Public Health Is Not What Many Think It Is

Many people seem to think that that “public health” is a scientific white knight. For sure, many medical experts in the public health movement do have real scientific knowledge, but the science stops there. The rest is essentially a political movement.

The Reason Foundation just published my primer on public health: “Public Health Models and Related Government Interventions: A Primer.” A few excerpts:

“In many respects,” says a major textbook of public health, “it is more reasonable to view public health as a movement than as a profession.”

With its wide definition, ideology, and scope, public health is as much as, or more of, a political movement than a field of scientific inquiry. Elizabeth Fee agrees with “the idea that public health is not just a set of disciplines, information, and techniques but is, above all, a shared social vision.” This  hared social vision is not founded on the respect of the preferences of all individuals and an attempt to find social institutions that can best reconcile them, but on the idea that some experts, or perhaps a democratic majority that agrees with them, should impose their values and trade-offs on other individuals in society. The progress of public health appears closely tied to the collectivist ideologies that developed in the 19th century. At the beginning of the 20th century, medical educator Harvey Jordan of the University of Virginia predicted that in light of eugenics and “the general change from individualism to collectivism,” medicine would be transformed into public health, and that physicians would upgrade from “doctors of private diseases” to “guardian of the public health.”

One factor in the drift of public health toward total government care has been a non-scientific conception of society.

The ideological content of the public health movement is visible there: a priori, they believe the issue is a matter of collective choice, that is, of imposing a politically determined opinion and behavior on those who don’t agree, instead of leaving it to individual choices. There is no recognition of the existence of two distinct facets of human activity: it is one thing for science to determine (at least provisionally) what are the health consequences of different actions; it is another thing to impose one course of action on those individuals who would make different trade-offs. In the perspective of this paper, truth is a matter of scientific inquiry; choice is a matter of individual preferences (with some exceptions).

Few economists should fail to see how anti-scientific this ideological movement is in matters relating to society, politics, and economics.

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Italy’s second lockdown

This short piece by Vaclav Smil asks why we do talk so much about the Spanish flu, as a benchmark for Covid19, whereas we do not compare it with influenza pandemics after WWII. Smil’s crucial argument is that, if we do not have good numbers for the Spanish flu, we do have very good numbers for more recent pandemics. He points out that:

these more virulent pandemics had such evanescent economic consequences. The United Nations’ World Economic and Social Surveys from the late 1950s contain no references to a pandemic or a virus. Nor did the pandemics leave any deep, traumatic traces in memories. Even if one very conservatively assumes that lasting memories start only at 10 years of age, then 350 million of the people who are alive today ought to remember the three previous pandemics, and a billion people ought to remember the last two.

But I have yet to come across anybody who has vivid memories of the pandemics of 1957 or 1968. Countries did not resort to any mass-scale economic lockdowns, enforce any long-lasting school closures, ban sports events, or cut flight schedules deeply.

Today’s pandemic has led to a deep (50 to 90 percent) reduction in flights, but during the earlier pandemics, aviation was marked by notable advances. On 17 October 1958, half a year after the end of the second pandemic wave in the West and about a year before the pandemic ended (in Chile, the last holdout), PanAm inaugurated its Boeing 707 jet service to Europe. And the Boeing 747, the first wide-body jetliner, entered scheduled service months before the last wave of the contemporary pandemic ended, in March 1970.

Why were things so different back then? Was it because we had no ­fear-reinforcing 24/7 cable news, no Twitter, and no incessant and instant case-and-death tickers on all our electronic screens? Or is it we ourselves who have changed, by valuing recurrent but infrequent risks differently?

I am afraid that  24/7 cable news, Twitter and incessant case-and-death tickers on all our electronic screens will not only twist memory, but they are also having a strong impact over political decision making.

Take the Italian case. After a very severe lockdown (schools were kept closed for six months), we had more or less a good summer, with progressive reopening and small numbers of contagions, grave hospitalizations, and deaths. With the fall, we have been hit by the much-awaited “second wave”. The government’s preparations have been lacking if not altogether paradoxical: school hours have not been changed, and the supply of public transport has not been varied (in spite of the fact private bus companies are being kept idle, whereas they could have been contracted to help cope with the rush hour traffic). Swab tests were strictly monopolized by hospitals and pharmacists; doctors and private healthcare structures have not been mobilized in order to increase test capacity. Now, the numbers of contagions are rising sharply and doubling once every seven days. They will be around 30,000 a day by the end of the month. Alas, deaths seem to double every week, too.

What has the government done? At first, it went for a dripping of closures, with new measures coming up once a week: a couple of weeks ago it made wearing facemasks mandatory, then we introduced curfews. Now gyms and swimming pools and ski resorts have been closed and restaurants won’t be free to serve dinner. The country is entering a lockdown, though softer than the first one.

“There are no libertarians in a pandemic;” but somehow that is a problem. One of the key insights of modern libertarianism is that a complex society is a tangle of knowledge problems, which central authorities are not very good at unraveling. This has been lost on decision-makers, who think they can win the “war against the virus” with top-down decisions, irrespective of continuous and abrupt change. They are always lagging a step behind.

A few days ago Federico Giugliano has written that somehow, in this second wave, Europe has quietly “turned Swedish”: “Governments are happy to impose more stringent measures on cities and regions with bad outbreaks (as Sweden itself is starting to do) but they’re extremely reluctant to crack down too heavily on social interactions, as they did in the spring.”

That was hardly sustainable, politically speaking, with, as Smil put it, “24/7 cable news, Twitter and incessant case-and-death tickers on all our electronic screens”. With cases quickly rising, we see stronger pressure for a new lockdown: the media are breeding anxiety and anxiety elicits a call for political resolve.

