All ideologies eventually (seem to) fail

All ideologies reach a point where they are perceived to have failed. What can we learn from that fact? I’d argue that there are almost no lessons to be learned.

Capitalism was widely seen to have failed in the early 1930s.

Authoritarian nationalism was widely seen to have failed in 1945.

Liberalism was widely seen to have failed in the 1970s.

Communism was widely seen to have failed in 1989.

Neoliberalism was seen to have failed in the 2010s.

Prediction: Islamic fundamentalism will be seen to have failed in the 2020s.

Just to be clear, I’m a neoliberal.  So I don’t believe either capitalism or neoliberalism actually failed, while I do believe that authoritarian nationalism, (1960s) liberalism, communism and Islamic fundamentalism actually did fail. But that’s not the point of this blog post. What I think doesn’t matter.

So what does it actually mean when a modern intellectual says something like, “neoliberalism has failed”. What exactly does that mean?

When people say an ideology like neoliberalism has failed, their thought process is as follows:

1. We have been in the neoliberalism era for a few decades.

2. Problems have cropped up.

3. Ergo, neoliberalism has failed.

That’s it? Surely there must be more to it than that? After all, problems always crop up over time. That’s inevitable. If that were the criterion for failure then every single ideology would eventually fail, except those that have never been tried. It must be more complicated than that!

Nope, it’s that simple. Every single ideology will be seen to have failed after some period of time. There are no exceptions.

One can imagine alternative universes where not all ideologies fail. Thus you could imagine a world where ideologies are judged on a cross sectional basis, not a time series basis. People might compare highly neoliberal places like Switzerland, Denmark and Singapore to less neoliberal places like Greece, Italy and the Philippines, and then those countries could be compared to highly illiberal places like North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba. In that universe, not all ideologies would seem to fail over time.

But that’s not the universe we live in. In our universe, intellectuals use time series evidence to judge ideologies. In this universe, all ideologies are eventually perceived to have failed, because it’s inevitable that problems will eventually crop up. So if you are young then don’t get too attached to your pet ideology. If it’s ever enacted, you will eventually see it get discredited.

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All ideologies eventually (seem to) fail

All ideologies reach a point where they are perceived to have failed. What can we learn from that fact? I’d argue that there are almost no lessons to be learned.

Capitalism was widely seen to have failed in the early 1930s.

Authoritarian nationalism was widely seen to have failed in 1945.

Liberalism was widely seen to have failed in the 1970s.

Communism was widely seen to have failed in 1989.

Neoliberalism was seen to have failed in the 2010s.

Prediction: Islamic fundamentalism will be seen to have failed in the 2020s.

Just to be clear, I’m a neoliberal.  So I don’t believe either capitalism or neoliberalism actually failed, while I do believe that authoritarian nationalism, (1960s) liberalism, communism and Islamic fundamentalism actually did fail. But that’s not the point of this blog post. What I think doesn’t matter.

So what does it actually mean when a modern intellectual says something like, “neoliberalism has failed”. What exactly does that mean?

When people say an ideology like neoliberalism has failed, their thought process is as follows:

1. We have been in the neoliberalism era for a few decades.

2. Problems have cropped up.

3. Ergo, neoliberalism has failed.

That’s it? Surely there must be more to it than that? After all, problems always crop up over time. That’s inevitable. If that were the criterion for failure then every single ideology would eventually fail, except those that have never been tried. It must be more complicated than that!

Nope, it’s that simple. Every single ideology will be seen to have failed after some period of time. There are no exceptions.

One can imagine alternative universes where not all ideologies fail. Thus you could imagine a world where ideologies are judged on a cross sectional basis, not a time series basis. People might compare highly neoliberal places like Switzerland, Denmark and Singapore to less neoliberal places like Greece, Italy and the Philippines, and then those countries could be compared to highly illiberal places like North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba. In that universe, not all ideologies would seem to fail over time.

But that’s not the universe we live in. In our universe, intellectuals use time series evidence to judge ideologies. In this universe, all ideologies are eventually perceived to have failed, because it’s inevitable that problems will eventually crop up. So if you are young then don’t get too attached to your pet ideology. If it’s ever enacted, you will eventually see it get discredited.

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Vermont is a safe space

When the pandemic first hit America, the states hardest hit were mostly “blue states” such as Washington, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. With the notable exception of Washington, they remain the hardest hit states in terms of cumulative deaths per capita.

A Yahoo article points out that in recent months the “red states” have been getting hit harder than the blue states. But that could reflect many factors such as behavior, weather, or a lack of previous herd immunity.

