Time, Technology, and Textiles

A Review of The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World, by Virginia Postrel, Basic Books, 2020


In 1998, Virginia Postrel closed her now classic book The Future and its Enemies with the observation that “We live in an enchanted world, a world suffused with intelligence, a world of our making. In such plenitude, too, lies an adventurous future.” Though I suppose some might see her books written since then–The Substance of Style and The Power of Glamouras somehow “artsy” and disconnected from the more traditional political and economic arguments of The Future and its Enemies, they seem to me to be deeper explorations into that enchanted world and the intelligence that suffuses it.


Postrel’s newest book, The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World (out this month from Basic Books) applies this same sense of wonder and wealth to the subject of textiles. The book is an ideal example of the value added to a subject by Postrel’s wonder-filled approach. As an avid knitter and embroiderer, an occasional crocheter, quilter, and constructor of clothing, I know a good bit about textiles. Nearly everything that I hoped would be mentioned in the book was in there–a discussion about the sea snails that provide the blue dye for tallit fringes? An exploration of the coal-tar dyes that provided D.H. Lawrence with one of his best images for beauty coming from unexpected places? The complex sexual politics of women and spinning? They’re all in there. (I did hope for a discussion of green arsenic dye, but that is a story that has been widely covered in other discussions of tragedies of the Industrial Revolution.) 


And there is so much else I didn’t know. The radical nature of the first published weaving patterns. The sumptuary battle over–of all things–calico, which we moderns think of as a hopelessly out of date and “countrified” fabric.The complex interplay among weavers, dyers, and traders of different nations that resulted in kente cloth. Readers will pause throughout the book to examine the clothing they are wearing and the textiles that fill their home as Postrel points out what makes each of them remarkable.


And each of Postrel’s detailed explanations is fascinating. I was particularly entranced by her chapter on the gross and beautiful explorations of dying. The long history of revolting ingredients and smells that produce objects of great beauty sums up, for me, something central to the human condition–our endless hunger for the sublime, and our inability to achieve it without lowly tools and methods. But it also, in Postrel’s hands, becomes a reminder of that “world suffused with intelligence” that is so central to her understanding of how humans operate.


The best example I can give of this is her observation that: “Nowadays we call [indigo] that plant-derived coloring ‘natural’ to distinguish it from dyes formulated in chemical labs, including chemically identical synthetic indigo. But producing indigo takes far more artifice and effort than the word natural implies. Its source may grow in the wild, but turning leaves into dyestuffs for making blue cloth requires considerable technological prowess.” We have had that prowess for at least 6000 years, and in five concise and enormously readable pages, Postrel takes us through the development of that technology in ancient times, the later refinement of it into a portable technology that could be traded, and her own attempts to replicate the techniques for dying with indigo at home. Never once do we lose her sense that each step in the process of this technique is a leap for human intellect and a step into the future.


The political and economic are not absent in The Fabric of Civilization, either. Regular readers of Econlog and economic historians will find much to think about here, and textile historians will find new economic and political insights into their subject. 


Though Postrel is happy to tell readers all about the different looms used to weave different kinds of fabrics, she is equally detailed in her discussion of the reasons behind different rates of pay for different kinds of textile workers in different times and places. She also reminds us that the history of textiles is the history of trade–not just in the existence of the Silk Road, or in the birth of banking from the textile merchants of the early Renaissance, but also in the use of different textiles as money, the development of arithmetic and double-entry bookkeeping as offshoots of textile trading, and on and on. She reminds us, as well, that in contrast to the too-frequent reliance on a narrative that focuses on colonialist oppressors appropriating the culture and art of the colonies, that artistic trade went both ways. Artists and consumers on both sides of these exchanges influenced and were influenced by trading partners. That’s a more complicated, more interesting, and richer story than the one we think we know.


It would be easy for a book on textiles to focus exclusively on the pleasures of home crafting, small producers, and vintage, even antique, technologies. But Postrel, a dynamist since before she coined the term, is as fascinated by the engineer and the chemistry lab as she is by the dye pot and the loom. Her discussion of the Swisstex company’s work on “creating colorful textile with minimal side effects” is a fitting close to her chapter on dying. Their chemistry experiments and engineering innovations lead the way to a modern dye process that allows us to leave behind the stench and the dangerous by-products of ancient methods and early industrial improvements to them. You don’t get those, notes Postrel, “by thinking like a nature child. You get it by thinking like a Swiss engineer.” 


Her final chapter, “Innovation” explores the already existing improvements in textiles made by companies like Under Armour, and the technologies that soon might overturn everything we think we know about fabric. Smart fabric that charges your phone when you put it in your pocket? Fabric that only needs to be brushed clean, not washed? Clothes that make us cooler instead of warmer? Friends of the future may want to start the book here, and then travel backward to see how far we have come.


