Category Archives: Philosophy

Immanuel Wallerstein – The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century

Immanuel Wallerstein – The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century

Wallerstein was the primary creator of the core-periphery framework that many historians use to view world economic history. This 1974 book started it all. Several publishers rejected his initial manuscript, but when he did finally get it published, it caught on quickly. Wallerstein eventually completed four volumes in the series before he passed away in 2019.

In the context of the 16th century, the first major core country was Spain, though the Netherlands and England eventually overtook it as silver-induced inflation and the costs of empire caused Spanish decline. The two periods of Spanish dominance and Dutch-English dominance make up what Wallerstein calls the long 16th century. The periphery economies were the somewhat nearby countries that traded with these core economies throughout the long 16th century, and on through later periods.

Typically, periphery economies provide raw materials and food, which the core countries either consume or turn into more finished products. At this stage of the world economy, there were still countries outside of the European core-periphery network. For Wallerstein, these are simply separate economic systems. The boundaries are fluid, and Wallerstein was quick to point out that his categories are not categorical. Countries such as Poland and the Ukraine were nearly always periphery countries in this period. Russia went in and out of the periphery over the years. Farther-off countries such as India and China had their own independent core-periphery networks.

By the 20th century, with industrialization, mass media, and air travel, the entire world was unified into a single core-periphery system. In this book’s focus, the two-part “long 16th century,” this had not yet happened. But this was also the period when that process began in earnest, which is why Wallerstein’s larger project began there.

Wallerstein was a Marxist, and it shows in his hyper-materialist view of history, and his neglect of individuals in favor of focusing on aggregates such as nations, regions, and classes. It also causes him to ignore non-material factors such as culture, art, social norms about openness and progress, and more. Though he favorably cites Douglass North a few times, proving at least some engagement with the economic history literature, he also is not the most astute economic analyst, especially in matters of monetary policy. He seems not to grasp the concepts of equilibrium, the neutrality of money, or the law of one price. These shortcomings are not fatal to his core-periphery thesis, but they don’t help his case.

As the world becomes ever more prosperous in the 21st century, Wallerstein’s core-periphery framework is quickly becoming obsolete. It’s not the worst way to view the history of empires of colonialism, which are based on exploitation and hierarchy. But the world of the post-1800 Great Enrichment is based increasingly on equal exchange and cross-cultural tolerance and respect. There is a long way to go, obviously, and there will be stutters and reversal. But if the process continues, Wallerstein’s thesis will age as poorly as his Marxism already has.

Thomas Paine – Common Sense

Thomas Paine – Common Sense

A few years ago, I had a brief conversation with Tom Palmer in which he drew a contrast between the bourgeois Paine and the more aristocratic Edmund Burke. Paine is direct, unsubtle, and efficient, both in writing style and in his revolutionary fervor. Burke has a more lengthy, detached, and tradition-minded prose style, and a cautious, almost tentative political philosophy to match it.

Having finally sat down for a serious study of Paine for the first time, Tom’s point makes a lot of sense. Both men were liberals, in the correct sense of the term. But they were also very different from each other. Both supported the American Revolution. But where Burke opposed the French Revolution, Paine not only supported it, he participated in it. The two men also engaged in a war of words so heated that, while living in France, Paine was convicted in absentia in England for his attacks on Burke.

But that was all in the future for Thomas Paine in January 1776. Common Sense is a masterpiece of the pamphlet format, which was popular in 18th century America, as Bernard Bailyn describes in great detail in his Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Shorter than a full book or even a monograph, but longer than a magazine story, pamphlets were a common persuasive tool during Revolutionary times. They were also often read aloud, since literacy was far from universal in those days. This fact of life influenced pamphlets’ short length, their direct, simplified writing style, and their common use of universally-understood metaphors and references that everyone knew. Paine, though he was a deist and not a Christian, devotes a significant portion of Common Sense to the Bible’s warnings against the dangers of kings–many of which had come true under George III. In an appendix added later on, Paine appeals to Quakers to drop their pacifism and join the Revolutionary cause.

Among Paine’s more practical insights is that America and Britain essentially separated as soon as British troops fired their first shot. There was no going back to the way things were, even if people wanted to. Additionally, continued union would cause economic harm to the American people through no fault of their own. Otherwise-willing European buyers and sellers with no grudge against American merchants would keep their wallets closed and their ships away from Americans for as long as they remained British subjects. Continued allegiance to the crown was also potentially bad for American soldiers’ life expectancies if Britain were to press them into its military and its America-unrelated conflicts. Paine’s foreign policy non-interventionism was integral to the Founders’ thought, and today’s political leaders would do well to move in that sensible direction.

