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.]

Some thoughts on “Thinking About Libertarian Foreign Policy”

Brandon asked me to leave some thoughts on “Thinking About Libertarian Foreign Policy”, By Matthew Fay, here. Edwin van de Haar already did that in his “Foreign Policy in the Liberal Tradition: The Real Story”, but as I tend to follow a different path from van de Haar, I believe I may have something original to say here. So lets go.

First, unlike Edwin, I’m not going to go in the direction of discussing who is a libertarian, who is a conservative, who is a classical liberal, and so on. For one thing, I think that this kind of discussion is really boring (sorry Edwin, no offense intended, believe me). Other than that, it seems to me that discussing vocabulary is tremendously counterproductive. During the Cold War the US defined itself as a democracy. The USSR defined itself as a democracy as well. Both could meet and discuss who was really democratic, without any real gain. The same can be said about discussions within the socialist bloc: Chinese and Russians could discuss forever who was more Marxist, almost going to war because of that, without any real profit. Personally, I think I lost a lot of time some years ago discussing if Venezuela was democratic or not. And then they ran out of toilet paper. So I care not if communists want to call Venezuela a democratic state or not, the fact is that I don’t think any of them are willing to live without the simple but precious item of capitalist modern life.

With that said, if Matthew Fay wants to call his international relations perspective “libertarian,” so be it. But here are some commentaries from someone who usually calls himself libertarian:

“Libertarians have an uneasy relationship with foreign policy. The state, after all, is the primary actor in international relations.”

I wouldn’t say that. First, I’m a libertarian who studies foreign policy more than anything else. Second, I don’t think that we should say that “The state, after all, is the primary actor in international relations.” That’s simply not a good phrase to use when talking about International Relations. Better to say that the state is very often regarded as the primary actor in International Relations theory, especially by theorists who identify themselves as Realists. Other theorists would say that individuals, or international institutions, or international organizations are as or more important than the states.

“For libertarians, who want the state to do less, not more, this fact can be hard to stomach.”

I identify as a libertarian and I don’t exactly “want the state to do less.” I want the state to do some things and not others. I know that many libertarians (specially people at the Mises Institute, following Murray Rothbard) understand that anarcho-capitalism is the natural and logical conclusion for libertarians. I’m still not convinced. For example, I would like the state to do a lot about prosecuting murders and nothing about what I put in my own body.

“identifying an aggressor is difficult enough in interpersonal relations—let alone in international affairs.”

That’s something that goes at least to Robert Jervis’ 1978 article “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma,” but I openly disagree. If they are not invading your territory, then they’re not aggressors. They may be potential aggressors, or they may be aggressive, but they’re not aggressors. As an individual, I choose to carry a gun, or even better, to avoid certain neighborhoods. The states should, if possible, avoid certain neighborhoods. If that’s not possible, carry a gun. And definitely keep a gun at home and learn how to use it.

“even when the action of the U.S. government may be superior to that of another government, many libertarians have a difficult time acknowledging that government action is justified. For those reasons, many strict non-interventionist libertarians find themselves openly embracing illiberal governments that they claim are resisting American imperialism and condemning any American criticism of autocrats as a prelude to ‘regime change.’”

First, I don’t think that one can prove that US intervention is superior to anything, ever. It’s basically a broken window fallacy. And I don’t embrace any illiberal government. I just don’t think that it’s the US government’s job to overthrown them. Also, I don’t think any autocratic governments are primarily resisting imperialism.

“Realism is attractive for libertarians because the United States faces no major threats, and therefore does not need to balance either externally or internally.”

Realism in International Relations theory is in general attractive for me because it seems to reflect the reality. Among International Relations theorists, my personal favorites are John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. I believe they are very liberal (in the classical sense) at heart but, like me, they are very suspicious of states. By the way, I’m Brazilian and I don’t live in the States, so the second part makes no sense either. There are many libertarians outside the US, by the way, and I think it would be very interesting to check what they think about all this.

“Libertarians, for example, believe that regime change and nation building through the use of military force is unjust and more often than not doomed to failure.”

I don’t think that. The American Revolution and the Puritan Revolution were great examples of regime change and nation building through the use of military force. They worked just fine. I just don’t believe that we can force this on other people.

“But libertarians have also rejected other aspects of America’s post-World War II grand strategy—namely, America’s military alliances and the web of international political and economic institutions they underpin—that have served the causes of peace, free trade, and a more interdependent world. The result of this web of institutions has been a liberal international order that encourages peaceful, commercial relations between states that had previously been rivals. It helps ameliorate security competition and establishes expected patterns of behavior that encourage cooperation instead. This order has not been without its flaws and, as Nexon highlights in another post, serious reforms should be explored. But it has also helped underpin previously unseen levels of peace and prosperity. As Nexon writes, ‘we should not confuse two different questions: ‘which liberal order?’ and ‘whether liberal order?’’”

I’m not sure if “America’s post-World War II grand strategy have served the causes of peace, free trade, and a more interdependent world.” Again, it’s a matter of opportunity cost, or another broken window fallacy. I’m also unsure if “the result of this web of institutions has been a liberal international order that encourages peaceful, commercial relations between states that had previously been rivals.” I have a really strong tendency to say it didn’t. The problem with theorizing in social sciences is that, unlike in natural sciences, you can’t take things to the laboratory and run consecutive tests. That is, by the way, one of the reasons why I reject positivism as a research methodology. I’m not sure if Matthew Fay embraces it, but the fact is that for me we are better with praxeology, or at least some version of methodological individualism. And with that in mind, we can’t be so bold to say that American foreign policy in the post-WWII Era was the main cause of peace and everything else. It just seems to me that without US intervention in WWI there would be no WWII (and no Russian Revolution, at least not a successful one, by the way). The Founding Fathers were right: Europe is a mess. The farthest you get from it, the best.

Methodological Individualism

I am just now rereading Ludwig von Mises’s magnum opus, Human Action.  What a joy it is to get reacquainted with Mises’s masterful work and to use it as a benchmark to gauge my own intellectual odyssey since first reading it more than 40 years ago.

Early on the reader encounters the term “methodological individualism.”  This mouthful may seem at first to be some abstruse epistemological concept that can be forgotten once the foundations for Mises’s economics have been established.  On the contrary, revisiting Mises has made me realize just how thoroughly I have internalized the concept and what a big difference it has made in my thinking about political and economic controversies.

Let’s start with what methodological individualism is not.  It has nothing to do with “rugged individualism.”  It is not ideology at all.  It is a term that describes the essential nature of human thought and action.  It is a bedrock principle on which Mises grounds his entire exposition of economics.

“The Hangman, not the state, executes a criminal.”  This is Mises’s pithy summary of methodological individualism.  Mises does not deny that the hangman acts under the influence of his relationships to others in society.  He is an employee or a servant of some penal system and is obliged to carry out executions when so ordered. He may fear consequences if he fails to act as ordered.  He may have a family that he provides for.  He may wish to secure his place in Heaven. None of these conditions alters the basic sequence of events: The hangman ponders the action he is set to perform, thinking carefully or hardly at all.  He believes his best choice is to pull the rope that opens the chute.  He causes his arm to move and the deed is done. Continue reading