There are plenty of books about textiles for those of us who are interested in them. But there is only one by Virginia Postrel. You should read it.


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Wretched Refuse? vs. Ominous Speculation

An army of immigration skeptics warn that mass immigration paves the road to socialism and tyranny.  When they express these fears, they almost always find a receptive audience.  Even thinkers inclined to favor immigration often get cold feet when they visualize the new arrivals’ broader political effects.

Yet if you search for actual research on what economists call “the political externalities of immigration,” you won’t find much.  George Borjas himself writes: “Unfortunately, remarkably little is known about the political and cultural impact of immigration on the receiving countries, and about how institutions in these receiving countries would adjust to the influx.”  Indeed, to the best of my knowledge there isn’t a single book published on this general topic.

Until now.  Early next year, Cambridge University Press releases Alex Nowrasteh and Ben Powell’s Wretched Refuse? The Political Economy of Immigration and Institutions.  Immigration skeptics will no doubt protest that both authors are well-known for their pro-immigration stances.

Yet the fair question to ask skeptics is: Shouldn’t you have published your book on this topic years ago?    They, after all, are the ones predicting doom.  The fact that Nowrasteh and Powell are beating them to the punch is deeply revealing at the meta level: Even the more scholarly critics of immigration rely heavily on ominous speculation.  In social science, pessimists normally present concrete evidence of social ills, and critics try to rebut them.  For immigration, the critics often have to create the pessimists’ case for them, then rebut it – because the pessimists don’t go beyond vague Cassandra cries.

I’ll discuss Wretched Refuse? in depth when it releases.  For now, I’ll just say that I’ve read the book, and it’s excellent.  Pre-order now!



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188 Years After the Death of Jean-Baptiste Say

Sunday November 15 will mark the 188th anniversary of the death of Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832), author of the Traité d’économie politique, whose first edition appeared in 1803. The 4th edition (1819) was translated in English and published as A Treatise on Political Economy (1821). I recently directed a Liberty Fund conference of this great economist, mainly known as the discoverer of Say’s Law (supply creates its own demand), against which John Maynard Keynes more or less conceived his 1936 General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

Among his many ideas that preceded today’s economics by one or two centuries, Say explained that the middlemen between the producer and the final consumer play an efficient role by moving goods to where the consumer can purchase them. The middlemen create value too. Say also developed an idea that many of our contemporaries—think of the defenders of “price-gouging” laws—still do not grasp. He explained how the speculators and hoarders benefit the consumer:

There is a further branch of commerce, called the trade of speculation, which consists in the purchase of goods at one time, to be re-sold in the same place and condition at another time, when they are expected to be dearer. Even this trade is productive; its utility consists in the employment of capital, warehouses, care in the preservation, in short, human industry in the withdrawing from circulation a commodity depressed in value by temporary superabundance, and thereby reduced in price below the charges of production, so as to discourage its production, with the design and purpose of restoring it to circulation when it shall become more scarce, and when its price shall be raised above the natural price, the charges of production, so as to throw a loss upon the consumers. The evident operation of this kind of trade is to transport commodities in respect of time, instead of locality.

The last sentence is the crux of the matter. Let me also quote these lines in their original French, as they appeared in the 6th edition of the Treatise, the last one in Say’s lifetime. The text is much clearer than the previous translation:

Il y a un commerce qu’on appelle de spéculation, et qui consiste à acheter des marchandises dans un temps pour les revendre au même lieu et intactes, à une époque où l’on suppose qu’elles se vendront plus cher. Ce commerce lui-même est productif ; son utilité consiste à employer des capitaux, des magasins, des soins de conservation, une industrie enfin, pour retirer de la circulation une marchandise lorsque sa surabondance l’avilirait, en ferait tomber le prix au-dessous de ses frais de production, et découragerait par conséquent sa production, pour la revendre lorsqu’elle deviendra trop rare, et que, son prix étant porté au-dessus de son taux naturel des frais de production, elle causerait de la perte à ses consommateurs. Ce commerce tend, comme on voit à transporter, pour ainsi dire, la marchandise d’un temps à un autre, au lieu de la transporter, d’un endroit dans un autre.

The formulation could perhaps have been more general—for the same speculation happens when, say, facemasks are not produced under their cost of production but the speculator foresees that their demand will jump over the current quantity supplied. But remember that Say wrote in the early 19th century, just a quarter of a century after Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, at a time when the first conceptualization of this sort of economic problems was attempted. In fact, such issues are so difficult to understand that many among our intelligent contemporaries still don’t.

On Sunday, raise your glass to Say.

