Category Archives: Books

Retro Review: William H. McNeill – Plagues and Peoples (1976)

William McNeill was one of the 20th century’s leading big-picture world historians. Interconnectedness is a major running theme of his work. This reviewer, whose work focuses quite a bit on trade policy, has found McNeill’s approach to history quite useful.

McNeill was a student of Arnold Toynbee, who instead emphasized separation and conflict as key drivers of world history. In a way, McNeill spent his career disagreeing with his teacher, thus living out the dreams of countless frustrated students.

Plagues and Peoples applies McNeill’s interconnectedness emphasis to disease as an engine of world history. This is of obvious interest in the wake of COVID-19. What can we learn from how other societies have dealt with plagues? What were mistakes we can avoid? What things worked that we can adapt to our own time?

McNeill’s book begins in prehistory and goes all the way up to modern times. In a later edition’s preface, McNeill briefly analyzes the AIDS epidemic, although in this reviewer’s opinion, that part has not aged well.

The rest of the book mostly has. That said, its focus on disease means that McNeill, at least in Plagues and Peoples, gives short shrift to other historical factors This is a forgivable sin; books have only so much space, and McNeill gives them plenty of attention in other works such, as his mistitled The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (1963), which spends more time out of the West than in it. But it is up to the reader to remember that history is nearly always multicausal.

As population grew after the agricultural revolution, long-separated peoples gradually came into contact with each other. Each group had suffered from its own local diseases. These depended on climate, geography, livestock, and agricultural choices. Tropical diseases rarely adapt well to cold climates, and vice versa.

An early obstacle to animal domestication was disease transmission between species. Over time, humans built up immune tolerances to their animal companions’ diseases. But different regions had different domesticated species, and hence different immunities. This caused outbreaks when people with different domesticated animals made first contact. Rice farmers, who spend much of their time wading through standing water, face a very different disease mix than farmers of grains or legumes, who deal with land-based diseases transmitted from insects, pests, and animal feces.

When different cultures first came into contact, there were often terrible outbreaks at their borders—this happened throughout Eurasia as agriculture and cities spread across the continent. If people near borders continued to interact, they built up mutual immunities to each other’s diseases, and could then benefit from trade, specialization, and cultural exchange.

But if there were long breaks in contact for whatever reason, the immunization process might have to start all over again. And sometimes people might decide it wasn’t worth the bother. These types of local disease-related decisions could impact generations of economic well-being, as well as decisions of war and peace.

This same process happened on a much larger scale after Columbus. It was also far more intense. The wild versions of the Americas’ domesticated animals, such as llamas and alpacas, did not live densely together enough to sustain highly infectious diseases. That means they didn’t pass them along to humans during domestication. So not only were Amerindian civilizations capable of greater density with fewer diseases than was possible in Europe, people in the Americas also had far fewer antibodies. This is one reason why contact with Europeans and their animals hit so hard.

Some diseases also require a minimum population density to survive. This includes diseases where the sufferer gains lifelong immunity after illness, such as chicken pox. Such diseases need constant access to fresh hosts who have not yet developed immunity. Often the only places with enough density and fresh hosts are cities. Cities, it turns out, were a major development for more than just humans.

At the macro level, high disease rates in cities played a major role in millennia of urban-rural interactions. There were fewer diseases out in the country, so population growth there was often rapid. In cities, deaths usually outpaced births until modern times—and modern sanitation. Cities depended on rural migration to maintain population—at precisely the same time as rural population growth was too high to bear. So rural-to-urban migration balanced out both environments.

This delicate equilibrium was often upset by wars, famines, and other non-disease factors. But this equilibrating tendency was the norm for most of history, and disease rates played a major role in the rate of urbanization until the last century or so.

This had special importance in post-classical Europe. Feudal ties bound rural peasants to nobles and kings. But the rise of cities, who often answered to no king, offered refuge to peasants, who continued to migrate away from kings into cities. A custom evolved whereby an escaped serf who was able to live in a city for a year and a day without being captured was legally emancipated. This is where the phrase “city air makes one free” came from, as well as city names such as Freiburg (“free town”). Disease rates, which kept cities constantly in need of fresh migrants, played an important role in this cultural and political dynamic.