When it comes to Italy, the numbers are way above Italy’s test and tracing capacity. The lockdown is an implicit admission of the inability of doing anything else. In an article on Politico.eu, I asked “Why did the Italian government, after navigating one of the first and fiercest coronavirus outbreaks earlier this year, not learn from the experience?” My answer is: ideology. The government spent lots of energy and political capital in negotiating European aid and has planned great advancement in its building of an “entrepreneurial state”.

I do hope that these new measures will be able to flatten the curve and reduce stress on the national health care service. But if the government is capable only of using the hammer, how can we expect it to be able to “dance” with the virus?

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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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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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Tyranny Comes Home: Abigail Hall and Chris Coyne

We recently wrapped up an #EconlibReads online reading group on Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S MilitarismAuthors Abby Hall and Chris Coyne were kind enought to sit doen with me and answer some question about their work:

 

Amy Willis (00:02):

Hi, I’m Amy Willis with econ lib. Welcome to my conversation with the authors of tyranny comes home, Abigail Hall and Chris Coyne. Chris, would you like to introduce yourself?

Chris Coyne (00:12):

Certainly? Well, thank you for having us. My name is Chris Coyne. I’m a professor of economics at George Mason university, and I’m also the associate director of the FAA hike program for advanced study in philosophy, politics and economics at the Mercatus center.

Abby Hall (00:28):

Thanks Abby. My name is Abby hall. I’m an associate professor of economics at Bellarmine university in Louisville, Kentucky. Great, welcome. And thanks again for talking with us. As viewers may know, we recently conducted an online reading group based on your book. Tyranny comes home with domestic fate of U S military militarism. Unfortunately, as the three of us were discussing before we started recording this book is incredibly timely these days. We’re very grateful that you are willing to talk to us. And I have a couple of questions for you. So we’ll just launch right in the first question I have is you, you guys do a great job talking about your intellectual influences in the beginning of the book, Robert Higgs in particular comes to mind, but can you tell us a little bit more about how this particular project emerged? We know you’ve been doing work on this and we understand the context of your intellectual engagement, but why this particular this particular inquiry

Chris Coyne (01:27):

I’ll start and then Abby, you can jump in you know, for, for me, you know, given, given that, you know, the, the overarching themes of foreign policy and foreign intervention have been something I’ve been interested in now for certainly my entire academic career. But even prior to that, but this particular topic really kind of emerged when Edward Snowden released information about the surveillance operations of the U S government and, you know, one day I was just sitting around reading about Snowden and, and, you know, you heard, heard about the NSA and the NSA, this Dana said that. And I said, I don’t know a lot about this. So I started looking it up, just Googling around reading Wikipedia articles and the NSA in its current iteration was formed in the early 1950s. But then I just started kind of clicking back and reading about the history and I realized that, that this stuff had gone all the way back to the, to the late 18 hundreds in the Philippines really in an organized form that that is the, the surveillance operations of the U S government. And that kind of just got me thinking about it. And then through a series of conversations with Abby we kinda came up with the idea behind the, what we call the boomerang effect and kind of everything just, just went from there. Abby, I don’t know if you have more to add beyond that, Any other places where we saw some of these effects of foreign intervention coming back to be use domestically.

Abby Hall (02:47):

So as Chris mentioned issues of surveillance, but also too, one of the very thing, actually, it was the very first project that we worked on together was on policing and police militarization. And so starting to see within that research, although what we ultimately found in writing the book was that the connections went back much, much further than what we had initially thought. But seeing the incorporation of tools of foreign intervention being used by police but then also in the process of doing research on unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, one of the things that popped up in several of these articles at the time of doing that research. So run like 2012, 2013 was that the us customs and border patrol were using the same drones that were being used abroad in the global war on terror. And it was something that we started to think about and discuss. So for me, in addition to what Chris talked about, there were these other things in just various projects that just kept popping up of like, here’s a domestic connection to something that’s going on abroad. And then as Chris said, just the broader discussion of, well let’s think about and look into more detail and exactly how this dynamic works.

 

Amy Willis

So I want to ask a brief question with regard to the Philippines and that’s this, this is a great story of how you sort of started clicking backwards, right? So I suspect that you, a lot of readers concerns about the global war on terror, the war on drugs, these things were less surprising as having sort of a relationship between international and domestic policy, but the Philippines is a constant theme in your book. One that surprised me at least, and maybe this is a somewhat sort of curricular question, but that seems to be an incident in American history that we hear comparatively less about. Why do you think that is? And is there some relationship there to this boomerang effect?

 

Abby Hall

II can take that one. So you’re right. That I think a large part of it is a curricular issue. And I know that when I’ve presented on this and for what it’s worth, I was also very surprised at how frequently and predominantly the U S occupation of the Philippines came in to this research. And so part of, part of my reading was, well, why don’t we know about this, because if you were educated, I think particularly in the American school system, if you know about the U S Philippine war, it’s mentioned kind of as a footnote to the Spanish American war, and then no one talks about it. So they leave it alone. My understanding and reading the history of that was that Teddy Roosevelt considered that conflict to be a pretty large embarrassment and took active steps to try to deter people from really talking about it or thinking about it and appears to have been largely successful in that endeavor and getting people to just kind of ignore it and, and forget about it. That makes me feel better too. Chris, did you want to add anything about that?

Chris Coyne (06:04):

No, no. I mean, the only other thing to add is, you know what Abby said, and then of course, since then there’s been major conflicts. The United States has been involved in of course the, the world Wars and, and numerous others, which receive a lot more attention. And of course, you know, people oftentimes suffer from presentism, you know, what, what, what is going on now or in the, in the recent past is typically what they focus on. And so I think a combination of all these things together kind of explains the point you’re raising or, or helps to explain it. Yeah.