Yet, a historical mystery remains. Why was classical liberalism, which was then on its rise, so rapidly restrained by reactionary opinions? Is the classical-liberal or libertarian ideal a mirage? Jean-Baptiste Say foresaw an explanation:

To speak the truth, it is because the first principles of political economy are as yet but little known; because ingenious systems and reasonings have been built upon hollow foundations, and taken advantage of, on the one hand, by interested rulers, who employ prohibition as a weapon of offence or as an instrument of revenue; and, on the other, by the personal avarice of merchants and manufacturers, who have a private interest in exclusive measures, and take but little pains to inquire, whether their profits arise from actual production, or from a simultaneous loss thrown upon other classes of the community.

A good explanation, no doubt, and which was much improved by the public-choice school of economics that developed a century or more after the Treatise. But is it sufficient?


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Life, Liberty, and M*A*S*H: Anti-War

This fall, LIFE magazine has published a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movie M*A*S*H. Despite the hook, the issue focuses on the ensuing TV series, which ran from 1972 to 1983. Though the show has often been characterized as being politically left-wing, it actually is heavily classically liberal, celebrating the individual, civil liberties, and the market, and harshly criticizing anti-individualism, government compulsion, and government decision-making. In a series of essays, I examine the classical liberalism of M*A*S*H. This is Part 3. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.


Though Hornberger’s book avoids judgment on war, both the film and TV series are unapologetically anti-war. The series regularly portrays war’s miseries, tugging at the heartstrings but not breaking them, respecting viewers instead of putting them off.

The greatest horror of war, death, was central to one of the series’ first ratings successes, the episode “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” (s. 1). Hawkeye is visited by childhood friend Tommy Gillis, who has volunteered for service in order to write a book on his experiences. Later in the episode, a wounded Gillis is brought to the 4077, where he dies on Hawkeye’s operating table. Afterward, a tearful Hawkeye is consoled by the unit’s bumbling but kind-hearted first commander, Lt. Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson):


I’ve watched guys die almost every day. Why didn’t I ever cry for them?


Because you’re a doctor.


What the hell does that mean?


I don’t know.

If I had the answer, I’d be at the Mayo Clinic. Does this place look like the Mayo Clinic?

All I know is what they taught me at command school. There are certain rules about a war.

And rule number one is: young men die.

And rule number two is: doctors can’t change rule number one.


The series’ pivotal episode, “Abyssinia, Henry” (s. 3), concluded with news that Blake, on his way home after an honorable discharge, was killed when his plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. The story shocked viewers, prompting an avalanche of angry letters to the network. But as show co-runner Gene Reynolds explained, “We didn’t want Henry Blake going back to Bloomington, IL and going back to the country club and the brown and white shoes, because a lot of guys didn’t get back to Bloomington.”


Death-centered episodes are among the series’ best. In “Old Soldiers” (s. 8), the 4077’s subsequent commander, the venerable Colonel Potter, reminisces tenderly about his now-deceased comrades from World War I. “Follies of the Living — Concerns of the Dead” (s. 10) depicts a deceased soldier’s soul lingering at the 4077, observing the big and small tribulations of the staff. In “Give and Take” (s. 11), an American G.I. and a North Korean soldier whom the G.I. wounded are both treated at the 4077 and become friendly, only for the North Korean to succumb to his wounds. “Who Knew?” (s. 11) shows Hawkeye, sobered by the tragic death of a unit nurse, finding the courage to express his love for his unit colleagues. And in “Death Takes a Holiday” (s. 9), Hawkeye, fellow surgeon B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell), and head nurse Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit) try to extend the life of a brain-dead soldier brought in on Christmas Day, hoping to not ruin future Christmases for his children. When the G.I. dies before the day is out, Margaret reflects: “Never fails to astonish me: you’re alive, you’re dead. No drums. No flashing lights. No fanfare. You’re just dead.” And in “The Life You Save” (s. 9), a philosophical surgeon Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers) compares his profession’s limited abilities to those of the 4077’s company mechanic, Sgt. Luther Rizzo (G.W. Bailey):

Don’t you understand the power you have here?

You can take a Jeep apart and reduce it to an inert pile of junk.

And then, whenever you want to, at whim, you can fit it together again, and it will roar back to life.

If only we could do that with human beings.

They — they wouldn’t die.

Also among the series’ best episodes are several portraying the war’s devastating effects on the Korean people, few of whom cared—or even knew—about the ideologies and geopolitics of the Cold War. In “In Love and War” (s. 6), Hawkeye falls for a cultured, upper-class Korean woman who sells her possessions and uses her wealth to care for villagers dislocated by the war. The relationship ends when the woman decides to take the people in her care further south, away from the war zone. In “B.J. Papa San” (s. 7), B.J. devotes himself to a Korean family impoverished by the war. Just as he is about to reunite them with a long-missing son, he discovers they have disappeared, also fleeing south. And in “The Interview” (s. 4), “Radar” O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff), Klinger’s predecessor as company clerk, is asked by war correspondent Clete Roberts about the plight of Korean peasants:


Do you get to meet the South Koreans? Do you know them?


Yeah, they’re nice people. I worry about ’em though.

