The Intolerance of Tolerance

Just recently I read The Intolerance of Tolerance, by D. A. Carson. Carson is one of the best New Testament scholars around, but what he writes in this book (although written from a Christian perspective) has more to do with contemporary politics. His main point is that the concept of tolerance evolved over time to become something impossible to work with.

Being a New Testament scholar, Carson knows very well how language works, and especially how vocabulary accommodates different concepts over time. Not long ago, tolerance was meant to be a secondary virtue. We tolerate things that we don’t like, but that at the same time we don’t believe we should destroy. That was the case between different Protestant denominations early in American history: Baptists, Presbyterians, and so on decided to “agree to disagree,” even though they didn’t agree with one another completely. “I don’t agree with what you are saying, but I don’t think I have to shut you up. I’ll let you say and do the things I don’t like.” Eventually, the boundaries of tolerance were expanded to include Catholics, Jews, and all kinds of people and behaviors that we don’t agree with, but that we decide to tolerate.

The problem with tolerance today is that people want to make it a central value. You have to be tolerant. Period. But is that possible? Should we be tolerant of pedophilia? Murder? Genocide? Can the contemporary tolerant be tolerant of those who are not tolerant?

Postmodernism really made a mess. Postmodernism is very good as a necessary critic to the extremes of rationalism present in modernity. But in and by itself it only leads to nonsense. Once you don’t have anything firm to stand on, anything goes. Everything is relative. Except that everything is relative, that’s absolute. Tolerance today goes the same way: I will not tolerate the fact that you are not tolerant.

Geopolitics and Asia’s Little Divergence: State Building in China and Japan After 1850

Crossposted at the Medium

Why did Japan successfully modernize in the 19th century while China failed to do so? Both China and Japan came under increasing threat from the Western powers after 1850. In response, Japan successfully undertook a program of state building and modernization; in China, however, attempts to modernize proved unsuccessful and the power of the central state was fatally weakened. The failure to build a modern state led to China’s so-called lost century while Japan’s success enabled it to become the first non-western country to industrialize. In a paper with Chiaki Moriguchi (Hitotsubashi University) and Tuan-Hwee Sng (NUS), we explore this question using a combination of historical evidence and formal modeling.

On the surface this East Asian “little divergence” is extremely puzzling. Qing China, as late as the end of the eighteenth century, was a powerful centralized empire. An impersonal bureaucracy selected by exams, and routinely rotated, governed the empire. In contrast, the institutions of Tokugawa Japan are usually described as feudal. The shogun directly ruled only 15% of the country. The remainder was divided into 260 domains ruled by lords known as daimyo who collected their own taxes, possessed their own armies, and issued their own currencies. To the outside observer China would have seemed much more likely to have been able to establish the institutions or a centralized state than Japan.

Figure 1: Qing China and Tokugawa Japan

For much of the early modern period (1500–1700) China and Japan possessed military capabilities that made them more than a match for any western power. This changed dramatically after the Industrial Revolution and their vulnerability exposed by the Opium War (1839–1840) and the Black Ships Incident of 1853, respectively. During the First Opium a small number of British ships overpowered the entire Chinese navy, while Commodore Perry’s show of force in landing in Japan in 1853 convinced the Japanese of western naval superiority. Within a few years, political elites in both countries recognized the need to modernize if only to develop the military capacity required to fend off this new danger.

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Figure 2: Commodore Perry in Japanese eyes

In China, after the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion, there were attempts at modernizing — notably the Self-Strengthening movement associated with Li Hongzhang and others. Recent scholarship has reevaluated this movement positively. At the purely military-technological level it was in fact quite successful. The Jiangnan Arsenal and the Fuzhou Shipyard saw the successful importation of western military technology into China and the Chinese were soon producing modern ships and weaponry. However, these developments were associated with a process of political decentralization as local governors took on more and more autonomy. The importation of military technology was not associated with more far-reaching societal or political reforms. There was no serious attempt to modernize the Qing state.

