Monday, February 27, 2023

How authoritarian are American political leaders?


A few days ago, I took the Political Compass test for a second time. The test, devised by , requires individuals to respond to questions which indicate where their views place them on scales labelled Authoritarian - Libertarian and Left - Right. My position had not changed since I last took the test 7 years ago (see below) but as I looked around the site, I noticed the chart (reproduced above) which suggests that the main contenders in the U.S. 2020 election held relatively authoritarian and right wing views (with Biden somewhat less authoritarian than Trump).

Does the political compass make sense?  The horizonal axis measures economic freedom, with people at the right end favoring more economic freedom. That corresponds, more or less, to the conventional left-right spectrum. The vertical axis measures personal freedom, with people whose views place them at the top end favoring greater restriction of personal freedom. It seems to me that the positioning of a person on a political compass incorporating a personal freedom axis is much more informative than attempting to position them on only one axis.  However, the labelling adopted is not ideal. To be considered a libertarian, in my view it is necessary to advocate economic freedom as well as personal freedom.

I was somewhat surprised by the placement of both Biden and Trump as favoring a relatively high level of restrictions on personal freedom. I don’t follow American politics closely enough to dispute how accurate that placement might be within that context.

However, by international standards, it would make little sense to view Biden or Trump as advocates of authoritarian policies. The policies they have advocated in their efforts to win votes have not been greatly different from those currently prevailing in the United States. By international standards, people in the U.S. have relatively high levels of personal and economic freedom.

The results of the latest Human Freedom Index, published by Cato and the Fraser Institute, can be used to illustrate the point. The Human Freedom Index is the result of painstaking efforts to compile a vast amount of data relating to economic freedom and personal freedom in 165 countries.

It is interesting to see the relative position of various countries in a comparable scatter diagram showing economic freedom and the x axis and personal freedom on the y axis. In the diagram below, which I have labelled “Ideological Map of the World”, the values on the personal freedom axis are in reverse order to make it comparable to the political compass. The horizontal and vertical lines drawn on the diagram are positioned at median levels of economic and personal freedom.

The position of the U.S. is clear from the chart. The levels of both personal freedom and economic freedom in the U.S. are comparable to those of other liberal democracies, and far greater than in China or Russia.

My libertarian friends in the U.S. may have good reasons to view their national political leaders as excessively authoritarian, but they are competing for the votes of people who, by international standards, enjoy relatively high levels of personal and economic freedom.

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Could polycentric defence protect us from monsters?

The accompanying photo depicts the views of a couple of protesters who were opposed to Australian involvement in the United States led invasion of Iraq in 2003. I still don’t support defacement of the Sydney Opera House but, in retrospect, the actions of the protesters seem more defensible than those of the Australian government at that time. The government attempted to justify the invasion on the flimsiest of evidence that Iraq still possessed weapons of mass destruction, and then sought to blame its decision on poor intelligence. The net impact of the invasion was to further destabilize the Middle East, including by generating a new terrorist organisation.

The Iraq invasion is part of a pattern of pathetically unsuccessful military operations in which Australia has participated, in partnership with the US, over the last 60 years. Few readers will need to be reminded of similarly unsuccessful military adventures that occurred in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, a case can be made that involvement in those conflicts has served Australian interests by encouraging US governments to view this country as a staunch ally in pursuit of well-meaning global objectives. Australia is a sparsely populated country that is not easy to defend, so it is understandable that Australians should seek to have great and powerful friends who share similar values, who might come to their aid if they are bullied by a monster in their region. That strategy might come unstuck, however, if public reaction in the US to adverse outcomes of military interventionism results in adoption of an isolationist policy by the US government. Hopefully, the US will find a better approach to foreign relations, rather than resort to isolationism.

Christopher Coyne’s book

I was intensely interested in the consequences of military interventionism during the Vietnam war, but have not spent much time thinking about such  matters since then. The question I have ask above, of whether polycentric defence could protect us from monsters, was prompted by my reading of Christopher Coyne’s book, In Search of Monsters to Destroy.