We got a girl here that was, you know, pregnant. She doesn’t have any money or anything.

I don’t know how these kids live. I mean, some of ‘em don’t. That’s the God’s honest truth. Some of ‘em don’t even live over here.


Do you help them?


We do the best we can, but we haven’t got— I mean, we got just— Sometimes we got just enough for ourself. Penicillin and stuff like that.

I mean, I really wish somebody would tell these people back home this.

When you have to look these kids in the face, that’s where it’s really at. I mean, that’s what the ball game really is. Is looking these kids in the face here.

Several episodes focus on war-orphaned children. In “The Kids” (s. 4) and “Old Soldiers,” orphans visit the 4077 for checkups, touching hearts and boosting morale. “Yessir, That’s Our Baby” (s. 8) has Hawkeye, B.J., and Charles finding an abandoned Amerasian baby and battling the xenophobia of Korean society and the nativism of America to secure the girl’s future. And in “Death Takes a Holiday,” an initially incensed Charles learns just how desperate the lives of the orphans are after he confronts orphanage master Choi Sung Ho (Keye Luke) for selling the gourmet chocolates that Winchester had left the children as a gift, in accordance with a Winchester family tradition:


Go on. Deny it. Deny it, if you can.

You took the Christmas candy I gave you, and you sold it on the black market.

Have you no shame?


May I explain?


No! What you may do is retrieve that candy immediately and have it in the children’s stockings by morning.

Otherwise, they’re gonna find you hanging by the chimney without care!


Major, I cannot. The money is gone.


You parasite!


Please. Your generous gift and insistence that it remain anonymous touched me deeply.

The candy would’ve brought great joy to the children for a few moments. But on the black market, it was worth enough rice and cabbage to feed them for a month.


Rice and cabbage?


I know. I have failed to carry out your family tradition, and I am very sorry.


On the contrary, it is I who should be sorry. It is sadly inappropriate to give dessert to a child who’s had no meal.


Just as moving are episodes in which members of the 4077 deal with their own terror in war. In “The Interview,” Hawkeye describes how sometimes, when he’s lying on his cot at night, he finds it shaking — not because of falling artillery, but because his heart is racing. “Heal Thyself” (s. 8) tells of visiting surgeon Steve Newsome (Edward Hermann) who had performed valiantly under fire on the Pusan Perimeter during the desperate early months of the war, succumbing to post-traumatic stress and fleeing the 4077’s operating room. In “Dreams” (s. 8), members of the principal cast suffer nightmares of how the war has changed their lives. The same device is used in “Hawk’s Nightmare” (s. 5): Hawkeye experiences sleepwalking and nightmares of childhood friends suffering horrific deaths. Exhausted and worried about his sanity, he turns to recurring character Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus), a psychiatrist, for help:


I keep having these dreams about these kids I grew up with. And the dreams start out OK. The kids are fine. And then they end in disaster.


Like those kids who roll past you on that bloody assembly line. You dream to escape, but the war invades your dream, and you wake up screaming. The dream is peaceful. Reality is the nightmare.


Am I crazy, Sidney?


[Chuckling] No. A bit confused, a little fershimmeled is all. Actually, Hawkeye, you’re probably the sanest person I’ve ever known. The fact is, if you were crazy, you’d sleep like a baby.


So when do my nightmares end?


When this big one ends, most of the others should go away. But there’s a lot of suffering going on here, Hawkeye, and you can’t avoid it. You can’t even dream it away.


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The pervasive myth of the entrepreneurial state

Deirdre McCloskey and I recently published a book on The Myth of the Entrepreneurial State for AIER and the Adam Smith Institute (if you buy it, please review it on Amazon). On the AIER website, we have a short piece summarizing one of the book’s arguments.

A few friends asked us the reason why we spent so much time dealing with Mariana Mazzucato and other authors who are retrying to rejuvenate the fallacious ideas of “industrial policy”. Here’s our answer:

In a 1974 interview with Reason magazine, Milton Friedman noted that, “It’s fortunate that the capitalist society is more productive, because if it were not it would never be tolerated. The bias against it is so great that, as it is, it’s got to have a five-to-one advantage in order to survive.” (We would say more like thirty-to-one, the gain since the 18th century from the coming of liberalism.) It is why Mazzucato’s argument is so persuasive to so many. People in a primitive way distrust the price system, and distrust the impersonality of exchange among strangers. Better a sweet family of, say, 330 million people guided by a visible hand of government as a pater familias, advised in its coercions by Professor Mazzucato. If you can persuade people that the market economy does not innovate—no five or thirty to one—they will be happy to renounce it, as people have frequently since socialism was first imagined.