Amy Willis (06:36):

Okay. Next question. In my reading of your book I read a claim that interventionist foreign policy undermines democratic institutions domestically, but there’s also a lot of talk about the trade off between security and Liberty and what the citizenry is either willing to accept or in some cases even demand. So what if the citizen rate recognizes and actively chooses security over Liberty? In other words, if they’re willing to trade that off, even if it’s a somewhat false trade off, as you definitely point out in your book, does that really what does that mean about your claim with regard to democratic institutions? In other words, maybe are we getting what we deserve to some extent,

Chris Coyne (07:19):

Certainly. I mean, you, you can make that argument. And so, you know, w where we fall down at the end of the book is one that ideology held by the populace is ultimately the driver of a lot of this for better or for worse. And so if, if people are willing to, to give up Liberty for for suppose it, or, or potential security, and I think that’s important, I’ll come back to that in a moment then, then they are getting what they’re asking for. But as a caveat, and let me just clarify the potential point, you know, just because government says, they’re giving you security doesn’t mean anything as we all know, political rhetoric is quite cheap and often fails to be delivered on in any kind of meaningful way. And more so than that, it’s not just that that political initiatives might fail, but they actually might do more harm than good. That is things that are undertaken in the name of making the populace safer might actually make them less safe, either from external threats or internal threats, the internal threats being various components of the state apparatus. And so one of the things that we want to point out is the nuance of this supposedly simple trade off. It’s not that simple, but also that even if citizens think they’re trading off security for Liberty, they might not get what they want because they might be being sold a, a, a false promise of what security entails. And of course, another aspect of this is that much of this place in secrecy. So, you know, we’re told we, the, the populous are told there’s threats, there’s threats around every corner, but, you know, we’re never provided much detail on, on what those threats entail, the likelihood of those threats coming to fruition, to the extent that they do exist and so on, and the name of national security and secrecy. And so it makes it extremely difficult for either citizens or watchdog groups, or even congressional representatives who are on oversight committees and what have you to, to oversee the security state apparatus. And so that’s just some of the nuances that, that are involved in unpacking that security Liberty trade off.

Amy Willis (09:38):

Thanks Abby. Anything you want to add to that?

 

Abby Hall

Just very briefly that one of the things that Chris and I try really hard to point out in the book is the potential constraining power of ideology. But just also to add on to everything that Chris said is that for people who are really concerned with issues of Liberty questions of ideology present yet another compounding factor and are another piece of this puzzle, because to the extent that people are willing and interested in trading off Liberty for safety, again, whether that’s a real trade-off or a false one that potentially really makes the job of those of us who are pushing back against that all that more difficult.

 

Amy Willis

So I definitely want to talk about ideology, but a briefer question perhaps before that. And that’s that, so Abby, you just mentioned the group of people concerned about Liberty. To what extent do you think the same people are those that are concerned with foreign policy as with some of these domestic threats in particular, the issues you talked about, like drones and police, militarization and surveillance…

 

Abby Hall

I’d be interested to know Chris’s perspective on this as well, but in, in my mind, and one of the things that we lay out earlier in the book is that typically people, I think, tend to try to divorce those two arenas. So for many people, there’s this idea that foreign policy is just that it occurs over there and domestic policy is domestic policy and that, you know, narrowed the two shall meet. But what we’re interested in pointing out is that those two arenas are by no means separated and in fact very much can and do influence each other with our focus, particularly being on how the foreign intervention or the foreign aspect influences the domestic component of that. I don’t think that’s to say that people who are concerned with domestic policy, aren’t concerned with foreign policy and vice versa, but I do think that there is a real tendency of people to overlook that idea that foreign policy can and have a very real implication on domestic institutions. And so I think that for people, even if you are 100% American centric need to, or it would benefit them to pay attention to what’s going on in a foreign capacity.

Chris Coyne (12:15):

You know, I think this gets at a bigger question that is of interest to classical liberals, big tent, classical liberalism, which is that, you know, many classical liberals take is given to the extent they want. They refer to it as a limited state or a minimal state or nightwatchman state. What they typically mean by that is things like police and courts domestically. And then they’ll say things like a military or national defense, a defense against external threats, and they kind of stop there and that might work. And then of course, within that, they want to very limited government operating within, within that kind of infrastructure. And one of the things that I think is a gap in, in a lot of classical liberal thinking is applying the same things that are applied to other government programs, to police, to court, to military and national security, which is all of those things are government programs. And it’s not just that they’re normal government programs, that they are government programs, and that there are resources that are taken from taxpayers, filtered through a political process, then outputs are produced, but there’s something unique about them. And one of those things is that they entail the control of a significant amount of force or, or tools of force the, that, and I don’t mean just guns and tanks, even though there’s that as well, but a surveillance apparatus the ability to in prison people, the ability to murder people, human beings. And I, I think that’s important to remember this isn’t, you know, some the way I got a lot of people talk about foreign policy is almost like a chess board, and we need to balance the middle East or balanced China as if it’s kind of a game that, that, that intelligent people can play in design. So what if we take seriously hikes warning about the fatal conceit? What if we take seriously Buchanan and Tullock warnings about the pathologies of democratic politics, and we apply that same logic to national security to the military. What would that mean? Now? People might say in many do, okay, I get that, but we still need this in order to have Liberty and freedom. And that might very well be the case. I don’t, I don’t think, and, and we certainly are very careful to, to take our, our opponents, if you will. And I want it, that’s kind of a strong word. The people we are taking a different position from, we don’t view them as being malicious anti Liberty or, or, or, or anything of the sort what we, what we believe. And I feel comfortable speaking for Abby on this, because we’ve talked about it is that they underestimate the costs. So, so it’s, it’s a basic seen and unseen, and we’re trying to highlight one of the unseen costs that we think is quite significant. Other people might disagree on that, of course, but that’s where it really comes down. What, what waiting do you put on that? We put a, quite, quite a heavyweight on that cost but others won’t, but I think that’s kind of where it falls down to. And again, beyond this book for people interested in these topics in classical liberalism, this is certainly an area where you know, and, and our heroes you know, like Hayek, James Buchanan, Milton Friedman, and many others. They all take it in the background. What I referred to earlier is that the nightwatchman state as being necessarily, they never really delve into any of the details about how that will operate, what the costs will be, both the, the, the monetary outlays, but these other costs in terms of the unseen costs on democratic institutions as well. And so that’s a very fruitful area I would think for, for future inquiry.