Is New Conservatism Really Progressivism?

My colleagues Kent Lassman and Iain Murray have an important new piece asking if the new post-2016 conservatism is really progressivism. It’s worth reading.

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson – The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson – The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty

Acemoglu has been on the economics Nobel shortlist for some time. Robinson is a frequent collaborator. When I was in grad school, their papers, often coauthored with Simon Johnson, were referred to in the shorthand “AJR,” especially  “The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation” and the debate it set off in academic journals.

Acemoglu and Robinson (AR?)’s previous book, 2014’s Why Nations Fail, contrasts extractive versus inclusive institutions, and finds that inclusive-institution countries tend to be both freer and wealthier. Countries with predatory governments with corrupt legal systems tend to be poor and repressive, while countries with a strong rule of law that keep corruption reasonably in check tend to be wealthy and free. Think of North Korea vs. South Korea. While this should not be a controversial argument, it is one that many politicians and academics resist, so Acemoglu and Robinsons’ reminder, while not original, was welcome.

The Narrow Corridor uses a different framework with a little more nuance, and ultimately reaches a similar conclusion. It also does it in an accessible style—which is important in a time of rising populism that needs to be countered. The more ears that hear about the connection between liberalism and prosperity, the better. Instead of a dichotomy of extractive and inclusive, here Acemoglu and Robinson draw a trichotomy between Absent Leviathan, Despotic Leviathan, and Shackled Leviathan. They are the same awful creature, just put into three different situations.

Absent Leviathan is a government that doesn’t do the things governments are supposed to do. When a government does not protect property rights, provide an accessible and fair legal system, a reasonably stable currency, and on down the line—the list varies with one’s political views—that country tends to be poor and stagnant.

Despotic Leviathan is a government that is too present. Like fire, government burns everything it touches if it isn’t kept in check. The twin terrors of fascism and communism are history’s starkest examples. But other types of Despotic Leviathan have appeared everywhere from most European colonial governments, and often their independent successors, to dynastic monarchies in China, Egypt, and most everywhere else in the world through history.

The goal is some kind of Shackled Leviathan, which Acemoglu and Robinson describe on p. 27: “[R]epression and dominance are as much in its [Shackled Leviathan’s] DNA as they are in the DNA of the Despotic Leviathan. But the shackles prevent it from rearing its fearsome face. How those shackles emerge, and why only some societies have managed to develop them, is the major theme of our book.”

The cage of norms is a key concept in understanding why it is so hard to keep Leviathan in that narrow corridor where it is both present and shackled. This represents a bit of a turn for Acemoglu and Robinson. Why Nations Fail was mostly about institutions; the cage of norms is about culture. Many economists downplay or ignore cultural factors in their work because it is often difficult or impossible to measure or formally model. Deirdre McCloskey is the most prominent exception. Her name does not appear in the bibliographies, but her fellow traveler Joel Mokyr’s does, along with Douglass North, Barry Weingast, and a few other similarly minded scholars.

The cage of norms is a catch-all term for highly restrictive cultures. There are many types of cages.  Some cages confine women from public and economic life. Others place taboos against commerce. Nationalist cages engrain hostile attitudes to outsiders. Traditionalist cages can lock out progress and change. India’s caste system is one example. Honor cultures are another. Religious fundamentalism is nearly always a cage of norms. Nationalism, which is currently returning to a vogue not seen in decades, is a very risky cage at the moment in several countries, including Hungary, Italy, the UK, Mexico, and the United States.

The point is that countries that have strong cages of norms gave a hard time keeping their Leviathans shackled in the narrow corridor, and are generally bad places to live.

The Red Queen Effect is Acemoglu and Robinson’s main metaphor for how Leviathan can stay in its proper corridor. It’s essentially competition. When church and state compete with each other, they direct their energies against each other rather than against people. And as Harold Berman pointed out in Law and Revolution, they were also competing for customers. Successful competitor states had to keep their behaviors in the corridor. Federalism, or competing levels of government, is another area for Red Queen-style running. So is separation of powers, with competing branches running as fast as they can to stay in the same place relative to the other branches. A vigorous civil society, unconfined by a cage of norms, is ultimately the most effective Red Queen racer.

In another intellectual turn, Acemoglu and Robinson rely more on history than on economic analysis to make their argument. They offer plenty of numbers and data, but little of the regression analysis or formal model-building that one associates with MIT or University of Chicago economists.

