Category Archives: Political Animals

Economics Can Help Explain Conspiracy Theorists

There is a lot of conspiracy theory garbage floating around. On January 6, it took a violent turn. Five people died in a coup attempt at the U.S. Capitol, over obviously false claims of a stolen election. It is important to understand what causes this behavior in order to prevent future violence, and to prevent a future breakdown of liberal institutions. Over at Fortune, I explain that a little bit of basic price theory can improve our understanding:

If you think of irrationality as a consumer good, much like a car or a television, you can better understand why people sometimes say and do crazy things. Think of it like this: People buy more cars and televisions when they are cheap, and fewer when they are expensive. 

This logic applies to conspiracy theories.

Read the whole thing here. For readers interested in further exploring the economics and evolutionary psychology of conspiracy theories, I recommend Bryan Caplan’s book Myth of the Rational Voter and Michael Shermer’s book The Believing Brain.

Book Review: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith – The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith – The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2011)

The rise in populism over the last decade has birthed a bumper crop in books on dictators, with contributions from Frank Dikötter, Daniel Kalder, and others. Bueno de Mesquita and Smith’s entry is a quality addition. The reigning classic in the genre, though, is Gordon Tullock’s early work on the public choice theory of autocracies, which is collected in The Social Dilemma, which is volume 8 of his Selected Works.

Bueno de Mesquita and Smith work from the discipline of foreign policy, rather than from economics, law, or political science. They belong to the realist school, which is in some ways the current incarnation of Machiavellianism and realpolitik. Foreign policy realists have quite a bit in common with public choice economics—politicians respond to incentives, and tend to behave in self-interested ways.

The Dictator’s Handbook is a popular-level distillation of a larger theory of autocratic behavior Bueno de Mesquita and Smith have explored in numerous academic works. Dictators often show strong ideologies in public. These are often various forms of socialism, nationalism, theocracy, or some mixture of the three. In private, dictators may sincerely believe in their ideology. And it will influence their policy choices. But, just as public choice theory argues, when self-preservation conflicts with the ideology, self-preservation nearly always wins.

This self-preservation instinct explains why so many dictatorships look so similar. Military support is essential to maintaining power, which is why dictatorships often have lavish and showy military budgets, even if they do not have any intention of going to war. Well-paid soldiers are less likely to rebel, especially in poor countries where other career opportunities are limited. A highly visible military projects power, which scares off rebels inside and outside of the palace. And a well-fed and well-feted general is less likely to pursue his own coup.

Gaudy personal styles and decorating styles are another common dictator trait; nearly every dictator’s residence, whether in Belarus or Libya, is almost indistinguishable from Donald Trump’s apartment in Trump Tower. It’s another way of projecting power, if not taste.

A dictator’s inner circle is often unstable. This is both caused and countered with a culture of excessive honorifics and ostentatious wealth—with obvious gradations to signify an official’s place in the hierarchy. Taking privileges away is a sign that someone is falling out of favor.

Dictators rarely have a formal succession plan. This is another reason why they usually have a garish, privileged court culture. Dictatorships are typically in very poor countries. Officials who enjoy a Western standard of living—courtesy of the dictator, they are constantly reminded—are less likely to overthrow the dictator. Moreover, when aspirants are competing against each other, they are not competing against the dictator himself. When generals have a comically large number of lapel pins on their epaulet-laden uniforms, there is a reason for it. They are status signals in their competitive game against each other. They are not just marks of favor from the leader.

Bueno de Mesquita and Smith run a risk of stereotyping by pointing out how alike so many dictators are. But they are well aware that each country, and each dictator, has their own situation and cultural factors in play. At the same time, their commonalities show a kind of convergent evolution: successful dictators stay in power because they have discovered “best practices” that apply widely. Dictators that did not adopt these practices did not stay in power, so the only remaining examples have strong militaries, garish styles, elaborate court cultures, no formal succession plan, and so on. While the world as a whole has been tending towards democratic liberalism since the end of World War II, there are still plenty of illiberal countries. It is important to understand them if their people are to become free.

It is also important to know warning signs when we see them, as the tragedy of President Trump’s late-term coup attempt shows.

Book Review: Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker – A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America

Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker – A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America (New York: Penguin Press, 2020)

This book, by two Washington Post journalists, is a chronological, personality-based history of the first three years of Donald Trump’s presidency. By keeping a mostly straight tone, it has significant comedy value. It also has instructive value about the intersection of personality and party politics.

Historians will likely have a field day with the Trump presidency. Or at least they will when enough time has passed for partisan passions to cool. Until then, there will likely be more splenetic rants than useful analysis. Leonnig and Rucker do a better job than most about keeping their spleens in check, though they are not perfect about it.

The late Charles Krauthammer viewed the Trump administration as a stress test for America’s liberal institutions. He thought they would remain intact, and the country would learn a few lessons about executive power. So far, so good, though there has been some important damage in the areas of trade, immigration, and diplomacy. The Republican party is also in rough shape, and isn’t quite sure what to do with itself now that the personality by which it is defining itself is no longer in office.

