“Internet villages and algorithmic-speech” (from my inbox)

[Note: this is from Vishnu Modur, and he has been gracious enough to let me share his thoughts with you. – BC]

We find ourselves in an overlap of classical free-speech abstractions, editorialized-media discourse, and algorithmic-social media diatribe. Each of these is a product that cannot reproduce the stability of the system that produced them. And yet, these platforms—print, electronic and social media—represent disruptions that fill in a vacuum felt in the other system.

Besides, we tend to think that the IT revolution’s transformations with our iPhones, Facebook, and Twitter, are without a parallel, but think of what urbanization brought to the rural life, what the railway brought in the nineteenth century or the telephone in the early twentieth. Disruptive innovations that increased transportation speed in the past couple of hundred years have not lowered commuting time but instead increased commuting distances. The size of an average individual’s ‘extended family’ cluster is an approximate invariant—it doesn’t change with city size. In a village, we are limited to a community by proximity, whereas in a city, we are free to choose our own “village” by our likes and dislikes.

Similarly, social media tools have not brought us closer the way we intended it would. Instead, they have allowed us to construct our “internet villages.” These internet villages are scaled-up, combustible derivatives that cannot reproduce the stability of offline, real-world social interactions that produced them. Instead of free-speech, they cater to our preconceived notions by exposing us to algorithmic-speech that makes each of us a volatile, motivated political actor outside the legal institutions born out of civil society. Their extreme negative externalities include conspiracies, real-world riots, and unrest. Nonetheless, in a primal way, internet populism coming out of these internet villages is gesturing at the real-world rifts created by liberal legalism’s parchment antidotes on the one end and lack of upward mobility on the other end.

As Tyler Cowen points out in his book, The Complacent Class, in our digital realm, the word “disruption” is no longer violent but the peaceful label for an ingenious upheaval of an established business order. Taking a cue from this digital paradox, it is not unreasonable to assume that a radical improvement in our physical realm may occur when we volunteer to act with moderation on social media platforms. If we don’t act with moderation, someone else will moderate it for us. Responsible self-regulation can preclude complicated centralized government regulation.


  1. A personal survey of nationalisms John Kampfner, Guardian
  2. Tyler Cowen on the Harper’s free speech letter Michael Young, Policy of Truth
  3. A great example of the old way to think about reparations Pierre Lemieux, EconLog
  4. Soviet ideology and the reindeer at the end of the world Bathsheba Demuth, Emergence

Broken incentives in medical research

Last week, I sat down with Scott Johnson of the Device Alliance to discuss how medical research is communicated only through archaic and disorganized methods, and how the root of this is the “economy” of Impact Factor, citations, and tenure-seeking as opposed to an exercise in scientific communication.

We also discussed a vision of the future of medical publishing, where the basic method of communicating knowledge was no longer uploading a PDF but contributing structured data to a living, growing database.

You can listen here: https://www.devicealliance.org/medtech_radio_podcast/

As background, I recommend the recent work by Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen on broken incentives in medical research funding (as opposed to publishing), as I think their research on funding shows that a great slow-down in medical innovation has resulted from systematic errors in organizing knowledge gathering. Mark Zuckerberg actually interviewed them about it here: https://conversationswithtyler.com/episodes/mark-zuckerberg-interviews-patrick-collison-and-tyler-cowen/.

Broken Incentives in Medical Innovation

I recently listened to Mark Zuckerberg interviewing Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison concerning their thesis that the process of using scientific research to advance major development goals (e.g. extending the average human lifespan) has stagnated. It is a fascinating discussion that fundamentally questions the practice of scientific research as it is currently completed.

Their conversation also made me consider more deeply the incentives in my industry, medical R&D, that have shaped the practices that Cowen and Collison find so problematic. While there are many reasons for the difficulties in maintaining a breakneck pace of technological progress (“all the easy ideas are already done,” “the American education system fails badly on STEM,” etc), I think that there are structural causes that are major contributors to the great slowdown in medical progress. See my full discussion here!

Public libertarian intellectuals

Consider the post-Hayek/Rothbard/Friedman era of libertarianism.

Who has stepped up to fill their shoes? It’s hard to say, but 4 academics who stand out are Tyler CowenMike MungerRobert Higgs, and Bryan Caplan. Their scholarly output is comparable to our own Jacques Delacroix, and their influence within the libertarian quadrant is – or was at some point in time – much greater than Jacques’.

All four of these scholars cut their teeth blogging. The blog is how they teach. The blog is how they vent. The blog is how they share news and knowledge. The blog is how they went from well-respected to essential. All four write opinion pieces for professional outlets, but that’s not how they became essential to libertarians across the globe. Sharing their day-to-day thoughts about the world, to the world (and not just their walled-off social media accounts), is how they were able to step up and usher libertarianism into the next generation.

