Category Archives: Philosophy

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.”

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.

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.

Best Books of 2020: Joseph Henrich – The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020)

It’s early, but The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich will likely be one of the new decade’s most influential books. Henrich complements work by Joshua GreeneRichard WranghamJonathan HaidtSteven PinkerMichael Shermer, and others on the psychological underpinnings of modern liberalism—liberalism in the more-or-less original sense of the word.

Henrich’s book has two main arguments. One is historical: The Catholic church, completely unintentionally, set off a social chain reaction that created modernity. The second is psychological: People in modern societies are psychologically distinct than people in traditional kin-based societies.

He uses the acronym WEIRD for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, to describe the unusual people in modern market-liberal societies. If you are reading this book review, then you are probably WEIRD, and so is nearly everyone you know. But we WEIRD people are the outliers in human history. Outside of Europe, East Asia, and North America, there are very few of us.

Most human societies are built on kin-based structures. This was true during our hunter-gatherer past, which was about 190,000 years of our 200,000-year history—95 percent of our species’ time on Earth. Societies remained kin-based through the agricultural revolution, and through the birth of cities about 6,000 years ago. And it is still true today in most countries. Despite occasional flowerings, there were no enduring WEIRD societies in human history until about two centuries ago. This is maybe one tenth of one percent of human existence, and even then, most societies remain kin-based. Again, it is WEIRD people who are unusual.

What is a kin-based society? In these, business partnerships, social networks, and marriages are confined to networks that rarely stray outside the extended family or clan. People tend to be wary of non-kin, and have a strong in-group-vs.-out-group worldview. People tend to look out for their clan’s collective interest over their individual interest. In kin-based societies, nepotism isn’t frowned upon; it’s the norm. WEIRD Americans today look askance when a president appoints inexperienced family members to be senior advisers. But in most other societies, this would have been acceptable, even normal behavior.

By contrast, WEIRD people are more individualistic and more trusting of outsiders. Kin-based families often arrange marriages for their children. WEIRD people usually marry for love. Kin-based people are expected to enter the family business. This is why so many of us have occupation-based surnames, such as Smith, Baker, or Fisher. WEIRD people usually prefer to choose their own line of work, which is one reason why today’s Smiths, Bakers, and Fishers rarely practice those occupations.

Kin-based people are reluctant to do business with strangers and foreigners. WEIRD people are more open to trade and more trusting of potential business partners they have never met. Nobody is purely meritocratic, but WEIRD people are closer to that ideal than most people.

So now that we know the difference between most people and WEIRD people, what is Henrich’s historical argument about the Catholic church accidentally making today’s WEIRD-ness possible?

The Catholic church blew up traditional kin networks through what Henrich calls its unofficial “Marriage and Family Program (MFP).” In short, the Church prohibited cousin marriages. The incest taboo is a human universal. But its boundaries vary from place to place. The church decided to push them progressively further out over a period of centuries. In many places, it eventually prohibited marriages closer than second and third cousins. In a few places it briefly went as far as eighth cousins.

This was a bigger deal than it sounds. Back in, say, the 12th century, people lived isolated lives. Few people lived in cities. Many people lived their entire lives within a 30-mile radius. They met few, if any, people outside of their extended families. And the wanderers they did meet were often beggars, vagrants, or outlaws. The Church’s MFP forced these isolated people to look outside their villages and kin groups for marriage partners. This forced openness, in the long run, ended up wiring people’s brains differently.

Young people are impressionable. When they are of marriageable age and are forced to meet and interact with strangers, and travel among them, traditional closed-kin psychological barriers gradually break down. They are gradually replaced with growing degrees of WEIRDness. It is a long, gradual process with many degrees. But over centuries, the effects add up.

None of the changes Henrich describes are genetic. None of them are racial, and none of them are peculiar to Europe. The conditions that make individuals WEIRD are cultural, intellectual, and psychological.

Using cousin marriage rates as a stand-in for how strong the Church’s Marriage and Family Program operated in different regions, along with historical records, Henrich finds that the MFP was the single biggest cause of everything from per capita GDP to interest rates to murder rates. Interestingly, regional cousin marriage rates closely track religious divisions and regional church influences. Henrich himself was skeptical about the MFP’s cultural influence, so he checked his results every way he could.