Anyone seeking a better understanding of why so much US military intervention has been counterproductive should read Coyne’s book. From my perspective, one of the most illuminating contributions that Coyne makes is to draw attention to the relevance of Friedrich Hayek’s views about the hubris of economic planners to the “nation building” efforts that have followed military intervention.  Hayek pointed out that economic planning often has unintended consequences because economic planners can never have “the knowledge of particular circumstances of time and place” that is reflected in the decisions of individuals in a market system. Similarly, nation building efforts have unintended consequences because the architects of such efforts lack the knowledge of how to design and implement policies supporting rule of law, property rights, free speech etc. in settings with different belief systems, values, and ideals.

Rather than attempt a comprehensive review of the book, I want to focus here on polycentric defence, the approach Coyne suggests as a potential path forward. (Several podcasts are available for readers interested in hearing Christopher Coyne discuss his book. I recently listed to his discussion with Jeffrey Sachs and was pleasantly surprised by the extent to which Sachs agreed with Coyne.)

Polycentric defence

Christopher Coyne claims that his position is inherently non-isolationist:

It is not a retreat from the world, but a call for global engagement by means other than militaristic imperialism and the associated hubris which assumes the world can be controlled by Western government elites”.

He advocates a culture of peace which requires “shedding the belief that the military operations of the nation-state are the central source of security in a free society”.

As an alternative to the current “monocentric order” where there is only one centralized decision-making unit with a monopoly on the use of violent force, he proposes a polycentric system “involving numerous decision-making units – each with autonomy in action – operating within a shared set of rules”.

I see this as a utopian ideal, but one that is worth moving toward. Coyne points out that polycentric defence already exists to some extent because ordinary citizens engage in a diverse range of security activities, individually and in collaboration with their neighbours, to protect themselves against violence and plunder. He reminds readers that non-violent action has sometimes been used successfully against foreign invaders as well as internal usurpers. He also notes that polycentric defence already exists at an international level because nation-states exercise autonomy in decision-making.

The main point that Coyne is making is that a culture of military interventionism has had perverse consequences, unintentionally eroding liberal values and creating enemies abroad. He suggests that we view the search for a stable peace as an ongoing project “entailing self-governing individuals engaged in an active process of discovery, experimentation, and practice to navigate conflicts without resort to violence”.

 What about Ukraine?

In the epilogue to his book, Christopher Coyne expresses disappointment that the Russian government’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has “led to renewed calls for the reassertion of American empire”. He regards that response as “speculative, first best theorizing about international relations” which could potentially devolve into violent conflict between nuclear powers.

My view is that this time it is different. The West’s supply of arms to Ukraine to help it defend itself against Putin’s aggression is far removed from the examples of military interventionism that Coyne discusses in his book. It would obviously be crazy to attempt to destroy an invading monster with nuclear weapons at his disposal, but it would be equally crazy, it seems to me, to avoid giving the victims of his aggression the support they need to defend themselves.


Christopher Coyne makes a strong case that much of the military interventionism of the United States and its allies has had the unintended consequence of eroding liberal values and creating enemies. Attempts to impose the institutions of liberal democracy on people with different belief systems, values, and ideals were doomed from the outset.

Coyne suggests moving away from this interventionist culture, which assumes that the world can be controlled by Western government elites, to a system of polycentric defence. It seems to me that the appropriate answer to the question of whether a polycentric defence system can protect us from monsters depends on how we view polycentricity. It is difficult to see how the governments of the liberal democracies could abandon centralized decision-making on national defence without weakening the ability of their citizens to defend themselves against the autocratic monsters outside of their borders. However, a system in which nation-states exercise autonomy in decision-making on national defence is not far removed from what we have at present. Rules of just conduct that have evolved via diplomatic efforts within this system have done much to promote peaceful coexistence among nations. A system in which nation-states exercise autonomy can do much to protect us from monsters when nation-states are willing to act in concert to punish overt violations of international law.