The Populists and Napoléon

One of the many fascinating observations in Charles Postel’s The Populist Vision (Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 164) is the sweet spot that American populists of the late 19th century generally had for emperor Napoléon Bonaparte, the French dictator at the beginning of the century:

In the 1890s, a Napoleon revival spread in the United States, as many Americans hoped for a strong man to deliver the nation from its multiple ills. Reporting on the so-called “Napoleon craze,” Century magazine reported that “the interest in Napoleon has recently had a revival that is phenomenal in its extent and intensity.” Muckraking journalist Ida M. Tarbell and Princeton Professor William Milligan Sloane contributed serialized Napoleon biographies in the Century and McClure’s Magazine. Politicians preened themselves in Napoleon’s image. Harper’s Weekly reported that then Ohio governor William McKinley, known as “the Napoleon of Protection,” also “looks like Napoleon and knows it.” The fascination with the French emperor corresponded to a broad discontent with corrupt and impotent political institutions, as well as strong currents of militarism and nationalism in American public life. The Populists were not immune to these currents. Tom Watson [a politician and writer of the times] and the Populists, however, were drawn less to military valor and patriotic glory than to the example of Napoleon’s administrative systems and energized state power. … In Watson’s treatment, Napoleon towers as “the peerless developer, organizer, [and] administrator,” who had applied the science of government to build a centralized and rational system of law and education, the Bank of France, and a strong state. … The general, Watson noted, was a “master builder” with “modern tone.”

Contrary to today’s populists in America and in other countries, the American populists of the late 19th century believed in science and experts as Enlightenment people did in the previous century. Yet, both kinds of populism–the old one and the new one–are similar in favoring state intervention. In the old American populism, authoritarian experts and science represented rationality, hence the reverence for Napoleon; today’s populists prefer authoritarian politicians and their intuitions.

Library of Congress,

In its military version, the American infatuation with Napoleon appears to go back at least to the Civil War as illustrated above by the picture of General George B. McClellan in a typical Napoleonic pose. The Library of Congress says that McClellan was popularly known as the “little Napoleon.” General Ulysses S. Grant stroke the same pose. Craig Walenta, a frequent commenter on this blog, brought these pictures and others to my attention.

A Napoleonic infatuation is not surprising. Since the “will of the people” does not exist and is unknowable, populists have to find a dear leader to incarnate it. (See “What Is Populism? The People V. the People,” Econlog, September 11, 2020.)


PS: I owe the Postel book reference to Jeff Hummel who, besides being a scholarly economist, is a walking encyclopedia on American history.


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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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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.




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Iskander’s Challenge: What Took Hong Kong So Long?

Iskander, a devoted EconLog reader, sent me a fascinating question.  With his permission, I reprint his original email and a followup.

Original Email

Dear Professor Caplan,

I was reading through some old Econlog posts, and I saw one about Hong Kong (“Statist at Heart”) where you attribute rapid post war growth to the free market policies of the British. I tend to agree with this, however I do wonder about why growth was only rapid after 1950. There was next to no institutional/political change as far as I know, yet per capita output growth was not that large in the century beforehand. I can see why wages might be held down by elastic labour supply from mainland China, but not output per capita.

In many ways the British Empire acted as if it was ruled by a cabal of free market economists. It should have led to rapid global convergence as modern technology and goods were free to flow from Europe to the rest of the world and it made sure property rights were protected. Not only European property rights, as there were a large number of Indian, Chinese, Jewish and Parsi merchants and businessmen who flourished. If a Indian merchant wanted to set up a modern factory there were very few impediments from the government, which has not been the case post 1947.

In addition, taxation was low (India’s tax to GDP ratio was around 5% in the 1920s) and it usually came in forms with low deadweight loss (lump sum land taxes, excise taxes on goods with inelastic demand).

The exceptions to this were the settler colonies which were the most badly behaved (especially in South Africa) in terms of economic freedom.

Why do you think all this led to very little growth pre-1950, if these policies made Hong Kong rich post-1950?


