Adam Smith: a historical historical detective?

9781107491700

Adrian Blau at King’s College London has an on-going project of making methods in political theory more useful, transparent and instructive, especially for students interested in historical scholarship.

I found his methods lecture, that he gave to Master’s students and went onto publish as ‘History of political thought as detective work’, particularly helpful for formulating my approach to political theory. The advantage of Blau’s advice is that it avoids pairing technique with theory. You can be a Marxist, a Straussian, a contextualist, anything or nothing, and still apply Blau’s technique.

Blau suggests that we adopt the persona of a detective when trying to understand the meaning of historical texts. That is, we should acknowledge

  • uncertainty associated with our claims
  • that facts of the matter will almost certainly be under-determined by the available evidence
  • that conflicting evidence probably exists for any interesting question
  • that interpreting any piece of evidence through any exclusive theoretical lens is likely to lead us to error

To make more compelling inferences in the face of these challenges, we can use techniques of triangulation (using independent sources of evidence together). This could include arguing for an interpretation of a thinker’s argument based on a close reading of their text, while showing that other people in the thinker’s social milieu deployed language in a similar way (contextual), and also showing how helpful that argument was for achieving a political end that was salient in that time and place (motivation).

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Know your data, show your data: A rant

I am finishing up my first year of doctoral level political science studies. During that time I have read a lot of articles – approximately 550. 11 courses. 5 articles a week on average. 10 weeks. 11×5×10=550. Two things have bothered me immensely when reading these pieces: (1) it’s unclear authors know their data well, regardless of it being original or secondary data and (2) the reader is rarely showed much about the data.

I take the stance that when you use a dataset you should know it well in and out. I do not just mean that you should just have an idea if its normally distributed or has outliers. I expect you to know who collected it. I expect you to know its limitations.

For example I have read public opinion data that sampled minority populations. Given that said populations are minorities they had to oversample in areas where said groups are over represented. The problem with this is that those who live near co-ethnics are different from those who live elsewhere. This restricts the external validity of results derived from the data, but I rarely see an acknowledgement of this.

Sometimes data is flawed but it’s the best we have. That’s fine. I’m not against using flawed data. I’m willing to buy most arguments if the underlying theory is well grounded. To be honest I view statistical work to be fluff most times. If I don’t really care about the statistics, why do I care if the authors know their data well? I do because it serves as a way for authors to signal that they thought about their work. It’s similar to why artists sometimes place a “bowl of only green m&ms” requirement on their performance contracts. Artists don’t know if their contracts were read, but if their candy bowl is filled with red twizzlers they know something is wrong. I can’t monitor whether the authors took care in their manuscripts, but NOT seeing the bowl of green only m&ms gives me a heads up that something is off.

Of those 500+ articles I have read only a handful had a devoted descriptive statistics section. The logic seems to be that editors are encouraging that stuff be placed in appendices to make articles more readable. I don’t buy that argument for descriptive statistics. Moving robustness checks or replications to the appendices is fine, but descriptive stats give me a chance to actually look at the data and feel less concerned that the results are driven by outliers. In my 2nd best world all dependent variables and major independent variables would be graphed. If the data was collected in differing geographies I would want the data mapped. In my 1st best world replication files with the full dataset and dofiles would be mandatory for all papers.

I don’t think I am asking too much here. Hell, I am not even fond of empirical work. My favorite academic is Peter Leeson (GMU Econ & Law) and he rarely (ever?) does empirical work. As long as empirical work is being done in the social sciences though I expect a certain standard. Otherwise all we’re doing is engaging in math masturbation.

Tldr; I don’t trust most empirical work out there. I’ll rant about excessive literature reviews next time.

The Return of Cyclical Theories of History

“People and states oscillate between peace and war, freedom and slavery, order and disorder. They tire easily. Even happiness soon grows wearisome. No sooner do they begin to enjoy the benefits of wise and just government than they demand more wisdom and a different kind of justice. Factions spring up. Everyone is on the lookout for new privileges. The equilibrium that was so hard to strike crumbles. Wild hopes are embraced. The system collapses. Everything has to be built up anew on the ruins of the past”.