Moreover, these power struggles, with disease always operating in the background, prevented kings from becoming too strong. These checks and balances eventually led to city- and democracy-based modernity as we know it today.

One of the most interesting concepts in Plagues and Peoples is McNeill’s comparison of microparasites and macroparasites. Viral and bacterial pathogens are microparasites. Some of their behavioral tendencies repeat themselves at a macro level in humans. An example of this is in McNeill’s theory of government.

McNeill’s theory of the origins of the state is similar Mancur Olson’s stationary bandit theory, but with a disease-centered twist. McNeill observes that diseases that are too lethal don’t survive for very long. They kill their host so quickly that they cannot spread. This is why Ebola breakouts, though terrifying, tend not to spread very far. At the macroparasite level, a bandit who completely destroys an agricultural settlement feeds himself for a day. But after that, like Ebola, he might have a hard time finding food.

More “successful” diseases such as colds, flus, or malaria make their hosts ill enough to exhibit contagion-spreading behaviors such as coughing, sneezing, or diarrhea. But they don’t kill them. Or at least, death does not come quickly enough to stop the pathogen’s spread. In the microparasite world, a milder human bandit also does much better for himself. He takes enough to feed himself, but not enough to starve his “hosts.”

The concept of immunity also plays a role. If the bandit “immunizes” his hosts against competing bandits, they gain security. The bandit not only gains a steady food source, but his immunized villagers may actually be happy to have him around; a chronic but mild illness is preferable to sudden death.

Analogous to biological natural selection, destructive roving bandits eventually gave way to milder stationary bandits, who gradually took on the trappings and functions of proper governments. And in social evolution, change need not mean death. A simple change in strategy is enough for a roving bandit to change into a stationary bandit. From this selection process, the earliest states emerged. One needn’t take the disease analogy too literally for it to shed useful light on an important process in human history. James C. Scott’s book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States has much to offer readers interested in pursuing this direction further.

McNeill then applies this framework throughout world history. Confucianism arose in China as a successful macroparasitic adaptation to “keep exactions imposed upon the peasantry within traditional and, under most circumstances, tolerable limits.” (p. 101) The Confucian examination system limited the number of government officials, and imposed cultural, ethical, and institutional restraints on their behavior. The Confucian system kept Leviathan properly shackled, as Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson might argue (see my review of their recent book The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty).

This dynamic, McNeill theorizes, might explain why the earliest known governments in Egypt and Mesopotamia were highly despotic, even compared to later absolute monarchies.

The 14th century bubonic plague pandemic known as the Black Death happened as it did in large part due to interconnectedness. As always in history, there were many factors. The plague bacillus tended to be stable only in rodent communities in remote areas. The rise of the Mongols and their fast-moving horses not only displaced many of these rodent communities, but their swift-moving horses—and enticing grains and other foods—drove rodents across the Eurasian continent. Independently, “Improvements in ship design occurring in the 13th century made year-round sailing normal for the first time,” which “offered securer and more far-ranging vehicles for rats.” (pp. 176-177). These multiple engines of interconnectedness made plague vectors spread faster and farther than they otherwise would have.

The plague response also has a potential lesson for today’s policy makers. On p. 195, McNeill observes:

In contrast to the rigidities of the church, city governments, especially in Italy, responded rather quickly to the challenges presented by devastating disease. Magistrates learned how to cope at the practical level, organizing burials, safeguarding food deliveries, hiring doctors, and establishing other regulations for public and private behavior in time of plague.

The Church was a very different creature than today’s federal or national governments, but the larger principle stands: smaller, closer governments tend to be more responsive than larger, distant ones. People today expect more of Washington than it could possibly deliver during the time of COVID-19. Effective responses will instead tend to come at the individual, local, and state levels.

Retro Reviews: Azar Gat with Alexander Yakobson – Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism (2013)

Though military historian Azar Gat wrote Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism, he gives extensive credit to fellow historian Alexander Yakobson for his comments and advice contributed throughout the book. Yakobson also authored the final chapter. I read this book at the recommendation of my former colleague Alex Nowrasteh.

Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism has become the standard defense of nationalism. The trouble is that Hazony’s defense is not very coherent. In a sense, Hazony wrote a book-length version of “it’s not about race.” Hazony also struggles to say what nationalism might be about instead. Hazony also argues that nationalism is a recent phenomenon. After all, nations as we know them today have only been around for a few centuries.

Gat’s two main arguments cause problems for Yazony-style thinkers. One, nationalism is ancient. In fact, the impulses behind it predate our species. They are an inescapable part of the human condition. Two, nationalism is mostly about race. More precisely, it is mostly about ethnicity. Not exclusively, but mostly. Gat uses a broader, boutique definition of ethnicity for the purposes of his discussion, about which more below. But race is an important part of his use of the term. Unlike Hazony, he does not dodge the question.

Gat also does not defend nationalism. Nor is he interested in attacking it, though he is clearly put off by the cultural chauvinism and belligerence that often accompany nationalism, even in relatively peaceful places such as France. Gat instead seeks understanding. What makes nationalists tick? Why do they hold their beliefs? This 2013 book came out before nationalism regained its current voguishness in populist movements around the world. Nations may be a better book for that reason. It provides light without the heat that current events can inspire.

Nationalism predates the concept of nation, which is one reason why Gat focuses on ethnicity. To Gat, nationalism is just one possible way of expressing a deeper impulse. Gat doesn’t cite Adam Smith’s circle of concern theory from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, but his thinking is similar. Basically, people care more about people close to them than they do about people who are socially distant. People care most about themselves. They care very much about close relatives such as children and siblings, though a bit less than about themselves. They care a bit less than that about cousins, aunts, and uncles, still less about second cousins, and so on.

The circle of concern is not an ironclad rule that applies in every single case, as Richard Dawkins convincingly argues in The Selfish Gene—along with any parents who have made sacrifices for their children. But as a guide to understanding human behavior, the circle of concern is a universal tendency.

As Adam Smith put it, a person in England will lose more sleep over losing his little finger than over a hundred thousand people dying in a natural disaster in China. This might sound cold or callous, and it is. Smith himself disapproved of this tendency. But Smith was writing about “is,” not ”should.” Those are separate questions, similar to the difference between fact and opinion. The reason Smith made that point, even though he did not like it, is that it is true.

In fact, growing the circle of concern was one of Smith’s greatest hopes for humanity. In a way, the whole project of modernity and the post-1800 Great Enrichment has consisted of people growing their circles of concern en masse. This moral vision, far more than material gain, was the foundation of Adam Smith’s case for free trade. It is the moral foundation for liberalism as a whole—liberalism in the original, and correct sense of the word.

Where does nationalism enter this picture? Humans have more sophisticated social arrangements than other animals, so our Smithian circle of concern naturally tends to be wider than in other species. For 95 percent of our 200,000-year history as a species, we lived in mostly-related clans of 50 to 150 people or so. But these bands would often slightly overlap with other nearby clans. While these encounters were often far from friendly, they provided a chance for groups to trade and to exchange members through intermarriage. This prevented inbreeding and created opportunities for trade, or for depleted groups to replenish their numbers.

There was an evolutionary advantage to having some social ties between clans between these clans, even if not at the same level as within-clan ties—again, remember the selfish gene. Often these adjacent clans would meet for seasonal feasts, holidays, or religious ceremonies—a form of social evolution that helped to strengthen survival-enhancing bonds.

Evidence from surviving classical sources such as Herodotus, Caesar, and Tacitus, as well as modern anthropologists studying today’s tribal peoples, have all found surprisingly similar pre-national social structures around the world, despite all the local cultural differences.

These networks of 500 to 1,000 people or so are about the outer limit of the number of personal relationships a human is able to maintain. Beyond that, everyone is a stranger. And strangers with no binding ties were as likely to steal food or kidnap mates as they were to trade peacefully. That is why people have an instinct to affirm their in-group and vilify their out-groups—back in the day, it was a survival mechanism.

