Category Archives: Books

Peter the Great’s Tax Policy Innovations

From p. 401 of Peter K. Massie’s 1980 biography, Peter the Great: His Life and World:

The Tsar’s demands for money were insatiable. In one attempt to uncover new sources of income, Peter in 1708 created a service of revenue officers, men whose duty it was to devise new ways of taxing the people. Called by the foreign name “fiscals,” they were commanded “to sit and make income for the Sovereign Lord.” The leader and most successful was Alexis Kurbatov, the former serf of Boris Sheremetev who had already attracted Peter’s attention with his proposal for requiring that government-stamped paper be used for all legal documents. Under Kurbatov and his ingenious, fervently hated colleagues, new taxes were levied on a wide range of human activities. There was a tax on births, on marriages, on funerals, and on the registration of wills. There was a tax on wheat and tallow. Horses were taxed, and horse hides and horse collars. There was a hat tax and a tax on the wearing of leather boots. The beard tax was systematized and enforced, and a tax on mustaches was added. Ten percent was collected from all cab fares. Houses in Moscow were taxed, and beehives throughout Russia. There was a bed tax, a bath tax, and inn tax, a tax on kitchen chimneys and on the firewood that burned in them. Nuts, melons, cucumbers were taxed. There was even a tax on drinking water.

Money also came from an increasing number of state monopolies. This arrangement, whereby the state took control of the production and sale of a commodity, setting any price it wished, was applied to alcohol, resin, tar, fish, oil, chalk, potash, rhubarb, dice, chessmen, playing cards, and the skins of Siberian foxes, ermines, and sables. The flax monopoly granted to English merchants was taken back by the Russian government. The tobacco monopoly given by Peter to Lord Carmathen in England in 1698 was abolished. The solid-oak coffins in which wealthy Moscovites elegantly spent eternity were taken over by the state and then sold at four times the original price. Of all the monopolies, however, the one most profitable to the government and most oppressive to the people was the monopoly on salt. Established by decree in 1705, it fixed the price at twice the cost to the government. Peasants who could not afford the higher price often sickened and died.

And from p. 402:

No matter how much the people struggled, Peter’s taxes and monopolies still did not bring in enough. The first Treasury balance sheet, published in 1710, showed a revenue of 3,026,128 rubles and expenses of 3,834,418 rubles, leaving a deficit of over 808,000 rubles. This money went overwhelmingly for war.

John Stuart Mill on the Limits of Economics

We must never forget that the truths of political economy are truths only in the rough: they have the certainty, but not the precision, of exact science.

-John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, Book 2, chapter XVI.4, p. 422.

John Stuart Mill on Lawyers

The exorbitantly-paid profession of lawyers, so far as their work is not created by defects in the law, of their own contriving, are required and supported principally by the dishonesty of mankind.

-John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, Book 1, chapter VII.5, p. 110.

Fighting Bias and Misinformation, from Pierre Bayle’s 17th Century to the Social Media Age

Many people insist that media bias and misinformation are getting worse in the social media age, and we need to do something about it. Depending on whether one leans Democratic or Republican, tech companies are either not doing enough to stop right-wing misinformation from spreading, or are censoring legitimate conservative content. Some conservatives feel so aggrieved they are even pushing to revive the fairness doctrine, which they used to oppose.

Bias and misinformation are impossible to measure, which puts a rather obvious damper on peoples’ certainty about them. Ironically, this is at least partially because of the human brain’s built-in biases, such as recency bias, availability bias, and pessimistic bias. In fact, media bias and misinformation are nothing new, and have likely gotten neither better nor worse over time.

These problems have been around so long that the 17th century philosopher Pierre Bayle wrote in an issue of his 1680s periodical Nouvelles de la République des Lettres (News from the Republic of Letters):

“History is dished up very much like meat. Each nation and religion takes the same raw facts and dresses them in a sauce of its own taste, and each reader finds them true or false according to whether they agree or disagree with his prejudices.”

More than 300 years later, this holds up well. And it’s not just with history. People also put their own tastes on current events. Different people take identical facts and prepare them differently, usually in line with whatever their ideological priors are.