In contrast, Japan, following the Meiji Restoration, embarked on whole scale-societal transformation. The daimyo lost all power. Feudalism was abolished. Compulsory education was introduced as was a nationwide railway system. A new fiscal system was imposed in the teeth of opposition from farmers. The samurai were disarmed and transformed from a military caste into bureaucrats and businessmen.

Qing China and the newly modernized Meiji Japan would collide in the first Sino-Japanese war (1894–1895). Before the war, western observers believed China would win in part because of their superior equipment. But the Chinese lacked a single national army. It was the Beiyang army and the Beiyang fleet that fought the entire Japanese military force. The fact that Japan had undergone a wholesale transformation of society enabled them to marshal the resources to win a rapid victory.


Figure 3: The Jingyuan, one of the ships in the Baiyang fleet

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Why did the Japanese succeed in modernizing while Qing China failed to do so? Historians have proposed numerous explanations. In our paper, however, rather than focusing on cultural differences between Japan and China, we focus on how different geopolitical incentives shaped their decisions to invest in state capacity and state centralization.

Before the mid-19th century China only faced a threat from inner Asia from where historically nomadic invasions had routinely invaded and threatened the sedentary population of the Chinese plain. Due to this threat, historically China tended to be a centralized empire with its capital and the bulk of its professional army stationed close to the northern frontier (see Ko, Koyama, and Sng (2018)). In contrast, Japan faced no major geopolitical threats prior to 1850. This meant that it could retain a loose and decentralized political system.

After 1850 both countries faced major threats from several directions. China was threatened on its landward borders by Russian expansionism and from the coast by Britain and France (and later Germany and the United States). Japan was threatened from all directions by western encroachment.

We build a simple model which allows for multidirectional geopolitical threats. We represent each state as a line of variable length. States have to invest in state capacity to defend against external geopolitical threats. Each state can use centralized fiscal institutions or decentralized fiscal institutions.

If there is strong threat from one direction, as China faced prior to 1850, the dominant strategy is political centralization. In the absence of major geopolitical threats decentralization may be preferable as was the case in Tokugawa Japan.

The emergence of a multidirectional threat, however, changes things. A large country facing a multidirectional threat may have to decentralize in order to meet the different challenges it now faces. This is what happened in China after 1850. In contrast, for a small state with limited resources, an increase in the threat level makes centralization and resource pooling more attractive. For a small territory like Japan, the emergence of non-trivial foreign threats renders political decentralization untenable.

We then consider the incentives to modernize. Modernization is costly. It entails social dislocation and creates losers as well as winners, the losers will attempt to block any changes that hurt their interests. We show that for geographically compact polities, it is always a dominant strategy to modernize in the face of a multidirectional threat as the state is able to manage local opposition to reform. This helps to explain why all members of the Japanese political elite came around to favoring rapid modernization by the late 1860s.

Consistent with our model, modernization was more difficult and controversial in China. The Qing government and particularly the Empress Dowager famously opposed the building of railroads. The most well-known example of this was the Wusong Road in Shanghai. Built using foreign investment it was dismantled in 1877 after locals complained about it. The Qing state remained reactive and prepared to kowtow to local powerholders and vested interests rather than confront them. Despite local initiatives, no effort was made at wholesale reforms until after China’s defeat at the hands of Japan in 1895.

Figure 4: The Wusong Railroad in 1876

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By 1895 it was too late, however. The attempts of the Qing state to reform and modernize led to its collapse. Needless to state, East Asian’s little divergence would have lasting consequences.

Japan’s modernization program astonished foreign observers. Victory over Russia in 1904 propelled Japan to Great Power status but also set Japan on the path to disaster in the World War Two. Nevertheless, the institutional legacy of Japan’s successful late 19th century modernization played a crucial role in Japan’s post-1945 economic miracle.

