Elite Anxiety: Paul Collier’s “Future of Capitalism”

Paul Collier, the controversial Oxford professor famous for his development work and his acclaimed books Exodus and The Bottom Billion, is back. But the author of Exodus and The Bottom Billion is long gone. The compelling writing and carefully reasoned world that made Bottom Billion impossible to put down has somehow disappeared. In The Future of Capitalism, Collier is tired. He is bitter. And he is sometimes quite mad – so mad that his disdain for this or that group of thinkers or actors in society consumes his otherwise brilliant analytical mind.

Instead of having his editors moderate those of his worst impulses, he doubles down on his polemic conviction. Indeed, he takes pride in offending people in all political camps, believing that it supports the book’s main intellectual point: ideologues of every persuasion are dangerous, one-size-fits-all too constricted for a modern society and we should rather turn to a communitarian social democratic version of pragmatism – by which he means some confused mixture of ideas that seem to advocate “what works” on a case-by-case basis.

Yes, it’s about as nutty as it sounds. And he is all over the place, dabbling in all kinds of topics for which he is uniquely unqualified to offer advice: ethics, finance, education, family, social policy and on and on and on.

One reason The Future of Capitalism went awry might have been the remarkable scope: capturing all the West’s so-called ‘Anxieties’ – and their solutions – in little over 200 pages of non-academic prose. Given the topic, a very unfitting sort of hubris.

Apart from the feeble attempt at portraying a modern society that has “come apart at the seams,” there’s no visible story, no connection between the contents of one paragraph and the next and hardly any connection between one chapter and another. Rather, it’s a bedlam of foregone conclusions, appeals to pragmatism, dire stings to ideological ‘extremists’ on either side and a hubris unfitting for someone like Collier. I guess this is a risk that established academics run at the end of their careers, desperately trying to assemble all their work into One Grand Theory.

The most charitable thing I can say about Collier’s attempt is that it offers a lot of policy prescriptions – tax unearned land rents, tax-and-redistribute productivity increases, expand housing supply through local governments, have governments direct the Silicon Valley-clusters of tomorrow, cap mortgage finance, benefits for families, expand ethical responsibilities of firms, encourage marriage, create a new G6 (EU, US, Russia, India, Japan, China) that could overcome the global collective action problem (good luck with that!), expand Germanic vocational training and workers’ representation on company boards, embrace patriotism but never nationalism, detach ownership from control and place control with stakeholders (workers, suppliers, local homeowners).

The common denominator seems to be an imperative to do all these things that seem to have worked well in some time or place or utopia, conveniently ignore institutional or cultural reasons, while espousing all ideological positioning and political capture.

Just voicing the suggestions ought to spark at least some fruitful conversations.

Chapter 8, ostensibly concerned with the Class Divide, is an illuminating case study. It takes Collier about 36 pages (out of 37) to mention ‘class’ (not that I blame him: the concept is way too nebulous and politically infected to be meaningfully dealt with in such short space). Instead, Collier discusses all kinds of topics whose relevance to class is quite unclear: public policy for single mothers, German vocational training, lawyers and the rule of law, a Yorkshire project to encourage reading in school kids – not to mention a ten-page digression into the institution of marriage for stable families.

When his polemics, dry writing, unsupported analysis or incomprehensive treatment of a topic hasn’t put me off (I gave up on the book at least four times during the last couple of months), some of the picture Collier paints does resonate with me. There is a social and geographical divide in Britain: the economically flourishing South-East, dominated by the well-educated English and the cosmopolitan accents of almost every language on the planet, is posited against the collapsing towns of the backward Midlands or the North. If this divide is real – in support of which Collier offers next-to-no evidence – it is not clear to me that it wasn’t already captured in, say, David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere or Branko Milanovic’s Global Inequality, or for that matter the countless of magazine articles trying to outline the fractures that Brexit unearthed about British society. Considering the effort those authors put into mapping their divides, Collier’s attempt seems frivolous.

He can do better. Much better.
My fellow Notewriter Rick is organising a summer reading group around Feyerabend’s Against Method. The equivalent Collier reading group could be aptly named Against Ideology.


  1. The Indo-Pacific, the Belt and Road, and the Arctic Samir Saran, WEF
  2. Another neoliberal miracle Scott Sumner, EconLog
  3. Dear libertarians, refrain from using the “neoliberal” label Vincent Geloso, NOL
  4. Will social democracy return? Branko Milanovic, globalinequality

What makes robust political economy different?