Amy Willis (15:47):

Great. Yeah, that’s, there’s a lot of potential there. So let’s, let’s shift to ideology. And let me preface this a little you, the book does a tremendous job as Abby was talking about, about trying to sort of close that rift between the domestic and the foreign, but if there’s a critique to be made about the book that while, while masterful at diagnosing a problem, some might regard it as being short on solutions. And this is of course, where ideology comes in, you do assert that ideological change is needed to sort of tame the boomerang effect. And so this is where I think your book is a bit of a departure, particularly from some traditional public choice analysis, right? So Chris, you were just talking about the need to sort of think more about what actually constitutes this nightwatchman state, but you guys also say this is actually on page one 77, that the ability of formal rules to protect freedom is only as good as the ideology of the people living under the government. And you do go through and give a lot of suggestions about under, under the need for an anti militarist etiology, as you call it about understanding the paradox of government, recognizing that patriotism can require a critical attitude towards the government. And so on, you tell us in several places that citizens are not helpless pawns in this problem. Well, what are the action steps? How do we actually get to this anti militarist ideology beyond questions of understanding, tell us some concrete things that people could do to try to affect this change towards the anti militarist ideology.

Chris Coyne (17:27):

How do you want me to go, or do you want to go if you want? Okay. Let me start by stepping back for a moment again, to situate this in, in a broader kind of puzzle and a difficult puzzle that many people before us have talked about, and it, and it’s a puzzle about the relationship between formal rules and ideology, or if you want to call it informal norms, whatever you want to call, whatever’s required to maintain those formal rules. And, and let me try to sum up a very complex topic in a few lines, which is this formal rules, the way that constitutional scholars, certainly scholars like James Buchanan, talked about them are meant to constrain people such that when there is variation in ideology or opinions, you’re still bound. That’s why Buchanan always used the imagery of Ulysses bound to the mass. It’s when, when you list these here’s the siren sing, he can’t get freed. So when, when, when the people are calling on government to do something, their hands are tied and they can’t get free. Okay, well, there’s two big questions there. Number one, how do you get Ulysses hands tied? And then number two, can they stay tied? And that’s the question. That’s the question that Tocqueville was wrestling with and at least part of a democracy in America. It’s it’s how do you maintain a democracy? Vincent Austra more recently what and his writings on democracy are taken from Tocqueville. What’s the burden on citizens in a free society. And one, again, one of the interesting puzzles is that number one, at the end of the day, all of these scholars in various ways, the ones I’ve mentioned come down on the importance of ideology towards the end of his career. You can, for instance, has a wonderful article called the soul of classical liberalism. He has another article called afraid to be free. What’s the summing up more complex, nuanced arguments and align. If people don’t want to be free, if people don’t believe in freedom or hold it as a relatively high end, then you’re going to lose those things. They’re there, you are basically going to turn to government and say, treat me like a child, give me stuff. And then the game’s over there, you know, because not only are you giving them the power now to give you stuff, assuming they can do that, but you have set the precedent and untied Ulysses hands, if you will, to do lots of things in the future. So then what’s the burden on citizens. Well, it’s quite high. And again, this is Tocqueville, Oh, strum. You can, and the burden on citizens in a free society is really, really high. You have to care about freedom. You have to recognize the threat posed by the state, and then you need to be willing to participate as a citizen. And that doesn’t mean watching the news posting on Facebook and going to the voting booth. There’s something deeper that they have involved there’s community engagement. There is what Tocqueville called self interest. Rightly understood recognizing that my self-interest is not some narrow atomistic self-interest, but it also relies on my neighbors. But then that requires me participating in a various set of collective action situations to assist my fellow human beings and vice versa, them assisting me and for Tocqueville. That’s what we today call civil society plays a role as a crucial check on government, because we are not turning to government to give us goodies. And so that’s a check. It’s not a formal check in a constitution, but it’s based on citizen action, grounded in their ideology. And so we put a list of what we call the anti militarist ideology at the end, and we list some of the characteristics. And so, you know, to my way of thinking in terms of action steps, not I’ll, I’ll, I’ll turn it over to Abby. If she has anything to add. Number one is, is understanding the nature of the state. And again, even classical liberals. And I, and I, I feel comfortable saying within the classical liberal big tent world, I think Abby and I are probably in the minority in our view of national security, which is we view national security as one of, if not the greatest threat to Liberty that is counterintuitive. Because again, most people think about national security as being crucial to Liberty. But what if it’s not, what if it is the greatest threat? Well, that’s important to think about and recognize then what can you expect from the state?