Natural selection processes chose people whose circle of concern was wide enough to include adjacent groups, not just their everyday in-group. We are their descendants. At the same time, there was no such pressure for the circle of concern to extend wider than this, to perfect strangers—until very recently. Too recently for evolution to catch up to our new social circumstances.

As human societies scaled up into city-states, regional empires, and eventually nation-states, all the different facets of Gat’s concept of ethnicity come into play to progressively greater degrees. Having something in common, such as a language, religion, or a shared hometown or king gave people something in common. It made for an easy mental shortcut to determine if a stranger could be trusted.

Gat argues that language is usually the most important ethnic identifier. If someone does not speak your language, or does so with a noticeable accent, they are clearly other. Religion is another ethnic identifier. Someone who prays to foreign gods probably isn’t from around here. Dress and appearance matter for the same reason. The European divide of beer and butter in the North, versus wine and olive oil in the South, is another point of division. Jews and Muslims took their dietary customs with them throughout their travels, keeping them ethnically apart—in Gat’s sense of the term—from pork-eating peoples regardless of where they settled down. As the comedian George Carlin observed, people will always find excuses not to get along. Just ask sports fans at a Packers-Bears game.

While the genetic view of race is a fairly recent phenomenon, people have also always marked themselves apart by racial appearances. And ironically, the reason we do this is genetic. That means Gat’s argument about ethnicity and nationalism both is and is not genetically based. Race is literally only skin deep. But the reason why people so often fight so fiercely about race and ethnicity has genetic roots that are universal to our species. And race is just one of approximately a million and one ways to express that larger inborn tendency. That is where nationalism comes from—human nature’s in-group-out-group instinct.

Gat combines many of these factors in a very wide concept of ethnicity that varies from place to place and changes over time. Sometime around the invention of agriculture, out of this evolving mush eventually came the concept of fixed political boundaries. These too came about organically, usually in line with ethnic boundaries.

But because different facets of ethnicity have different boundaries, a single geographic line can never accurately reflect ethnic lines. It is literally impossible. Maybe two people with common genetics, language, and territory have a different religion, as in Serbia and Croatia. It is impossible to set a national boundary that fits every facet of ethnic identity, so war ensued. In many places, two or more different ethnicities live enmeshed together in the same cities and neighborhoods. If each wants its own state, how does one create a fair boundary?

These types of questions are difficult, and maybe impossible to answer. And that is one reason why war will likely always be with us. So will other, usually less lethal forms of social division.

This aspect of Gat’s thesis reminds this reader of the virtues of a cultural-national version of Ostrom-style polycentrism. Typical government services such as schools, parks, roads, and police are very different from each other. They each serve different constituencies with different needs and different boundaries. And the city workers providing those services all have their own varying needs. So why are nearly all of these wildly different services administered at just a few fixed levels—city, state, and federal?

This kind of shoehorning often has adverse effects on the quality of those services. Just as more flexible scaling of government services can make them more effective, maybe the same is true of nations. One size clearly does not fit all, as any history book will tell you. Maybe allowing for multiple concurrent sizes of “nation” that adapt over time would allow different people to live together more peacefully.

That, in a nutshell, is Gat’s thesis, plus a few outside applications of it. To illustrate his arguments, Gat spends the last two thirds or so of the book on a survey of world history. He briefly visits nearly every time period on every continent in at least enough detail to show how ethnicity and national sentiments have intertwined, peacefully and not. The same ethnic dynamics were nearly always in play before, during, and after modern nation-states emerged as we know them today. Yakobson’s concluding chapter applies his and Gat’s framework to present-day (in 2013) politics around the world.

Nations is the rare book that makes the reader see the world differently, permanently. It provides a magnifying lens that, when properly held, can bring into focus important details on world history; modern history; why countries exist in the first place; why larger structures such as the European Union (EU) are controversial despite being peaceful; why the EU’s faults are not necessarily random; and on today’s in-progress worldwide political realignment, which is increasingly based around a nationalism-versus-liberalism axis, rather than a socialism-versus-liberalism axis.

It’s Good to Think Long-Term

From Kindle location 710 of Adam Thierer’s excellent 2020 book Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance: How Innovation Improves Economies and Governments:

If the primary indictment of technological innovation is that it has inundated us with too much information or too many options, those are good problems compared with the more serious problems our ancestors faced.