The wide-ranging first chapter alone travels from Wyoming to Ghana in the 19th and 20th centuries, among several other places. To illustrate Absent, Despotic, and Shackled Leviathans, they tell  stories about free-wheeling Siena in Italy, regimented and militaristic Prussia to its north, and Switzerland caught in the corridor between them. China and India get their own in-depth chapters, and the comparison of Costa Rica and Guatemala, and how coffee affected their different trajectories, is especially instructive.

Acemoglu and Robinson find their framework also applies in the present day. Ferguson, Missouri’s police department is simultaneously an Absent Leviathan and a Despotic Leviathan. It doesn’t do things it’s supposed to do, such as providing safety and security. And it does plenty of things it shouldn’t do, some of which became national news. To a greater degree than in wealthier communities, Ferguson’s majority-black residents are subjected to arbitrary and unpredictable fines for everything from jaywalking to the length of the grass in their yard. Residents are then fined further when they are unable to pay. The department’s 2014 murder of Michael Brown was a flashpoint incident that brought stark attention to how far outside the corridor Ferguson’s government—and governments in many other communities like it—had strayed.

The tangle of metaphors is a bit much, but Acemoglu and Robinson’s larger message is sound—the best government is limited government. They are not doctrinaire libertarians, and as Deirdre McCoskey argues in her new book Why Liberalism Works, they rely too much on the traditional, and mistaken, Marxian conception of capitalism as dependent on capital. Innovation and a can-do ethos of continual improvement are actually far more important. But their message of the need to limit political power is important, especially in the current political moment. Leviathan is an awful creature who can kill by the millions when let out of its cage. If government is a necessary evil, one must remember that both of those words are important.

Sabine Hossenfelder – Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray

Sabine Hossenfelder – Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray

Hossenfelder brilliantly covers the intersection of philosophy, hard science, and social science. She has a lot of wisdom about certainty, error, doubt, and why quantitative analysis is important and useful, but also prone to abuse. Her thesis is that a scientist’s proper goal is to understand the natural world. In that pursuit, many scientists get a little too caught up in constructing elegant mathematical models. Models and equations are useful when they add to understanding, which they often do. In fact, they are often vital to it. But models are a means, not an end.

To Hossenfelder, it is disconcerting how often scientists describe their models and equations as elegant. The word is everywhere. It appears constantly in scientific papers and conferences, in the classroom, and in popular-level books, magazine articles, and documentaries. Scientists sometimes even judge their theories and experimental results to be true or false based on whether they are viewed as beautiful or elegant. Even Einstein fell into this trap with his famous “God does not play dice” remark to express his unease with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

This is a problem because the universe does not care if people think it is beautiful or not. f=ma is either true, or it isn’t. Ptolemy’s laws, or Keplers, or Newton’s, or Einstein’s, or the string theorists’ ideas, are each either true or false. The answers do not depend on whether someone thinks they are elegant. Rather than chasing elegant ghosts, a scientist’s goal should be to get as close to objective understanding as possible, given human limitations.

Hossenfelder is a deep enough thinker to realize that our aesthetic sense likely evolved in response to our universe; causality runs both ways. It is not a coincidence that our eyes are most sensitive to the very E-M frequencies the sun sends our way, or that our ears respond precisely to the most common sound frequencies around us. In addition to our sensory organs’ capabilities being determined by evolutionary processes, so too did the way we interpret those sensory inputs.

Aesthetically, people tend to find beauty and elegance in evolutionary success, and ugliness in threats or failures to reproductive success. it is not a coincidence that signs of beauty are almost universally signs of youth, health, and fertility. Most people consider symmetrical faces more beautiful because symmetry correlates with good health, and with good genes. We prefer cleanliness over filth because bacteria and disease are bad for survival and reproductive success. So it makes sense that scientists, as humans who evolved in just this way, both have the aesthetic sense that they do, and that they feel compelled to find it in physics and other sciences.

If a symmetrical face is elegant and beautiful, so is a scientific equation that exactly has a given symmetry, or exactly fits a certain exponent. e=mc2 is much more appealing than, say, e=mc2.1. Some laws, such as this exchange rate between matter and energy, do have this elegant precision. This is fortunate, otherwise humans might never have discovered them! Other phenomena that are just as true are less elegant, such as entropy, the probabilism of quantum mechanics, or the way friction coefficients, alloys, and engineering tolerances all defy perfect precision in practice.

