1. Nationalization is as American as apple pie Thomas Hanna, Jacobin
  2. In China, every day is Kristallnacht Fred Hiatt, Washington Post
  3. How Mengzi bested the Golden Rule Eric Schwitzgebel, Aeon
  4. Countries are not anecdotes Scott Sumner, EconLog


  1. When Europeans came to Asian shores Chris Nierstrasz, Aeon
  2. The origins of the military-intellectual complex Daniel Bessner, New Republic
  3. Notes from the Islamic Republic of Iran Bill Merritt, Liberty
  4. Switzerland’s little-known fifth language Molly Harris, BBC

Populism versus Constitutional Democracy

What is the difference between a conservative and a reactionary? A conservative knows when she has lost.

A conservative respects the status quo for the sake of stability. The reactionary rebels against it. Unfortunately, it is the reactionary impulse within Brexit that now threatens to hem in the liberties of British citizens, and threaten the rights of foreign residents, for a long time to come. A looser but productive relationship that Britain could have had with the European Union was lost, first at Maastricht in 1992, then again at Lisbon in 2007. A conservative recognizes this loss and adapts her politics to the new landscape. The reactionary tries to reconstruct those lost pasts in vain as the chaotic debates in Britain and the increasingly disappointing outcome illustrates.

Does this mean that referendums are bad? Do they only embolden radicals and reactionaries? It depends. If referendums are used to rubberstamp the decisions of a party in power, or as a way of deferring political judgement, then they are useless at best, dangerous at worst. By contrast, if they are part of the fabric of a democracy, and act as a real veto on constitutional change, rather than a populist rallying point, then they can be enormously valuable. They act as an additional check on the political establishment that might be irrationally fixated on some new governance structure. It ensures that every major change carries with it some level of majority support.

Ten years ago, I wrote a monograph Total Recall: How direct democracy can improve Britain. I advocated supplementing representative democracy with a norm or statutory requirement for referendums on constitutional issues and new local initiative powers. I focused on direct democracy in US states that mean that US state elections often involve both voting for representatives and on propositions. Referendums are required for state constitutional changes. In some states, citizens can initiate new legislation through propositions.

There are parallel constitutional requirements in force in parts of Europe, particularly in Switzerland, Norway and Ireland. It is hardly a coincidence that direct democratic mechanisms have slowed down European integration wherever they have had statutory rather than merely advisory force. Ireland had to go to the polls several times to get the ‘right’ answer but at least this meant that a majority of Irish eventually accepted the new EU arrangements. By contrast, Switzerland and Norway, against the wishes of their political establishments, took European integration only so far before settling with generous trade relations and much more limited political integration. The cost-benefit calculus of their arrangements are up for debate, but few would deny their legitimacy. Britain’s future position, by contrast, may turn out to look much worse and all because its people never had the chance to say ‘no’ until long after the facts on the ground changed.

It’s the ability to say ‘no’ that’s important, with the implication that the status quo must still be a viable option. A people cannot be legislators. Mass votes can’t add up to complex judgements to inform actionable law. Hence the Brexit referendum for leaving the EU for an unknown alternative was bound to lead to chaos which, in the long run, may undermine the legitimacy of representative government, let alone popular democracy, rather than strengthen it. There is no status quo ante to return to.

At the time I was writing Total Recall, the spirits of referendums never voted on haunted British politics. Referendums were promised on adopting the Euro and the European Constitution. Both were abandoned when the Government realized they would almost certainly lose. So we stayed out of the Euro but signed what became the Lisbon Treaty. This turned out to be a deadly combination that eventually led to Brexit. The Euro is quite badly managed as an economic scheme. As a political mechanism, however, it binds members of the Euro much closer together. Leaving the European Union, as Britain is doing, is perilous and costly. Leaving the Eurozone would be even more difficult as it would involve establishing a new currency from scratch. If New Labour had been serious about putting Britain in a federal united states of Europe, it should have gone all in with the Euro from the beginning.

So Brexit could have been avoided but not by ignoring majority sentiments. If British referendums were constitutionally mandated rather than the random outcome of internal (in this case, Conservative) party politics; if referendums were required to change the status quo rather than a mechanism for a belligerent minority to relitigate past losses, then, like Switzerland and Norway, we would be in a much better position now.

Will our political leaders learn this lesson for the future? That I doubt.