As the new year approaches, I encourage you to think about what liberty means to you. (Is it best left in the hands of professional Libertarians? You know the incentives they face. You know the choices they’ve made.) I also encourage you to be bold in your goofiness. Be strange! Be strong. Be artsy. Be rude (but never cruel). The professional outlets will always be there, waiting patiently to edit out your voice from The Message. Make 2020 the year a new generation of libertarians stepped up and took on the burden of responsible citizen-scholarship.

The public intellectuals we don’t deserve

Joakim’s latest post is so good that I can’t help but add my own thoughts. I disagree with nearly all of Joakim’s picks (though Jared Diamond and Niall Ferguson are good choices), but I can’t put my finger on why this is. So, in the hopes that maybe you can figure out why my list is so different than Joakim’s, here are my six public intellectuals, and the fields they write about, that everybody should know (aside from my fellow Notewriters, of course):

Evolution: Joe Henrich, an anthropologist at Harvard and author of 2016’s The Secret of Our Success, a book that has done better than any other at explaining cultural evolution and its relationship to biology and genetics. Dr Henrich is the guy doing all of that excellent work on WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) people, too. Here is a pdf to a recent article of his on the Roman Catholic Church.

History: With apologies to Kevin, Charles C. Mann is the author whose work on history should be more popular. Mann’s 1491 (2005) is not only what revisionary work should look like, but it’s also a great primer on the history of science. 1493 (2012) was not as groundbreaking as 1491 but it’s still the best work of popular history out there that explains the world we live in today. Mann’s focus on history as a global phenomenon and on the history of science is what sets him apart from all of the others. His The Wizard and The Prophet came out earlier this year.

Exchange: The science of exchange has gone through a bit of a down spell lately, and for good reason: many in the profession have long claimed to be prophets. Tyler Cowen is not one of those economists. His public conversations and blogging and have done wonders for those who follow along, and his books are breezy, informative, and entertaining. My favorite Cowen book is 2009’s Create Your Own Economy, and his newest, Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero, came out earlier this year. His popular work strives to balance a moderate attitude towards all ideas while still leaning strongly on the counter-intuitive ideas that have helped make economics stand out among its peers in the social sciences.

Ethics: Yes, ethics is still important, and John Lachs is the philosopher we don’t deserve. Lachs, a Vanderbilt professor, authored 2014’s Meddling: On the Virtue of Leaving Other People Alone, which is a great, easy-to-read book on an idea that should be much more popular.

Literature: Nnedi Okorafor. Okorafor’s voice has the potential to revitalize conversations on literature throughout the world. Okorafor dabs mostly in the realm of science fiction and fantasy, but she also writes for Marvel Films and Dark Horse Comics. Start with her Binti trilogy. Literature needs a big change in order for people to start talking about books again, and Okorafor has the potential and the swagger to make that happen.

Inequality: The left is almost entirely unreadable on the most important topic in the world today, with the notable exception of Branko Milanovic (his 2018 2016 book Global Inequality is wonderful, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about his newest book: Capitalism, Alone), and conservatives, led by Ross Douthat, have retreated inward and focused on their well-worn hobbyhorses: church attendance, community, and familiarity (Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism is perhaps the hottest book from this sector of the political quadrant). Unfortunately, inequality has always been best dealt with by libertarians, and nobody from the libertarian camp has felt quite comfortable enough, or been good enough, to step up and write the book that needs to be written. Oh wait, that can’t be right. Deirdre McCloskey exists. I’m tempted to put Bourgeois Equality on the list, but a 700+ page book just doesn’t count as popular. Will Why Liberalism Works, her newest book (2019), finally catapult her into the broader consciousness of the West? Let us hope so, but we don’t deserve her.


  1. Making immigration great again John Fonte, Claremont Review of Books
  2. The post-Brexit paradox of ‘Global Britain’ Sophia Gaston, the Atlantic
  3. Tyler Cowen interview on mostly geopolitics Assaf Uni, Globes
  4. The many faces of Muhammad Tom Holland, Spectator


  1. At home with the homeless Johannes Lenhard, Aeon
  2. Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Ursula Lindsey, the Nation
  3. Tyler Cowen on geopolitics marginalrevolution
  4. Collected. Bought. Looted? Friedel & von Gliszczynski, Africa is a Country


  1. Losing the House may actually help Trump more than it hurts him James Rogers, Law & Liberty
  2. Tyler Cowen on the elections Marginal Revolution
  3. Clifford Geertz, radical objectivity, and elections Timothy Taylor, Conversable Economist
  4. Not wearing a poppy Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling

Law on the market: a debate

I’ve been reading through a great debate of sorts, first encountered in a C4SS anthology. I’m sharing it here, as it’s not everyday that one encounters a semi-live issue getting hashed out by giants in the field.