Just being aware that everyone does this can go a long way toward minimizing the harmful effects of bias and misinformation. Beyond awareness, there are also many simple, low-effort actions one can take, some of which Bayle might endorse if he were alive today:

  • Avoid cable news channels. They do not inform people, so much as get them riled up. People who feel outraged click on more articles, keep the TV on, and generate more ad revenue. Outlets encourage this by framing news stories as us-vs.-them struggles first, and only secondarily by presenting information. These are two very different things! Learn to tell them apart. If you find yourself getting outraged over something a personality figure from the other political party said, or about the culture war story of the day, that’s usually a good sign that you’re getting riled up rather than informed. There are better uses for your time, and for your blood pressure.
  • Purge low-quality sources from your social media feeds (or abstain entirely). Use those mute and block buttons on people who post low-quality content that does not add value to your feed. That’s your space, and you can curate it however you want. If someone’s posts are mostly outrage stories, your social media feed will likely be both more enjoyable and more informative if they are not part of it. Spend some real-life time with that person instead, which will likely elicit better social etiquette. People are more considerate of others when they are face to face rather than venting their spleen, alone, into a keyboard.
  • Put a little effort into statistical literacy, and be skeptical of too-good-to-be-true stories that appeal to your ideological priors. Arming yourself with the right tools is as easy as picking up a layman-friendly book or two. Financial Times columnist and BBC presenter (and friend of CEI) Tim Harford’s latest book, The Data Detective, is an excellent guide that is also a delight to read. I also recommend Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, which I reviewed earlier on this blog. Jonathan Rauch’s new book The Constitution of Knowledge has a lot wisdom, which he also shared earlier this year at a CEI online event. My colleague Iain Murray strongly recommends his old boss’ book, David Murray, Joel Schwartz, and S. Robert Lichter’s It Ain’t Necessarily So: How the Media Remake Our Picture of Reality. Reading a chapter a day from any of these books is a far better use of 30 minutes than getting outraged over Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow’s latest rant.
  • Keep an eye on the longer arcs of history, not just today’s ephemeraElizabeth Nolan Brown’s recent Reason article “40 Ways Things Are Getting Better” is one example of journalism that gets this. There are plenty of reasons for short-term pessimism; that keep groups like CEI busy. But there is also a strong case for long-run optimism. Both can simultaneously be true, as CEI founder Fred Smith captured in his “Despairing Optimist” letters. Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist and his new book How Innovation Works, for which he also did a CEI event, are immensely helpful for seeing the big picture.

Notice that none of these strategies involve government regulating political speech. They are all ideas that you and I can implement right now; change begins at home. Ultimately, individuals hold power over bias and misinformation, not the other way around. We should learn to use that power wisely, and not delegate it away to Washington, where it will get politicized and misused. It takes some effort, which is why many people don’t bother. But the payoff is worth it.

Pierre Bayle had a good sense of this dynamic. He was an important bridge figure between the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment—which means he helped to inspire modernity as we know it. He emphasized the virtues of tolerance and skepticism by individuals, in part because he was forced into exile from his native France over his religious beliefs. He settled in the more tolerant Netherlands, where he produced works in astronomy, philosophy, religion, literature, and even produced the Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (Historical and Critical Dictionary), an early encyclopedia that predated Denis Diderot’s more famous 1751 Encyclopédie by 60 years. France’s outrage-induced loss was the Netherlands’ gain, and ours.

We live in better times. But the lessons Bayle took from his day’s outrage culture are still useful in dealing with today’s excesses. Times change, but people are people, wherever you go. That is mostly to the good—though as we see in the news and on social media, not entirely. There is always reason for optimism, if we know how to look for and act on it.

Different Attitudes Towards Life

In today’s polarized discourse, there is a stark difference between thinkers who spend most of their time being for something, and those who spend most of their time being against something. One attitude is healthier than the other, and is more likely to lead towards truth, and is likelier to succeed in persuading others and getting its policies enacted.