  1. The Alps Rhys Griffith, History Today
  2. London: imploding with cool Ian Jack, NY Review of Books
  3. Should you start your day at 2:30 am? Bryan Lufkin, BBC
  4. Bringing back the Sabbath (against work) William Black, Aeon


  1. How cotton unraveled the Chinese patriarchy Melanie Meng Xue, Aeon
  2. Trump, conservatives, and human rights Seth Kaplan, American Affairs
  3. On paper, federations generally seem like a good idea Emiliano Travieso, Decompressing History
  4. Switzerland’s mysterious fourth language Dena Roché, BBC

English and Math

These thoughts by David Henderson over at EconLog have stuck with me since the day I read them (in 2012):

At the end, one of two hosts [of a radio program he was being interviewed at] asked me, “If you were giving a 12-year-old American kid advice on what languages to learn, what advice would you give?” I think he was expecting me to say “English and Chinese.” I answered, “Two languages: English and math.”

I think of this insight often when I read, mostly because they confirm my own anecdotal experiences travelling abroad. Everybody in Ghana spoke English, and only rural Iberians and Slovenians had trouble with English in Europe. Non-Native French speakers seem only to be in parts of France’s old empire, where old customs – learning the language of the conqueror to get ahead in the rat race – still prevail. English is learned because it’s necessary to communicate these days.

Check out this excerpt from a piece on Swiss language borders in the BBC:

There are four official Swiss languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh, an indigenous language with limited status that’s similar to Latin and spoken today by only a handful of Swiss. A fifth language, English, is increasingly used to bridge the linguistic divide. In a recent survey by Pro Linguis, three quarters of those queried said they use English at least three times per week.

Read the rest. That’s a lot of English used in a country that’s sandwiched between Germany, France, and Italy. I think the power of English, at least in Europe, has to do with the fact that it’s a mish-mash of Germanic and Latin; it’s a “bastard tongue,” in the words of John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia. Let’s hear it for the bastards of the world!


  1. The Forgotten Everyday Origins of ‘Craft’ Sarah Archer, the Atlantic
  2. Changes in the Nature of Work Jacques Delacroix, NOL
  3. Why America Can’t Go Swiss on Guns Kevin Sullivan, RealClearWorld
  4. Eccentric culture is what makes the West unique Rémi Brague, Montréal Review

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, VI. From the 1832 Reform Act to World War One

In this post, a look at comparative growth of democracy in Europe along with Britain’s role in World War One and subsequent European diplomacy.

Britain made some progress towards extending voting rights beyond a very tiny minority in the Reform Act of 1832, which was also a law to make constituency distribution relate to the population of the time, particularly the expansion of the urban population, abolish constituencies of a few voters where the MP was in practice appointed by the local dominant landlord and even out a very inconsistent voting system, reducing the number of people who could vote in at least one case. The overall right to vote was extended from about 5 per cent to about 20 per cent of the population, which did mark a genuine shift of power from the aristocracy and put Britain in a good place in terms of comparative voting rights by the standards of the time. Nevertheless, there was working class disappointment expressed in the Chartist movement which mobilised mass support, but was ignored.

The next major change came in the 1867 Reform Act, which did not introduce universal male suffrage, but did extend voting rights to a significant part of the urban working class. Universal male suffrage at the age of twenty-one did not come until after World War One, alongside suffrage at thirty for women, followed a few years later by voting rights at twenty-one for all women as well as all men. Denmark and Switzerland introduced universal male suffrage with meaningful pluralistic elections in 1848. France reverted to the lost revolutionary republican idea of universal male suffrage, though the meaning of elections was highly constrained by the rise of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte to the presidency, which he transformed into the role of Emperor. Prussia, while reserving a powers to the monarchy and preserving the power of the aristocracy through a weighting of the electoral system to the highest tax payers, did introduce universal male suffrage in 1849.

The 1867 Reform Act in Britain still left it behind these countries, particularly as France became a pluralist democracy after 1870 and a unified Germany appeared in the same year (the events are linked by the Franco-Prussian war of 1870) with universal suffrage, but the same weighting towards the upper class within the Kingdom of Prussia, the largest and most powerful part of the new German Empire, which had a distinct and dominant status within the Empire. As we can see, discussion of the comparative growth of the suffrage and political pluralism soon gets into very complicated details, which also include questions of how much power elected bodies had in relation to hereditary monarchs, so that is the end of the examples.