I also notice that both within the US and around the world it’s often the case that more densely populated areas have a higher rate of fatalities. This isn’t universally true (Germany has a low fatality rate) but it seems to be a strong tendency. Look at the states with the lowest rates of death per capita—most have relatively low populations:

I’d like to throw out a hypothesis.  Perhaps both politics and density matter.  Perhaps the safest places are low-density states full of earnest do-gooders who follow public health rules.  So I’m going to look at recent Covid deaths in states with fewer than 1.1 million people.  Because I’m lazy I’ll take a few shortcuts, such as looking at total deaths, not per capita deaths, but that won’t affect my principle finding to any significant degree.  The differences in fatalities are vast, and all these states have between a 550,000 and 1.1 million people.

I’ll first list deaths since the beginning of June, and then deaths over the past two months.  States will be listed from most populous to least populous:

Montana:  213/153

Delaware:  153/69

South Dakota:  245/154

North Dakota:   327/263

Alaska:  56/38

Vermont  3/0

Wyoming:  41/27

I use recent data because the initial outbreak caught many places unaware, so cultural/policy differences would have had less impact in March and April.

Vermont really jumps out, and even in per capita terms it would be an extreme outlier.  This may be random, but it also might reflect the combination of really low density and “liberal” attitudes.  Most low-density areas in America are red states, and Vermont might be the only strongly blue state that’s most rural.  (Even Delaware is pretty urban by comparison.)

If you want to be safe, rent a cabin in Vermont.

This is not necessarily about politics in the normal American sense of the term.  New York is left wing, but isn’t full of earnest people who always follow rules.  Utah is right wing, but has a high level of civic cooperation.  Utah also has a lower than average fatality rate, even relative to states with similar populations.

Germans and East Asians are known for following rules.  Latin American are not.  Notice a pattern?

PS.  Let me apologize in advance for the Sumner curse, the tendency for patterns I notice to break down immediately after I post on them.  Sorry Vermonters.

PPS.  I was originally going to draw the line at 1 million, but Montana seems like a low-density state, despite just over a million people.  On the other hand, while places like Nevada have large low-density areas, they also have major cities.

 

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Reflections on Texas

My trip to Texas was a lifetime highlight for me.  Some thoughts:

1. I hadn’t flown since March.  I passed through the following airports: Dulles, Dallas, Amarillo, Austin, and Charlotte.  All of them were half-deserted, except for Charlotte, which was inexplicably packed.  Even in Charlotte, however, the level of fear was low.  Travelers lined up in pre-COVID fashion unless you made a point of distancing.

2. My trip took me on a horizontally-flipped-J route from Amarillo to San Antonio, then up to Austin.  Everywhere I went was visibly less shut-down than northern Virginia.  Horrified?  Consider this: Given an area’s health stats, you should hope their level of caution to be low!  Why?  Because it reveals favorable trade-offs. While Texas is hardly winning the COVID race, the state shows that a package of (low caution with moderate COVID) is available.  Great news in my book.

3. I spoke to live audiences of 70-80 people in Lubbock and San Angelo, in halls built to accommodate about 1000.  Under university rules, audience members had to wear masks, but (unlike at GMU) the speaker may go commando.  Efficient!

4. Palo Duro Canyon, the “Grand Canyon of Texas,” far exceeded my high expectations.  Entry was tightly rationed due to COVID, leaving the park virtually deserted except on the most popular trail.

5. I knew that Texas was growing frenetically, but I was shocked by the speed of expansion in west Texas.  When I previously visited Lubbock in 2013, there was a vast vacant lot from the Overton Hotel (across the street from Texas Tech) to the Walmart.  Now there’s scarcely an undeveloped lot on this entire half-mile stretch.

6. The rest of west Texas seems full of residential, commercial, and industrial construction as well.  You can drive for an hour at 90 miles per hour, then suddenly hit a small metropolis full of construction work.

7. Free-market economics is doing tolerably well at West Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Angelo State, and the University of Texas.  It’s hardly dominant, but none of these schools have a typical academic monoculture as they would in the DC-Boston Corridor.

8. I saw near-zero traffic enforcement outside of populated areas, making life a lot more convenient for Texans proverbially stuck in the middle of nowhere.

9. Other than abandoned farm houses, I saw no slums or “bad areas of town” anywhere in Texas.  All of the new construction looked solidly “middle-class” or better.  Caveat: Austin has multiple tent cities for the homeless, though all the ones I witnessed were out of sight of normal residential areas.  The largest tent cities were under Austin’s freeway bridges.

10. “Texas German Country” is only homeopathically German, but the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg is one of the finest war museums I’ve ever visited.  Fans of “Deep Roots” theories understandably point to the fact that Japan’s pre-war strengths allowed them to rapidly recover from military defeat.  But if Deep Roots matter so much, how did one of the most entrenched militocracies in history become one of the world’s most pacific democracies?  Who seriously expects Japanese militarism to revive in the 21st century?