It starts with Robert Nozick. (Precious little starts with Nozick — we have Randians, Hayekians, Rothbardians, but no Nozickians, and no Nozickian tradition. Although he energized libertarianism as a respectable political philosophy for academics, his narrow scope and silent response to critics seem to have killed his staying power.)

Nozick famously claimed in Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) that “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).” A first reading of Anarchy in the context of institutionalized philosophy makes it seem like a defense of libertarianism from big government, socialistic ideology. But, when Nozick’s connection to the Austro-libertarian anarchists is uncovered, the first part of Anarchy looks much more like a defense of small government from the anarchists.

Nozick tries to deal with the problem of law and police on the marketplace. In Chapter 2 of Anarchy, State and Utopia, he envisions a market model of competing rights-enforcement agencies. Eventually, in the service of their customers, two or more protection agencies will clash. They will fight. This results in the destruction of one (to the immediate monopoly of the other) or the relocation of the customers of each (to the territorial monopoly of each in different jurisdictions). If they choose not to fight because of the high expense, even arbitration can’t prevent a legal monopoly: consolidating to the top through voluntary contracts, government emerges anyway above the agencies. Thus, concludes Nozick, a purely free-market society will evolve into a state through an invisible hand process.

Collected in Free Markets & Capitalism?, published by C4SS, Roderick Long makes an argument against Nozick’s conclusion on the basis of different models of a post-state society (“The Return of Leviathan: Can We Prevent It?” (2013)).

Long points to another argument, this one from Tyler Cowen, that there is no way to save anarchy from collusion leading to monopoly (“Law as a Public Good: The Economics of Anarchy” (1992)).

David Friedman responded to Cowen’s argument the year afterward (“Law as a Private Good: A Response to Tyler Cowen on the Economics of Anarchy“), and Cowen responded back (“Rejoinder to David Friedman on the Economics of Anarchy“). Bryan Caplan, in an unpublished manuscript, critiqued Cowen’s position as well (“Outline of a Critique of Tyler Cowen’s ‘Law as a Public Good’“).

This is a showdown between Nozick and Tyler Cowen on the one hand, and Roderick Long, David Friedman and Bryan Caplan on the other. The whole extended debate is fascinating, but I’m not sure it has a conclusion. Was Nozick correct about the natural emergence of a state? Maybe it will take a NOL writer to finish it off…


Lunchtime Links

  1. Are there “hidden taxes” on women in the US? | Do risk preferences account for some of the gender pay gap?
  2. The Military Origins of Urban Prosperity in Europe | Rules of warfare in pre-modern societies
  3. What is the War Powers Act of 1973, and why does it matter? | Thinking about libertarian foreign policy
  4. American and Russian soldiers are shooting at each other in Syria | Why care about Syrians?
  5. State decay and “patchwork” | Laws, Juridification, and the Administrative State
  6. Conservatives and their contempt for detail in governance | Fascism Explained
  7. No, fascism can’t happen here (in the US) | The Gradual, Eventual Triumph of Liberty

Underrated & overrated libertarian thinkers

Here is my take on Tyler Cowen’s views on libertarian thinkers who are either overrated or underrated in shaping the libertarian tradition. Please be aware that I think libertarianism and classical liberalism are two different strands of liberal thought, as argued in more detail in an earlier post here at NOL and in my latest book. Please also note that my judgement will be particularly informed by their views on international relations.


  1. Hans-Hermann Hoppe – completely esoteric ideas about international relations, especially his erroneous and ill-thought idea about private defence through private insurance companies.
  2. Deepak Lal – no complaints about his general work, but his praise for empires was deeply disturbing, even though he meant well. Liberalism and globalization do not need empires, no matter how civilized – in the Oakeshottian meaning – they are meant to be.
  3. Ron Paul – I admire Ron Paul in many ways, but his ideas for ‘a foreign Policy of freedom’ are not much better than Hoppe’s. ‘peace, commerce, and honest friendship’: nice Jeffersonian goals, bad underlying analysis, not least about human nature.