I encountered what would later become important elements of Mark Pennington’s book Robust Political Economy in two articles that he wrote on the limits of deliberative democracy, and the relative merits of market processes, for social and ethical discovery, as well as a short book Mark wrote with John Meadowcroft, Rescuing Social Capital from Social Democracy. This research program inspired me to start my doctorate and pursue an academic career.  Why did I find robust political economy so compelling? I think it is because it chimed with my experience of encountering the limits of neo-classical formal models that I recount in my chapter, ‘Why be robust?’, of a new book, Interdisciplinary Studies of the Market Order.

While doing my master’s degree in 2009, I took a methodology course in rational choice theory at Nuffield College’s Center for Experimental Social Science. As part of our first class we were taken to a brand new, gleaming behavioural economics laboratory to play a repeated prisoners’ dilemma game. The system randomly paired anonymous members of the class to play against each other. We were told the objective of the game was to maximise our individual scores.

Thinking that there were clear gains to make from co-operation and plenty of opportunities to punish a defector over the course of repeated interactions, I attempted to co-operate on the first round. My partner defected. I defected a couple of times subsequently to show I was not a sucker. Then I tried co-operating once more. My partner defected every single time in the repeated series.

At the end of the game, we were de-anonymised and it turned out, unsurprisingly, that I had the lowest score in the class. My partner had the second lowest. I asked her why she engaged in an evidently sub-optimal strategy. She explained: ‘I didn’t think we were playing to get the most points. I was just trying to beat you!’

The lesson I took away from this was not that formal models were wrong. Game theoretic models, like the prisoners’ dilemma, are compelling and productive analytical tools in social science, clarifying the core of many challenges to collective action. The prisoners’ dilemma illustrates how given certain situations, or rules of the game, self-interested agents will be stymied from reaching optimal or mutually beneficial outcomes. But this experience suggested something more complex and embedded was going on even in relatively simple social interactions.

The laboratory situation replicated the formal prisoners’ dilemma model as closely as possible with explicit rules, quantified ‘objective’ (though admittedly, in this case, low-value) payoffs, and a situation designed to isolate players as if they were prisoners in different cells. Yet even in these carefully controlled circumstances, it turns out that the situation is subject to multiple interpretations and understandings.

Whatever the textual explanation accompanying the game, the score on the screen could mean something different to the various players. The payoffs for the representative agents in the game were not the same as the payoffs in the minds of the human players. In a sense, my partner and I were unwittingly playing different games (although I lost within either rules of the game!).

When we engage with the social world, it is not only the case that our interests may not align with other people. Social interaction is open-ended. We do not know all the possible moves in the game, and we do not know much about the preference set of everyone else who is playing. Indeed, neither they nor we know what a ‘complete’ set of preferences and payoffs would look like, even of our own. We can map out a few options and likely outcomes through reflection and experience but even then we may face outcomes we do not anticipate. As Peter Boettke explains: ‘we strive not only to pursue our ends with a judicious selection of the means, but also to discover what ends that we hope to pursue.’

In addition, the rules of the game themselves are not merely exogenous impositions on us as agents. They are constituted inter-subjectively by the practices, beliefs and values of the actors that are also participants in the social game. As agents, we do not merely participate in the social world. We also engage in its creation through personal lifestyle experimentation, cultural innovation, and establishing shared rules and structures. The social world thus presents inherent uncertainty and change that cannot be captured in a formal model that assumes fixed rules of the game and the given knowledge of the players.

It is these two ideas, both borrowed from the Austrian notion of catallaxy, that makes robust political economy distinct. First, neither our individual ends, nor means of attaining them, are given prior to participation in a collective process of trial and error. Second, the rules that structure how we interact are themselves not given but subject to a spontaneous, evolutionary process of trial and error.

I try to set out these ideas in a recent symposium in Critical Review on Mark Pennington’s book, and in ‘Why be robust?’ in Interdisciplinary Studies of the Market Order edited by Peter Boettke, Chris Coyne and Virgil Storr. The symposium article is available on open access and there is a working paper version of my chapter is available at the Classical Liberal Institute website.

Scotland, Nation, and Liberty

As I start writing voting is coming to an end in Scotland with regard to a referendum on whether Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom comprises England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. There are those in Cornwall, a peninsula on the extreme south-west of England who argue that is should be represented as an entity on  level with those four components of the UK, as it was regarded as distinct from England into the sixteenth century, never having being properly incorporated into Roman Britannia or Anglo-Saxon Wessex (the Old English kingdom in the south west, which became the nucleus of the Medieval English state).