Chris Coyne (21:40):

What do we give up when we say, well, it’s bad when government tries to provide education domestically, because government’s terrible at running the DMV. But then we say, well, government should be intervening abroad to build an entire education system, healthcare system and liberal institutions and other societies and thinking about those tensions. And so recognition is the first point. And then thinking about alternatives, thinking about alternative ways to provide security, because we don’t pretend that there’s, the world is a utopia. It’s not like there’s no threats or threats to EV there are threats to our person on our property to everyone. That’s just nature of the world in which we live. And so part of the classical liberal project, where there’s an interesting gap from my perspective is then to think about what those alternatives might be grounded again, in all of our intellectual heroes, who I think offer a sound framework for thinking through those issues.

Abby Hall (22:39):

Sure. I just add to that a little bit. I agree with Chris that I think as he mentioned, that we’re probably alone on our little Island, or maybe have like three other people who might be there with us. So it’s a, it’s, it’s not a, a common opinion, even among people who are generally skeptical of what it is that government can do. One of the things Amy that you had mentioned at the beginning is that it does feel like that maybe we’re a little bit short on solutions and when I’ve presented not only this, but, but presented some of the other work that Chris and I have done it’s something that we hear relatively frequently. Well, there’s a lot of problems being pointed out here, but what are the solutions? And one of the things that I think is also important to point out is that we don’t we don’t pretend as though we have a concrete set of steps or solutions to take to fix these problems unless we wind up running a foul of, as Chris mentioned already, some of our intellectual heroes who have pointed out correctly that there are real problems in terms of wealth, bringing to, to the forefront suppose that, you know, top down solutions first mentioned earlier, a Buchanan and tying us’ hands to the mast. And then of course, people like Hayek and Mises. Critiquing top-down planning with the idea of knowledge. So one of the things that we, we try not to do, or to fall into those traps of offering solutions that we necessarily necessarily just can’t can’t know, ex-ante what those look like.

 

Amy Willis

Thank you. Well, and maybe rather than a critique, we might understand that as a request for further writing and another book. Right. So, all right. Last question. This is the question that, you know, we sort of have to close with and that’s the following. So you can, you can choose the extent to which you would like to reply to the two parts of this. And that’s the following since the publication of the book in 2018, lots of stuff has happened. Most of it not good, right. So one is, well, both are domestic issues, but I wonder the extent to which you would like to comment on the potential ramifications of the boom around the fact either as far as predictions that you might want to make or cautions that you might want to add. And those two events are of course first and foremost, the tragic case of George Floyd and the resulting protest against that. I mentioned to both of you earlier that this book was one of the easiest choices we’ve made for a reading group, given the current events that have been surrounding us. And the second we’re recording this still during the Kobe pandemic one of the themes that you talked about so eloquently in the book is fear on the part of citizenry. And certainly we are living in a time of great fear from both of those things. So I’ll leave it at that and let you decide again, to what extent you want to comment on that. Abby, do you want to go ahead?

 

Abby Hall

Sure. Maybe I’ll take the the policing piece and then Chris, if you want to take the COVID piece, that might be a good division of labor. One of the things that we point out in the book when it comes to policing, and one of the things that we’ve discussed elsewhere in other works on policing is that those trends of militarization and the importation of tools of foreign intervention into domestic policing are likely to continue. And what we’ve seen with George Floyd, what we’ve seen with Breanna Taylor. And certainly there are lots and lots of other examples. I think these are all  Examples of that. I don’t really see that trend rolling back at any point. And again, I think one of the issues that we can come back to our issues related to citizen ideology and also the constraints that are placed or not placed on law enforcement. So looking at the George Floyd incident in particular, you continue to see this I suppose, a stark dichotomy between different groups of people. That to be critical of police means that you hate the police and so on. People talking about, well, police need to have, you know, these weapons, this gear, these tactical operations that they use and so on. So I think the, the short answer is that I see that trend largely continuing. Although I, I do have some cautious optimism because this, this time and the, the, the protest and the attention that is being paid this time around compared to earlier seems to have a different fervor to it then than it did before. And so maybe there’s reason for optimism there that people are starting to push back on this. But I think in terms of the ideological component, that that’s a really tall order because you have to start changing the way that people feel about a lot of really big policy issues, including things like the war on drugs, which at this point is so embedded and so ingrained. I’m not necessarily optimistic that that is a arena in which a lot of people are going to reverse course and say, we need meaningful change, right?

Chris Coyne (28:17):

Yeah. I think the overarching theme and prediction, it’s a very broad one, but then, you know, you unpack it or can unpack it the way Abby just did on the margin of policing is you cannot maintain it. If our, if you follow what we’re saying and agree with it, you cannot maintain a aggressive, proactive militaristic empire abroad and not have that spill over to domestic life. They are, they given the, the nature of the apparatus that is required both to build up, maintain and extend that empire and that proactive foreign policy can’t have it. They can’t keep them separate. And so to the extent that still exists, you, we should expect this stuff to come back home to vary in varying various ways. The other key point I want to highlight here is, you know, for the same reason, we proponents of markets point out that look in markets, entrepreneurs come up with new and better ways of doing things. They’re more efficient costs fall that applies to government as well when it comes to military technologies, which oftentimes of course there are partnered with private firms. So what do I mean by that? Well, just like some entrepreneur right now is coming up with a new and better phone or tablet or computer. Someone has a government contract that’s coming up with a new and better way of surveilling you. That’s harder for citizens recognize because that’s what makes for good surveillance, cheaper and so on. And so again, you need to understand the nature of the beast and what it means. The onus then to my way of thinking is not on Abby and I to come up with a list of solutions to solve the problem, but rather on those who make the grand proclamation the government can somehow overcome all of the ills that plague it and its normal day to day operations at a in relatively simple tasks and overcome those when you apply it to a much more grandiose government program that also includes awesome powers to, to in prison murder and main people at their will.