Jean, D’Ormesson, The Glory of the Empire

This, from D’Ormesson’s excellent 1971 fictional history The Glory of the Empire, could stand in for many such statements from thinkers who have held to a cyclical view of political development: Polybius, Machiavelli, Vico, Spengler, and Arthur Schlesinger. Now, after a period of eclipse, cyclical histories are back in fashion. Tyler Cowen in his excellent new book The Complacent Class heralds their return:

The biggest story of the last fifteen years, both nationally and globally, is the growing likelihood that a cyclical model of history will be a better predictor than a model of ongoing progress. (Cowen, 2017, p. 200)

The leading modern day cyclical theorist is undoubtedly Peter Turchin. For my money Turchin’s best book is Secular Cycles (co-authored with  Sergey A. Nefedov). Their innovation (building on an argument made by my GMU colleague Jack Goldstone in his 1991 book Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World) is to take the Malthusian model of economic cycles and add to it a model of elite competition.

Tuchin and Nefedov show that periods of demographic expansion are often associated with the growth of elite incomes and inequality (as population growth causes rents to rise and wages to fall). More elites competing over the surplus, however, puts fiscal pressure on the surplus-extraction machine that we call the state. Elite overproduction thus brings about a political crisis. Secular Cycles applied this model to medieval and early modern England and France, Russia and ancient Rome. Turchin’s most recent book applies it to the United States.

Another recent cyclical account that has caught my attention is that of Bas van Bavel. His recent book The Invisible Hand? (OUP 2016) has been favorably reviewed by Branko Milanovic (strangely Bavel doesn’t cite Turchin). I quote in full from Branko’s review:

Van Bavel’s key idea is as follows. In societies where non-market constraints are dominant (say, in feudal societies), liberating factor markets is a truly revolutionary change. Ability of peasants to own some land or to lease it, of workers to work for wages rather than to be subjected to various types of corvées, or of the merchants to borrow at a more or less competitive market rather than to depend on usurious rates, is liberating at an individual level (gives person much greater freedom), secures property, and unleashes the forces of economic growth. The pace of activity quickens, growth accelerates (true, historically, from close to zero to some small number like 1% per year) and even inequality, economic and above all social, decreases . . .

But the process, Bavel argues, contains the seeds of its destruction. Gradually factor markets cover more and more of the population: Bavel is excellent in providing numerical estimates on, for example, the percentage of wage-earners in Lombardy in the 14th century or showing that in Low Countries wage labor was, because of guilds, less prevalent in urban than in rural areas. One factor market, though, that of capital and finance, gradually begins to dominate. Private and public debt become most attractive investments, big fortunes are made in finance, and those who originally asked for the level playing field and removal of feudal-like constraints, now use their wealth to conquer the political power and impose a serrata, thus making the rules destined to keep them forever on the top. What started as an exercise in political and economic freedom begins to look like an exercise in cementing the acquired power, politically and economically. The economic essor is gone, the economy begins to stagnate and, as happened to Iraq, Northern Italy and Low Countries, is overtaken by the competitors.

This is a great summary of the main idea of the book.  And the idea of endogenous economic cycles is an intriguing one.

But my impression of Bavel’s argument is less favorable. I am more inclined to the views expressed in this more critical review of the book by Peer Vries who lauds the ambition of the project but wishes that the execution was better. Like Vries I think there are issues with defining and measuring the growth of factor markets. I think that purely internalist stories of rise and decline might make sense for some preindustrial societies but are much less compelling for the more interconnected early modern world let alone for the post-1800 period. All in all, the book lacks a clearly laid out theoretical framework and suffers for it.

This said, cyclical patterns in history and in particular what one might call political cycles should get more attention. We should not be looking to date Kondratiev waves or other such pseudo-scientific phenomenon, but we should seek to build models and explanations that explain the pattern of ups and downs, growth efflorescence followed by crises and collapses, that characterized preindustrial history.

From the Comments: Weber, Geloso on inequality

How did I not see these before? Rick chimed in on Zak’s post about inequality and libertarianism awhile back. As usual, he tries to give the opposition the benefit of the doubt:

Taking public choice logic seriously means considering the political distortions/impediments to proposed policy. Taking inequality seriously is the flip side of that. Perceptions of (and attitudes towards) inequality matter and libertarians (and conservatives) would do well to acknowledge it.

I suspect that the problem is that 1) (like any ideology) we’ve got a blind spot, and inequality is in that spot. 2) Our liberal friends can see into that blind spot. 3) They’ve got a blind spot that leads them to make silly policy prescriptions (e.g. ignoring public choice roots of inequality and instead calling for policies that would reduce growth). And as a result, 4) we’re turned off by discussion of inequality before considering it.