Anyway, the general pattern is that though Britain was ahead of just about all of Europe outside Switzerland in giving power to elected institutions, there is nothing special or exemplary about the spread of voting rights in Britain. In the nineteenth century it was certainly republics, just Switzerland then France, which established the best situations, which certainly challenges any idea of a special virtue in the British combination of monarchy and parliament. The exemplary monarchical state was Denmark rather than Britain.

Moving onto the First World War, as has already been shown, British entry was not a re-entry into European politics after a complete absence after the Battle of Waterloo. Britain was constantly engaged in European affairs and would not have entered the Great War, if it had not been concerned enough with European politics to establish alliances and have a strong view about German armies invading France and neutral Belgium.

Who to blame for World War One and the question of whether Britain should have taken part are rather divisive questions across political distinctions, so it is difficult to talk about a unified sovereigntist Eurosceptic narrative here, or indeed any political tendency, however defined, having a unified narrative. So it can at least be said that World War One does not add to any claim to the innate superiority of Britain and if Britain was right to intervene, that cannot make it more morally admirable than France and Belgium. The intervention right or wrong certainly reflected British views of its own interests in keeping northwestern Europe, the land mass facing it across the seas, out of the control of a hegemonic European power

It can at least be said that even for those who think on balance Britain was right to come to the full aid of France and Belgium, the continuation of the naval blockade of Germany, part the armistice which ended the war into 1919 was a horrifying policy of suffering imposed on an already defeated and impoverished German population, depriving Britain of any claim to rise morally above the other European powers.  In any case there is no denying that Britain was involved in European politics during the War and after in the Paris peace treaties, the revision of the Treaty of Sèvres, signed with the Ottoman Empire, in the Treaty of Lausanne signed with the Republic of Turkey in 1926.

Next post, World War II

Secession in Europe (but not the EU)

NOL‘s roster has blogged about secession within the EU before, but what about dissatisfied regions joining Switzerland’s cantons instead of the EU? Read more, from the WSJ, to find out…

Around the Web

  1. A Republic of Cuckoo Clocks: Switzerland and the History of Liberty (pdf)
  2. Pastoralism in a Stateless Environment: The Case of the Southern Somalia Borderlands (pdf)
  3. The Profits of Power: Land Rights and Agricultural Investment in Ghana (pdf)
  4. Rethinking Postcolonial Democracy: An Examination of the Politics of Lower-Caste Empowerment in North India (pdf)
  5. Working Across Borders: Methodological and Policy Challenges of Cross-Border Livestock Trade in the Horn of Africa (pdf)

From the Comments: Open Borders and Substantial Increases in GDP

Dr Delacroix gives us a great review of the most recent literature on the relationship between open borders and substantial increases in GDP (50%-150%):

A Long Comment on The Big Thing (open borders)

Thank you, Rick, for causing me to read this very good paper (and thanks to Brandon for making it easily available). I did not find the 150% increase in GDP you promised . That’s OK because it helps me point to one weakness of this paper that should be relevant to any discussion of emigration/immigration focused on policies. The author seems to have been unable to extract from the others articles on which his is based any coherent time dimension. A temporal dimension seems to be lacking. When discussing public policy it ‘s always necessary to consider: “In the short run, in the long run.” An increase of world joint GDP of 150% in fifty years thanks to relaxed immigration seems plausible; the same rise by next year is out of the question, of course.

On several issues, the author comes close to confusing “absence of evidence” with “evidence of absence.” This may be fine for a scholarly article in the discipline of economics. Difficulty to measure or to act upon should not constrain blog discussion however. Five things.

1 “Begin with the country of origin. The departure of some people such as the skilled or talented from a poor country might reduce the productivity of others in that country.”


Qualitative differences between those who emigrate and the population of origin may be very large: This is “cream of the crop” vs “bottom of the barrel” issue. This should be obvious with respect to easily measured age and health status for example. The young and stalwart go first. It may be as true with respect to difficult to measure but obviously existing qualities such as the propensity to take economic risks, for example. Thus, I would be surprised if current Mexican illegal immigrants to the US where not economically more desirable immigrants than their own siblings of the same sex who stayed put. I mean more desirable from my viewpoint, someone who is already inside a country of destination. The risks the illegals took to move act like a beneficial sift in this respect, it seems to me.