You can read about some of those problems in Fernand Braudel’s The Structures of Everyday Life or William Manchester’s evocatively titled A World Lit Only by Fire.  Today’s political debates would improve if more people had that larger historical arc in the back of their minds.

Retro Review: Vlad Tarko on Elinor Ostrom

My review of Vlad Tarko’s excellent intellectual biography of Elinor Ostrom is up at cei.org. Ostrom was the first woman to win the economics Nobel. In addition to popularizing the concept of polycentric governance, she, along with her husband Vincent Ostrom, co-founded the Workshop at Indiana University, which continues to produce high-quality multidisciplinary scholarship.

New CEI Series: Retro Book Reviews

My colleague Richard Morrison is overseeing a new series of retro book reviews. In a fast-moving policy world focused mostly on breaking news, sometimes it’s useful to step back, look at the larger picture, and see how people have reacted to similar problems in the past. Richard’s introductory post is here.

The first retro review is also up. It’s my review of Eric Cline’s book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, which has some surprisingly relevant lessons for the coronavirus response. That review, drawn from a version originally published at this site, is here.

Which reminds me, I have a lengthy backlog of reviews to post from books I’ve recently read, several of which are already written. I will post them when time allows.

Book Review: A.J. Liebling – The Earl of Louisiana

Review of A.J. Liebling, The Earl of Louisiana (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1961)

A colorful book by a colorful author. I read this as preparation for a work event in New Orleans, which I had not previously visited. Liebling was a journalist for The New Yorker who was assigned to write about Earl Long’s 1959 campaign for governor of Louisiana. Liebling’s enthusiasm for food and drink were legendary, and his accounts of his and his interviewees’ restaurant meals are almost unbelievable. Earl Long, the younger brother of the legendary Huey Long, had a mental breakdown during the campaign and was forcibly institutionalized in Texas for a time before returning to the campaign trail.

Liebling gives a vivid portrait of Long. But he paints an even more vivid portrait of Louisianan politics and culture. As CEI founder and Louisiana native Fred Smith likes to say, people in Louisiana don’t expect their politicians to be corrupt; they insist upon it. The people Liebling meets, whether high-ranking officials or ordinary man-in-the-street types, speak to this truth, often hilariously so. Liebling draws frequent parallels between Louisiana’s political system and Middle Eastern oil dictatorships. There are obvious differences, but also enough parallels to give one pause.

Book Review: Steven Strogatz – Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe

Review of Steven Strogatz – Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe

This book is really, really good. It should be required supplemental reading for math teachers, who should assign relevant portions to their students. Most math pedagogy consists of memorizing procedures. It’s mostly how, with only a little bit of what or why. There is rarely much of any unifying theme that ties the separate problem-solving procedures together in a way that makes sense. Strogatz provides all that, and in a compelling way, complete with examples ranging from medicine to astronomy.

Strogatz also explains terminology, which is another common weak spot in classrooms. Why are calculus’ two main concepts called derivative and integrals? I didn’t learn that in undergrad. Nor in a high-quality graduate economics program. Instead, I learned it from Strogatz’s popular-level book in my late 30s.

Another fun bit of etymology is that the word “calculus” is derived some the world for rock. It shares a root with calcium, chalk, calcite, and other similar words. This is because in ancient times, people did their counting by sliding stones along an abacus’ strings.

The concept of infinity is key. Calculating the area of a circle is hard because of the curves. Slicing it into quarters, like a pizza, makes it a little easier. The wedges are kind of triangle-like, but there is still plenty of curved surface on the outside. Cutting into 8, 16, and 32 slices makes the curve progressively less important. Tending the number of slices towards infinity sends that tricky curved area towards zero. Long before infinity, it reaches deep decimal territory, where the accuracy of the calculation is good enough to satisfy even the most exacting engineers. Infinite parts are simpler than a complex whole. This view of infinity is the key to understanding calculus.

Differentiating is taking a complex whole, like a circle, and converting into many different parts, which are easier to calculate accurately. Derivatives are parts derived from a larger whole. Integrals take these differentiated parts and integrate them back together. Calculus is essentially the math of moving from a whole to its parts and back, as needed to accomplish the task at hand.