Dear Professor Caplan,

I’m not able to find a totally convincing answer to the question myself. That said I can imagine that economic freedom has benefits even if it doesn’t lead to rapid growth.

I think that the area of China near Hong Kong was spared from most of the fighting until the 1940s (It was the base of the Kuomintang), even then Hong Kong could have produced goods for more stable South East/ South Asia (or Europe/America given the low level of wages).

At least in India, the British only moved away from free trade after WW1. A rearguard action by pro-free trade civil servants meant that tariffs were originally given only if an Industry made the case that it would raise productivity and eventually be weaned off protection, called “discriminating protection”. Under this scheme, perhaps the only successful case of Indian “infant Industry” actually growing up came about, Tata Steel. By the 1930s the rise of nationalism and fiscal pressures (The government was on the edge of bankruptcy) led to the decline of the discriminating part of protection.

The Bombay cotton textile industry was being beaten in its home market by Japanese textiles despite cotton being shipped from India to Japan, processed there and shipped back even with 50% tariffs. An interesting thing is that both industries were using the same machines but the Japanese firms had managed to raise productivity thrice as fast as the Indian firms (as far as I can remember, this is from the work of Gregory Clark and Susan Wolcott). This was a inglorious end for the first modern textile Industry in Asia (The imperial connection and an open economy meant that India’s first modern factory came thirty years before Japan’s).

Perhaps good economic policies can only go so far without widespread change in attitudes and aspirations.

Personally, I’m tempted to blame the chaos in China from the overthrow of the Manchus until the Korean War, but I’m not married to that story.  Iskander’s knowledge of colonial economic policy seems better than mine, but if I were researching this in earnest I would start by nailing down the facts.

In any case, what’s the best response to Iskander’s challenge?


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Counterfactuals: What If Clinton Had Won in 2016

Some historians like counterfactuals. In his book Escape from Rome (Princeton University Press, 2019), Walter Scheidel analyzes counterfactual scenarios about how the Roman empire could have aborted earlier or could have been later succeeded by another European empire. In general, counterfactuals are inseparable from rational understanding. To identify a cause is to know what would have happened if, ceteris paribus, this cause had been absent.

Take economics, for example. The law of demand—when the price increases, quantity demanded will decrease—implies that without that price increase, the decrease in quantity demanded (on the same demand curve) would not have occurred. Or consider the economic concept of “opportunity cost,” which is the net benefit  (if positive) that would have been obtained from the next best alternative if the current course of action had not been taken.

Back to our historical topic. What would have happened if Hillary Clinton had been elected president instead of Donald Trump in 2016? Reflecting on a likely counterfactual scenario can help understand what were the consequences of the actual election of Donald Trump. Keeping in mind that other counterfactual scenarios are possible, here is one that seems very plausible.

Given the Congress that emerged from the 2016 election, Clinton would not have been able to do much even with the large powers of the presidency. Until 2019, both the House and the Senate would have blocked any significant change she could have tried to implement. She might, however, have succeeded generating, like Trump did, a trillion-dollar annual deficit. The economy would probably have continued the Obama recovery, as it more or less did under Trump. The absence of Trump’s trade wars would have compensated for Clinton’s vetoing tax cuts.

The 2018 midterms would have probably revealed mounting dissatisfaction with Clinton’s failures and character, so the Senate and the House would have stayed Republican. Given a Republican senate, Clinton would have had to nominate a Supreme Court candidate not very different in his constitutional philosophy than Trump’s actual choice, although his sex and perhaps his race might have been different. (This scenario assumes that Justice Anthony Kennedy would not have resigned; had he still done so, the scenario applies to his replacement too.) With a Republican Senate, Clinton would have been unable to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

A big unknown is how successful Clinton would have been at bargaining with Congress. She might very well have been more effective than Trump in the art of the political deal: she would have been more willing to trade votes (I will not veto your pet project if you legislate my pet project). Given the philosophical poverty of the Republicans, this political horse-trading would have been detrimental to liberty and prosperity.