11. Circa 2008, a car service drove me from the Public Choice meetings in San Antonio to speak at South by Southwest in Austin.  The seventy-five mile journey went through vast vacant stretches.  When I retrod the same route last week, there was scarcely an undeveloped block.  You can see wilderness from the highway, but are never out of sight of residential, commercial, or industrial properties – with additional construction well underway.

12. My dear friend Steve Kuhn sponsored a jaw-dropping meet-up at his mountain-view estate.  Attendees went around the pool introducing ourselves to the group.  Less than half of the guests were originally from Texas.  Anyone who said they’d fled California or the Northeast got a spontaneous round of applause.

13. Last spring, Steve Kuhn planned to launch a pro-immigration music festival in Austin.  When COVID ruined his idea, he decided to build a permanent pro-immigration venue, featuring an enormous miniature golf course, self-serve brewery and winery, pickleball courts, a vast beer garden, a live-music stage, and much more.  The name of Kuhn’s new themepark is: Dreamland.  And since Steve does not think small, the facility is nearly complete and will open in November.  Steve gave me a surreal advance tour of the facility, which I expect will make the next edition of the Eyewitness Travel Guide USA.  Don’t miss the giant blow-up from Open Borders near the end of the minigolf course.

14. The official per-capita GDP of Texas is only slightly above-average for the U.S.  On the ground, however, living standards seemed much higher, especially for working- and middle-class residents.  In every part of Texas I saw, almost any two-earner couple could instantly afford a three-bedroom house.  Nice places outside of Austin were starting at $180k.

15. Lots of Texans I talked to fretted that non-Texan migrants from the rest of the United States were “turning Texas blue.”  The “killing the goose that lays the golden eggs” meme came up occasionally: California leftists migrant to Austin for the opportunities, then vote for policies that ultimately make those opportunities dry up and blow away.  The true story seems more complicated; my friend Ben Powell pointed out that in the so-called “canary in the coal mine” Beto-Cruz senatorial race, voters born in Texas were actually more Democratic than voters born elsewhere.  Check it:

16. Seven years ago, Tyler Cowen published a cover story in Time called “Why Texas Is Our Future.” All of his reasons hold up, but let me add one more.  The chief problem with Texas is the great shortage of Texans, especially in the west.  As more and more folks move to Texas, this chief problem dies on the vine.

17. Call me crazy but this song is better than Sinatra’s “New York, New York” or Huey Lewis’ “I Love L.A.”

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Japan’s new leader

I’ve long held the view that pundits pay far too much attention to American elections and not enough attention to elections in foreign countries. It’s not that US elections are unimportant—we are the world’s dominant power—rather the relative importance of the US is generally exaggerated. The US is more important than the world’s 3rd largest economy, but surely it’s not 100 times more important.

How many people know that Japan just picked Yoshihide Suga as its new leader?  How many know that his policy preferences differ somewhat from those of Prime Minister Abe?

After graduating, he became secretary to a Yokohama politician, where his real education began. His boss was minister of transport in the early 1980s, heavily involved in the privatisation of Japan Railways. “I think that’s the basis for Mr Suga’s politics,” said Isao Mori, his biographer. “It’s something like Thatcherism or Reaganism.” Whereas Mr Abe is a conservative, Mr Suga belongs more to the free market wing of the LDP, aiming to shake off the shackles of Japan’s regulatory state.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the view of the media on issues such as deregulation are very much dependent on context. When discussing deregulation in the US, there’s often a high degree of skepticism. In contrast, there’s generally a tacit assumption that deregulation is a positive development when discussed on other countries—something that would boost efficiency. I’d be interested in knowing if other people have noticed the same pattern.

PS.  Of course most media outlets do not even discuss deregulation in foreign countries.  Here I’m focusing on outlets such as the Financial Times, the New York Times, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the South China Morning Post, etc.

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Judy Shelton on the Soviet Economy

I’ve been reading today about the background of Judy Shelton, whom President Trump wants to appoint to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Right now I’m leaning somewhat in favor and trying to learn enough to be able to write an article about the potential appointment. I don’t know enough yet.

But I did come across a 1989 Brian Lamb interview of her about her (then) recently published book, The Coming Soviet Crash. I love the poise she has and the way she actually thinks before answering.

Here’s my favorite part so far:

Brian Lamb

Did you change your mind about anything from what you thought the place was going to be like during the time you wrote the book and when you got there?

