Thursday, October 21, 2021

Would Chinese people accept that human flourishing is inherently individualistic?


The question I have posed for myself has been prompted by a reader of my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human FlourishingHe asked how I would respond if someone offered to pay me to write an edition of the book for Chinese readers. Would I say that the exercise would be pointless because few Chinese readers are likely to be receptive to the ideas in the book? Or would I say that a Chinese edition would need to include a discussion of additional constraints holding back individual flourishing in the PRC?

My book was written primarily for readers living in the Western liberal democracies. It presents human flourishing as an individual aspiration and endeavor, involving the exercise of practical wisdom. I suggest that it is ultimately up to individuals to use their reasoning powers to form their own judgements about the basic goods of a flourishing human. I seek to persuade readers that a flourishing person manifests wise and well-informed self-direction, has good health and psychological well-being, enjoys positive relationships with others, and lives in harmony with nature. I argue that progress occurs when there are growing opportunities for individuals to flourish. Economic growth counts as progress to the extent that self-directed individuals aspire to have improvements in their living standards. (You can read a little more about the book here, and listen to me talk about it here.)

Is Chinese culture opposed to individualism?

Some research on individualism and collectivism may suggest that Chinese people would tend to adopt a collectivist, top-down view of human flourishing, rather than an individualistic, bottom up, view. However, the World Values Survey (WVS) does not support the view that Chinese people are too preoccupied with filial piety, altruism, and obedience to have individual aspirations. Data from the 2017-2020 wave of the WVS suggest that the percentage of people in China who say that one of their main goals in life is to make their parents proud (23%) is not particularly high; corresponding figures for other jurisdictions are Taiwan (27%), Hong Kong (15%), Singapore (28%), Australia (26%) and U.S. (31%).  The percentage in China who identify independence as a desirable child quality is relatively high (78%); corresponding figures for other jurisdictions are Taiwan (68%), Hong Kong (55%), Singapore (56%), Australia (52%) and U.S. (55%). The percentages who identify unselfishness, good manners and obedience as desirable child qualities are not particularly high (29%, 84% and 6% respectively) by comparison to Taiwan (23%, 74% and 9%), Hong Kong (11%, 73% and 9%), Singapore (27%, 79% and 17%), Australia (42%, 84% and 19%) and U.S. (28%, 48%, and 20%).

It is not difficult to find aspects of Chinese cultural heritage that imply an important role for individual self-direction. The Daoist philosophy of skill is directly relevant to question of what nature tells us about how we can flourish as individuals. There is a relevant post about the Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi on this blog.

Cultural support for economic growth

The discussion of determinants of economic growth in Chapter 5 of my book suggests that aspects of culture that are favourable to entrepreneurial innovation include interpersonal trust, respect and tolerance, and individual self-determination. WVS data suggests that the percentage of people who consider that most people can be trusted is relatively high in China (63.5%) by comparison with Taiwan (31%), Hong Kong (36%), Singapore (34%), Australia (48%) and U.S. (37%). The percentage in China who identify tolerance and respect for other people as a desirable child quality (60%) is not particularly low; corresponding figures for other jurisdictions are Taiwan (73%), Hong Kong (70%), Singapore (64%), Australia (80%) and U.S. (71%). 

A relevant indicator of self-determination in the WVS is the data on ratings of the extent that survey respondents feel they have a great deal of freedom of choice and control over their lives, or alternatively that what they do has no real effect on what happens to them. On the10 point scale, the average scores of Chinese respondents (7.0) were similar to those of Taiwan (7.3), Hong Kong (6.6), Singapore (6.8), Australia (7.5) and U.S. (7.7).

Economic freedom

My discussion of determinants of economic growth also emphasizes the importance of economic freedom and a prevailing ideology that supports economic freedom. Improvements in economic freedom contributed to the high rates of economic growth experienced in China in recent decades. However, the Fraser Institute’s ratings of economic freedom suggest that the process of economic liberalization has now stalled, leaving China’s economic freedom rating for 2019 (6.5 on the 10-point scale) far lower than that of Taiwan (8.0), Hong Kong (8.9), Singapore (8.8), Australia (8.2) and the U.S. (also 8.2).

Productivity growth in China has slowed considerably over the last decade, according to  World Bank and IMF research. IMF estimates suggest annual productivity growth of 0.6% from 2012 to 2017, much lower than the average of 3.5% in the preceding five years (reported by the WSJ). It seems unlikely that China will be able to maintain high GDP growth rates in the absence of substantial economic reforms to promote greater economic freedom.

Ideological constraints

The prevailing ideology of governance in China, Marxism–Leninism, was imported from the West. This one-party state ideology was developed by Joseph Stalin in Russia the 1920s.  The current system of government - with the communist party bureaucracy guiding the state bureaucracy at all levels - was copied from the Soviet Union.