So, while openness is the real engine of WEIRDness, in Europe’s case, Church doctrine was what drove the process of opening up.

The differences between kin-based and WEIRD people show up in psychological tests. The Church’s MFP turns out to have changed people’s personalities and psychological profiles. In my recent review of Virgil Storr and Ginny Choi’s excellent Do Markets Corrupt Our Morals?, I noted their finding that people from market societies play decision-making games differently than do people in non-market societies. Henrich argues that this is because they are psychologically different.

From birth, WEIRD people from market societies have been more exposed to outsiders and more likely to trust them. No wonder they tend to play lab games that way. They tend to be more trusting of other players and more willing to use long-term strategies. People from kin-based societies are more likely to do the equivalent of a dine-and-dash from a restaurant. If the other player is not from their in-group, they feel fewer compunctions about cheating that other player.

Kin-based and WEIRD people even assign blame differently. Most WEIRD people see classroom teachers’ disciplinary tactic of punishing an entire class for one student’s offense to be morally wrong. Kin-based people see this as normal, and are fine with it. They think more in terms of collective responsibility than individual responsibility. In fact, criminal justice systems in many kin-based societies punish whole families for one member’s crime.

There is a reason for this. In most human societies, life was precarious. One bad harvest could mean starvation. Very strong conformity norms were a survival advantage. Collective punishment helps to reinforce conformity norms. Maybe someone does have a new idea for planting a crop differently. But if it fails, the stakes are life and death. It’s probably not worth it. Better to make sure that everyone sticks with what he or she knows works.

When most people’s only experience with foreigners is with either castoffs or invading armies, they probably aren’t going to trust them. They’d probably return the favor when possible. Unlike trade, theft and war are zero-sum interactions. When these are someone’s sole experience with out-groups, they are less likely to trade with foreigners and realize the benefits of division of labor. Safer to do it all yourself.

Henrich has written a provocative book that builds on an already robust literature. Despite its deep historical and psychological content, The WEIRDest People in the World is also highly relevant to modern public policy. The regulations and legislation that groups like CEI deal with on a daily basis do not come from a vacuum. They come from longstanding political institutions. And these system-level institutions in turn come from culture. All three of those levels matter. A reformer who works on only one of them will fail. Henrich has come up with a plausible framework to explain how they interact over the long run, and how they can shift. Where people are relatively WEIRD, people will build relatively market-oriented political institutions—and eventually, policies. Where they are kin-based, they probably won’t.

Without the Church’s unofficial Marriage and Family Plan, European culture likely would have remained insular and kin-based. That tendency still exists, and is expressing itself in the European Union’s trending towards becoming a protectionist trading bloc. Reformers need to push back and remind people that WEIRD-style openness has massive benefits, especially for the poor.

What about the rest of the world? Fortunately, the Church’s MFP is not the one and only way for people to become psychologically WEIRD. Ideas can be imported and exported, same as goods and services. America was a relatively WEIRD society from the start, as was Australia. The Asian tigers such as Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong, saw the economic success of WEIRD countries, and followed their example. China is at a weird midway point psychologically, and its institutions are still extractive and kin-based by WEIRD standards. This may limit China’s future growth as a global power.

The point is that setting a good example can do a lot more good than people think. This puts today’s nationalists and economic protectionists in an awkward position. They are not the future. They are throwbacks to an impoverished, unhappy past.

The post-1800 Great Enrichment that billions of people are enjoying today has deep and distant causes operating at multiple levels. Henrich’s thesis of WEIRD psychology, cultural openness, and economic prosperity will have a major impact on future work in geopolitics, economic development, political polling, immigration, and free trade for a long time to come.

Book Review: Eric Metaxas – Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Eric Metaxas – Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy  (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010)

Who was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? He was a German pastor who became a prominent resistor to Hitler’s Third Reich. He helped people to escape Germany, was part of a group that plotted to assassinate Hitler, and died in a concentration camp.