Vincent, in the usual French manner, has a different take:

Okay massive disagreement here:

A: Inequality is not something “measurable” in the sense of utility. I chose to be an economist. My income is X% below that of my wife who went to school fewer years than I did and her income grows faster than mine and she will live longer than me (in probabilistic terms given life expectancy differences M/F). According to that definition, my couple is an unequal one and growing more unequal. Yet, I would not trade her job for mine even if her job was twice as remunerative (she is an attorney). I chose a path of lesser income because it made me happy. Income maximization was, in that case, not synonymous with utility maximization. By definition, rich societies will have more cases like that since gains in marginal utility may not be associated with marginal gains in monetary income. See the issue of the backward-bending labor supply curve.

B: The literature on linking growth to inequality is VERY weak. Look at the empirical papers, the results often depend on the choice of variables and the time window. It NEVER accounts for what I mentioned in point A. More importantly, there is NO THEORETICAL LINK with neoclassical theory on this (with the notable exception of Herb Gintis and Sam Bowles and I am working on a paper tackling their logic) that is axiomatically consistent. An empirical observation without a theory that is logically sound (the most repeated is the general Keynesian argument about consumption, but that is very weak and that rebuttal is powerful in the theoretical papers) is basically rubbish.

C: The Great Gatsby Curve is also rubbish since most of the past observations are based on the weird assumptions that mobility based on father-sons is a proper estimate to compare with modern estimates. You can consult the very convincing rebuttals made by Scott Winship. Moreover, the Great Gatsby curve is again a case of empirical observations without theory. I don’t need any of this story to see that mobility is down (modestly) at the same time that labor market restrictions are up.

There is more discussion, too.

The End of the Past


On Branko Milanovic’s recommendation, I read Aldo Schiavone’s The End of the Past. Scholarly and elegantly written, it provides one of the best imaginative reconstructions of the ancient Roman economy.

Previous posts have touched on the economies of late antiquity, the modernist primitivist debate, and diagnosed problems in many recent assessments of the ancient economy (here, here, here, and here). I want to use Schiavone’s book to revisit a question raised by Peter Temin in The Roman Market Economy. How advanced was the Roman economy? Specifically, how did it compare to the economy of Europe in late medieval or early modern times? Was the Roman economy only as developed as that of Europe circa 1300 or was it as advanced as that of western Europe on the eve of the Industrial Revolution in say 1700.

This question is not mere idle speculation. It matters for our understanding of the causes of long-run economic growth whether an industrial revolution could have happened in Song China or ancient Rome. This type of counterfactual history is crucial for pinning down the casual mechanisms responsible for sustained growth, especially as historians like Bas van Bavel are now proposing explicitly cyclical accounts of growth in societies as varied as early medieval Iraq and the Dutch Republic (see The Invisible Hand? (OUP, 2016))

Temin’s GDP estimates suggest that Roman Italy had comparable per capita income to the Dutch Republic in 1600. The Empire as a whole, he suggests, may have been comparable to Europe in 1700 (Temin 2013, 261). My gut reaction is that this is plausible as an upper-bound. Schiavone (who was writing several years before Temin), however, raises important points that I had fully not considered previously.

Schiavone opens with an account of a speech given by Aelius Aristides celebrating the wealth of the Roman empire in the mid-2nd century AD.

“Whatever each culture grows and manufactures cannot fail to be here at all times and in great profusion. Here merchant vessels arrive carrying these many commodities from every region in every season and even at every equinox, so that the city takes on the appearance of a sort of common market for the world. One can see cargoes from India and even from southern Arabia in such numbers that one must conclude that the trees in those lands have been stripped bare, and if the inhabitants of those lands need anything, they must come here to beg for a share of what they have produced….

Your farmlands are Egypt, Sicily, and all of cultivated Africa. Seaborne arrivals and departures are ceaseless, to the point that the wonder is, not so much that the harbor has insufficient space for all these merchant vessels, but that the sea has enough space (if it really does). Just as there is a common channel where all waters of the Ocean have a single source and destination, so that there is a common channel to Rome and all meet here: trade, shipping, agriculture, metallurgy— all the arts and crafts that are or ever were and all things that are produced or spring from the earth. What one does not see here does not exist” (Aristides, The Roman Oration).

