilateral constellations tends to weaken the position of stronger states. Thus, playing out the trump cards in negotiations will be harder for the hegemon. We can currently witness this in the Brexit debate: Even though the strong states, Germany and France, have a vast repertoire of power resources to use as leverage against GB in the negotiations, the can hardly deploy them through EU’s multipolar negotiating structure.

Contrary, there are also recent examples of deploying bilateral traditional diplomacy measures successfully. China’s initiation of Italy’s accession to the Belt Road Initiative (see Tridivesh Singh Maini’s great article here for a quick overview) is a prime example for this. But no other case shows the weaknesses of bilateral diplomacy in a more drastic way: China was able to transpose their tremendous power resources into a deal which heavily favours the Chinese economy. The very ambiguous agreement laid down a strategy of “closer economic collaboration.” The oppositional criticism of the deal coming from the very left and the right is based on economic nationalism and thus misses the important point. Chinese government exerts immense influence on key enterprises like  Tencent, Alibaba, and Badoo: Digital fundamental research topics such as AI were distributed to the firms not through competition but through the state ( I highly recommend Amy Webb’s EconTalk if you want to dig deeper into this.). Once they build sufficient digital infrastructure here in Europe, network effects and technological advantage will come into effect and engender high entry barriers and exit costs. This makes it easy for China to enforce its regulation rather than obeying European ones. Although it is hard to finally determine if multilateral negotiations would have secured a politically better deal, I favour higher short-term transaction cost of multilateral negotiations over the long-term threat showed above.

Embassies as service provider

Of course, taking care of a good interstate negotiation position is not the only task of an embassy. A popular counterargument is that the principal-agent perspective neglects the vital daily business of embassies to help their citizens abroad. Speaking of large and prestigious Embassies though, I estimate that their role as service provider for abroad living citizens will further decline. Most of their maintenance work for citizens living abroad will be redundant due to technological process and further institutionalization. Renewing a Passport, issuing visas and transporting back coffins (yep) are a frequent task, but easy to “source out” to private actors in the future.

But what is the role for ambassadors and embassies then?

This question is where it gets interesting in my opinion. Deeply rooted in international conventions and international customary law, discreet and silent work has been prerequisite for an ambassador. Carefully collecting small pieces of information and building bridges to local actors were the key for a good negotiating position. But as elaborated above, international institutions do the job more efficiently. A new role of ambassadors as advocates for concrete policy measures would be diametrically opposed to international conventions. Based upon the “legality creates legitimacy” premises, a further politicization of diplomacy seems not at present having a majority and thus is unlikely to be buttressed by legal means.

However, if we fall back into a narrative of nationalism, bilateral diplomacy will regain relevance. Otherwise, it will continue to slowly lose importance and eventually wane. Hence, the main challenge nowadays is to look for the right niche for traditional diplomacy – and it seems that it has not been found yet.