The high-profile murders of Black men by White policemen would also have occurred. Clinton might have stoked the racial fires more among the Blacks and the wokes, instead of Trump stoking them more among the Whites. The results would not have been very different.

A Clinton administration would not have dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic in a fundamentally different way than the Trump administration. She would no doubt have deferred more to the public health experts, if only because their political agenda is generally very similar. However, since the experts changed track as the crisis developed, the Clinton administration would have provided ongoing advice as incoherent as the Trump administration. The central-planning push would have been similar: use of the Defense Production Act instituting federal price surveillance and allocation of certain products, gauche attempts to control allocation of materials à la Soviet, and no disagreement with the state governments’ own “price gouging” laws. The broad results would have been the same: a hair-raising series of government failures and shortages of many products.

One difference, perhaps, is that Clinton would have more consistently and vocally blamed the shortages on “greedy capitalists.” (Trump did not use the expression, but often blamed capitalist behavior such as outsourcing and imports or even not obeying the government more religiously.) Clinton would have blamed the health care system for being not socialized enough. She would have used a more openly redistributionist vocabulary.

The big difference, however, between this scenario and today’s reality, would have been the impact on the upcoming 2020 election. Public dissatisfaction against Clinton would run high, just as it does against Trump. Voters would (wrongly) blame her for Covid-19 and (correctly) for the government’s response. (In 1916, Woodrow Wilson lost votes in New Jersey because of shark attacks.) She would badly trail in voting surveys, whatever Republican candidate was running against her.

Whether or not the small element of classical liberalism and libertarianism in the Republican Party would have survived the failure of Trump in 2016 is more difficult to ascertain. The answer would affect some components of my counterfactual scenario.

But is easy to imagine that, after four years of Clinton, fickle public opinion would have concluded that, after all, socialism does not work—contrary to the current situation in which many people seem to think that capitalism has failed again, even if Trump does not favor free markets. A related lesson is that the results of political processes are often the opposite of what the voter thinks or hopes his vote will bring about. Voting is like trying to buy a bottle of Champagne but getting a Coke instead, or vice-versa, or whatever a majority of the electorate happens to fancy at that moment.


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Hirshleifer on Regression to Savagery

In researching my latest Defining Ideas article due tomorrow, I came across this paragraph from UCLA economics professor Jack Hirshleifer. One thing to know about Jack was how incredibly careful a scholar he was.

Substantively, the historical review here suggests an extraordinary resiliency of human populations and social structures. It is of course impossible to prove that social breakdown will never occur in the aftermath of disaster, especially when we contemplate the unprecedented catastrophe of nuclear war. But the lurid picture of post-disaster regression to savagery, that staple of fiction and of popular thought, can draw no support from the historical record.

This is from Jack Hirshleifer, Economic Behavior in Adversity, University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 6.

Notice the word “no.” That’s why I emphasized how careful a scholar he was. He did not use the word “no” lightly.

I had Jack cover the highlights of his book for The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. His article is titled “Disaster and Recovery.”

My one quibble is his use of the word “extraordinary.” If it happens virtually every time there’s a disaster, it, fortunately, is not extraordinary.



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A Story of Love and Hate

One of my book reviews in the Fall issue of Regulation is about Philip Coggan’s More (The Economist, 2020) and has the same title as this post. In the article, I explain what my love and hate story is about:

I am certainly not the only one to have a love–hate relationship with The Economist, the venerable magazine created in 1843 to defend free trade. At least over the past 10 years, the magazine seems to have become more tolerant of Leviathan, but it remains a source of serious information and it keeps me up to date on what intelligent social democrats think.

I had the same feeling reading Philip Coggan’s new book … The fact that Coggan is a journalist at The Economist may have something to do with this.