This is a panegyric addressed to flatter the emperor but its emphasis on long-distance trade, commerce, manufacturing is highly suggestive. Such a speech is all but impossible to imagine in an predominantly rural and autarkic society. Aristides is painting a picture of a highly developed commercialized economy that linked together the entire Mediterranean and beyond. Even if he is grossly exaggerates, the imagine he depicts must have been plausible to his audience. In evaluating the Roman economy in the age of Aristides, Schaivone notes that:

“Until at least mid-seventeenth century Amsterdam, so expertly described by Simon Schama — the city of Rembrandt, Spinoza, and the great sea-trade companies, the product of the Dutch miracle and the first real “globalization of the economy — or at least, until the Spanish empire of Philip II, the total wealth accumulated and produced in the various regions of Europe reached levels that were not too far from those of the ancient world” (Schiavone, 2000, 94).

This is the point Temin makes. Whether measured in terms of the size of its largest cities — Rome in 100 AD was larger than any European city in 1700 — or in the volume of grain, wine, and olive oil imported into Italy, the scale of the Roman economy was vast by any premodern standard. Quantitatively, then, the Roman economy looks as large and prosperous as that the early modern European economy.

Qualitatively, however, there are important differences that Schiavone draws out and which have been obscured in recent quantitative debates about GDP estimates.

Observe that Roman history leaves no traces of great mercantile companies like the Bardi, the Peruzzi or the Medici. There are no records of commercial manuals of the sort that are abundant from Renaissance Italy; no evidence of “class-struggle” as we have from late medieval Europe; and no political economy or “economics”, that is, no attempts to systematize one’s thoughts and insights concerning the commercial world. The ancient world, in this view, only superficially resembled that of early modern Europe. Seen from this perspective, the latter contained the potential for sustained growth; the former did not. Why is this?


The most obvious institutional difference between the ancient world and the modern was slavery. Recently historians have tried to elevate slavery and labor coercion as crucial causal mechanism in explaining the industrial revolution. These attempts are unconvincing (see this post) but slavery certainly did dominate the ancient economy.

In its attempt to draw together the various strands through which slavery permeated the ancient economy, Schiavone’s chapter “Slaves, Nature, Machines” is a tour de force. At once he captures the ubiquity of slavery in the ancient economy, its unremitting brutality—for instance, private firms that specialized in branding, retrieving, and punishing runaway slaves — and, at the same time, touches the central economic questions raised by ancient slavery: to what extent was slavery crucial to the economic expansion of period between 200 BCE and 150 AD? And did the prevalence of slavery impede innovation?

It is impossible to do justice to the argument in a single post. Suffice to say that after much discussion, and many fascinating interludes, Schiavone suggests that ultimately the economic stagnation of the ancient world was due to a peculiar equilibrium that centered around slavery.

One can think of this equilibrium as resting on a two legs. The first is the observation that the apparent modernity of the ancient economy — its manufacturing, trade, and commerce rested largely on slave labor. The expansion of trade and commerce in the Mediterranean after 200 BC both rested on, and drove, the expansion of slavery. Here Schiavone note that the ancient reliance on slaves as human automatons — machines with souls — removed or at least weakened, the incentive to develop machines for productive purposes.

The existence of slavery, however, was not the only reason for the neglect of productive innovation. There was also a specific cultural attitude that formed the second leg of the equilibrium:

“None of the great engineers and architects, none of the incomparable builders of bridges, roads, and aqueducts, none of the experts in the employment of the apparatus of war, and none of their customers, either in the public administration or in the large landowning families, understood that the most advantageous arena for the use and improvement of machines — devices that were either already in use or easily created by association, or that could be designed to meet existing needs — would have been farms and workshops”

The relevance of slavery colored ancient attitudes towards almost all forms of manual work or craftsmanship. The dominant cultural meme was as follows: since such work was usually done by the unfree, it must be lowly, dirty and demeaning:

“technology, cooperative production, the various kinds of manual labor that were different from the solitary exertion of the peasants on his land — could not but end up socially and intellectually abandoned to the lowliest members of the community, in direct contact with the exploitation of the slaves, for whom the necessity and demand increased out of all proportion . . . the labor of slaves was in symmetry with and concealed behind (so to speak) the freedom of the aristocratic thought, while this in turn was in symmetry with the flight from a mechanical and quantitative vision of nature”

Thus this attitude also manifest itself in the disdain the ancients had for practical mechanics:

Similar condescension was shown to small businessmen and to most trade (only truly largely-scale trade was free from this taint). The ancient world does not seem to have produced self-reproducing mercantile elites. Plausible this was in part because of the cultural dominance of the landowning aristocracy.