Following the collapse of the Qing dynasty China fragmented further entering the so-called warlord era (1916–1926). Though the Nationalist regime reunified the country and began a program of modernization, the Japanese invasion and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) devastated the country. The end result was that China came to be reunified by the Communist party and to experience more conflict and trauma until it began to embrace market reforms after 1979.

On power-display bias and the historians

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book at Palgrave McMillan which discusses Canadian economic history. This excerpt relates to a point that I have made numerous times on this blog regarding the bias for power held by historians and how it often leads them to inaccurate conclusions (here and here):

When the great historian Lord Acton warned that, “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he was not only referring to imbuing certain fallible humans with excessive powers, but also as a caution to historians for their assessment of politicians. Too often, politicians become known for “greatness” because of their actions, regardless of how much they impoverished society or put in place measures that would ultimately erode their citizens’ quality of life. By the same token, some eminent figures remain unknown, relegated to a footnote in the history books, even though they have contributed in a more significant way to economic enrichment, cultural development, and social cohesion. Grand gestures and large-scale social projects inspired by good intentions do not always yield great results – or desirable ones.

If we truly want to assess the Quiet Revolution and the “Great Darkness” with any clarity, we must consider politicians’ actions in a more realistic scope, and sift through the quantitative and qualitative data that show how people thought and acted in the everyday. Through the use of rigorous tools, statistical methods and economic theories, we ought to consider how things might reasonably have developed otherwise without the Quiet Revolution. This is what I have tried to do in this book. (…)

The discourse on Quebec modernity that emerged along with the Quiet Revolution coincided with the emergence of a strong interventionist State. When we compare Quebec to other Western countries, however, our analysis reveals that the State did not play a major role in modernization here. After all, it was in a period when Quebec’s State apparatus was less active compared to the rest of Canada that it was able to progress in leaps and bounds. Of course, the State must have had some effect in certain areas, but the Quiet Revolution was not responsible for the bulk of positive outcomes that came to term during this period. Analyzing trends, causes, explanations and secondary forces at play in Quebec society’s metamorphosis definitely requires a degree of patience and effort. It would be much less onerous to take the easier path of only looking at the State’s activities as worthy of attention in this regard. If we fail to make these efforts, we risk succumbing to the “Nirvana Fallacy.” In order words, we tend to put the State on a pedestal: it becomes a kind of disembodied entity in a virtual reality where it plays the VIP or starring role. Comparing reality with a utopia necessary leads us to conclude that utopia is better, but this approach is utterly fruitless.


Where the state came from

One of the questions that led me to libertarianism was “what is the state?” More than that: Where did it come from? How it works? What’s the use? Analogous questions would be “what is politics?” and “what is economics?” If my classroom experience serves as a yardstick for anything, the overwhelming majority of people never ask these questions and never run after answers. I do not blame them. Most of us are very busy trying to make ends meet to worry about this kind of stuff. I even sought an academic training in politics just to seek answers to these questions. For me it’s nothing to have answers, after all, I’m paid (albeit very poorly paid) to know these matters. Still, I wish more people were asking these types of question. I suspect that it would be part of the process to review the political and economic situation in which we find ourselves.

Many times when I ask in the classroom “what is the state?” I receive in response that Brazil is a state. In general I correct the student explaining that this is an example, not a definition. The modern state, as we have it today, is mainly the combination of three factors: government, population, and territory. The modern state, as we have it today, can be defined as a population inhabiting a specific territory, organized by a centralized government that recognizes no instance of power superior to itself. Often, in the academic and popular vocabulary, state and government are confused, and there is no specific problem in this. In fact, the two words may appear as synonyms, although this is not a necessity. It is possible to distinguish between state and government thinking that the state remains and governments go through.