Think of it as the difference between between favoring liberalism, openness, and dynamism on one hand; and owning the libs or the cons, depending on one’s tribal affiliation, on the other.

Which makes this passage from near the end of Evelyn Waugh’s 1943 novel Brideshead Revisited especially poignant (p. 383 of the Back Bay Books edition):

I said to the doctor, who was with us daily: “He’s got a wonderful will to live, hasn’t he?”

“Would you put it like that? I should say a great fear of death.”

“Is there a difference?”

“Oh dear, yes. He doesn’t derive any strength from his fear, you know. It’s wearing him out.”

Partisan Reasoning and Evolution

From p. 32 of Jonathan Rauch’s forthcoming book The Constitution of Knowledge:

Think of it this way: humans are equipped with some of evolution’s finest mental circuitry to protect us from changing our minds when doing so might alienate us from our group. We have hundreds of thousands of years of practice at believeing whatever will keep us in good standing with our tribe, even if that requires denying, discounting, rationalizing, misperceiving, and ignoring the evidence in front of our nose.

This explains much of modern politics, and is one reason I highly recommend avoiding cable news. Some of the talking heads’ performance routines are impressive. But they are seeking peer approval, not truth or understanding.

CEI is hosting Rauch for a book forum on June 9. You can register here.

Science, Openness, and Peace

From pp. 352-353 of Richard Holmes’ immensely enjoyable history of science in the early Romantic period, The Age of Wonder:

On 2 November [the British chemist and forefather of anesthesia Humphry] Davy received the Prix Napoléon (worth 6,000 livres) from the Institut de France in Paris. He knew that accepting the award might be unpopular in wartime England, but followed [British scientist and explorer Joseph] Banks’ line at the Royal Society that science should be above national conflicts. He told [tanner and essayist] Tom Poole: ‘Some people say I ought not to accept this prize; and there have been foolish paragraphs in the papers to that effect; but if the two countries or governments are at war, the men of science are not. That would, indeed, be a civil war of the worst description: we should rather, through the instrumentality of men of science, soften the asperities of national hostility.’

Montesquieu’s doux commerce thesis is that trade promotes peace and prevents war. Here, Humphry Davy, who is not as famous as he should be in the history of science, makes the same argument for science. When ideas and discoveries cross borders, it is less likely that soldiers will. This is an important point in today’s political climate of growing nationalism.

CEI Book Forum with Johan Norberg and Patrick Moore

Earlier today, CEI hosted a double book forum featuring Johan Norberg, author of Open: The Story of Human Progress, and Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore.

Video of the event is on YouTube here.

I also received a pleasant surprise around the 31:00 mark when Norberg, whose work I’ve long admired, quoted favorably from my recent review of Open.

Book Review: Open: The Story of Human Progress by Johan Norberg

On March 25, 2021 at noon ET, CEI is hosting a double book forum featuring Johan Norberg, the 2019 winner of CEI’s Julian L. Simon Memorial Award, and Patrick Moore, a Greenpeace cofounder and author of Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom. Register here, where video of the event will also be viewable afterwards.

Liberalism—in the correct sense of the word—needs fresh voices. The ideological conversation is different than it was a decade ago, and many market-liberal thinkers have not kept pace. Today’s debate is over whether society should be open or closed, not which side of the Iron Curtain was better.

This is where the Swedish economist Johan Norberg performs a valuable service. He is fighting the current battle, not the last one. His newest book, Open: The Story of Human Progress, is a superb defense of the pro-freedom side of the debate. And he defends it against the nationalists and populists who are attacking it right now.

People over a certain age on the political right tend to still use the word “socialism,” but often as a catch-all term for things they dislike. This is different from the word’s commonly understood meaning of state ownership of the means of production, belief in dialectical materialism, teleological stages of history, or any of the other things socialists actually believe in.

People under a certain age on the political left often say they favor socialism. But they, too, have given the word a new and different meaning. They typically define socialism as a more-or-less market economy with a large welfare state, as in the Nordic countries. They are also often careful to add the qualifier “democratic” as an implicit nod to what socialism’s original meaning entails.