This is simple stuff that is so obvious to veteran instructors that they never bother to teach it to rookie students. This kind of larger context and purpose should be taught on day one of any course, and regularly reinforced as new material is introduced.

In high school, I spent months memorizing procedures for calculating sines and cosines, but never really learned much about their significance, or knew that they had anything to do with calculus. Moreover, why does it matter that the same curved shape is shifted horizontally? More than twenty years later, I finally learned why. The sine wave is interesting because of its continually changing slope. And a sine wave’s derivative is… it’s cosine. And now I have a greater appreciation of everything from the changing length of daylight during the seasons to how sound waves interact with each other. The rate of change in daylight as the calendar moves from solstice to equinox is a sine wave. The rate of change is slowest at the solstice (about 40 seconds), and fastest at the equinox (more than two minutes). Figuring out the rate of this change at any given point can be figuring out the derivative. In the special sine wave case, this is simple—just figure out the cosine.

Again, this is basic stuff that high schoolers deserve to know. GPAs would likely be measurably higher, and understanding measurably greater, by teaching a little bit more of this big-picture context and a little less rote memorization.

Needless to say, I will be reading Strogatz’s other books in short order. Infinite Powers would pair well with David Salsburg‘s The Lady Tasting Tea, which accomplishes a similar task with statistics.

Alfred Marshall on Free Trade

Here is a gem of a quotation by Alfred Marshall on free trade, unearthed by Doug Irwin on p. 221 of his 1996 book Against the Tide: An Intellectual History of Free Trade: 

“[Free trade] is not a device, but the absence of any device. A device contrived to deal with any set of conditions must become obsolete when they change. The simplicity and naturalness of Free Trade–that is, the absence of any device–may continue to outweigh the series of different small gains which could be obtained by any manipulation of tariffs, however scientific and astute.”

Fred P. Hochberg – Trade Is Not a Four-Letter Word: How Six Everyday Products Make the Case for Trade

Review of Fred P. Hochberg, Trade Is Not a Four-Letter Word: How Six Everyday Products Make the Case for Trade (New York: Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 2020)

Hochberg, who headed the Export-Import Bank from 2009-2017, has written a surprisingly good book on trade. Few economists have favorable views of Ex-Im. The agency’s longstanding corruption problems, cozy relationships with Boeing and other large companies, and its mercantilist economics make it almost indefensible on the merits (see my papers here and here). As with many ex-government officials, Hochberg is a much better economist when he doesn’t have to play politics.

Unfortunately, Hochberg says little in the book about his eight years at Ex-Im. This would have made for fascinating reading. It would have been useful to learn, in extended form, about Hochberg’s views on how Ex-Im works in practice, how he would defend the agency, and where he would criticize it.

Hochberg also presided over the most eventful chapter in Ex-Im’s 85-year history, which included its authorization lapse in 2014-15, when the agency practically shut down. Even after its eventual reauthorization, Ex-Im operated at a severely limited capacity for the remainder of Hochberg’s tenure. The Senate refused to confirm the new board members needed to approve large transactions. Ex-Im did not return to full capacity until 2019.

While Hochberg does refer to his old job several times, it is usually in passing, and never in detail. He does not once mention the great post-2014 Ex-Im political controversy.

By sticking instead to broader-brush trade policy and avoiding anything too controversial, Trade Is Not a Four-Letter Word comes across as a subtle job application for a higher-level position in the next Democratic administration, such as Commerce Secretary or U.S. Trade Representative. If the Ex-Im version of Fred Hochberg took such a job, trade policy would likely continue to be ridden with special-interest handouts and trade-unrelated inititatives. If, instead, the Fred Hochberg who wrote this book took office, trade policy would be not perfect, but it would be pretty good, and certainly an improvement over the last few administrations.

Unfortunately, I have a hunch which side of Hochberg would prevail if he re-entered politics.

Like many politicians who also know better, Hochberg almost bends over backward trying to argue that the American middle and lower-middle classes are net losers from trade. These are America’s largest voting blocs, and many of them live in swing states.