The story of American political institutions, almost from the beginning, has been a slow growth in the executive branch’s political power relative to Congress. Each administration takes on a little bit of new power to fight a war, ward off an economic panic, deal with a disaster, or simply to accomplish a common policy goal. After two centuries of this slow accretion, the presidency has become far too powerful compared to the other two branches. This imbalance makes the country especially vulnerable when the president is corrupt, incompetent, illiberal, or all of the above.

Today, Trump’s fondness for executive power is currently combined with congressional Republicans that will not buck him, and a Democratic opposition that also likes a powerful executive branch, at least when they are in power. The combination is a potent stress test for the separation of powers and limited government.

Trump’s various capers are often humorous—many parts of this book are laugh-out-loud hilarious. Others are damaging, such as placing tariffs against allies such as Canada on national security grounds, or forced family separations at the southern border. In the long run, Trump’s de-glamourizing effect on the presidency may actually do some good. This, however, assumes that people learn their lesson about putting too much power in one office.

As Trump has proven, in America, anyone can become president. This can be dangerous, as he is also proving. While he will not be fatal to America’s liberal institutions, it is important that his precedents do not become prologue for future presidents’ power grabs. Part of that project is not taking him or the presidency too seriously. This book helps very much in that department, such as when it tells the story, with a straight face, of the time Trump told India’s Prime Minister, “it’s not like you have China on your border.”

On the other hand, there is next to no analysis of Trump’s major policy initiatives, from his signature trade and immigration policies to his regulatory policies, foreign policies, and other initiatives. Politics should be about policy. In practice, it is mostly about personality. In that sense, A Very Stable Genius is a very practical book, though one will have to go elsewhere for actual policy content.

Book Review: Casey Mulligan – You’re Hired!: Untold Successes and Failures of a Populist President

Casey Mulligan – You’re Hired!: Untold Successes and Failures of a Populist President (Alexandria, VA: Republic Book Publishers, 2020).

Mulligan was the Chief Economist of President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers. He is much kinder to Trump than most economists are. While Mulligan pulls a lot of his punches and has some of the unconvincing persecution complex that many Republicans have, he offers credible insights into how Trump and his White House worked. Despite its restraint, You’re Hired has lessons for policy advisers of any political persuasion. Personality matters in politics. Advisers who do not account for that will not get sound policies enacted.

While President Trump is not knowledgeable about policy, he is also not as dumb as many of his critics allege. For example, when he would tweet out good economic news, he would often exaggerate it on purpose, knowing that media reports would instantly go about correcting him—and unintentionally spreading good news they might otherwise have ignored.

Mulligan also praises Trump’s tendency during meetings to intuit many mostly correct economic conclusions even when it is clear he is approaching a given issue for the first time. Mulligan is likely either selective or exaggerating, though, considering Trump’s long pre-presidency track record on issues such as trade, immigration, and industrial policy.

On the negative side, Mulligan’s treatment of opiate policy is at best incomplete. This was one of his primary issues during his CEA tenure; for the most part, Mulligan’s book focuses on issues he personally worked on. On one hand, Mulligan is correct that subsidizing opiates has had negative unintended consequences, and he offers sound policy fixes. On the other hand, Mulligan dismisses ending the criminalization of recreational users or prescribing doctors.

Mulligan is also ok with Washington interfering in doctor-patient relationships involving chronic pain patients—one of whom was my late grandfather, who suffered a great deal of unnecessary pain because of federal policies such as Mulligan endorses.

He also does not address the larger criminal justice problems created by federal drug policy. Mulligan is so narrowly focused on price controls, that while his analysis is correct as far as it goes, he dismisses larger—and politically possible—fixes that lie outside of formal price theory.

While Mulligan writes well, his consistent capitalization is “Federal” is an off-putting stylistic decision. Government documents use the same device. Mulligan’s use of the same honorific does not help his desire to appear independent, even though this is an example of style, not substance.

His lengthy tangent on the lack of collusion in President Trump’s Russia scandal feels out of place, both in they way it copies Trump’s terminology, and because Mulligan had nothing to do with the scandal; “collusion” was not a legal term at issue in the case.

You’re Hired is a useful counter to Trump Derangement Syndrome, which can be almost as harmful as Trumpism. But Mulligan is too sanguine about the administration’s illiberalism. The administration’s policy successes on regulation, education, environmental policy, and assorted other issues do not excuse its deficit spending, its expansive view of executive power, its immigration policies, its poor COVID response, its embarrassing personality cult, embrace of fringe figures and conspiracy theories, its ill-timed stress-testing of liberal political institutions, and its divisive impact on American culture. The administration was neither wholly good nor wholly bad. It had elements of both. Neither should be overlooked.

Mulligan offers pointed criticisms and telling stories of trade adviser Peter Navarro, with whom he crossed paths several times. Since Mulligan also writes at length about immigration policy in the book, he should have done the same to immigration adviser Stephen Miller, who pushed the Trump administration’s family separation policies, casually uses slang terms drawn from white nationalism, frequently cites its literature, and has several personal and online connections to that world. History will not look kindly on Miller; neither should Mulligan.