The phenomenon coined by Fernand Braudel, the “Betrayal of the Bourgeois,” was particularly powerful in ancient Rome. Great merchants flourished, but “in order to be truly valued, they eventually had to become rentiers, as Cicero affirmed without hesitation: ‘Nay, it even seems to deserve the highest respect, if those who are engaged in it [trade], satiated, or rather , I should say, satisfied with the fortunes they have made, make their way from port to a country estate, as they have often made it from the sea into port. But of all the occupations by which gain is secured, none is better than agriculture, none more delightful, none more becoming to a freeman’” (Schiavone, 2000, 103).

Such a cultural argument fits perfectly with Deirdre McCloskey’s claim in her recent trilogy that it was the adoption of bourgeois cultural norms and specifically bourgeois rhetoric that distinguished and caused the rise of north-western Europe after 1650 (here, here, and here).


Having taken note of the existence of such a powerful equilibrium — one resting on both material and cultural foundations, we can now return to Schiavone’s argument for why a modern capitalist economy did not develop in antiquity. He argues that given the prominence of slavery and the prestige of the landowning elite, economic expansion and growth of the kind that took place between c. 200 BCE to 150 CE was not self-reinforcing. It generated a growth efflorescence that lasted several centuries, but it ultimately undermined itself because it was based on an intensification of the slave economy that, in turn, reinforced the cultural supremacy of the landowning aristocracy and this cultural supremacy in turn eroded the incentives responsible for driving growth.

Compare and contrast with early modern Europe. The most advanced economies of early modern Europe, say England in 1700, were on the surface not too dissimilar to that of ancient Rome. But beneath the surface they contained the “coiled spring”, or at least the possibility, of sustained economic growth — growth driven by the emergence of innovation (a culture of improvement) and a commercial or even capitalist culture. According to Schiavone’s assessment, the Roman economy at least by 100 CE contained no such coiled spring.

We are not yet at the point when we can decisively assess this argument. But the importance of culture and the manner in which cultural and material factors interacted is clearly crucial. The argument that the slave economy and the easy assumptions of aristocratic superiority reinforced one another is a powerful one. For whatever historical reasons these cultural elements in the Roman economy were relatively undisturbed by the rise of merchants, traders and money grubbing equites. Likewise slavery did not undermine itself and give rise to wage labor.

Why this was the case can be left to future analysis. The full answer to the question why this was the case and a more careful consideration of the counterfactual “could it have been otherwise” are topics deserving their own blog post.

My favorite posts at NOL this year

Last week I promised y’all a post on my favorite reads at NOL this year. I almost always keep my promises, so below is a long-ish list of essays I really enjoyed reading and learning from this year.


My absolute favorite essay of 2016 at NOL was Barry Stocker’s analysis of the attempted coup in Turkey. Dr Stocker has spent a quarter of a century in the Turkish-speaking world and all of his acquired wisdom of the region is on display in the piece. Barry didn’t post much here this year, but I am hoping that, given the geopolitical situation in his neck of the woods (Dr Stocker teaches political philosophy at Istanbul Tech), he’ll be able to provide much more insight into the challenges the region will face in 2017.

Jacques, who has become sidetracked ever since Donald Trump became the GOP nominee, had an excellent post titled “A Muslim Woman and the Sea” that everyone should read. I don’t agree with it, but the quality of his writing almost demands that you read through the entire piece. In it is the peaceful nostalgia for both youth and French Algeria, the almost careless way he describes his surroundings, and the slow, deliberate manner in how he attacks his enemies. It is all on display for you, his audience, to devour at your leisure. Dr Delacroix is a world-class storyteller.

Mark Koyama’s piece on Jewish communities in premodern Europe garnered a lot of praise, but I found his post on medieval China to be much more fascinating. In the post, Dr Koyama summed up his recent paper (co-authored with UCLA Anderson’s Melanie Meng Xue) on literary inquisitions during the Qing era (1644-1912). What they did was tally up the number of times the state dragged scholars and artists to court in order to accuse them of delegitimizing the Qing government. This had the unfortunate (but predictable) effect of discouraging discussion and debate about society in the public sphere, which stifled dissent and emboldened autocratic impulses.

Chhay Lin had a number of great posts here, some of which were picked up by major outlets like RealClearWorld and 3 Quarks Daily, and Notes On Liberty is lucky to have such a cool cat blogging here. My favorite post of his was the one he did on his childhood in a Cambodian refugee camp along the Khmer-Thai border. What an inspiring story! I hope there are more to come in 2017. (Chhay Lin, by the way, splits his time at NOL with SteemIt, so be sure to check him out there).