Our search for elegance in scientific research is a longstanding natural impulse redirected in a new and foreign direction. Humans have been a species for perhaps 200,000 years, and proper scientists for just a few hundred years–just a thousandth or two of that time. Our 200,000 years is in turn perhaps a touch more than one three thousandth of the animal kingdom’s existence. Our evolved aesthetic sense is very, very old. As such, it will be some time before evolution is able to adapt to our new social environment and address Hossenfelder’s concerns. Until then, the least we should do is be aware of our elegance problem.

While reading the book, I kept thinking it had just the sort of message that my former economics professor Russ Roberts would enjoy. One of the hallmarks of his approach is a conscious avoidance of certainty, and keeping in mind the difference between good and bad uses of statistics (Russ is also a keen and humble philosophical thinker). As it turns out, Russ had an excellent conversation with Hossenfelder on his EconTalk podcast. It’s worth a listen, especially for those who don’t have time to read the whole book.

Though Hossenfelder’s home is in physics, in several points during the book she acknowledges how her thinking applies to the social sciences. She’s right. Economists in particular would do well to consider her arguments. Her arguments about the parallel uses and abuses of mathematical modeling has some intersection with Jerry Z. Muller’s recent book The Tyranny of Metrics, though Hossenfelder’s arguments are more nuanced and broader-ranging, and have a deeper philosophical foundation.

Lost in Math also reminded me of F.A. Hayek’s The Counter-Revolution in Science, which distinguishes between science and scientism. As Hayek defines the terms, science is the process of learning about the universe and the beings who live in it. Scientism is more about method-worship, valuing mathematical rigor and elegance as its own end. When taken too far, scientism can color results and potentially stunt entire research programs and lines of inquiry.

This has happened in economics. Crudely, science and scientism can be personified as Adam Smith vs. Paul Samuelson–though again, very crudely. Peter Boettke contrasts mainline vs. mainstream economics to make a similar point. Smithian mainline economists are interested in the human condition; mainstream Samuelsonians are a little too interested in technical proficiency and elegant modeling. They would do well to focus a little less on Homo economicus, and a little more on the admirable and real, though admittedly less elegant, Homo sapiens.

Andrew S. Curran – Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

Andrew S. Curran – Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

Diderot is best known for editing the Encyclopedie, the first volume of which was published in 1751. Though little-read today, it was one of the most influential works of the Enlightenment. Other than that, most people pay Diderot little mind, aside from noting that he was more vocal about his atheism than most other Enlightenment thinkers, who mostly were, or pretended to be, deists. Curran shows that there was much more to Diderot.

He was a polymath, writing as many as 7,000 articles for the Encyclopedie on a wide variety of subjects. He also wrote plays, dabbled in science, was imprisoned for his beliefs, opposed slavery and advocated for women’s rights, befriended and then fell out with Rousseau, pushed the boundaries of sexual discourse, was a respected art critic, and spent several unhappy months in Russia in the court of Catherine the Great.

After his 1784 death at age 70, Diderot was, ironically, buried in a church. Perhaps fittingly, his grave was disturbed during the French Revolution, and though he is still somewhere in the church, nobody is sure quite where.

Richard Panek – The Trouble with Gravity: Solving the Mystery Beneath Our Feet

Richard Panek – The Trouble with Gravity: Solving the Mystery Beneath Our Feet

More philosophical than I expected. Panek gives an excellent history of gravity, from Aristotle on down through Philoponus, Galileo, Newton, and on down the line. Philoponus, an Egypt-born 6th century Byzantine philosopher, was someone I was unfamiliar with, and it was a treat learning about a new figure in the history of science. He figures prominently early in the story, and more or less came up with the modern understanding of inertia, which he called impetus.

Unusually for his time, Philoponus was not content to rely on Aristotle and Plato’s works as settled fact. He preferred some measure of empiricism. He did not go as far as Francis Bacon’s audaciously titled New Organon (intended to replace Aristotle’s Organon, which was all but an eternal sacred text), but Philoponus’ empiricism was still controversial.

While Panek ably explains the science of gravity at a popular level, he is clearly more interested in the philosophy surrounding it. In particular, if you ask a scientist not what gravity is, but why it exists, they have no choice but to tell you they do not know. That, more than anything, is what interests Panek, and what drove him to write this book.

A good scientist has no problem admitting they do not know something, of course. A lifetime of study and experiment tells even the most brilliant scientist nothing about why, only about the what. Maybe someday we’ll gain that level of knowledge. But after so many attempts from Aristotle to Philoponus through today’s sophisticated experiments, Panek is not optimistic.