What I love in More’s book is explained in the review, and so is what I like less. “Hate,” of course, is used metaphorically, although the politicization of everything does generate confrontation, resentment, and, in the worst case, hate. The juxtaposition of love and hate seems to have originated in a love poem by the Roman poet Gallus Valerius Catullus (84-54 BC):

I hate and I love. Why I do this, perhaps you ask.
I know not, but I feel it happening and I am tortured.

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

Coggan’s book, subtitled “The World Economy from the Iron Age to the Information Age,” does not quote Latin poetry but it helps reflect on the economic adventure of mankind.


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The problem with court packing

Between March and July 1933, FDR’s policy of devaluing the dollar pushed industrial production up by an incredible 57% in just 4 months. Then FDR’s National Recovery Administration instituted a policy of mandating sharply higher wages. Hourly wage rates rose by roughly 20% in just two months. This immediately ended the robust economic recovery then underway.

When the Supreme Court ruled the NIRA to be unconstitutional in May 1935, there had been no growth in industrial production for 22 months. Immediately after the NIRA was declared unconstitutional, industrial production once again took off like a rocket, until this second recovery was derailed by tight money and another wage shock in 1937.

You’d think that FDR would have thanked the Supreme Court for rejecting the disastrous NIRA and triggering a surge in the economy—a boom that allowed FDR to win a huge victory in November 1936. In fact, Roosevelt was so frustrated by the Supreme Court that he tried to enlarge the court at the beginning of his second term. The goal was to add a number of FDR loyalists to the court, effectively reducing America’s political system from three branches to two. You occasionally see similar moves in the modern world, but mostly in authoritarian regimes. BTW, FDR was a fan of Mussolini.

In the 1937, the US still had pretty strong resistance to authoritarianism. Even though the Democrats held an overwhelming 74-17 margin over the GOP in the Senate, there was so much outrage at FDR’s power grab that the proposal was eventually dropped.  America narrowly avoided becoming an authoritarian state.  The checks and balances put in the Constitution held up.

Today I’m seeing renewed calls for court packing.  I suspect that if proponents of this scheme understood more about the 1937 attempt at court packing, as well as the effects of court packing in various banana republics, they would reject this idea.

PS.  It’s important to distinguish between court packing and court enlargement.  With legitimate court enlargement, as with the 22nd amendment to the Constitution limiting the president to two terms, the current occupant of the presidency is exempted.  I don’t have strong views either way on legitimate proposals for court enlargement, but allowing the same president who signed a court enlargement bill to also engage in court packing would be a mistake of epic proportions.  Checks and balances are an essential tool for preventing authoritarianism.


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Is Modern Democracy So Modern and How?

The Decline and Rise of Democracy, a new book by David Stasavage, a political scientist at New York University, reviews the history of democracy, from “early democracy” to “modern democracy.” I review the book in the just-out Fall issue of Regulation. One short quote of my review about the plight of modern democracy in America:

[Stasavage] notes the “tremendous expansion of the ability of presidents to rule by executive order.” Presidential powers, he explains, “have sometimes been expanded by presidents who cannot be accused of having authoritarian tendencies, such as Barack Obama, only to have this expanded power then used by Donald Trump.” We could, or course, as well say that the new powers grabbed by Trump will likely be used by a future Democratic president “who cannot be accused of authoritarian tendencies,” or perhaps who might legitimately be so accused.

The book is a book of history and political theory, not a partisan book. But the history of democracy has implications for today. An interesting one is how bureaucracy typically helped rulers prevent the development of democracy. Another quote from  my review—Stasavage deals with imperial China and I compare with today’s America:

At the apogee of the Han dynasty, at the beginning of the first millennium CE, there was one bureaucrat for every 440 subjects in the empire. … In the United States, which is at the low end of government bureaucracies in the rich world, public employees at all levels of government translate into one bureaucrat for 15 residents (about one for 79 at the federal level only).

If you read my review in the paper version of Regulation, beware. I made an error in my estimate for the federal bureaucracy and the printed version says “37” instead of “79”. It is corrected in the electronic version. Mea culpa.


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