Zak Woodman had lots of good posts in his debut year (including NOL‘s most-read article), but the two I enjoyed most were his thoughts on empathy in cultural discourse and his Hayekian take on safe spaces. Both pieces took a libertarian line on the freedom of speech, but Mr Woodman’s careful articles, which are as much about being true to the original meaning of some of the 20th century’s best thinkers as they are about libertarianism, suggests that he has a bright future ahead of him as one of the movement’s deeper thinkers (he’s an undergraduate at UM-Ann Arbor). I look forward to his thoughts in 2017.

Bruno Gonçalves Rosi burst on to NOL‘s scene this year with a number of posts (in both English and Brazilian Portuguese). His blistering critiques of socialism were fundamental and – to me, at least – reminiscent of the debates between libertarians and statists here in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. My favorite of Dr Rosi’s 2016 posts, however, was his reflection of the 2016 Rio Paralympics that took place in the late summer (at least it was late summer here in Texas). Bruno brilliantly applied the Games to the famous argument about inequality between 20th century American philosophers Robert Nozick and John Rawls. I hope the piece was but a glimpse of what’s to come from Dr Rosi, who also has a keen interest in history and international relations.

Lode Cossaer is probably busy with his very intriguing dissertation (“the institutional implications of the tension between universal individual rights and group self governance”), but he did manage to find some time to dip his feet into the blogging pool with a few insightful posts. My favorite was his explanation of Donald Trump’s Carrier move, which was blasted from all sides of the political spectrum (including libertarians) for being a prime example of “crony capitalism.” Cossaer, in his own delightfully contrarian manner, pointed out that there is a trade-off between the rule of law and lower taxes. This trade-off might not be pretty, but it exists regardless of how you feel about it. Lode, in my opinion, is one of very few thinkers out there who can walk the tight-rope between Rothbardian libertarianism and plain ole’ classical liberalism, and he does so ruthlessly and efficiently. I hope we can get more contrarianism, and more insight into Cossaer’s dissertation, in 2017.

Vincent has been on a roll this month, and I simply cannot choose any single one of his 2016 posts for recognition. His pêle-mêle comments on the debate between historians and economists over slavery is well-worth reading, especially his insights into how French Canadians are portrayed by economic historians in graduate school, as are his thoughts on the exclusion of Native Americans from data concerning living standards in the past. These posts highlight – better than his more famous posts – the fact that economists, along with political philosophers and anthropologists, are doing way better historical work than are traditional historians. Dr Geloso’s post on fake news as political entrepreneurship did a wonderful job, in my eyes, of highlighting his sheer passion for history and his remarkable ability to turn seemingly boring topics (like “political entrepreneurship”) into hard talking points for today’s relevant policy debates.

Federico is still practicing corporate law in Argentina, so every article he writes at NOL is done so in his free time. For that I am deeply grateful. His early August question, “What sort of meritocracy would a libertarian endorse, if he had to?” was intricately stitched together and exemplifies Federico’s prowess as one of the world’s most novel scholars of Hayekian thought. I also enjoyed, immensely, a careful, probing account of human psychology and our ability to act in this short but rewarding post on homo economicus. I look forward to a 2017 filled with Hayekian insights and critical accounts of social, political, and economic life in Buenos Aires.

Rick spent the year at NOL blogging about whatever the hell he wanted, and we were all rewarded for it. Dr Weber is obviously emerging as important conduit for explaining how “politics” works in democratic societies, and perhaps more importantly how to be a better, happier person within the American system. I hope Rick continues to explore federalism though a public choice lens, but I also suspect, given Dr Weber’s topics of choice this year, that Elinor Ostrom would have been interested in what he has to say as well. 2017 awaits! Here is Rick breaking down Trump’s victory over Clinton. You won’t get a finer explanation for why it happened anywhere else. Oh, and how about a libertarian argument for an FDA?

Michelangelo, who is now a PhD candidate in political science at UC Riverside, won my admiration for his brave post on safe spaces and the election of Donald Trump. While 2017 may be composed of uncertainties, one thing that is known is that Trump will be president of the United States. We need to be wary and vocal (just as we were with Bush II and Obama).  Michelangelo was in top form in his piece “…Why I Don’t Trust the Police,” so much so that it stuck with me throughout the year. It is libertarianism at its finest.