When people give the same word different meanings, confusion reigns. When people today lob the s-bomb, they are often talking  at each other, not to each other. The real debate is elsewhere.

This tactic is great for getting people riled up, though. The heat-without-light approach has advanced the careers of people like Fox News host Tucker Carlson and former President Trump on the right, and Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the left. But it makes substantive debate difficult.

Openness and liberal institutions have generated more wealth for more people than any other socioeconomic system in history. But they are also unpopular. Norberg has some ideas on why, drawing on a mix of history, economics, and psychology. He sums up his thesis on page 6:

As I will argue, the reason that the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution started in Western Europe was that this region of the world happened to be the most open, partly just out of luck. It has been repeated in every place that has gone through similar institutional changes. It is not the triumph of the West, it is the triumph of openness.

First, the history. The last two centuries have seen a mass enrichment unlike anything in human history. As economic historian Deirdre McCloskey has pointed out, people today are 30 times wealthier than our ancestors were in about 1800. Not 30 percent more, but 30-fold. As President Biden once said about a different issue, this is a big deal. Since the Great Enrichment began, life expectancies have doubled. Infant mortality is down by more than 90 percent. Famines today have political causes, not natural ones. Violence, both intentional and accidental, are sharply down across the board. A few years ago, the percentage of world population living in absolute poverty—$1.90 per day or less—fell below 10 percent for the first time ever. Almost every long-run trend is showing improvement.

This historical process is as important as the taming of fire or the invention of the wheel. This is what Norberg defends. And it needs defending, because the openness and liberal values that made it all possible are unpopular. Psychology helps to explain why.

People respond to threats more sharply than to good news. In lab experiments, people feel the sting of loss about twice as sharply as a gain of similar amount. Psychologists call this loss aversion. We evolved this trait because mother nature is a superb economist. People have only so much attention to give to things, so we have evolved ways to economize on it. When things are going well, we can leave them alone, and save our scarce attention for dealing with threats. We are hardwired to pay more attention to threats, because long ago there was a survival advantage in doing so.

This tendency is not unique to humans, and long predates us. In a way, the modern life we all enjoy runs counter to hundreds of millions of years of natural selection processes. No wonder liberals have an uphill battle!

In the last two centuries or so since the Great Enrichment began, threats have become progressively less menacing. People don’t have to worry nearly as much about famine, disease, or violence. But that same impulse still exists. Now it gets channeled differently. Socialists—actual ones—viewed capitalists as threats. Populists, from William Jennings Bryan to Josh Hawley, frame various elites as threats. Nationalists view immigrants and foreigners as threats.

Who and what people consider to be threats changes with the times. But that core psychological mechanism remains constant. Some kind of outside Other always poses a threat to the in-group, which must always be defended. This in-group can be a family, tribe, race, nation, political party, or just about anything else. People can also have multiple in-groups at the same time, and can shift seamlessly between them. A Republican and a Democrat who would be enemies in one setting might become fast friends at a baseball game if they like the same team, then go back to being enemies when the game is over.

The key point is that the in-group/out-group dynamic is in everybody’s DNA, and is where the urge to close society comes from. Norberg here draws on the political psychologist Karen Stenner’s 2005 book The Authoritarian Dynamic, which argues that about a third of people have an underlying authoritarian impulse in them—but it doesn’t express itself unless people feel threatened. During normal times, they are just as open and amiable as anyone else. But when they feel threatened, “they react explosively,” Norberg writes on p. 343. “They become intolerant of diversity and dissent and willing to restore unity by government control, even if it wrecks rule of law and free speech.”

Liberal institutions are powerful enough to double lifespans and increase prosperity 30-fold in a handful of generations. At the same time, they are vulnerable to attacks like this.

Prior liberal flowerings got started in societies as diverse as Ancient Greece and Song dynasty China. But none of them lasted. The general intellectual climate wasn’t open enough to openness. Plato was executed essentially for nonconformity. After Mongol invaders ended the Song dynasty, the succeeding Ming dynasty responded to the threat by destroying the world’s most advanced fleet of oceangoing ships and banning nearly all foreign contact.