Although the evidence discussed above suggests that people living in the PRC tend to have as individualistic a view of human flourishing as people in the U.S and Australia, it is clear that the leaders of the Chinese government do not recognize fundamental rights that support individual flourishing.

The Myth of Chinese Capitalism, by Dexter Roberts, provides an insightful account of the ideological constraints currently limiting human flourishing in China. The government of the PRC does not even
recognize the rights of people to choose where to live, or to own land:

“Despite huge progress in wiping out poverty, the countryside still has large numbers of poor people and incomes continue to fall behind the rest of the country. This unfortunate fact is in part because of the hukou system, which restricts rural people’s ability to fully integrate into the cities. Equally responsible, however, are the continuing limits on farmers’ rights to the land. While they were given freedom to decide how to use the land they lived on, they were not given ownership.” (p 74)

It is common for local officials to acquire agricultural land for conversion to industrial and commercial use, with farmers being paid little compensation. The user rights are then sold at high prices to developers on the outskirts of cities.

The highest priority of the party-state is to stay in power. That involves a combination of responsiveness and repression to construct a “harmonious society”. Responsiveness takes the form of top-down efforts to reduce disparities in living standards. Repression occurs by suppressing dissident speech, extensive use of monitoring technology and a social credit system which rewards and punishes people based on aspects of their personal behavior that the government wishes to encourage or discourage.

 Daniels suggests:

“For years, China’s leaders have had an unspoken agreement with the people: they guarantee rising living standards and, in turn, the populace tolerates control by a nondemocratic and often unresponsive party.”

What happens if living standards do not continue to rise. Like many other analysts, Daniels is concerned that a “militarily powerful Communist Party facing widespread dissention at home might well seek to distract its citizens by lashing out in a hot spot in the region, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the South China Sea” (p 191).

With the benefit of hindsight, it now seems obvious that gains in economic freedom that occurred in China over the last few decades were the efforts of an authoritarian government to harness market forces for its own purposes, rather than reforms undertaken in recognition of links between liberty and individual flourishing.

At the beginning of this article I offered some gratuitous advice to the leaders of China by quoting from some ancient writings by Lao-Tzu (Verse 57 of the Tao Te Ching). It seems appropriate to end this brief discussion of ideology with another quote from the same source:

“The more prohibitions you have,

the less virtuous people will be.

The more weapons you have,

the less secure people will be.

The more subsidies you have,

the less self-reliant people will be.”


Chinese people are not unduly preoccupied with filial piety, altruism, and obedience. They tend to have an individualistic view of human flourishing that is not greatly different from that of people in the U.S. and Australia. The contemporary culture of Chinese people tends to be favourable to the entrepreneurship likely to be necessary for living standards to continue to rise over the longer term.

However, the ideology of the party-state is much less favourable to ongoing improvement of living standards. Past gains in economic freedom reflected the efforts of an authoritarian government to harness market forces to lift productivity in response to aspirations of the people to enjoy higher living standards. The gains in economic freedom occurred because that suited the purposes of a communist party primarily interested in its own survival, rather than because its leaders had undergone an ideological transformation to become supporters of liberty. The ideological opposition to liberty of general secretary Xi Jinping now seems to be impeding the ongoing expansion of economic freedom that is needed to enable productivity to continue to rise.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Why should economists practice humanomics?


Adam Smith practiced humanomics. It came naturally to him. The famous pioneer of economic science did not need to pretend that humans have been programmed to maximize utility in order to develop his argument that economic specialization stems from a propensity in human nature to “truck, barter, and exchange”.

The word, humanomics, was coined by Bart Wilson, an experimental economist, and is explained in the book, Humanomics, Moral Sentiments, and the Wealth of Nations for the Twenty-First Century, which he co-authored with Nobel winner, Vernon Smith. In that book, humanomics refers to the very human problem of simultaneously living in the personal social world (which is the context which Adam Smith had in mind when writing Moral Sentiments) and the impersonal economic world (which is the focus of Wealth of Nations).

Some important aspects of human behavior cannot be adequately explained if we adopt the assumption, still common in much economic analysis, that individual human behavior is characterized by narrow self-interest. Vernon Smith and Bart Wilson found in their experimental work with people playing economic games that while self-interested utility maximization could explain individual behavior in simulated market contexts, it could not do so in social exchange contexts. In playing two-person trust games, people tend to be more other-regarding than most modern economists assume. I take that to mean that most people are sufficiently civilized and self-regarding to behave with integrity towards others – they see virtue in being trustworthy rather than opportunistic.