Periodically African immigrants drown off Lampedusa in the Mediterranean just for a chance to set foot in the EU where medial jobs expect them. They all have close relatives living in the same economic circumstance at home who did not join them.*

The author calls these considerations a kind of externalities and mentions that they are difficult to measure. Difficult to measure does not mean non-existent; it does not even mean small, as he implies. Passion is also difficult to measure, and so is the wrath of a woman scorned. Neither is small in any sense of the word. Stuff that you do not enter into the equation does not show up in the results except in an unclear, residual sort of way. Those who should be in charge of measuring them, the government bureaucracies of countries of origin, are often inept, corrupt, uninterested or discouraged from doing so by government that prefer slogans to facts. Yet, that’s no reason to write these thing off from our thinking.

2 Author asks sensibly:

“Is productivity mostly about who you are, or where you are?”

Productivity clearly has a lot to do with where you are. (Take a man’s shovel in Sonora, teach him how to drive a backhoe in Brooklyn….) I don’t know what the proportions are between it and the answer to the “who” question but I think it would be absurd to set the “who” at zero. Even national origin may matter on the average: If you absolutely must choose between an unknown Englishman and an unknown Frenchman for a cook, which would you chose?

3 Author is too quick to dismiss the argument of impoverishment caused by emigrants’ departure in their countries of origin. He even uses a logically flawed argument, I think:

“But if human capital externalities from health workers were a first order determinant of basic health conditions, African countries experiencing the largest outflows of doctors and nurses would have systematically worse health conditions than other parts of Africa. In fact, those countries have systematically better health conditions (Clemens, 2007).”

Or, is it more likely that: African countries possessing quality health personnel training programs enjoy superior health conditions as a result (I am thinking vaccinations) and some of the health personnel they train are employable in rich countries.

By the way, this raises the general problem of losing at – least temporarily – the benefits associated with the cost of rearing labor. When a Filipina arrives in the US at 19, ready to work in a hospital, the fact is that I contributed nothing to the cost of bringing her up to that point. Someone else has, in the Philippines, most likely. It’s possible that on the average, the home remittances of such immigrant workers more than covers the cost of rearing and training them. I don’t know if it’s true, or how often. I would like to find out.

Author’s savant discussion of externalities seems (seems) to conclude that even if there is a loss to the country of origin, not much can be done. Of course, something can be done: Let the country of destination pay fees to someone or something in the country of origin that supported the cost of training the immigrant worker; in other words, re-imburse at low cost the expense incurred in creating an unearned benefit in the country of destination.

4 Policy makers in Europe are much exercised over the “lifeboat effect.” Even if immigrants’ arrival results in superior economic growth, even if it solves long term problems, as in Social Security, a sudden influx of large numbers may quickly overwhelm destination societies. It may markedly lower their standards of living. (Think of elementary school classes suddenly crowded with children who don’t know the teachers’ language.) I did not find that this article deals with this matter except between the lines, in an implied manner.

[Wholly theoretical Figure 1 does not help me with this although I am attracted to its curves.]

5 Author does his job as an economist well. He writes about the economics of emigration/immigration and he reports on solid research within the constraints of the discipline of economics discourse. But here are also political consequences of immigration we are free to discuss on this blog. (That’s what blogs are for, I think.) This is especially true for a libertarian blog because it poses squarely the problem of national boundaries, of the respect they are owed or not, of their convenience or inconvenience vis-a-vis libertarian aspirations.

Political consequences of immigration loom large in the imaginations of many people in the countries of destination. The manifestations of their concern are not all vacuous or ignorant, or hysterical. The 8 million Swiss -including many immigrants – may have good reason to wonder how many people they can absorb who think that separation of church and state is not only a bad idea but a major sin. Many French people of old French origin are openly racist. Among those responsible French people who are not racist at all, it’s common to worry about the short-term consequences of the legitimate burden high fertility immigrants place on their already sinking welfare system. (The high fertility is documented; it’s not a rumor.) Many American conservatives are worried about Mexican immigrants’ high propensity to vote Democratic. In the end, it’s possible to imagine a scenario where, in combination with other factors,** Mexican immigration helps turn the United States become a one-party state for all intents and purposes. Incidentally, I like Mexicans and I think they make first-rate immigrants. See my co-author articled with Nikiforov on my – Facts Matter – blog.

Sometimes, author handles humor a little too lightly: “Mayda (2006) finds that it is the wealthier, better educated, and less nationalist individuals in rich destination countries who have more favorable attitudes toward immigration.” Sure thing, I am thinking! They want a steady supply of maids and gardeners.

