Category Archives: Books

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.

Who Bears the Burden of Proof in Justifying Regulations?

John Stuart Mill gave his answer on p. 938 of the Liberty Fund edition of his Principles of Political Economy, in volume 3 of his collected works:

“[T]he onus of making out a case always lies on the defenders of legal prohibitions.”

The modern legal scholar Randy Barnett calls this the presumption of liberty. People are presumed to be free to act. If a third party wants to intervene, the burden is on them to prove why they should be allowed to.

Abraham Lincoln on the Separation of Campaigning and Legislating

Abraham Lincoln, when he was a member of the House of Representatives from the Whig party, supported Zachary Taylor’s 1848 presidential candidacy. This was in part because he thought Taylor would be a weak executive. As David Herbert Donald writes on p. 127 of his 1994 biography Lincoln:

The proper Whig policy ought to be one of “making Presidential elections, and the legislation of the country, distinct matters; so that the people can elect whom they please, and afterwards, legislate just as they please, without any hindrance [from the Chief Executive], save only so much as may guard against infractions of the Constitution, undue haste, and want of consideration.”

Lincoln would change his tune when he became president himself. There is also more to successful executive restraint than this. And there is need for stricter legislative restraints, too. But on the whole, this is a healthier vision of executive power and the president’s proper role than what we have endured over the last few decades.

Marginal Thinking about Theories

Some wise advice from p. 26 of Armen Alchian and William Allen’s superb economics textbook Universal Economics (free PDF):

Don’t make the intellectual mistake of asking whether the theory (the set of principles) is “true.” No theory is perfect. Ask instead, “Is it useful and reliable enough for my purposes? That is, will it lead to generally correct implications and guidance at sufficiently low cost without intolerable error?” That’s the question to ask in every discipline, whether Chemistry, Physics, Biology, or Economics.

Besides being good common sense, this is an excellent example of thinking at the margin.

Upcoming CEI Event: Bart Wilson on The Property Species

At noon ET on Thursday, February 11, CEI is hosting an event with the experimental economist Bart Wilson, author of The Property Species: Mine, Yours, and the Human Mind. He is also a frequent collaborator with former CEI Julian Simon Award winner Vernon Smith.

Near the end of The Property Species, on p. 194, Wilson shows how the custom of property is essential for natural conservation efforts (footnotes omitted):

When some people are allowed to say, “This elephant is mine,” they defend attacks against the elephant like they defend against attacks against their own person. In contrast, when government agents are tasked with defending elephants against attacks, they are not as effective—the evidence strongly suggests—in protecting elephants about which they cannot say, “These are mine.” Think about it natural-historically: Isn’t it astonishing that people who can say, “This elephant is mine” will protect and defend the life of a distantly related fellow mammal against members of their own species who wish that distant relative harm? Isn’t it furthermore prudent for such people to do so? And isn’t it then morally incumbent upon us to consider the possibility that property can save elephants from extinction? Consider, for the moment, the beautiful and humane thoughts made possible by mine.

CEI has a long history of supporting private conservation, and here Wilson makes a powerful point in its favor.

Wilson also discusses other concepts in the book, such as his view that property is not a right; it is a custom. This view avoids some of the problems of rights theory while emphasizing property’s inherently social and cooperative nature.

Property, Wilson argues, is not just the ability to say “this is mine.” Any dog with a bone thinks that. Property is the ability to also say “that is yours.” Dogs do not have that ability. Only humans have made this cognitive leap. Property is unique to us. It is also universal among us. Every society on Earth, without exception, has social customs that involve notions of both “this is mine” and “that is yours.” This human universal is what makes non-violent trade possible. Property is what lets people act on Adam Smith’s natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange.

As Wilson argues on p. 179, “we have to be open to the possibility that commerce may be an integral part of that socializing and ethicizing process.” Property is a fundamental concept in designing sound public policy, and in enabling virtuous and prosperous societies to emerge. There is much more to property than armchair philosophizing.

There is also more to property than commerce. The custom of property gives a convincing answer to the question that all social scientists seek to answer: how people find ways to get along with each other. Many people view property as an exclusionary, anti-social concept. This is a mistake. It requires multiple people for the concept of property to even exist. And those people must cooperate with each other for it to work. It does no good to say “this is mine” if other people do not agree to respect that, and expect to have their own claims respected.

Property is an ongoing dialogue between people. it requires listening, not just speaking. There is a reason why economics and related disciplines–nearly all of which Wilson draws from in the book–are called social sciences.

Wilson, of course, has much more to say on the matter. Click here to register for the February 11 event. The book is here. I highly recommend both.

Book Review: Jennifer Traig – Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting

Jennifer Traig – Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting

Hilarious, and recommended by Let Grow founder and Free-Range Kids author Lenore Skenazy. Traig performs two valuable services for parents. One, she reminds them that everyone makes mistakes, and that’s ok. Do your best, use common sense, and your kids will be fine. Perfection doesn’t exist. Provided that you are loving, caring, and supportive, there is no need to stress yourself out over falling short of impossible standards.

The second service is historical. Our mistakes are nothing compared to the mistakes people used to make. Before freaking out about whatever threat to children is headlining the evening news tonight, it helps to have some context. Children today are safer, healthier, better fed, and better-parented than at any other time in history. Media freak-outs help ratings, but hurt parents and kids. Traig looks at how previous generations treated their kids, and is thankful that today’s kids have it better in almost every way. Some of our parents and grandparents’ shortcomings are hilarious; others are more tragic.

Doctors performed quack remedies that were as likely to kill as to cure. School was even more drudgerous than it is now, and physical abuse was common. Parenting “experts” clearly had no idea what they were talking about, and many advocated what today would be considered abuse. Playground equipment was hazardous. Children’s literature, such as the Brothers Grimm, was often nightmare-inducing. Crib accidents used to be multiples more common due to poor design. Once kids were out of the crib, child labor was routine until the Industrial Revolution raised adult earnings enough for them to afford to put kids in schools instead of fields or factories.

Traig makes these serious points with laugh-out-loud humor and a conversational style. This book is excellent for nervous parents, nervous parents-to-be, and anyone else worried about what the world is coming to. As long as we put a little effort into it and stop freaking out about everything, our children and grandchildren will have better childhoods and better adult lives than we did, just as our lives have been healthier and wealthier than those of the generations before us.

Book Review: Bill Bryson – The Body: A Guide for Occupants

Bill Bryson – The Body: A Guide for Occupants

A fun tour of the human body and all its combined miracles and foibles. As with A Short History of Nearly Everything, depth is sacrificed almost entirely to breadth. There is a sensationalist undertone throughout, especially in parts involving cancer, obesity, and growing resistance to antibiotics. Bryson lets his sense of humor shine quite a bit, adding some charm to what can be a dreary subject. This is good for novices or people who want a lighter touch on a complicated and intimidating subject. Experts will likely shake their head at Bryson’s frequent overhyping of scary but low-probability events and health conditions.