Deirdre McCloskey advances the argument for humanomics further in her recent book, Bettering Humanomics. She writes:

“A big part of our human behavior is thinking and talking about human action, not merely solipsistic and thoughtless reaction to, say, a budget constraint. Human action … is the exercise of free will, so typical of humans. It is in fact the free will about which theologians argue. Humanomics therefore goes beyond the artificially narrowed evidence of a silent, solitary, reactive, positivistic, predestined, observational behaviorism.” (p 5)

McCloskey argues that economists should engage in more philosophical reflection about what a speaking species does. The behavioral paradigm of stimulus and response does not adequately explain much of human behavior. Humans often think about the meaning of events before responding to them, and they often consciously explore the options that are available.

Innovation is an example of an economic activity that cannot be adequately understood within a behavioral paradigm that does not allow for thinking and talking. In this context, McCloskey mentions the important contribution of Israel Kirzner in pointing out that real discoveries cannot be pursued methodically – or they would be known before they are known. Innovation requires entrepreneurial alertness. McCloskey adds that a discovery “requires sweet talk to be brought to fruition”:

“An idea is merely and idea until it has been brought into the conversation of humankind”.

McCloskey presents a strong argument that humanomics is needed to explain the great enrichment – the massive improvements in standard of living that have occurred in many countries over the last 200 years. Those who have some familiarity with her trilogy of books on economic history – that should include everyone who is interested in the reasons why the people who live in some countries tend to be wealthier than those who live elsewhere - will not be surprised that she argues that ethics and rhetoric are the “killer app” explaining the great enrichment. She argues that a novel liberty and dignity for ordinary people, including the innovating bourgeoisie, explains the great enrichment.

For present purposes, the important point is that for economists to understand the economic growth process, with its massive implications for human flourishing, they need some knowledge of ethics and rhetoric – ideas in letters and literature that are studied in the humanities. McCloskey argues that if economists consider themselves to be serious scientists, they should use all relevant evidence that they can get their hands on. She makes the point thus:

“A future economics should … use the available scientific logic and evidence, all of it—experimental, simulative, introspective, questionnaire, graphical, categorical, statistical, literary, historical, psychological, sociological, political, aesthetic, ethical.” (p 66)

Many economists spend much of their time on “sweet talk” without being aware of it. I spent most of my working life trying to tell people that incentives matter and that they need to consider whether current institutions – the rules of the game of society – provide appropriate incentives. For example, I am fond of pointing out that if the rules of the game reward rent-seeking – individuals or groups seeking to have governments provide them with assistance at others’ expense - then potential beneficiaries will tend to spend more time rent-seeking and less time engaged in productive activities.

Economists engage in that kind of activity – labelled by some as preaching – because they think that ideas matter and that interests do not always prevail in determining government policies. In my view, people who are trying to obtain greater recognition of the role of institutions and incentives are walking in the footsteps of Adam Smith.

McCloskey might suggest that people like me should consider whether we give too much attention to the role of formal institutions – constitutions, laws, and regulations – and too little attention to ethics and ideology. In discussing the great enrichment she suggests:

“The important “institutions” were ideas, words, rhetoric, ideology. And these did change on the eve of the Great Enrichment”.

The only problem I have with McCloskey’s exposition of humanomics is her dismissal of happiness studies and behavioral economics. Her negative views on these areas of research sit oddly with her argument that economists should consider all available evidence. I agree that many people who are engaged in such research are paternalistic behavioralists, seeking to advise governments how to make people happier. However, I don’t think that provides sufficient reason to suggest that the findings of such research are no relevance to individuals who are looking for information to help themselves to flourish.

In my discussion of the findings of happiness research and behavioral economics in Chapter 7 of my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I have tried to adopt a contractarian approach. That is the approach adopted by Robert Sugden, a self-confessed behavioral economist, and an admirer of the contractarianism of James Buchanan, in his book The Community of Advantage. Sugden notes that contractarian recommendations are “addressed to individuals as directors of their own lives, advising individuals how to pursue their own interests”.

I concur with the view of James Buchanan that the heartland of economics is considering human behavior in market relationships and other voluntaristic exchange processes. However, I can see no reason why anyone should consider Philip Wicksteed, or any other economist, who offers practical advice on avoiding common mistakes in decision-making, to be stepping beyond the realm of humanomics.    

When economists step outside their comfort zone of voluntaristic exchange processes, they certainly need to remember to take their bullshit detectors with them. That certainly applies in considering the findings of happiness studies and behavioral economics. It also applies in considering literary contributions, such as a book I read (and commented on here) about the significance for our understanding of happiness of Samuel Richardson’s 18th century novel, Pamela.


Economists should practice humanomics because they can’t expect to be able to understand human behavior unless they do. Humans do not always behave as self-interested maximizers. It makes no sense to assume that human action always occurs at a subconscious level as an automatic response to stimuli. Individuals often think about the meaning of events, consider their options, and talk to others, before responding. Self-direction is integral to human flourishing.

In seeking explanations for human behavior, economists should not confine themselves to a focus on institutions and incentives. They should be open to considering all relevant information that they can get their hands on, including information on ethics, ideology, and happiness ratings.