This is a difficult long-term case to make when living standards by almost every measure, from life expectancy to average height to access to air-conditioning, internet, and other technologies, have been improving for both rich and poor for more than a century. In terms of hours of work needed to afford everything from a refrigerator to a new car, goods are becoming more affordable and higher-quality over time, which benefits the poor most of all. This has been happening for decades, and the process is not slowing down. Trade, as Hochberg persuasively argues elsewhere throughout the book, is a major reason why. This doesn’t stop him from trying to appeal to likely voters, though his biggest successes come from reasoning through anecdote, and by omission.

Still, Hochberg gets the big picture right, and he paints it well. The six chapters on the six products he chooses as examples are the strongest part of the book. Trade makes modern life possible, he argues. Whether it’s taco salads, minivans, bananas, smartphones, college degrees (an odd choice, but think of it as a stand-in for human capital), or Game of Thrones, just about everything we enjoy today is a product of international trade. Moreover, this is a good thing. What we have today is far better than what we would have under closed borders. As other thinkers from Hans Rosling to Matt Ridley to Julian Simon have argued for a long time, living standards today are higher, health care is better, ideas are more rigorously tested, and technology improves faster. This is what happens when there is a relatively open global market for both supply and demand.

Narrowing down to policy specifics, Hochberg is strongly anti-tariff. One hopes he would maintain this stance in a cabinet role or in elected office. His long section on why trade deficits don’t matter—in short, because people get something in return for their money—is similarly excellent. It is also inconsistent with his Export-Import Bank tenure. Ex-Im is intended, at least in part, to reduce the U.S. trade deficit by increasing exports. But at least Hochberg knows better now, and is willing to say so publicly now that he is out of office, though he doesn’t mention Ex-Im’s role in the capacity.

His defense of some other policies is weak, such as his case for defending trade adjustment assistance. He does not favor similar measures for workers displaced due to non-trade factors, such as technology or changing fashions. His way of resolving this inconsistent stance is unconvincing. Essentially, he argues that trade-related job displacements are due to government policy, while other job displacements are not. Therefore, the government owes them something to soften the blow of trade-related job displacements. But trade decisions are made by private individuals, and the role of policy in those decisions is indeterminate; how does one calculate how many job losses, or which ones, is policy-related? In jobs that are cut for more than one reason, which is most cases, what proportion is policy-related?

Moreover, many non-trade government policies cost jobs. These range from barriers to entry to environmental requirements to minimum wages to cumulative paperwork burdens. By Hochberg’s criteria, these displaced workers deserve compensation, yet he doesn’t favor it. I would argue that rather that treating symptoms with compensation, it would be better to treat the root problem by getting rid of the bad policies in the first place. But that’s for another time.

Taken as a whole, Hochberg is neither a brave nor an adventurous thinker, but he gets the big picture. As a bonus, Hochberg’s prose style is informal and easy to read, though the Game of Thrones references get to be a little much at times. Trade has costs and benefits. Add them up on a ledger, and the benefits are greater, by far. However, Hochberg’s interventionist streak is almost reflexive and seemingly unthinking. Markets fail all the time, including in international trade. That does not mean policymakers can improve matters. Given knowledge and incentive problems, this is rarely the case. The view that market failures can be fixed by an idealized government is known as the Nirvana fallacy, and Hochberg would do well to take it into account.

Just as a fish doesn’t think of the water it swims through, so do Washington types rarely think about the complicated web of policy they make others swim through. It’s just there, and always has been. It’s nothing to question or give careful thought to in a big-picture sense. Trade Is Not a Four-Letter Word definitely has that Washington vibe to it. But if Hochberg moves more Washington types to favor freer trade at the margin, his book will have done more good than he has, or will, in office.

Charles Davenant on the Need for Humility in Policymaking

Douglas Irwin, on page 53 of his 1996 book Against the Tide: An Intellectual History of Free Trade, quotes from page 32 of Charles Davenant’s 1696 Essay on the East India Trade:

“Wisdom is most commonly in the wrong, when it pretends to direct nature.”

This wisdom applies to much more than trade restrictions and government-granted monopolies.