Chris Coyne (30:28):

And that’s what, what the onus is on those who argue for the need for government to do these things now on COVID. And I can link these things together, hopefully, you know, that’s a complex topic, it’s, it’s a hard topic. And I think the challenge is this, you know, externalities or real, or, or, or what economic epidemiologists call infection externalities in the case of infectious disease, people have to deal with them. So how do you deal with any externality? One way is to turn to government. Another is to seek out alternative solutions that can be private market solutions, or they can be private solutions to collective action problems as demonstrated by Eleanor Ostrom and her work on the comments that people are able to come together under certain conditions and resolve collective action problems where you fall down on that. Of course it is a matter of, of individual analysis and the weighing of various costs and benefits. But one of the things I do want to point out, and this is how it links back to what we’ve been talking about into the book is that, you know, people, they, they miss the symmetry of assumptions point. And so a lot of people get mad. For instance, if the Trump administration and they say, you know, I don’t like the way the Trump administration’s handling this, that they’d done X, Y, and Z. It would have been different. And perhaps it would, but unfortunately that’s not the world we live in, whether it is because of Donald Trump, himself and his flaws or his cronies, or the structure of government itself. But more broadly, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t say Trump, there’s an authoritarian. Trump wants to start Wars with the world. Trump wants to do X, Y, and Z, and then say, I want to give Trump power to fight COVID well, there’s a tension there. The tension is, is that if, if you believe that, and the same, by the way, I’m going to pick on Trump. The same went for Obama. I remember many people, including many classical liberals got quite upset at his foreign policy. Well, which one is it? He’s either incompetent domestically, which means the last thing you want to do is give him a more control over nuclear weapons and, and, and the, the most powerful military apparatus in the history of mankind, or he’s not, he can’t, it can’t be both. And it’s the same with Trump. And so if you look at around the world, not just that the United States in response to COVID, what you see is what I’ve called with an, another cost or pandemic police States. And so what they’ve done is they have used the pandemic situation to unleash police, state technologies, methods, and techniques. So you look at Russia, you look at China and so on. And so certainly you can stop a, an infectious disease by locking people in their house by dragging them out of their house in the middle of the night and taking them away to quarantine camps by putting cameras outside their house and so on by making them carry papers around. But there’s a cost to that. And that cost is the one we’ve been talking about. You’re going to lose your Liberty. Now, people might be willing to give that up. But you know, once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s really hard to give up or excuse me to, to put back in the tube. And that’s really one of the many costs that people need to think about as it pertains to the pandemic and to COVID, it’s not the only cost, but it’s certainly one that that I would suggest is important to consider.

Amy Willis (33:50):

Thanks. Those were excellent answers to our questions. And I want to thank you both again for the book for a terrific conversation today, your willingness to engage with us and our readers. And I think that’s a good place for us to stop. And hopefully we’ll see another book from both of you following up on this one.

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Marginal Revolutionaries: Kirzner and the Modern Austrians

3rd and final in a series of posts on Janek Wasserman’s The Marginal RevolutionariesRead the previous two posts here and here.

 

The weakest part of the book comes in the final two chapters where he addresses the revival of Austrian economics since the mid-1970s. In particular, he dramatically underplays the importance of Israel Kirzner for the Austrian economics of the 21st century, both in the substance of his thought and as a role model for scholarly activity. One reason for this neglect is that Kirzner, and the later “Kirznerians,” create a complication for his narrative. Wasserman wants to argue that Austrian economics was always in service of the powerful and that therefore ideology eventually would triumph over serious scholarship, making it unsurprising that the Rothbardians would play footsie with the alt-right. Kirzner doesn’t fit that story. Not only did he, and most of those who followed up on his work, remain committed liberals, Kirzner was the very model of scholarly engagement and that branch of the modern Austrian school has continued to follow that path.

I write about these issues with some trepidation as I have not only lived through the events Wasserman describes, I have committed my career to the Kirzner side of this divide and am cited for that view in the book. So readers should take my own biases into account in what follows.

 

Wasserman is correct to identify the two wings of modern Austrian economics as being between a broadly Kirznerian wing associated with George Mason University and a Rothbardian wing associated with the Ludwig von Mises Institute. The problem with his presentation is that he fails to distinguish the important differences between how Kirzner and Rothbard, and their followers, approached the relationship between scholarship and ideology, and how they interacted with the scientific community of economists. The differences between these two wings is largely portrayed as a clash between what one might call “liberal libertarians” and “paleo-libertarians.” Much of the chapter on these differences relies on debates that took place in the blogs and other informal sources.

What Wasserman does not do is to discuss the ways in which the two wings have interacted with the larger economics discipline. Wasserman held up early 20th century Vienna as a model to be emulated in the ways that Austrians were in the middle of important conversations in the social sciences. Through his career, and especially starting with Competition and Entrepreneurship, Kirzner attempted to engage the questions that the mainstream of the discipline thought were important. Although his contributions to professional journals were limited, his students and their students in the GMU wing have published widely in professional journals. They have incorporated ideas from related areas in economics, such as public choice, and the Bloomington school of political science associated with Elinor and Vincent Ostrom, to create an interdisciplinary approach to political economy. Members of that wing have also published books with major university presses and have taken on leadership roles in professional organizations beyond the ones directly associated with Austrian economics. The dozen or so panels of the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics (also never mentioned in his account) continue to be the most well-attended at the Southern Economic Association meetings.