The state as we know it today is a product of the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age. I believe that this information alone should draw our attention enough: people have lived in modern states only in the last 500 years or so. Throughout the rest of human history other forms of political organization have been used. I am not saying (not here) that these other forms of organization were better than the modern state. I am simply saying that the modern state is far from being natural, spontaneous, or necessary. Even after 1500 the modern state took time to be universally accepted. First, this model of organization spread throughout Europe at the beginning of the Modern Era. It was only in the late 18th century and early 19th century that this model came to be used in the American continent. The modern state spread globally only after the decolonization movement that followed World War II. That is: the vast majority of modern states are not even 70 years old!

What is the purpose of the state? At least in my experience, many people respond by “providing rights” or “securing rights.” People think about health, education, sanitation, culture, security, etc. as duties of the state towards society. It is clear that many people think about health, education, housing, etc. as rights, which in itself is already questionable, but I will leave this discussion for another time. The point I want to put here is that empirically states have only cared about issues like health and public education very recently. In the classic definition of Max Weber (late 19th century), the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. In other words, virtually anyone can use violence, but only the state can do it legally. That is: the primordial function of the state is to use violence within a legal order. Other functions, such as providing health and education, came very late and only became commonplace with the welfare state that strengthened after World War II.

I find it always interesting to see how we live in a young world. Basically the entire world population today lives in some state and expects from this state a minimum level of well-being. However, this reality is only about 70 years old. The idea that we need to live in states that provide us with a minimum of well being is not natural and far from obvious. To understand that the modern state is a historical institution, which has not always existed, it is fundamental to question its validity. Moreover, to note that the functions of the state that seem obvious to us today did not exist 70 years ago leads us to question whether it is valid to expect things such as health and education from the state.

My personal perception is that the modern state (defined by territory, population, and government) is better than any alternative that has already been proposed. However, the state of social well-being is only a sugar-watered socialism. Socialism, by definition, does not work, as Ludwig von Mises very well shows. Partial socialism is as likely to function as full socialism. Expecting the state to use violence within legal parameters is valid and even fundamental. But to expect that this same state may successfully diversify its activities entering the branches of health, education, culture, etc. is a fatal conceit.

A very short response to Bruno Gonçalves Rosi’s reflection on Latin American Conservatism

With his “The Problem with Conservatism in Latin America, Bruno Gonçalves Rosi brings to NOL a very interesting debate on politics and history. In the case of Hispanic America the controversy is quite severe: during the 17th-century Spain and its colonies were undergoing an incremental process of liberalization and modernization known as “Bourbon Reforms.” These reforms implied a language unification (adopting Castilian – later named “Spanish” – as the national language), an increasing centralization of political administration, and free trade between Spain and its colonies, among other aspects.

In the case of the Spanish colonies in America, the Bourbon Reforms implied that Spanish-born subjects were preferred over American-born ones to take up public duties, and also that American products could not compete with Spanish ones. Up until then, commerce among Spain and its American colonies was restrained to gold and a narrow scope of goods. Free commerce had been allowed only in cases of extreme scarcity (for example, between Buenos Aires and South Africa) and for a very short lapse of time. The Bourbon Reforms put a severe strain on the incipient local production of the Hispanic American colonies that had flourished as consequence of closed markets. Sometimes inefficient local processes of production were outperformed by more competitive Spanish goods. But in other cases, efficient local industries were banned because they were regarded as a menace to Spanish ones.

Thus, the reactions to the Bourbon Reforms were of two opposite kinds: the Liberals rejected them because they limited the free trade only to Spain and its colonies and the modernization process was too slow. Liberals demanded free trade with all countries. On the other side, the Conservatives sought to go back to the Habsburg era: they rejected Modernity and free trade and demanded protectionism. The Emancipatory process of Spanish America was carried out by the conjunction of the Liberal and the Conservative reaction against the Bourbon Reforms. Once independence was fulfilled, the two parties became acutely antagonist to each other…perhaps up until today.

The history of Latin American Conservatism and Liberalism is worth our attention not only because of political history itself, but because it gives us a model to ponder the processes of departure from political and economic commonwealths that have been seen in the recent years -and perhaps are not closed yet.