As a little evidence of the traction, these ideas are gaining. Consider this paragraph:

It is often said that every crisis is an opportunity for change and transformation. What we are experiencing is now the third crisis in the space of the last 15 years and this time Italy, Europe and the West have the opportunity to make a real breakthrough that, on the contrary, has been missing after previous episodes of crisis.
Europe has been able to take up this challenge in particular through the Next Generation EU program, through various other initiatives, to which Italy has made a decisive contribution and for which a new pact between public and private, as well as a new strategy for the organization of public presence in the economy, is needed…

This is the Italian prime minister talking to Parliament on November 2nd. Prime Minister Conte is advised by Mariana Mazzucato, who expressed the same views a number of times (see, for example, this blogpost of mine). Consider also Klaus Schwab’s “great reset” (I’ll write more on it in a later post). This rhetoric is very appealing for politicians and is a form of storytelling they envoy, as it boosts their role and importance. For this reason, we tried to contribute to dispel the “myth of the industrial state”.


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Madame de Staël on the Media and Liberty

Confronted with shockingly violent attacks to the free expression of opinions, as the massacre at Charlie Hebdo or the beheading of Professor Paty in France, anybody with a drop of liberalism in her blood will rally to defend the freedom of speech and the press. Everybody ought to be able to say things others do not necessarily agree with, that are deemed to be obscene by some, or that the majority may consider distasteful. Of course, others may decide not to buy your paper, not to dine at your table (where the dinner’s price is listening to your idiocy), to unfollow you on Twitter. My right not to listen to you is fundamentally different from making it impossible for others to listen to you if they saw it fit.

In her learned and thoughtful blog post at Centre Walras Pareto, Biancamaria Fontana does not question this tenet of liberal thinking. However, she poses a relevant question: what’s the effect of modern media on the quality of the political debate? Is broadening the audiences always good for modern public opinion?


The French Revolution, Fontana reminds us, lifted the Ancien Regime’s preventive censorship. Hooray! But consider what the greatest liberal intellectual of the time (my view), Germaine de Stael, thought.Consider social media: their development “carried the promise of an easier, more immediate and transparent way to inform citizens, encouraging their participation in discussions and consultations.” Yet they are commonly seen as key for the making of contemporary populism. Fontana cites the Five Stars Movement in Italy but I am sure other examples may come to mind. Demagogues are great at twisting the media. Consider Benito Mussolini, who was, after all, a journalist, and he understood one thing or two about how the masses could be mesmerized through the at the time unprecedented flow of information and opinions.

In 1800, at the beginning of the Consulate, Germaine de Staël published a work entitled: De la littérature, considérée dans ses relations avec les institutions sociales. The book was a pioneering comparative history of European literature, seen in the light of the different national traditions. In the second part, dedicated to the present and future prospects of the Enlightenment, the chapter “On eloquence” offered a retrospective assessment of political discourse during the Revolution: an object that the author had been able to observe very closely.

Like many intellectuals, Staël had believed initially that the freedom of the press would favour the circulation of information, bringing political issues closer to the general public. The reality had proved very different. Staël stressed in particular two dismal effects of the new “liberated” press. The first one was the lowering of the level of political rhetoric, through the endless repetition of empty formulas, meaningless catch-phrases and party slogans: “The time has come to reveal to you the whole truth…the People has risen…the Nation was plunged in a deadly slumber… etc.”. The second was the escalation of violence in language: faced with a public used to the most outrageous claims, speakers competed in adopting increasingly ferocious formulas to capture their attention. The result in the end had no political or ideological significance whatever, but carried a dangerous potential of hatred and aggression.

“Words (la parole) – Staël wrote – retain the power of a lethal weapon while having no residual intellectual strength.”

Fontana, and Staël, know well that “the media (“eloquence”) can only repeat, echo, amplify those beliefs and passions, virtues and vices, that are already present within society”. They would also agree that censorship is no answer to this problem. But isn’t it something to ponder that magnifying the audience of political media tends to lower the bar? Can we say that is only a kind of snobbery? Or, on the other hand, the trivialization of political matters, the reduction of political issues to slogans, the polarization of the debate has something to do with the fall of barriers and filters in the public debate? Consider what is happening today with Covid: are social media helping in sharing useful information and getting interesting and well-argued views into the debate, or are they fostering hysteria, to the advantage of those who will cynically build on it?

Fontana’s piece is fascinating and raises some uncomfortable questions. It is also an invitation to read Staël (I wish more of her writings would be available in English, besides the meritorious translation of the Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution published by the Liberty Fund) – what a remarkable woman and thinker. When it comes to possible answers, I have none and hope to stumble upon some persuasive (and reassuring) ones


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The Entrepreneurial State. A conversation with Deirdre McCloskey and Michele Boldrin

Deirdre McCloskey and I have a new book for AIER and the Adam Smith Institute, The Myth of the Entrepreneurial State. It is short, it is cheap, it benefits from Deirdre’s wisdom and splendid prose. So, what are you waiting for? Buy it!