The emphasis on scholarly contributions on the part of the Kirznerian wing is substantially due to Kirzner’s influence not necessarily as a direct mentor, but as a role model of scholarly engagement. , Their focus steers clear of narrow policy advocacy or equating Austrian economics with libertarian ideology; it is not the Kirznerians who refer to themselves as “Austro-libertarians.” In a more complete account of where Austrian economics is today, Kirzner would have been featured much more prominently. In addition to serving as a role model, the substance of his contributions has been fundamental for the path that the GMU-related wing has taken, even where there have been plenty of disagreements with the details. Giving Kirzner his due in this way would also have enabled Wasserman to more accurately frame the current divisions among Austrians as being less about libertarianism or even the specifics of Austrian economics, but instead about the relative roles of scholarship and politics and the resulting relationship between Austrians and the rest of the economics profession. The Kirznerians have done more to recapture the intellectual spirit of Vienna than Wasserman gives them credit for, and he thereby overlooks the ways in which that spirit has been productive in giving Austrian economics a seat at the table in economics in ways that they haven’t had since the interwar years.

Unfortunately for Wasserman, acknowledging that reality poses a major problem for his overarching narrative. If the majority of 21st century Austrian school economists are engaging with the profession, contributing to its top presses and journals, and being elected to leadership roles, all while sustaining a commitment to scholarship over ideology, it undermines his claim that there is something about the Austrian school that inherently led it to give up its scholarly roots and find alliances with the worst sort of defenders of privilege and power. As a claim about modern Austrian economics it’s just not true. There was a far more interesting concluding chapter that Wasserman could have written that explored what I think are the real differences between the Kirznerians and Rothbardians, but he chose the one that looks more like a prizefight.

Despite its flaws, Wasserman’s book is well worth reading for those interested in the Austrian school or the history of economics more generally. Future work on the history of Austrian economics will not only have to tangle with Wasserman’s book, it will be better for having done so.

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The wheel of ideology revisited

I plan to argue that libertarianism is likely to shift from being a right wing ideology to a centrist ideology. To do so, I’d like to revisit a post I did back in 2011, which proposed a three part ideological framework. The post was a bit half-baked, so I hope to improve it here by grounding it in more clearly thought out principles.

Here’s the graph I proposed, drawn by commenter Vlad Tarko:

Why not a two side ideology—left and right?  Or how about the four-quadrant approach favored by many libertarians?  Why do I have three ideologies, each combined with two value systems, leading to 6 outcomes?

Let’s start with the left/right ideological axis, which has been around since at least the French Revolution.  Intellectuals on the left would probably define “right wing” as follows:  The right supports government policies that favor the stronger groups in our society.  These might be economic policies that protect the rich.  They might be ethnic nationalism that favors the dominant ethnic group.  They might be rules that enforce the moral values of the dominant religion.  They might be pro-military policies.  According to this view, the left supports government policies that favor the weak and downtrodden.

This perspective has a grain of truth, although of course the left also favors policies that support groups such as intellectuals, educators, public employees unions, and others that are hardly weak and downtrodden.  Nonetheless, this left/right dichotomy does make some sense.

Then I’d argue that modern political systems tend to move society toward a “two tribe” structure.  Even in the multiparty democracies in Europe, you often end up with one governing coalition and a primary opposition party.  And of course referenda are even more intrinsically binary.  Thus a society with 13 tribes ends up with a political system with two super-tribes, each of which is a coalition of smaller tribes.  This is how the left/right spit forms.

But then why three ideologies?  There’s a third option—government policies that do not directly favor any tribe—the minimal state.  (Yes, I know that laissez-faire indirectly favors some people, I’ll come back to that important point later.)

But why not four ideologies:  Government policies that favor tribe A, policies than favor tribe B, policies that favor neither and policies that favor both?  On closer inspection, it’s not really possible for policy to favor both.  Consider the four policy regimes:

1. Tax everyone $1000 and give all the money to tribe A.

1. Tax everyone $1000 and give all the money to tribe B.

3. Tax everyone $1000, and give $1000 to everyone.

4.  Tax no one.

On closer inspection, option 3 and 4 are basically identical.  So in a two-tribe polity, there are three possible ideologies.  Have policy favor A, have policy favor B, or laissez-faire (do nothing.)  Just as a math set with {0, 1, -0 and -1} is identical to a set with {0, 1 and -1}.

Back around 1800, laissez faire ideology (classical liberalism) was viewed as a left wing ideology.  That’s because governments had traditionally extracted taxes from peasants to provide a more lavish lifestyle for aristocrats.  By the late 1800s, classical liberalism began to be seen as a more right wing ideology, which allowed “robber barons” to exploit downtrodden workers.  In America, it has continued to be viewed as a right wing ideology (often called libertarianism), even in recent decades.  But this may be about to shift.

In a recent post, I pointed out that many conservative intellectuals are becoming highly dissatisfied with ideas associated with laissez-faire, such as “neoliberalism” and “radical individualism”.  These new conservatives are increasingly willing to embrace a strong state that promotes conservative values.  This might include nationalism, protectionism, immigration restriction and enforcing religious values.  If this shift becomes real and sweeps most of the conservative movement, then the libertarian position will no longer be seen as particularly right wing.  It may not be seen as left wing (as progressives are moving left in recent years), but it will be seen as more centrist than before–at least in a left/right sense.  A sort of radical centrism.  That idea is probably more understandable to Latin Americans.