This book would have been about two thirds shorter if it had stuck to its subject. Instead, much of the book is theological discourse. A hero’s courageous life story was regularly interrupted with digressions on obscure theological interpretations and debates—including an out-of-nowhere rant about abortion during a chapter on Bonoeffer’s time in Tegel prison.

Even while listening to the Audible narration at 2.25x speed, there was a great deal of tedium, and not enough about the remarkable man whose name is in the book’s title. There are occasional flashes of (possibly unintentional?) humor, as in Hitler’s description as an “irascible vegetarian.” These moments are few, though.

Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 into a prosperous, intellectual household with several siblings, including a twin sister. His childhood was happy, his parents raised him right, and Bonhoeffer showed high character from the start. He also had enough musical talent to seriously consider becoming a professional musician.

He instead decided to become a pastor. He received his doctorate at age 21, and was ordained at 25. Though protestant, he was tolerant of other denominations, including Catholics, making friends and attending their services. Bonhoeffer’s ecumenicism made him stand out as a little bit of a liberal hippie type by the standards of the day, though a straight-laced one.

The young Bonhoeffer also had an adventurous spirit. He traveled to Rome and Spain, though he spent much of those trips attending church services and in theological study. He was also able to spend a great deal of time studying his favorite sculpture, Laocoön and His Sons, located in the Vatican.

While on a trip to America, Bonhoeffer took a 4,000-mile road trip from New York to Mexico. Bonhoeffer did not know how to drive, and failed a driving test right before the trip. He drove anyway, though with a friend, and essentially taught himself on America’s highways.

During this period he read Erich Maria Remarque’s anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front and saw its movie adaptation. To that point, it was the 20th century’s best-selling novel. Bonhoeffer lost an older brother during World War I, and Remarque’s frank depictions of things his older brother experienced, and the way he humanized the soldiers, helped to turn Bonhoeffer into a pacifist.

Bonhoeffer and his similarly liberal-minded family were disturbed by Hitler’s rise from well before he took power, but didn’t take him very seriously until it was too late. But the problems were far larger than one man.

A German Christian movement arose in Germany, embracing the trendy new nationalism and supporting Hitler. Bonhoeffer denounced the movement—which did not come naturally to the inclusive Bonhoeffer—and began to earn a higher profile, and the attention of the authorities. In a theological distinction that actually mattered, Bonhoeffer argued that Hitler was converting the German Christians, not the other way around.

He also struggled with depression, starting around the mid-1930s. In 1939, before the war started in September, Bonhoeffer managed to escape Germany and return to America. But he was restless and unhappy, because he knew that he could help the resistance. So he ended up going back to Germany. He would not survive the war.

He joined the Abwehr, an underground resistance group that ultimately aimed to assassinate Hitler. They nearly succeeded several times, most famously in the failed Valkyrie plot. They also whisked away Jews and others to safety outside Germany, and tried to communicate clandestinely with Allied governments.

Bonhoeffer took seven trips over the Swiss border and back helping the Abwehr cause. He was imprisoned in 1943, just seven miles from his parents’ house. He also became engaged to an 18-year old, though he was 36 at this point. They wrote each other frequently, but saw each other in person a total of 17 times during his imprisonment. As the tide of the war turned against Germany, they both believed Bonhoeffer would spend a year in prison at most.

They were not far off. In February 1945, Bonhoeffer was transferred to the Buchenwald concentration camp, site of some of the Nazis’ worst medical experiment atrocities. He was hanged on April 9, 1945. Allied forces liberated the camp two days later. He was 39. Bonhoeffer’s Letters from Prison were published posthumously, and remain in print today.

Best Books of 2020: Virgil Henry Storr and Ginny Seung Choi – Do Markets Corrupt Our Morals? (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019)

Most people see markets as dens of greed and moral corruption. In their new book, Do Markets Corrupt Our Morals?, Virgil Henry Storr and Ginny Seung Choi, of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, argue the opposite. In fact, they go one step further: Markets make people more moral. Make that two steps further: Because markets have moral benefits, restrictions on markets have moral costs. They back up their argument with a healthy mix of theory and evidence. Along the way, they make a case for rethinking how people approach markets. Their arguments, rather than traditional “markets are efficient” arguments, are the liberal movement’s best hope for the future.