From the 10th century onwards Anglo-Saxon kings asserted supremacy over Scotland with varying degrees of success in obtaining some recognition of overlordship from Scottish kings. Wars between Scotland and England led to victory for Scotland in the fourteenth century when the English monarchy ended attempts to use force to demand Scottish subordination, or even incorporation of Scotland, and European states accepted Scotland as a sovereign entity. In the early seventeenth century, Queen Elizabeth I of England died childless so that the heir to the English crown was King James VI of Scotland who became James I of England. He moved his court from Edinburgh to London, and pushed for the union of two kingdoms in his person to become a state union of England and Scotland as Great Britain. (At this time, Wales was treated as a part of England.)

The English Parliament resisted the creation of Great Britain, but by the early eighteenth century there was mutual interest in the trade and economic advantages of state union with accompany reductions on trade barriers, particularly after the failure of a brief attempt at Scottish empire building in Central America.  An Act of Union was passed by the English Parliament in 1707 and then by the Scottish Parliament in 1708, which abolished the Scottish Parliament. It also left in place major differences in laws, the legal system, education, and the state church, which have lasted until the present day.

Before the personal union of Scotland and England under James VI/I, Scotland itself went through a process of internal integration, or colonisation of the peripheral regions by the centre, as all nations have. This included the 1493  abolition of the Lord of the Isles, which indicated sovereignty over an area covering the highland and island areas of Scotland, and which has a complex history in relation to all the neighbouring powers. The incorporation  of that region, what could easily have been a separate sovereign nation if history had gone a bit differently, was not completed until 1745, that is after the Act of Union, when a British army destroyed an attempted restoration of the Stuart family of James VI/I. The attempted restoration is known as the Jacobite Rebellion. Jacobite refers to the latinised form of James, in honour of James II, who was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 due to his Catholic religion, fears that he was attempting to enforce that religion as a state church instead of the existing Protestant established church, and fears that he was creating an absolute monarchy with a decorative role only for Parliament.

The Jacobite Rebellion itself divided Scotland between the traditional semi-feudal highland chiefs and the commercial world of the Lowlands. As a consequence of the failure of the Rebellion, British law was enforced fully for the first time beyond the Highland line, while restrictions were placed of Highland customs, clothing, and language. The language of the Highlands was Gaelic (a Celtic language relate to Irish, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton).   This was the triumph of the Scots (a dialect of English, or a language which is very close to English depending on point of view) and English speaking Lowlanders and the end of the process initiated by the early Stuart overthrow of the Lords of the Isles.

The United Kingdom was formed by the 1800 Act of Union, which abolished the Irish parliament. Most of Ireland left to form what is now the Republic of Ireland in the early 1920s, but Northern Ireland remained, now with its own parliament, which is why there is still a UK, not just Great Britain.

All this history is to indicate the long historical nature and the complexity of the  relations between England and Scotland, with regard to sovereignty, identity, and so on. Scotland like England was itself a work in progress before union, and the integration of Scotland into what might be taken as a single nation, was completed over one hundred years after the Act of Union, over two hundred years after the union of crowns, under the leadership of the British crown, which at that time was unified with the German princedom of Hanover.

Scotland was never assimilated into England, even when there was no parliament, and Scotland has always been distinct from England than Wales in at least two respects:

  1. there is a higher proportion of trade within Scotland than with England, than of internal Welsh trading activity compared with trade with England;
  2. Wales’s contact with urban centres is just as much with the nearby English cities of Bristol, Birmingham, and Liverpool as with its own cities (principally Swansea and Cardiff) while Scotland is very focused on its own cities (principally Edinburgh and Glasgow).

However, Wales is more distinct from England in language since twenty per cent  speak Welsh fluently, everyone studies Welsh at school, and Wales is officially bilingual, even gesturing towards Welsh language priority. Gaelic speakers are about one per cent of the Scottish population.

The Welsh-Scottish comparison serves to show that ways of assessing national identity and distinctness vary and that there is no one way of evaluating this, so there can be no one institutional and political strategy for accommodating national differences within a state. The level and intensity of Scottish distinctness and identity has amounted to a nation now divided almost exactly down the middle about whether it wishes to separate from the UK.

