Adam Smith on the character of the American rebels

They are very weak who flatter themselves that, in the state to which things have come, our colonies will be easily conquered by force alone. The persons who now govern the resolutions of what they call their continental congress, feel in themselves at this moment a degree of importance which, perhaps, the greatest subjects in Europe scarce feel. From shopkeepers, tradesmen, and attornies, they are become statesmen and legislators, and are employed in contriving a new form of government for an extensive empire, which, they flatter themselves, will become, and which, indeed, seems very likely to become, one of the greatest and most formidable that ever was in the world. Five hundred different people, perhaps, who in different ways act immediately under the continental congress; and five hundred thousand, perhaps, who act under those five hundred, all feel in the same manner a proportionable rise in their own importance. Almost every individual of the governing party in America fills, at present in his own fancy, a station superior, not only to what he had ever filled before, but to what he had ever expected to fill; and unless some new object of ambition is presented either to him or to his leaders, if he has the ordinary spirit of a man, he will die in defence of that station.

Found here. Today, many people, especially libertarians in the US, celebrate an act of secession from an overbearing empire, but this isn’t really the case of what happened. The colonies wanted more representation in parliament, not independence. London wouldn’t listen. Adam Smith wrote on this, too, in the same book.

Smith and, frankly, the Americans rebels were all federalists as opposed to nationalists. The American rebels wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom because they were British subjects and they were culturally British. Even the non-British subjects of the American colonies felt a loyalty towards London that they did not have for their former homelands in Europe. Smith, for his part, argued that losing the colonies would be expensive but also, I am guessing, because his Scottish background showed him that being an equal part of a larger whole was beneficial for everyone involved. But London wouldn’t listen. As a result, war happened, and London lost a huge, valuable chunk of its realm to hardheadedness.

I am currently reading a book on post-war France. It’s by an American historian at New York University. It’s very good. Paris had a large overseas empire in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Caribbean. France’s imperial subjects wanted to remain part of the empire, but they wanted equal representation in parliament. They wanted to send senators, representatives, and judges to Europe, and they wanted senators, representatives, and judges from Europe to govern in their territories. They wanted political equality – isonomia – to be the ideological underpinning of a new French republic. Alas, what the world got instead was “decolonization”: a nightmare of nationalism, ethnic cleansing, coups, autocracy, and poverty through protectionism. I’m still in the process of reading the book. It’s goal is to explain why this happened. I’ll keep you updated.

Small states, secession, and decentralization – three qualifications that layman libertarians (who are still much smarter than conservatives and “liberals”) argue are essential for peace and prosperity – are worthless without some major qualifications. Interconnectedness matters. Political representation matters. What’s more, interconnectedness and political representation in a larger body politic are often better for individual liberty than smallness, secession, and so-called decentralization. Equality matters, but not in the ways that we typically assume.

Here’s more on Adam Smith at NOL. Happy Fourth of July, from Texas.

Pride and Subsidies

Freakonomics had an episode on the dramatic impact of subsidies on the visual effects (VFX) industry. Long story short: 1) VFX companies operate on razor thin margins, 2) the industry chases subsidies from competing local governments–Canada and London are  currently important locations, 3) Californian politicians want to bring these jobs back to LA, but doing so would probably be a net burden.

(Let’s put aside the issue of the state of California trying to play central planner by effectively creating different tax rates for different industries. That’s a bad idea for reasons we can explore later.)

Putting yourself in the head of a Californian, something about the policy feels right (maybe not for the typical NOL reader, but probably for the median voter). I’m sure you could convince the median voter that these subsidies are a bad idea, economically. But even so, I’d be willing to bet that you’d still get significant support.

I’m confident that if you were to talk this issue over with a representative sample of California voters–or X industry in Y region for similar industry upheavals–you could convince them of the probable negative impact of such policy and still see many voters at least weakly supporting the policy. Why? Because being able to point to a movie and say “that awesome explosion was made in my backyard,” is worth some degree of sacrifice for these people.

Perhaps people want our government to give us something to be proud of (God knows they give us enough things to be ashamed of!). Perhaps people have some latent willingness to pay to be able to say that some high status industry is in their community/city/state/country.

We like pride, but it costs us. This puts us squarely in the domain of economics. How do we figure out how to make the trade off between pride, and the price we must pay for it? Some cases seem easy, at least in hindsight–the sacrifice of the civil rights movement was a small price to pay for the pride generated–but cases like the VFX industry, aren’t so obvious, but still high stakes.

I don’t think we’re likely to be able to figure out the bill. We can be proud of NASA, movies, the post office, and whatever else. But how much of the cost can we attribute to engaging in activities that make us proud? We get the same issue in markets. I have more than brand loyalty for Honda (the maker of my motorcycle); I’m also proud to associate with Honda as an innovative company with a history of liberating the world’s poor.

A clever statistician or economist could estimate some important facts about how people tend to make these trade offs. Doing so could help us make better decisions, but can’t ultimately replace our own judgment.

Given the uncertainty we face we really have to make a decision about whether to err on the side of over- or under-provision of pride goods–and this is true in a variety of settings.

I suspect that the “let 1000 flowers bloom” approach is the appropriate one here. We don’t want to have one Secretary of Pride deciding to err on the side of over-provision and the result is that a bunch of children die from preventable causes so that we can all feel proud about how cool the latest domestically produced Fast and Furious movie is going to be. On the other hand, it would be a tragedy of slavery was never ended because it would interrupt business as usual.

Markets, civil society, and government face different sorts of pros and cons with respect to how they might make these trade offs. Arguing about them could create a new academic discipline at the intersection of ethics, economics, and sociology.

In all three spheres, there will be many very bad decisions made. But if you aren’t free to be wrong, you aren’t free. The question to ask is what sort of pride goods will tend to survive, and in which spheres?

What we can say for sure is that private, voluntary exchange and cooperation (free markets and civil society) at least allow us to choose our associations. And they require us to choose, and choose again on a regular basis. Our nation is mostly based on luck. Where we live tends not to change much. Voting with your feet is costly, so we should expect it to be that much harder to dismantle big mistakes. The political process routinely results in outcomes we’re ashamed of (about half of voters are ashamed of the results every presidential election!).

There aren’t markets in pride so it’s hard to know how the benefits compare to the costs. But we can (and do) exhibit pride in markets. We should probably do more of it. And perhaps we should also be more skeptical of government, even though we normally think of them as providing pride goods. On the margin, anyways, I think this is a good direction for most people to move. Be proud of your community because the people have whatever unique traits they do. Be proud of the brands you buy from for their contributions to the state of the art. Be proud of your local sports team.