Storr and Choi describe their main thesis on p. 225:

But the evidence suggests that the consensus is wrong. Markets do not corrupt our morals. Not only are people wealthier, healthier, happier, and better connected in market societies, market activity makes us better people. Markets are spaces where we discover who is virtuous and can expect many of our vices to be revealed. Additionally, markets reward virtue and punish vice. As such, markets are moral training grounds.

In short: Less of Alfred Marshall’s supply and demand graphs, and more Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Less Homo economicus, more Homo sapiens.

Their phrase “moral training grounds” is important. One of the most common mistakes in economics is the Nirvana fallacy. This says that because markets are not perfect, government can make things better. Storr and Choi know that perfection does not exist. Markets fail, but they also have a built-in improvement mechanism. Markets are an ongoing discovery process. People have to learn from experience what works and what doesn’t. They make mistakes, learn from them, and make changes. But because conditions are always changing, the adaptation process never ends.

People use markets to learn how to trust and to be trustworthy. This takes practice. It takes trial and error. The feedback people get from profit and loss help. So does learning what it takes to earn someone’s trust or their repeat business. Evidence from experimental economics shows that people who participate in markets learn these things more quickly than in other systems.

In one-shot games in lab experiments, people can cheat and get away with it, like doing a dine-and-dash at a restaurant in a town you’ll never visit again. Despite this, people in these studies who come from market-oriented societies cheat far less than one would expect from a traditional blackboard-economics model. They also cheat less than people from non-market societies who play the same games.  

Repeat-play games give the opportunity for cheaters to learn from their moral decision. Other players can punish cheaters in future rounds. They will often do so even when punishment also comes at a cost to the punishers. Upholding honesty is important enough that most people are willing to pay for it. In the long run, this reduces cheating. In fact, it happens almost automatically.

Without coaching, players often spontaneously settle on a tit-for-tat strategy. You start by assuming the other players are trustworthy, but if they cheat, return the favor. Depending on a game’s rules, this may mean punishing cheaters, or simply refusing to do business with them again. Regardless of whether the players come from countries with free markets or not, they tend to behave better in repeat-play games than in one-shot games. And again, players from market societies cheat less often than players from non-market societies.

Storr and Choi also take a tour of the different ways in which markets affect morals. The obvious one is that because people in market societies are richer, they can afford to be more moral. They can afford to give to charities. They can also afford a fuller life. Education, literature, the arts, and world travel all cost money. Dollars are nice, but they aren’t really wealth. Wealth is being able to treat others well, to have leisure to spend time with family, and to pursue friendships, hobbies, and to try new things. Market societies can afford far more of these life enrichments than non-market societies—and these experiences positively shape people’s characters.

Moreover, people in market societies have longer life expectancies, lower infant mortality, are more respectful of women’s rights, minority rights, and LGBT rights, are more religiously tolerant, go to war far less often, and have lower crime rates. All of these are moral outcomes. All of them are backed by abundant data. All of them are made possible by embracing markets. The moral conclusion is obvious.

Storr and Choi represent the future of the liberty movement. The Cold War is a generation in the past now. People still throw around the word “socialist,” but usually just to mean they don’t like something.

But markets are still very much under attack in the current political realignment. The in-groups and out-groups people are using are different now; capitalism-vs.-communism is out, and populist nationalism-vs.-liberal cosmopolitanism are in. Yet, most libertarians are still using the same materialist arguments.

Yes, markets are efficient and create more wealth than other systems. That’s important, but that also isn’t the main point. Markets have other positive effects that are ultimately more meaningful—and more persuasive in today’s society. Not only is Storr and Choi’s moral defense more versatile in today’s intellectual climate, it is more in tune with most people’s values. As CEI founder Fred Smith argues regarding values-based communication, it is important to speak to people in their language.

Most people don’t care about adding an extra decimal point to this quarter’s GDP growth, even though that is important in the long run. They do care about their kids growing up to be decent people. They don’t care that subsidies and taxes cause market distortions. They do care about having a well-rounded life.