That vulnerability is why the open society will always need defending, especially as its attackers change tactics every generation or two. Norberg’s defense is perfectly suited for this generation’s emerging threats. Populist and nationalist governments have come to power in recent years in countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Hungary, and elsewhere. President Trump’s trade war, immigration restrictions, race-baiting were slowing the longest economic expansion in U.S. history and causing cultural divisions even before COVID-19 hit.

Even after he cost his party the House, the Senate, and the presidency, the Republican party is continuing along a national populist trajectory. The progressive wing of the Democratic party is pushing similar policies in different packaging, on issues from international trade to technology policy. The United Kingdom’s Brexit debate, which should have been about escaping the European Union’s burdensome regulatory, agricultural, and tax policies, was instead hijacked by ugly nationalist impulses, and became divisive for all the wrong reasons. Strongman governments and nationalist political parties are springing up in places that should know better, such as Eastern Europe, which bore the brunt of both fascism and communism in the 20th century.

Norberg writes clearly and persuasively, with passion, and without anger. It is an impressive performance, and a joy to read. He has only one notable slip in 384 pages, and that is his support for a carbon tax on pages 330-331. Ironically, this comes in a section about the knowledge problem in economics. A centralized body such as Congress is unlikely to have the on-the-ground knowledge it needs to put an accurate price on carbon emissions.

Perhaps more significantly, the carbon tax suffers from public choice problems—which basically means that politicians tend to behave like politicians. A cardinal rule of politics is that policies are made and enforced by the government we have, not the government we want. Even if Congress did overcome the knowledge problem, it is unlikely that people like Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, or whoever succeeds them down the road, would craft a carbon tax on the merits. For Norberg, a carbon tax is “supposed to be an incentive, not a source of revenue.” This is surely not how a carbon tax would work under a real-world government.

That quibble aside, Open is one of the best books of its kind to come out in years. It is the right defense of the right values at the right time.

Norberg is not the only voice in favor of openness. Recent works by economists Virgil Storr and Ginni Choi, psychologist Joseph Henrich, and experimental economist Bart Wilson are other recent contributions. Matt RidleySteven Pinker, and Deirdre McCloskey have all been flying the flag for openness, tolerance, and dynamism for years. But just as Julian Simon was in his day, these voices of reason are too often drowned out by a chorus of doomsayers.

Markets are inherently dynamic and ever changing. No one is in charge of them, and no one directs the process. Markets work best when people are open, tolerant, and cooperative. People need to get along with people who look different, speak differently, and may live far away. It takes trusting strangers. That not natural to the human brain, which evolved to fit a hunter-gatherer world. But open markets have gotten us this far. If we let them, they can take us much farther. Whether we do or not will be this generation’s defining debate.

Hayek Was No Diplomat, but He Had a Point

Peter Boettke summarizes’ F.A. Hayek’s famous 1974 Nobel Prize lecture on p. 83 of his new book The Struggle for a Better World:

At the start of Hayek’s lecture, he implores his audience to fess up to the fact that those in the economics profession had nothing to be very proud of, as they had made a mess of things.

This is not how one wins hearts and minds. No wonder Hayek was unpopular in his own profession! But he makes an important point that better diplomats still need to make today, again and again:

Hayek goes on to argue that the cause of the mess was the misconstruing of what economics can, cannot achieve as a science. Economics is a science of complex phenomena, yet the modern administrative state demanded an economics of simple phenomena to accomplish the policy tasks conceived.

Economists and the policy makers they work with need to be more humble. But humility does not come easily to people in public policy. In fact, there is a selection bias against it. People tend not to enter the field unless they believe they can come with a plan that’s better than what everyone else has come up with. This audacity is desirable to some extent–things would rarely improve if nobody thought improvement was possible. Market entrepreneurs must have the same audacity to succeed in their world. But many policy makers do not check their ambitions with enough humility. And unlike private entrepreneurs, there is no profit-and-loss system to let them know when they’re wrong.