William Rein, a sophomore (“second-year”) at Chico State, has been impressive throughout the year. His thoughts do very well traffic-wise (literally thousands of people read his posts), and it’s all well-deserved, but I thought one of his better pieces was one that was relatively slept on: “Gogol Bordello & Multiculturalism.” Mr Rein points out that Political Correctness is destroying fun, and the election of Donald Trump is merely the latest cultural challenge to PC’s subtle tyranny. William weighed in on the safe spaces concept as well and, together with Zak’s and Michelangelo’s thoughts, a coherent libertarian rationale has formed in response to this cultural phenomenon. If you want to know which clouds young libertarian heads are in, NOL is a great place to be.

Edwin initiated the best debate of the year here at NOL with his post on classical liberalism, cosmopolitanism, and nationalism. Barry replied (in my second-favorite post of his for 2016), and Dr van de Haar responded with a third volley: “Classical Liberalism and the Nation-State.” At the heart of their disagreement was (is?) the concept of sovereignty, and just how much the European Union should have relative to the countries comprising the confederation. Dr Stocker concluded the debate (for 2016, anyway) with a final post once again asserting that Brexit is bad for liberty. For Edwin and Barry, sovereignty and international cooperation are fundamental issues in Europe that are not going away anytime soon. NOL is lucky to have their voices and, like Dr Stocker, I hope Dr van de Haar will be able to provide us with many more fascinating and sometimes contrarian insights in 2017.

Lucas Freire wasn’t able to post much here this year (he is doing postdoc work in South Africa), but his post on economics in the ancient world is well worth reading if you are at all interested in methodology and the social sciences. Dr Freire has continually expressed interest in blogging at NOL, and I am almost certain that 2017 will be his breakout year.

Those are my picks and I’m sticking to ’em (with apologies to Rick). Notewriters are free to publish their own lists, of course, and if readers would like to add their own in the ‘comments’ I’d be honored (you can always email me, too). The post I most enjoyed writing this year, by the way (thanks for asking…), was a snarky one questioning the difference between Saudi Arabia and Islamic State. Thanks for everything.

On Capitalism and Slavery : Pêle-Mêle Comments

Last week, a debate was initiated via an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that relates to the clash between historians and economists over the topic of slavery. The debate seems acrimonious given the article and at the reading of a special issue of the Journal of Economic History regarding the Half has never been told by Edward Baptist, its hard to conclude otherwise. Pseudoerasmus published comments on the issue in a series of posts and a Trumpian twitterstorm (although the quality is far from being Trumpian). I find myself largely in agreement with him in response to the historians, but there are some pêle-mêle points that I felt I needed to add.

On Historians Versus Economists

To be honest, when I took my first classes in economic history, it seemed clear that there were important points that were agreed upon in the literature on slavery. The first was that the accounting profitability of slavery was not the same as the economic profitability (think opportunity cost here) of slavery. Thus, it was possible that (concentrating on the US here) the peculiar institution could more or less thrive regardless of the social costs it imposed (i.e. slavery is a tax on leisure which also increases the expropriation rate from slaves, and non-slaveowners often had to shoulder the cost of enforcing the institution). This argument is not at all new; in fact it is basically a public choice argument that Gordon Tullock and Anne Krueger could have signed on to without skipping a heartbeat (see Sheilagh Ogilvie – one of my favorite economist who does history in equality with Jane Humphries). The second point of agreement is that no one agreed on how to measure the productivity of slavery in the United States and the distribution of its costs and gains. The second point has been a very deep methodological debate which related to the method of measuring productivity (CES vs Translog TFP – stuff that would make your head blow and which also lead to the self-invitation of the Cambridge Capital Controversy to the debate). The quality of the data has been at the centre-stage as well, and datasets on slave prices, attributes, tasks and many other variables are still being collected (see notably the breathtaking work of Rhode and Olmsted here and here).

Thus, I will admit to being unimpressed by the use of oral histories to contest that literature. In addition, the absence of theory in Baptist’s work yields an underwhelming argument. Oral histories are super-duper important. The work of Jane Humphries on child labor is a case in point of the need to use oral histories. She very carefully used the tales told by children who worked during the industrial revolution to document how labor markets for children worked. The story she told was nuanced, carefully argued and supported by other primary evidence. This is economic history at its best – a merger of cliometrician and historian. In fact, while this is an evaluation that is subjective, the best economists are also historians and vice-versa. The reason for that is the mix of theory with multiple forms of evidence. But they key is to have a theory to guide the analysis.

