Random Reading of Pseudonymous Authors

1. A review copy of The Mystery of the Invisible Hand, by “Marshall Jevons.” A didactic novel, better than I expected, but not as good as The Price of Everything. I did finish it. My favorite passage, though, is when the author quotes Carl Christ.

Some people think that economists care only about money. I have heard an unkind critic say that an economist is someone who would sell his grandmother to the highest bidder. This is quite wrong. An economist, or at least a good economist, would not sell his grandmother to the highest bidder unless the highest bid was enough to compensate him for the loss of his grandmother.

2. How Civilizations Die, by David P. Goldman, who writes columns as “Spengler.” Very anti-Islam, very pro-Jewish and pro-Christian, very heavy on the civilization-barbarism axis. Not a book you turn to for even-handedness or diplomacy. One representative sample:

Wherever Muslim countries have invested heavily in secondary and university education, they have wrenched their young people out of the constraints of traditional society without, however, providing them with the skills to succeed in modernity. An entire generation of young Muslims has lost its traditional roots without finding new roots in the modern world. The main consequence of more education appears to be a plunge in fertility rates within a single generation, from the very large families associated with traditional society to the depopulation levels observed in Western Europe. Suspended between the traditional world and modernity, impoverished and humiliated, the mass of educated young Muslims have little to hope for and every reason to be enraged.

I think that recent events will lead people to give more consideration to such darker outlooks. If Presidents Bush and Obama had something in common, it is that they both believed that the process of political modernization among Arab Muslims would prove simpler than it has. Bush was overly optimistic about Iraq, and Obama was overly optimistic about the revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Syria.

For a different take from the civilization-barbarism axis that is too long to excerpt but interesting, see Forfare Davis.

By the way, my Facebook feed has changed radically in recent months, with much less political snark and a surfeit of cute animal videos. Part of me wonders if something like that happened in Britain when Hitler took power in 1933. Was politics just too unpleasant to contemplate at that point?

What Else I’m Trying to Read

Jeffrey Friedman’s latest essay in Critical Review. A snippet:

On a question of values, as Max Weber recognized, one’s decision is simple, for values are matters of axiomatic faith: there one stands and can do no other. Empirical issues, while not nearly as dramatic as valence issues, are much harder to decide.

Recently, I was asked to write a short piece on why it is that economists who support a welfare state tend to also support a regulatory state, and conversely. I claim that economists have common values but differ on the empirical issue of whether or not technocrats are able to improve market outcomes. I came to take this view in part because of years-ago conversations with Friedman.

The focus of the essay is on thinking about what political actors believe. One particularly interesting issue concerns when elites hold different opinions from the democratic majority. In such cases, is it best to have a political system that defers to elites or one that defers to the majority? If you need an example, think of open borders.

The issue of Critical Review is self-recommending, but I am just getting started with it.

Possibly relevant: Cass Sunstein, who writes,

It’s not easy to solve the knowledge problem, but in the modern era, regulators are in a far better position to collect dispersed information from the public. On this view, the goal of notice-and-comment rule-making is emphatically not to conduct an opinion poll, to take some kind of political temperature, to see how much applause a proposal is able to attract, to defuse public opposition, to engage in some communications strategy, or to collect the digital equivalent of postcards (even though a number of those are sometimes sent in). Instead, the goal is overwhelmingly substantive, in a sense even Hayekian—to fill gaps in knowledge and to see what might have been overlooked. In particular, the agency’s assessment of the likely consequences of regulations is subject to close scrutiny. If the agency has inaccurately assessed costs and benefits, public participation can and often will supply a corrective. Democratization of the regulatory process, through public comment, has an epistemic value. It helps to collect dispersed knowledge and to bring it to bear on official choices.

As is often the case, I do not find Sunstein persuasive.

Culture and Institutions

Bryan Caplan writes,

Simple economics implies that government enterprises should be far worse than they really are.

I am reading (admittedly a bit late to the party) Peter T. Leeson’s collection of essays on anarchy. In at least one of the essays, he takes the view that the cultural margin is more important than the institutional margin. That is, he seems to be saying that there are no societies in which anarchy will work well but government would work poorly, or vice-versa. Instead, on the one hand there are well-developed cultures, which could have good government or good anarchy, while on the other hand there are poorly-developed cultures, which could have only bad government or bad anarchy.

I have referred often to the debate about the relative primacy of culture and institutions. I tend to side with the culturalists. The classic institutionalist counter-example is Korea. I think that it is reasonable to suggest that North Korea would be much improved under anarchy. But in general, I think that Leeson’s view, which I take to be one of cultural primacy, holds.

WSJ on Boettke

A nice article (you may have to use Google News to view it).

the 50-year-old professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia is emerging as the intellectual standard-bearer for the Austrian school of economics that opposes government intervention in markets and decries federal spending to prop up demand during times of crisis. Mr. Boettke, whose latest research explores people’s ability to self-regulate, also is minting a new generation of disciples who are spreading the Austrian approach throughout academia, where it had long been left for dead.

The Pew Quiz on Political Typology

I found it repetitive and unsatisfying. Thanks to Mark Perry for the pointer. I thought that the responses that were supposed to be conservative were left-wing stereotypes of conservative views. Not so much the other way. I thought that sometimes small wording nuances that they probably did not notice affected my answers. The difference between “most” and “every” was significant to me, but my guess is they chose those words more casually.

It called me a Business Conservative.

Business Conservatives generally are traditional small-government Republicans. Overwhelming percentages think that government is almost always wasteful and it does too much better left to businesses and individuals. Business Conservatives differ from Steadfast Conservatives in their positive attitudes toward business and in their strong support for Wall Street in particular. Most think that immigrants strengthen the country and take a positive view of U.S. global involvement. As a group, they are less socially conservative than Steadfast Conservatives.

I wonder if they have a libertarian category and I failed to make it there. Otherwise, what they call business conservative may be the closest thing you can get to libertarian within the confines of the survey.

I think that the three-axis model is better. Some people did not care for the quiz in The Three Languages of Politics, but I think it was actually a better quiz than what the Pew people came up with.


A reader writes,

I think Ferguson is a great illustration of your 3 axis model. Would love to read a post of your’s discussing that.

I have been on vacation with only sporadic skimming of news. All I know is that a black resident was shot by a white policeman, and some rioting has ensued. The three-axis model would predict:

–progressives would view the black resident as representing an oppressed class. They would be critical of society’s unjust inequality and racism.

–conservatives would view rioters as representing barbarism. They would be critical of anyone they think encourages rioting.

–libertarians would view the police as representing coercion. They would be critical of police who act as if the unlimited use of force is their prerogative.

Again, I have only been skimming the news. Is that actually how views have been falling out?

Profit vs. Nonprofit

Natalie Scholl writes,

AEI’s Values and Capitalism program just released a new book titled “Entrepreneurship for Human Flourishing.” In it, the authors, Chris Horst and Peter Greer, argue that entrepreneurial businesses, “which sustain productive development long after charitable giving dries up,” are the real engine of true human flourishing. Here, Horst and Greer answer a few questions about the book.

In a number of posts, I have argued that we should raise our estimate of the moral standing of profit-seeking enterprises relative to that of non-profits.