I suppose most of our readers may be familiar with Michele Boldrin, who teaches at Washington University in St Louis, for Against Intellectual Monopoly, written with David Levine – and some for his more theoretical work. But Michele has also developed a remarkable network in Italy and built an online counter-information and education effort, Liberi oltre le illusioni, (Free Beyond Illusions), which is offering tons of interesting videos on both more technical and theoretical issues and on current events. He debated the book (as well as the notion of spontaneous order and, in a sense, the feasibility of a libertarian political theory) with Deirdre and me here.

As a good debate host, he played devil’s advocate: he could not put on a very convincing act as an advocate for industrial policy, his objections to libertarianism as a comprehensive philosophy are genuinely *his* own and forcefully argued.




As an Amazon Associate, Econlib earns from qualifying purchases.


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Krastev on Pandemic and Politics

On “Persuasion” (the newsletter-think tank launched by Yascha Mounk after the Harper Letter) there is an excerpt of Ivan Krastev’s forthcoming book, Is it Tomorrow Yet? Paradoxes of the Pandemic. Krastev struggles with the impact of the pandemic of different political regimes.

His starting point is that “more than any other crisis, a public-health emergency can induce people voluntarily to accept restrictions on their liberties in the hope of improving their personal security. Invasive surveillance systems and bans on freedom of assembly have been introduced and accepted around the world with little public pushback.” It seems we should think that these kinds of crises are healthy for authoritarian leaders, who thrive on fear.

Yet Krastev points out that such authoritarian leaders typically are “problem solvers”, but of problems of their making (up).

As a seemingly unstoppable crisis that has riveted the attention of the global public, Covid-19 deprives authoritarian and authoritarian-minded leaders of the chance to manufacture a “better crisis.” Far from citing the coronavirus crisis to justify an increase in power, a high-profile slew of populists and autocrats have strenuously and ridiculously denied the very existence of the pandemic. …
Political leaders in general prefer “enemies” who can unconditionally surrender to anonymous “threats” that need to be managed over time. Would-be dictators, in particular, find it more rewarding to pose as “deciders” than to do the hard work required of “problem-solvers.” The former allows them to vaunt their I-alone-can-solve-it unilateralism, while the latter requires them to cooperate with others, to freely admit their own mistakes, and to spend the time needed to master complex and evolving situations. Flashy stunts by men-of-action must give way to slow and laborious efforts by anonymous professionals.

It is not only that authoritarian leaders despise crises that they do not freely choose and which require them to stake their prestige on cooperatively resolving problems that, at the outset, are difficult to understand. They also spurn “exceptional situations” that compel them to respond with standardized rules and protocols rather than with ad hoc, discretionary moves. Mundane behaviors such as social distancing, self-isolation and washing hands are the best way to stop the spread of the disease. The leader’s strokes of genius, inviting thunderous applause, are perfectly irrelevant. Worse still, the palpable courage of ICU doctors and nurses makes phony heroics in presidential palaces appear even more pathologically narcissistic than before.

Another point Krastev makes is that the global nature of the crisis, “the ubiquity of the disease”, “makes it possible for people to compare the actions of their own governments with the actions of other governments around the world. Success or failure at flattening the curve provides a common metric, making cross-national comparisons possible and putting strong pressure on governments that had previously succeeded in insulating themselves from public criticism. The opening provided by easy government-to-government comparisons gives citizens the capacity to grade their government’s performance. This is a problem for authoritarian regimes and authoritarian-minded leaders, who previously got away with staged “performances” supplemented by the silencing of whistle-blowers and critics.


The whole thing is well worth reading, and I look forward to the book. What Krastev writes about authoritarian regimes is, in fact, a problem for political leaders in democracies, too: perhaps spectacular decisions in tackling the epidemic (the kind that politicians tend to favor) are not as effective and important as leaders believe. Perhaps containing the virus is an exercise in self-governance that some people are more adept at conducting than others, because of their history and their institutions. Krastev rightly points out that it is too early to say: success and failure in dealing with Covid-19 will be properly assessed years from now. I look forward to his books to see how he develops these views presented in the “Persuasion” excerpt.


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Five Books for the 2020 Election

Polarized is perhaps the best way to describe our current political landscape heading into the home stretch of the 2020 election, and I have consciously tried to select five books that both provide some immediate historical context to help readers understand how we got here.  However, I also wanted to add a few historical texts to remind everyone that the political rhetoric and posturing we are experiencing today isn’t new in American history.  It is distinctly different from recent American history, but even at the beginning of political life under the Constitution, things were heated, personal, contentious, and ugly.  So while this run up to our next Presidential election is ugly, it’s not unique if you look back far enough.  I also added one book to make readers feel absolutely fine if they decide to sit this election out, and considering the world today, staying at home on election day may make more practical sense than ever before.