Many market liberals only speak a niche language of efficiency. This is one reason why they remain a curiosity. Their disconnect is a major reason why so many people continue to oppose markets despite their moral benefits—hardly anyone makes the moral case.

Storr and Choi are not the only thinkers trying to correct this oversight. CEI Julian Simon Award winners Deirdre McCloskeyJohan Norberg, and Steve Horwitz are among them. But Storr and Choi just might be the ones to do it best. They deserve far more company.

Book Review: Eamonn Butler – Friedrich Hayek: The Ideas and Influence of the Libertarian Economist

Eamonn Butler –  Friedrich Hayek: The Ideas and Influence of the Libertarian Economist (Hampshire, UK: Harriman House, 2012)

Butler has written accessible intellectual biographies of several major classical liberal thinkers. His entry on Hayek does exactly what it intends to. While it does not offer the same depth as Bruce Caldwell’s lengthy Hayek’s Challenge, that isn’t Butler’s goal. Instead, in about 150 pages, students and lay readers can get high-level yet accessible explanations of spontaneous order, the importance of using bottom-up processes rather than top-down planning, and other key Hayekian concepts, plus a tour of Hayek’s major works.

His native Vienna was at its cultural and intellectual peak during his childhood, and most of his family were natural scientists, as were both of his children. This sparked his interest in evolutionary processes, in which intricate designs require no designer. He fought in World War I, earned two doctorates, was a members of Ludwig von Mises’ famous seminars, then joined the London School of Economics faculty and became a friend and rival to Keynes.

He moved permanently when the Nazis made their intentions clear, and wrote his most famous book, 1944’s The Road to Serfdom, from a barn well outside London, which was still under the Blitz. This period marked the end of Hayek’s technical economics work on business cycles and monetary theory. Hayek instead turned to a multidisciplinary approach that contributed to political philosophy, law, history, and science, as well as economics. Serfdom, one of Hayek’s first works from this new approach, is commonly misunderstood as a slippery-slope argument, in which any move away from liberalism will send a country on a one-way street to totalitarianism.

Hayek instead makes a package-deal argument. A planned economy requires getting rid of liberal institutions such as private property, equality before the law, and all the other common rights. Similarly, a society that respects human rights must also have a free economy. For Hayek, economic freedom and personal freedom are a package deal. These two liberalisms cannot be chosen a la carte; it’s both or neither.

Butler goes over the highlights of Hayek’s major early papers, collected in Individualism and Economic Order, though he gives too little attention to Hayek’s larger “Abuse of Reason” project, which was never completed, but include The Counter-Revolution of Science, and influenced much of his later work. Also under-served here is Hayek’s major psychological work, The Sensory Order. One of Hayek’s main arguments in this book is that a mind cannot fully understand something more complicated than itself. A policy implication is that a central planner can never fully understand how millions of individual minds think, interact, and make their own evolving plans.

Butler also tours the Constitution of Liberty, which is Hayek’s positive vision of what a free society’s institutional and legal structures would look like.

Hayek’s later Law, Legislation, and Liberty trilogy also gets a close inspection, with a chapter on Hayek’s views on social justice—which in this reviewer’s opinion, don’t entirely hold up. More important is Hayek’s distinction between higher principles of natural law, and the flawed man-made legislation that attempts to capture its essence—or, just as often, attempts to overrule it. Butler also goes into the usually-overlooked third volume, in which Hayek take a cue from Plato’s Republic and builds his own utopian institutional system. It’s a bit out there, and one of Hayek’s least essential works.

Hayek’s final book was The Fatal Conceit, which haunts every aspiring planner who thinks he can overcome the knowledge problems that have attempted to impose their own top-down philosophy on a bottom-up world.

Butler concludes with a look at Hayek’s legacy and what the future of liberalism might hold.

Economics Has a Moment of Zen

Frank Knight (1885-1972) was one of the founders of the Chicago school of economics. Three of his students won Nobel prizes: George Stigler, Milton Friedman, and James Buchanan.

One of Knight’s most famous quotes is that “To call a situation hopeless is to call it ideal.”

This is because neither can be improved upon. Almost nothing in the world is ideal; this turns out to be a good thing.

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.

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.