Mulligan is credible, unlike trashy reality-tv personalities who have surrounded Trump, such as Omarosa Manigault and Michael Cohen. He is also not sycophantic like Sen. Lindsey Graham, Rep. Matt Gaetz, or large swathes of conservative media are. He is also a skilled economist and an unusually clear writer for an academic economist. But Mulligan’s omissions and kid-glove treatments give the impression that he’s holding a lot back.

As fear of a Trump tweet-storm recedes, hopefully Mulligan will be more forthcoming in the future. Future administrations’ policy teams would benefit from this, especially if Trump’s personality and populism remain part of the GOP going forward.

See also a CEI book forum featuring Mulligan. Reading this review over, it is a bit harsh for a book I have a positive opinion of. The book forum balances that out a bit while still asking some pointed questions.

The 2020 Election Actually Had Some Free-Market Victories

Neither presidential candidate has much interest in limited government. But over at National Review, I look at some neglected down-ballot victories from the 2020 election. A divided Congress will prevent one party from running everything, regardless of who wins the White House. There were also several state-level victories across the country. 

California voters partially undid the AB5 gig-worker law that made unemployment even worse during the pandemic. They also voted against an expansion of rent control, which is one reason California’s housing prices are so high.

Not that legislators will listen, but Illinois voters sent them a message to address the state’s pension crisis by cutting spending rather than raising taxes:

The Illinois legislature had already passed a separate tax hike bill, conditional on voters approving the amendment. Voters disapproved by a 55-45 margin, and taxes will remain as they are.

Voters in Oregon and several other states also continued to deescalate the drug war:

In order for people to respect the law, they have to be able to respect it. That was a major cultural cost of alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, and of the drug war today. Drug legalization allows law enforcement to focus on real crimes and ease an avoidable source of antagonism between police officers and the communities they serve—especially in minority areas where drug laws are disproportionately enforced.

Washington state voters registered disapproval of a plastic bag tax. This is a victory for my colleague Angela Logomasini, who has written about the issue here and here.

A lot went wrong in the 2020 election, as is true every year. But some things also went right. Now let’s build on those victories and create some new ones.

Read the whole thing here. Ideas for the next free-market victories are at

James Madison on Why Politics Ruins Everything

Politics has a way of ruining everything. Even kind and intelligent people go through an instant metamorphosis when the conversation changes to politics. Their body language tenses up. Their word choices include more intensifiers. They say horrible things about strangers they would never say in a different context. Their mental processes change to in-group-vs.-out-group mode, as though we were hunter-gatherers again.

And this sudden intensity can turn on and off almost instantly, like a light switch, as the conversation veers from topic to topic. It’s certainly unpleasant, and possibly unhealthy.

This very human foible may be what inspired James Madison to write in Federalist No. 55, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”

The median voter is not a wise person, at least about politics. But even if he was, the effects partisan politics has on the brain can shut down rational thought in even the best and brightest.

Happy Election Day, everyone.

A Political Strategy that Is Effective, yet Unwise

Louis-Phillipe I was the last king of France. He reigned from 1830 to 1840. Victor Hugo observed of him on p. 862 of the Julie Rose translation of Les Miserables that part of his political adroitness came from

“frightening France with Europe and frightening Europe with France [and] prizing domination more than authority and authority more than dignity.”

Two centuries later the tactic remains effective. Just sub in the in-groups and out-groups of the moment for France and Europe. Yet it remains unwise, as both the end of Louis-Phillipe’s reign and the policy results of contemporary politicians makes clear.

J.B. Say on Wealthy Politicians

Jean-Baptiste Say’s Treatise on Political Economy holds up very well for a book whose most recent edition came out in 1821 (the first was published in 1803). For example, see this quotation on p. 427:

“Besides, there is some danger, that a man, who gives his services for nothing, will make his authority a matter of gain, however rich he may be. The wealth of a public functionary is no security against his venality: for ample fortune is commonly accompanied with desires as ample, and probably even more ample, especially if he have to keep up an appearance, both as a man of wealth and a magistrate.”

Thomas Paine on the GOP’s Infidelities

From chapter 1 of Thomas Paine’s 1794 book The Age of Reason:

“But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”

Paine’s insight shows why many Republicans have been deeply unhappy for the last four years. In order to maintain their standing in their group, Republicans have had to profess things they do not believe on crowd sizes at inaugurations, government spending and deficits, sharpies on maps, bump stocks for guns, the importance of character in leaders, freedom of the press, trade policy, antitrust policy, and more.

While being a political independent has its drawbacks, it also has an important benefit: I have never had to be mentally unfaithful to myself, and I never will. This has been good for my emotional health as well as my professional integrity.

Many Republicans are in poor shape on both of those fronts right now. What will they do when the Trump era ends? Has a genuine philosophical realignment taken hold in their party? Or are most Republicans just having a fling they will regret in the morning? My guess is that for many Republicans, the answer will be a little bit of both.

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.