Judy Shelton

Things were worse that I expected. My study was based on numbers and looking at government figures and statistics. When you see economic problems on paper, it doesn’t hit you as hard as when you go out and see decrepit buildings and lousy roads. Most telling for my husband and I was we had wonderful guides both in Moscow and Leningrad, and the young lady who took care of us in Moscow, she accompanied us to dinner and at the end of the meal sitting on the table was a little stand with some bad peaches. I mean, visibly rotting with holes on them peaches.

And we had had a sumptuous meal and our guide wasn’t interested in having any, but she looked around at the end of the meal taken away the last of the plates and she whispered, “Are you going to eat that fruit?” And we said, “No, no we’re not.” She said, “Would you mind if I had some?” “Of course, help yourself.” And she looked around and she opened her big bag and she dumped it into her bag and the next morning told us her son thanked us, her mother thanked us, her father thanked us, and it was the first fruit they’d had that year and the contrast between the way we were treated.

Actually I think we had luxury accommodations and great meals contrary to what a lot of people have told me their experience has been. And this very telling example from this young lady, who had a pretty good job, made me realize in addition to what I was observing on the streets, the lines in the stores, the general run-down condition of virtually everything had a stronger impact than the numbers ever had.

Indeed!

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Observations from Florida

I just got back from a month in Naples, Florida.  Due to coronavirus, we drove, passing through North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and eastern Tennessee.  While in Florida, we mostly stayed near home base, but I did take my sons on a daytrip to Miami.  My main thoughts from the visit:

1. The day we left for Florida, the 7-day moving average for new coronavirus cases was 742 per day.  Yesterday it was over 11,000 – roughly fifteen times higher.  Deaths have increased far less, but I honestly don’t know how much of the disparity comes from lags, younger patients, improved treatment, data issues, or something else.  The old adage, “If you’re not confused, you don’t understand what’s going on” holds.  Doomsayers still strike me as overconfident, but so do optimists.  I wouldn’t be shocked if every state in the U.S. is doing well in three months.  I wouldn’t be shocked if every state in the U.S. looks worse than Florida in three months.

2. If you think you know better, you should be publicly betting.  End of story.  If you don’t, I don’t take your idle punditry seriously.  Neither should anyone else.

3. We stayed less than a mile from the beach.  When we first arrived, the crowds looked frighteningly packed.  After actually entering the beach, however, I realized that almost every group was socially distanced.  The beach is a big place, and the ocean even bigger.  Still, I was struck by the fact that hardly anyone walked an extra five minutes down the beach to increased their social distance by a factor of 5 or 10.  Instead, they bunched up by the entrances.

4. When we arrived, Florida was obviously more legally open than Virginia.  Though half the tables were closed, restaurants were often still packed.  Some bars overflowed.  There were no lines to enter grocery stores (even CostCo), and no obvious shortages on the shelves.  Now, however, it’s hard to see much difference in what’s legally permissible.  Floridians did however exhibit far less social anxiety than Northern Virginians.  An optimist would probably say that our social anxiety is what keeps Virginia from becoming the next Florida, but I wouldn’t be so sure.

5. The main thing I miss from Naples is the Prado Theater.  Their business model baffles me.  My family bought an absolute majority of the tickets for seven out of eight movies we saw; we had the whole theater to ourselves twice.  The theater had temperature checks, but the checker told me that he’d never detected a single feverish customer.  Since tickets were only $5 and the theaters were huge, I wonder if we even defrayed the cost of the air conditioning.  Perhaps the owners were consciously losing money, treating the reopening as a chance to rebuild customer goodwill?  Or is this an outgrowth of the Paycheck Protection Program, which effectively gives firms money to retain employees even if they produce nothing?

6. Other than The Wretched, we only watched old movies.  The experience reminded me how light-handed Hollywood’s left-wing indoctrination was until 2015 or so.  Trading Places shocked my sons; despite its anti-hereditarian theme, many modern would quail at its ubiquitous stereotyping.

7. Though Florida is probably still my favorite state, I haven’t visited during the summer since 1986.  Air conditioning, pools, and beaches make the heat bearable, but the mosquitoes are the worst I’ve ever encountered – in both quantity and potency.

8. Food was actually hard to get in Greensboro, North Carolina due to riots.  By dinner time, both restaurants and grocery stores were closed, even in suburbs.  Luckily a more remote town was still open.  We were planning on seeing Charleston, South Carolina, but locals told us that rioters had trashed the town so there was no point going.  Living in a world where news personally affects me is eerie, though we easily diverted to St. Augustine.  On the way back, we saw protesters (but not rioters) in Asheville, North Carolina.  I wasn’t scared, but if I owned a local business I definitely would have been.

9. Restaurants in Naples were far inferior to Miami.  I blame the lack of immigrants on the supply side, and the extra retirees on the demand side.

10. If you’re ever in Miami, go to this Sicilian bakery.  Why isn’t it a chain?

 

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