A Magnificent Catastrophe – Edward J. Larsen – America is a relatively young country, but relatively young is still 244 years old.  While it seems like 2020 has been the worst year imaginable with the worst Presidential campaign ever, the good news is that we have had worse years and much worse elections.  In 1800, two of the Founding Fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson squared off in a contentious, ugly, and ultimately foundational election for President, as fans of Hamilton will know.  Larsen is a wonderful writer, and this book is a bracing reminder that politics has always brought out the worst in everyone, even the people who brilliantly crafted the United States.

Plunkett of Tammany Hall – William L. Riordan – From the election of 1800 we jump to another helpful reminder that elections and politics haven’t always been unicorns and rainbows.  Tammany Hall was the famed political club and home to the leaders of New York City’s political machine during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Plunkett was a prominent member of that club, and he sat down to give an entertaining and thought-provoking defense of why people get into politics, what the day to day life of a big city political leader was like during this time, and some philosophical insight into human nature generally.  As Plunkett famously said “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em”


Coming Apart – Charles Murray – To get some perspective on 2020, I think it’s important to understand how President Trump won in 2016, and no book is better at explaining this than Charles Murray’s.  First, Murray doesn’t mention Trump at all, because he wrote this book in 2012 with a focus on the growing divide among white Americans.  He convincingly shows how working class whites have been left behind by more affluent whites geographically, educationally, economically, and spiritually.  It’s a powerful reminder of how radically different the lives of rural and working class Americans are from their parents and how much more challenging their futures are unless their circumstances improve.  Their support of President Trump has to be understood through the lens of Murray’s important book.


The Lost Majority – Sean Trende – I reviewed this book when it first came out, and again I think it provides a great context to our current political climate.  During the run-up to 2016, a number of prominent writers argued that demographics made it inevitable that the Democratic party was heading toward a sort of permanent majority status.  This became a popular talking point in intellectual circles.  Trende’s book showed the flaws in that thinking as he drilled down much more deeply into the congressional and local level data.  He showed the problems that ignoring rural America would create, a warning that rang very true in 2016.


Myth of the Rational Voter – Bryan Caplan – In case you were unaware, there’s a book someone named Bryan Caplan wrote that is worth a read this election season.  (In fact, there’s a three week long discussion on this books in our #EconlibReads Facebook Group going in right now.) Full disclosure, I have a fair amount of issues with the text, most notably Caplan’s unrelenting pessimism about the current state of democracy.  As several of the books I’ve listed above show, it’s not obvious that things today are “worse” by any objective measure.  But he provides a very provocative argument against the current system, and if any election deserves to be seen in the context of what’s wrong with our political leadership, decision-making process, and media, this is the one.


G. Patrick Lynch is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund.


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Reflections on One Billion Americans

Matt Yglesias’ new One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger is a delightful book.  But should you take my word for it?  Since I’ve published book-length defenses of both natalism and immigration deregulation, I’m obviously going to smile upon a book that reaches the same conclusions, right?

Truth be told, though, I often dislike books whose conclusions I endorse.  You can’t just be right; you have to be right for the right reasons.  By this demanding standard, One Billion Americans does well, though there is ample room for improvement.   Critical observations:

1. Matt relies heavily on the “national greatness” argument for population growth: The U.S. needs more citizens to remain the world’s dominant power.  While I grok the appeal of this argument, I am puzzled by Matt’s lack of enthusiasm for other pro-population premises.  Most notably: Life is well worth living, and it’s better if more people enjoy this opportunity.  And: Welcoming migrants from poor countries enriches humanity by moving talent from places where it produces little to places where it produces much.  More generally: The positive externalities of population are much larger than the negative externalities.  To be clear: Matt mentions all of these points, yet strangely only national greatness seems to animate him.

2. On further reflection, national greatness is one of the weakest and most dubious arguments for raising U.S. population.  Key question: What is the probability that fervently trying to hold China at number two ends up sparking World War III over the next fifty years?  Even if the chance is only 5%, why risk it?  Furthermore, if you’re eager to maintain American hegemony, advertising your intent is probably counter-productive; the prudent course is to cloak your geopolitical ambitions in universal and humanitarian garb.

3. Matt curiously neglects “brain drain” and related arguments against increasing immigration to the First World.  Should we really be trying to increase our national greatness at the expense of the greatness of all the other nations of the world?  Or just trying to increase our national greatness at the expense of China and other heinous dictatorships?  Or what?

4. Matt favors universal social programs to encourage fertility across-the-board, but only selective deregulation of immigration.  He explicitly opposes open borders: “We shouldn’t just recklessly throw the borders open to just anyone who happens to show up…”  This may be good politics, but it’s bad public policy.  Why?  Simply put: Welcoming immigrants is virtually a free lunch, but incentivizing fertility is very pricey.  So the wise course is to welcome immigrants of all skill levels, but target fertility incentives to where they’ll do the most good.