Let’s apply the three ideologies to housing policy:

1. The left:  Nimbyism to protect low-income neighborhoods from gentrification.

2. The right:  Nimbyism to protect affluent neighborhoods from construction of apartments for the working class.

3. Classical liberals:  Yimby!

The previous post also posited that there are two value systems for each ideology.  For the left and the right there are both “corrupt” (i.e. selfish) and idealistic proponents of their ideology.  It makes less sense to use this dichotomy for libertarians, as their ideology forces them to oppose interventionist policies that favor their own financial interest.  You might object, “But don’t low taxes favor the rich?”  Yes, but a truly corrupt rich person would not be satisfied with low taxes, he’d demand affirmative government policies (tariffs, subsidies, etc.) that favored his financial interests.  But that policy would not be libertarian.  He’d become a right winger who hid behind “pro-capitalism” rhetoric.  We’ve all met that sort of person.

Instead of an idealistic/corrupt dichotomy, in the 2011 post I found it more useful to divide libertarians up into “consequentialists” (such a utilitarians) and “deontologicalists” (who believe freedom is a “natural right”).  To be clear, I’m not arguing that libertarian intellectuals are more pure than left or right intellectuals.  Indeed true believers in any of the three ideologies tend to be idealistic, and the corrupt part of the left and right tribes barely pays any attention to principled arguments.

To the extent that a few people seemed to find my wheel to be clever, it was because of the way the six groups related to each neighbor.  This is the part of the post that The Economist (Will Wilkinson?) chose to excerpt:

My goal here is to set things up in such a way that each group has a values affinity to those on one side, and an ideological affinity to those on the other side. So you could circle any two adjoining groups, and describe a common feature:

1. Progressives/Pragmatic libertarians: Both tend to be secular utilitarians, or at least consequentialists

2. Pragmatic and dogmatic libertarians: Both favor very small government

3. Dogmatic libertarians and idealistic conservatives: Both are nostalgic for the past, and revere the (original intent of) the Constitution.

4. Idealistic conservatives and corrupt Republicans: Both are Republicans.

5. Corrupt Republicans and corrupt Dems: Both believe in realpolitik, are disdainful of fuzzy-headed, idealistic intellectuals.

6. Corrupt Democrats and idealistic progressives: Both are Democrats

Thus on values there are three pairings: utilitarian, natural rights, and selfish. On ideology there are three different pairings: Democrat, Republican and libertarian.

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Five Books: The Butcher’s Bill of the Soviet Experience

Communism kills. 100 million lost souls in the 20th century, not from war or natural causes, but from state execution.  Let that sink in – 100 MILLION.

 

OK, now back to scholarly recommendations for books to learn about and understand this experience.  Obviously, the classic work in this regard is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (originally published in 1973). The impact of this work cannot be overstated. And, it should be read by every student of civilization in the 20th century.

In addition to the official prison system that the Soviet system utilized for repression, there existed the day-to-day repression of everyday life and social interaction outside of the prison walls. But it was still a prison culture of the mind.  The best book I know of to explore this is Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (originally published in 2008). The book demonstrates how daily life revolved around having to whisper to your close confidantes to hide from the prying eyes and ears of state surveillance. There were also those who you believed would be your confidantes who themselves would strategically whisper behind your back.

In one of my books on post-communism, I relay the story of Vera Wollenberger, who was a leader of the dissident group “The Church from Below” in East Germany. After the collapse of communism and German re-unification, she agitated for the Stasi to open their files as part of the reconciliation process. When her file was opened, it turned out her own husband – Knud Wollenberger – continually filed reports on her activities with the Stasi.

 

Think through the logic of attempting to live under such a regime.

 

The most comprehensive study of the archives and the death toll under communism in the 20th century is The Black Book of Communism edited by Stéphane Courtois (originally published in 1997). This is the book that establishes in excruciating detail from the archives the 90 to 100 million deaths by communist governments in the 20th century through political repression, execution, labor camps, and orchestrated famines.  As I said to start this section – COMMUNISM KILLS.

 

Another gruesome tour through the crimes against humanity committed in the name of communism is Steven Rosefielde’s Red Holocaust (originally published in 2010), which argues that the most accurate number is 60 million. Still Rosefielde admits that there are most likely tens of millions more that we just cannot corroborate with the archival data and never will because they are lost.

 

Let me end this section referencing a book by Alain Besancon, that ties together the ideology, the institutional manifestations, and the terror of the Soviet experience.  There are other great sweeping books in this genre, such as Mikhail Heller and Aleksandr Nekrich’s Utopia in Power (1988), but if you had to read one book to make sense of the economic deprivation and political repression of the Soviet Union, and why those in the west misunderstood for so long it would be Alain Besancon’s The Origins of the Gulag (originally published 1981).

 

Conclusion

I used to kid around with my students about “nonsense speak” in writing papers, and I would give as the example someone starting a paper with the phrase, “The history of the Soviet Union is very, very, very interesting.”  Of course it is, but lots of things are very, very, very interesting. But that sort of opening phrase  says nothing. Do not do it. Claims in social science papers should have a bite, they should be bold, and they should be potentially wrong. Science and scholarship should “hurt” if we are wrong. “The history of the Soviet Union demonstrates the intellectual bankruptcy of communism as an ideal.”  Now we can begin a contested conversation over a claim. We must offer conjectures subject to refutation in the dialogue with our peers.

 

Key to understanding Soviet Socialism is coming to grips with the claim that communism is not an ideal that humanity failed to live up to, but that communism is an ideology that is simply incompatible with humanity and human betterment.  It is an ideology, as Oscar Wilde warned, that robs the soul of man, and it is an ideology, as Ludwig von Mises warned, that destroys the means of our material progress.  The greatest large-scale social experiment of the 20th century was also the greatest large-scale social failure of the 20th century.

 

Hopefully, this reading guide will get you started on your own course of study to see what the lessons learned from this experiment are, and why we must never forget them.

 

 

Peter J. Boettke is University Professor of Economics & Philosophy, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22030.


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