  1. Friedrich Hayek – a far more sophisticated thinker on international relations than he is ever given credit for.
  2. Adam Smith – nowadays erroneously equated with ‘trade leads to peace’ fairly tales. Yet any reader of the complete two volumes of the Wealth of Nations recognizes that the book is also a lot about war and foreign policy, as are his Lectures on Jurisprudence and even a bit in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Together these make for a full and sophisticated position on international affairs.
  3. David Hume – basically the same as Smith.
  4. Robert Jackson – ok, I am taking liberties here. I do not think Jackson would consider himself a classical liberal or libertarian. But his writings on international relations are important and often have a classical liberal leaning, especially The Global Covenant.

What is the best book about Argentina?

A couple of days ago, Tyler Cowen asked which is “the best book about each country:”

To count, the book must have some aspirations to be a general survey of what the country is or to cover much of the history of the country.   So your favorite book on the French Revolution is not eligible, for instance…

He explicitly skips South America. I can’t blame him, as I’ve never found a book that fully captures (the interrelationship between) the five things that make Argentina Argentina:

1. The fight between Buenos Aires and the Interior for fiscal resources. This was the main cause behind the civil wars of the XIXth century, and the eventual solution — the creation of a federal state that could check the power of Buenos Aires, and where the provinces of the interior would be politically over-represented — continues to be a defining feature of the country’s political economy to this day.

2. The division between “unitarios” and “federales,” which also began in the XIXth century. Although this cleavage was ostensibly about how to organize the country territorially, we should not forget that “politics is not about policy:” the actual division was about the relative status of different social groups. Specifically, he federales fell in the “Trumpian” side of the spectrum, praising the common, unsophisticated man “from here” as opposed to the high-brow cosmopolitanism promoted by the unitarios. Again, this division did not end in the XIXth century; Argentina’s political history during the XXth and beyond — and most notably the phenomenon Peronism — simply cannot be understood without making reference to this opposition.

3. The great immigration. Between the end of the XIXth and the beginning of the XXth century, Argentina embarked in a great social experiment that sought to transform the country by importing huge numbers of European immigrants. During this period, Argentina was the country that most immigrants received as proportion of its population, being second only to the US in the absolute number of immigrants it received. The assimilation of such immigrants was mostly successful, but also had profound consequences in terms of demographics, language, culture, cuisine and surnames (where do you think mine comes from?), as well as the way Argentineans perceive themselves: as a middle-class country of immigrants in which hard work allows you to get ahead in life.

4. Nationalism. One of the unintended consequences of the great immigration was the (government-sponsored) construction of a new national identity, defined in terms of territory rather than blood, race, or national history. This is the origin of Argentines’ sickly relationship with national boundaries, most patently seen in relation to the Malvinas/Falklands issue.

5. Pretorian politics. Between 1930 and 1983, Argentina was governed by no less than five different military regimes (in 1930, 1943, 1958, 1966 and 1976, respectively). The last of them (1976-1983) was especially murderous, as the military  systematically “disappeared” thousands of guerrilla members, political activists, union leaders and Left-wing sympathizers in a vain attempt to engineer a new political system. It is impossible to make sense of the political, social and cultural attitudes that have predominated in the country since 1983 without understanding this past.

Unfortunately, no book comes even close to capturing all these factors simultaneously. That said, the ones that best approach this ideal are the following:

1. Juan José Sebreli, Crítica de las Ideas Políticas Argentinas [A Criticism of Political Ideas in Argentina]. As far as I’ve seen, it’s only available in Spanish, however.

2. Larry Sawers, The Other Argentina. The Interior and National Development. As far as I know, it hasn’t been translated; please tell me I’m wrong.

3. Nicolas Shumway, The Invention of Argentina. There is also a Spanish edition.

PS. If you’re going for some XIXth-century work, don’t get swayed by the beguiling prose of Sarmientos’s Facundo; it’s too dominated by mood affiliation. Juan Bautista Alberdi’s Bases y Puntos de Partida para la Organización Política de la República Argentina [Bases and Starting Points for the Political Organization of the Argentine Republic] is a far better choice.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. I thought the Nancy MacLean’s book attacking James Buchanan was great for present-day libertarianism, in that it only weakens the already weak Left. Henry Farrell and Steven Teles share my sensibilities.
  2. What is public choice, anyway? And what is it good for?
  3. One of the Notewriters reviews James C Scott’s Seeing Like A State
  4. Aztec Political Thought
  5. Turkey dismisses 7,000 in fresh purge
  6. 10 Chinese Megacities to See Before You Die

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Could Kurds hold independence referendum this year?
  2. Meet Germany’s Alt-Right
  3. Tolerated theft, suggestions about the ecology and evolution of sharing, hoarding and scrounging [pdf]
  4. It’s time for some game theory, United Airlines edition
  5. Mormon Transhumanists