5. What fertility incentives do the most good?  Matt wants the government to lavishly fund virtually everything that makes having large families easier.  He doesn’t seem interested in research on comparative elasticities of different natalist programs.  Nor is he interested in demographics; whose fertility should we try hardest to encourage?

6. Given a finite budget for promoting fertility, however, the natural goal is to raise the fertility of people who are most statistically likely to enrich humanity.  This in turn requires us to defy Social Desirability Bias and admit that we can probably help the world a lot more by boosting elite fertility – the fertility of the rich, smart, well-educated, creative, and entrepreneurial.  I am well-aware that most people who talk this way are frightening misanthropes.  But I’m neither; you don’t have to be a superstar to live a meaningful and productive life.  My point, rather, is that encouraging fertility costs money – and you get more bang for your buck by targeting incentives at the would-be parents whose kids will contribute the most to the world.  (Caveat: It might cost more money to induce an elite couple to have an extra child, so it’s conceivable that you get more bang per buck by targeting sub-elites).

7. Matt barely discusses my favorite natalist policy: large non-refundable lump-sum tax credits.  By my calculations, these are the Holy Grail of tax policy: In the long-run, they more than fund themselves.  Key point: You only get the incentive insofar as you pay taxes in the first place.

8. Here’s the worst paragraph in One Billion Americans:

And over the long haul, universal programs probably do more to help the neediest than microtargeted ones do anyway.  The old saying about this is that “programs for the poor become poor programs” – programs that are easily subject to political attack – while universal programs garner stronger support.  The political science on this is not entirely unambiguous, but there is enough evidence on it to suggest that there ultimately isn’t a real trade-off between helping the poor and helping everyone.

Consider: Making programs universal easily multiplies their cost by a factor of five or ten.  Since even means-tested programs are expensive, Matt is talking about spending many trillions of extra dollars.  At minimum, you’d expect him to advocate ten million dollars of research to improve the quality of the “not entirely unambiguous” political science on this question.  If there’s a moderate chance we can painlessly save trillions of dollars, wouldn’t it be prudent to explore this possibility?

9. Matt’s cavalier support for universal programs is part of a much larger pattern: He favors massively more government spending on virtually everything.  Frankly, he’s a parody of a big-spender – even when he freely admits that government has an awful track record for waste.  Thus, after explaining that public transportation costs far more to build in the U.S. than in Europe, he still calls for bigger budgets:

The goal is to spend a little more and in exchange get a lot more – but still with plenty of jobs for everyone.  In France, they use a twelve-person crew on a tunnel-boring machine (TBM), while America uses twenty-five.  We don’t need to fire half the TBM operators; what we should do is hire 50 percent more but insist on building three times as many tunnels.

For Matt, apparently, spending 50% more is spending “a little more”!

10. Matt correctly explains that according to National Academy of Science estimates, the average immigrant to the U.S. is a net fiscal positive.  And he toys with the idea of imposing surtaxes on low-skilled immigrants to sweeten the calculation.  But if we followed even half of Matt’s spending advice, steep surtaxes would be required to prevent immigrants from becoming big net fiscal negatives.

11. If I were an environmentalist, I would be underwhelmed by Matt’s attempt to assuage my fears:

[W]e can’t just ask people to give up the fruits of prosperity.  Nor does it make sense to try to minimize the number of prosperous people.  What the world needs, climatewise, is to develop and deploy technologies that will make prosperous lifestyles sustainable.  If that can be done, the number of prosperous people is irrelevant.

Any alarmist worth his salt will object, “Let’s hope for the best but prepare for the worst.  Even if cheap, green technologies become available, dysfunctional policies could well prevent them from being deployed.  So let’s hedge our bets by continuing our efforts to restrain population growth – at least until Matt’s techno-topia arrives.”

12. Lest you get the wrong impression, Matt has excellent discussions of…

a. How absurdly low U.S. population density is, even ignoring Alaska and the Rockies.

b. The evils – and anti-natalist side effects – of helicopter parenting.

c. Deregulating childcare.

d. Mariel boatlift revisionism and anti-revisionism.

e. The JTWBDAAIOACDT argument (my label, not Matt’s).

f. How much of the damage of climate change ultimately stems from immigration restrictions.

g. The theory and practice of moving the federal government to the Midwest.

h. The ins and outs of housing deregulation

i. Peakload pricing.

j. America’s absurdly high infrastructure costs.

13. The only major category of spending that Matt wants to cut is defense.  A great choice – but hard to reconcile with his national greatness agenda.  If he were really serious about “standing up to China,” you’d expect him to copy-and-paste his position on tunnel-boring machines: Let’s have 50% more military – and do three times as much with it.

Overall, this is the best big-picture progressive policy book I can remember.  That said, One Billion Americans’ only stereotypically progressive feature is its commitment to profligacy.  Everything else should appeal to rationalists of across the spectrum.


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