Unexpectedly for some, the best exposition of this argument comes from Ludwig von Mises in his unknown book Theory and HistoryI was made aware of that book in a discussion with Chris Coyne of George Mason University and I proceeded to reading it. I was surprised how many similarities there were between the Mises who wrote that book and the Douglass Norths and the Robert Fogels of this world. The core argument of Theory and History is that axiomatic statements can be applied to historical events. The goal of historians and economic historians is to sort which theory applies. For example, the theory of signaling and the theory of asymmetric information are both axiomatically true. Without the need for evidence, we know that they must exist. The question of an economic historian becomes to ask “did it matter”? Both theories can compete to offset each other: if signaling is cheap, then asymmetric information can be solved; if it is not, asymmetric information is a problem. Or both may be irrelevant to a given historical development. To explain which two axiomatic statements apply to the event (and in what dosage), you need data (quantitative and qualitative). Thus, Theory and History actually proposes the use of econometrics and statistical methods because it does not try to predict as much as it tries to a) sort which axiomatic statements applied; b) the relative strengths of competing forces; c) the counterfactual scenario.

Without theory, all you have is Baptist’s descriptions which tell us very little and can, incidentally, be distorted by he who recounts the tales he read.

On the Culture of Peasants/Slaves/Slaveowners

When I started my PhD dissertation Canadian economic history, the most annoying thing I saw was the claim that the French-Canadians had “different mentalities” or “more conservative outlooks”. This was basically the way of calling them stupid. This has recently evolved to say that they “maximized goals other than wealth”. Regardless, this was basically: the French-Canadian was not culturally suited for economic development.

But culture is not a fixed variable, it is not an exogenous variable. Culture is basically the coherent framework built by individuals who share certain features to “cut out” the noise. Everyday, we are bombarded with tons of pieces of information and there is no way that the human brain can process them all. Thus, we have a framework – culture (ideology does the same thing) – which tells us what is relevant and what is irrelevant and what interpretation to give to relevant information.

People can cling to old beliefs for a long time, but only if there is no cost to them. I can persist in terrible farming practices if I am not made aware of the proper valuation of the opportunity I am foregoing. For example, British farmers who arrived in Quebec in the 19th century tended to use oxen as they did in England for tilling the soil. They had probably been taught to do that by their parents who learnt it from their grandparents because it was part of the farming culture of England. The behavior was culturally inherited. However, when they saw that the French-Canadians were using horses and that horses – in the Canadian hinterland – got the job done better, they shifted. The culture changed at the sight of how important was the foregone opportunity by continuing to use oxen. Where the British and the French co-existed, both were equally good farmers. Where they could not observe each other, they were all sub-optimal farmers. Seeing the other methods forced changes in culture.

The same applies to slaveowners and slaves! Slaveowners were a more or less tightly knit group that frequented similar circles and were constantly on the lookout to increase productivity. If some master had noticed that he could increase production by whipping more slaves, why would he not adopt this method? Why would he leave 100$ bill on the street? Why did the masters growing cotton in South Carolina not adopt the method of whipping adopted by growers in Louisiana? Without a theory of how culture changes (and what purposes it serves beyond the simplistic Marxist power structure argument), there is no answer to this question. With the work of Rhode and Olmstead, there is an answer: the type of cotton that had higher yields was not suited for growing everywhere! In this case, we are applying my comment from the section above on Historians versus Economists. There are competing theories of explaining increasing output: either some slave masters were unable to observe the other slave masters and adopt the torture methods they had (which would need to be the case for Baptist to be right) or there were biological limitations to growing the better crops in some areas (Rhode and Olmstead).

Two competing theories (they are not mutually exclusive though) that can be tested with data and they set a counterfactual. That is why you need theory to make good history.

One last thing: slave owners were not capitalists

This is probably the most childish thing to come out of works like those of Baptist: to assert that because slaves were capital assets, that the owners were capitalists. That is true if you want to adhere to the inconsistent (and self-contradicting) Marxist approach to capital. In fact, as Phil Magness pointed out to me, slave owners were not free market types. They were very much anti-capitalists. Slavery apologists like Fitzhugh and Carlyle were even more anti-capitalists than that. It’s not because you own capital that you are a capitalist unless you adhere to Marxist theory.

But, capital is just a production input. Its value depends on what it can produce. As Jeffrey Hummel pointed out, there is a deadweight loss from slavery: enforcement costs, the overproduction of cotton because slavery is basically a tax on leisure and the implicit taxation of the output produced by slaves. All three of these factors would have slowed down economic growth in the south. Thus, as capital assets, slaves were relatively inefficient.