This is not just an issue of identity though, as a large part of the Scottish independence vote is based on a belief that Scotland is egalitarian, welfarist, communal, social democratic, or even socialist, in comparison with England and that the countries are polar opposites on these issues. Another part of support for independence is the hope that North Sea oil will bring more benefit to Scotland if a Scottish government is collecting the tax revenue, accompanied by the belief that taxation at the UK level is some kind of resource theft.

Building on the historical, political, and institutional account above, what conclusions am I drawing? The first thing to state is of course that Scotland has every right to leave the UK if it so wishes, that it is a good thing that a referendum is being held to test what Scots want, and that if independence is what is wanted, then the government of the residual UK use must take a positive and co-operative approach to the departure of Scotland.

However, I certainly don’t believe that Scotland should separate. Part of that is the emotional patriotism of an Englishman, call it nationalism no problem, based on centuries of shared enterprise and struggle, good (the defeat of National Socialist Germany) and bad (imperialism). The Scots took a disproportionately large part in the trading, colonising, and military aspects of that joint history, and during that history many Scots went to England and became part of English society, John Stuart Mill’s father is a notable example. One of the great flourishing moments of that history was the Scottish Enlightenment of David Hume, Adam Smith, and others, which always involved education, travel, and interaction in England as well as Scotland.

Why peace behind centuries of joint enterprise in which despite centralising processes, differences of identity and in institutions proved to be compatible with the growth of commercial society, civil society, liberty under law, parliamentary government, science and culture, and the twentieth century struggle against totalitarianism.

There’s  a lot for liberty advocates to admire there, without denying that a lot of worse things happened as well, and surely we should be disposed to favour building on that rather than destroying it. Many liberty advocates have a preference for small nations where maybe there is more chance of intelligent laws and policies, less remote from everyday reality and individual understanding of particular realities.

I can only agree with the provision that such a result can be achieved through forms of federalism which are decentralising rather than centralising so that the federal centre is largely responsible for trade, foreign and defence policy, and the lower region and national levels do everything else in an innovative, flexible, diverse, and competitive way.

There is still some benefit in the UK remaining as a unified power for defence and military purposes. It is would not be good from a liberty point of view for a country that in its military budget and capacities, its diplomatic and transnational weight, is still a match for nearly all the major powers. The UK whatever its faults is one of the more liberty  oriented parts of the world, and no good would come from lessening its strategic and diplomatic weight. Of course those liberty advocates who prefer very neutralist and almost pacifist attitudes to international relations will not be impressed, but we live in a world where states with low levels of inner liberty and little respect for the rights of others exist, and should be at least matched by powers that are more liberty oriented at home and more respectful of the rights in the international sphere. The role of liberal democracies has not always been admirable in this sphere, but better those errors than unchecked aggression from authoritarian states.

The institutions of liberty are more likely to flourish in democratic states, where a multiplicity of national and regional identities flourish, than in attempts to break away based on some inclination, of some degree of intensity, that singular national identity is better than multiplicity and that national identity needs unrestrained state sovereignty. In the particular case of Scotland, the Scottish National Party, and others for independence, are relying on the dream of a more socialist country where ‘Scottish’ oil is protected from the English to fund an expanding state, without having a plausible explanation for the currency to be used on independence, or any sense of reality about how international markets testing the prudence of a new state are likely to drive it towards high interest rates and displays of deficit reduction.

The political consequences of a subsequent disillusion with social democratic dreams mingled with existing  assumptions of a morally superior Scottish community, and related anti-English feeling, in economically disruptive circumstances could be most severe and disturbing. Even on a more optimistic assumption about the future in which Scotland moves smoothly into a more social democratic future, nothing is gained from a pro-liberty point of view. Pro-liberty commentators who think that because Hume and Smith were Scots that an independent Scotland will be guided by Enlightenment classical liberalism have completely lost the plot.

Around the Web

1. Stanford’s online encyclopedia of philosophy has a new entry on ‘markets’.

2. Why the Swedes are moving to Norway.

3. John Stossel explains why Washington DC is the richest area in the US:

Lobbyists and taxpayer-funded special privilege won’t go away unless big government does.

4. BRICS planning to build their own development bank. Does this signal the end of the West’s 400-year period of dominance? No. If anything, this is a triumph of the ideal of the West and especially its thinkers’ critiques of central economic planning.

5. The Sectarian Social Democratic Ideal. A very, very good critique of social democracy.