* As some readers already know ad nauseam, I am an immigrant myself. I had four siblings brought up in pretty much the same micro and macro environments as I. They all shared my mediocre level of educational attainment (high school or less). Three of my siblings never tried to move to a richer country as I did; another tried and failed. The difficulties inherent in emigration must select in favor of the desperate, the brave, and of the sociopathic. (Ask me for a good recent book on the latter.)

** The Republican Party’s current striking political incompetence (small p) looms large on my mind as I write this

Has Foreign Affairs Been Reading NOL?

Hello all, I signed up for a pretty challenging final quarter here at school, so my postings will probably be scarce for the next two or three months. It seems Foreign Affairs, one of the more sober foreign policy journals out there, is finally starting to read us here at the consortium. I’ll get to that in a minute but first: editorial duties call!

  1. Be sure to read Dr. Delacroix’s Bush-worshiping piece for an example of how obstinate ignorance works. The very man who mocks smart, well-educated people for their acceptance of scientific consensus on global warming as ‘cultists‘ seems to believe that “there were very good reasons for any reasonable person to be misled about the existence of  [WMDs] in Iraq.” You have to admit, the man has a lot of brass!
  2. I still have to get to co-blogger Andrew Roth’s recent comment chastising conservatives and libertarians for failing to recognize the many nuances associated with Bismark’s statecraft and Roosevelt’s New Deal.
  3. We’ve got a couple new writers who will be blogging here at the consortium. One is an economics major at UC Merced and the other is a Guatemalan national doing graduate studies in Denmark, so stay tuned!

Political scientists Roland Benedikter and Lucas Kaelin have a fascinating piece in Foreign Affairs focusing on the one bright spot in Europe these days: Switzerland. Libertarians who have read the political and legal works of Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and James Buchanan will recognize the gist of the arguments right away. To summarize: small, democratic states are the best form of government available to man, given our vast shortcomings, and these small states are, in turn, much better off operating within vast free trade zones that do not hinder the small-scale democracy at work in these states. From the piece: Continue reading

Power and Happiness (President Obama in India)

There is widespread confusion around between two ideas that should be easy to separate from each other. I keep bumping into it. I had several lengthy discussions of it with strangers on Facebook. Some were of the left, some of the right. I found it in my morning paper under the pen of no less than columnist David Brooks of the New York Times (“Midwest at Dusk”11/7/1)).

I refer to the confusion between the happiness of a country’s citizens and the country’s standing in the world. David Brooks wrote:

“If America can figure out how to build a decent future for the working-class people in this (mid-Atlantic) region, then the US will remain a predominant power. If it can’t, it won’t.”

Like this.

President Obama’s post- “shellacking” visit to India is a good time to clear the confusion.

It may be that there is some sort of connection between the happiness of a country’s citizens (or some) and being a “predominant power.” It may be but it’s far from obvious. You would have to demonstrate it. It would be hard; casual evidence does not support the idea. Deeper research does not either. Continue reading

Chocolate for Thought

There is a pervasive feeling among thinking people that this country is not just facing a severe economic crisis but that we are losing something exceptional. That something is American exceptionalism precisely. Lech Walesa, the blue-collar hero of Polish freedom from communism put it well in a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal. There is only one of America and if it ceases being itself, the world is left in the dark, goes the thinking. It’s not reasonable to count on the debt-ridden government pension-sucking Europeans to hold up the flashlight. The fact is that several European countries are disappearing because they don’t make enough babies to replenish themselves. That’s the ultimate form of pessimism. (And no, this is not a racist statement, I am completely pleased with the fact that brown-skinned Mexicans and their children are keeping the American population growing. They make good immigrants. See my article on Mexican immigration, with Nikiforov, in the Summer 2009 issue of the Independent Review.)

Unfortunately, there is an innate humility among Americans which makes it difficult for them to think aloud about American exceptionalism. If there were not, twenty years of cultural relativism in the schools would make the very thought difficult to formulate: “Everybody is equal. We are not any better than those who suck their grandmothers’ brain – but only after they die, or than those who practice horrendous sexual mutilation on little girls, or than those who still practice slavery. Only American slavery was atrocious. Slavery in exotic locales is kind of nice, actually, if you look at it in its proper cultural context.”

One way to overcome this shyness and diffuse sense of equality in order better to grasp what we are losing is to consider Swiss exceptionalism about which no one gives a damn, not even the SwissIt turns out that in the main respects, there is not one America, there are several. Switzerland is one. Continue reading