Showing posts with label Political institutions. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Political institutions. Show all posts

Sunday, January 14, 2024

How do democratic institutions survive in Papua New Guinea?


In countries with endemic law and order and corruption problems, outbreaks of rioting and looting often lead to military dictatorship, or some similarly authoritarian style of government.

However, I don’t think many people expect the recent outbreak of rioting and looting in Port Moresby and other major cities in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to result in authoritarian government. In the 50 years since it gained independence from Australia, PNG leaders have muddled through several major crises without resort to authoritarianism. Local leaders, including military leaders, have generally displayed little appetite for radical change. They have responded to major crises by seeking to uphold the PNG constitution. Responses to the Sandline crisis of 1997 are a prime example.

The Sandline crisis

In January 1997, the PNG government approved a contract to engage Sandline International – a firm employing mercenary soldiers – to neutralize the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA). The aim of the exercise was to reopen the Panguna copper mine which had been shut down in 1989 as a consequence of BRA activities seeking Bougainville’s independence from PNG.

General Jerry Singirok, the commander of the PNG defence force, did not believe that the proposed Sandline operation would succeed, and was concerned that it might result in mass civilian casualties. He also believed that the Sandline contract was unconstitutional. He resolved to expel the mercenaries from PNG before they were able to begin military activities on Bougainville. To achieve that objective, Singirok and some trusted colleagues devised and implemented Operation Rausim Kwik. The operation received overwhelming public support in PNG.

I don’t propose to present my view on whether Jerry Singirok did the right thing. I encourage readers of this blog to make up their own minds after reading Singirok’s recently published book, A Matter of Conscience: Operation Rausim Kwik. I enjoyed reading the book. It was given to me for Christmas by one of my brothers, who lives in PNG. As well as discussing the matters of conscience that Singirok had to consider, it provides an exciting account of the planning and implementation of this secret military operation.

My purpose in the remainder of this essay is to sketch out how the Sandline contract and Rausim Kwik were viewed in Australia, and to offer some additional thoughts about PNG institutions.

Australian views of the Sandline crisis

As I remember, there was intense interest in the Sandline affair in Australia. News stories about mercenaries and mutiny always attract attention but the Sandline affair was of particular interest because of the proximity of PNG to Australia, PNG’s history as an Australian colony, and the large number of Australians who had lived and worked in PNG or had family living there.

As the former colonial power, the Australian government didn’t want to interfere overtly unless it became necessary for action to be taken to protect Australian citizens. The official reaction of the government could be described as hand-wringing.

Prior to the Sandline affair, Australian authorities had been trying to persuade their counterparts in Port Moresby that peace on Bougainville could only be achieved via a negotiated settlement. Support provided under the Defence Cooperation Program included a requirement that the helicopters provided could not be used as “gunships”, and other similar conditions. Sir Julius Chan, the PNG prime minister, claimed that it was Australia’s reluctance to provide adequate support that had led his government “to go to the private sector”.

The Australian government did not send a strong message to the PNG government about its opposition to employment of mercenaries in the region until after Jerry Singirok had taken action to arrest the Sandline executives. At that point the Australian PM, John Howard, sent three senior public servants to PNG to urge Sir Julius to cancel the Sandline agreement and deport the mercenaries. The emissaries threatened that Australia might not continue its aid program if the PNG government continued in the proposed use of mercenaries to put down the rebellion on Bougainville.

In his public address to the nation, Singirok reassured the public that he was not conducting a military coup. Nevertheless, he insisted that the government ministers involved should step aside pending a judicial inquiry into the hiring of Sandline.

I think there was as much concern in Australia about Singirok’s mutinous behaviour as about the PNG government’s employment of mercenaries. The actions of the military commander in preventing implementation of government policy seemed like a step in the direction of military dictatorship. Singirok notes that the Australian High Commissioner handed him a diplomatic note from Canberra stating among other things:

“We strongly believe that it is essential that the PNGDF obey the directives of the PNG government and cease any illegal or unconstitutional activity.”

However, I doubt that the Australian government’s hand-wringing had much influence in ensuring that the Sandline crisis ended peacefully.

PNG institutions

Some prominent PNG citizens helped to end the Sandline crisis by assisting negotiations between Singirok and Sir Julius Chan. Singirok was dismissed as commander of the PNG defence force, but his demands were met. The PM and two other ministers stepped aside while an inquiry was held. Normal constitutional processes were resumed.

Sean Dorney, an Australian journalist with over four decades of experience in reporting on Papua New Guinea, regards the professionalism of its defence force as one of PNG’s strengths. In his book, The Embarrassed Colonialist, published in 2016, he writes about the PNGDF under the heading: “A Developing Country’s Military With No Ambition to Rule”. He quotes General Toropo, who was then commander of the PNGDF, as saying that he cannot see a military coup ever happening in PNG because the PNGDF regards itself as a professional organisation and “has got beyond tribal and regional differences”. Dorney notes that prior to independence, Australia made a conscious effort to recruit soldiers from all around the country so that the defence force would not be dominated by a group from any one province or region.

Dorney has a less favourable view of the police force. He notes that a police department had not even been created until the decade before independence and suggests that inexperienced and untrained staff were major problems at that time. He notes that by international standards the size of the police force relative to population is very low in PNG.

The professionalism of the police force is obviously still a problem. The most recent bout of rioting and looting occurred after police went on strike because of a pay dispute. Hopefully, the increased foreign aid that Australia announced last year to police training etc. will be of some help in improving the professionalism of the PNG police force.

Improved policing is an obvious response to a law-and-order problem, but it may not be necessary to invest vast amounts of public money in crime deterrence in order to make the transition from a high to low crime society. In his book, The Enlightened Economy, Joel Mokyr points out that firm government enforcement of laws could not have played a major role in enabling Britain to achieve a low crime society. In the 18th century, large parts of Britain were virtual “lawless zones” and in others, legal practice often deviated considerably from the letter of the law. Enforcement was largely a private enterprise with the courts at best serving as an enforcer of last resort. There was no professional police force. Daily law enforcement was in the hands of amateurs and part-time parish constables. Justice had to rely to a large extent on volunteers, local informers, vigilante groups and private associations specializing in prosecution of felons. Private law enforcement remained of substantial importance until well into the 19th Century (pages 376-379).

The incentive to engage in crime depends on the alternative economic opportunities available to potential criminals as well as on the expected rewards of crime. The more general issue of what has been holding back the growth of economic opportunities in PNG, discussed previously on this blog, is relevant in this context.

Criminal activity has certainly been having an adverse impact on the growth of economic opportunities, and lack of economic opportunity has no doubt tempted more people to resort to crime. However, that does not necessarily make the problem intractable. One possible solution is for police to give highest priority to deterring the violence and theft that is having a major adverse impact on the economic opportunities of poor people.

The survival of democratic institutions in PNG does not seem to be seriously threatened by current levels of crime and corruption. There is a risk, however, that crime and corruption will reach a stage where criminal gangs directly threaten the survival of democratic institutions.  


Democratic institutions survive in Papua New Guinea because local leaders have generally responded to major crises by seeking to uphold the constitution. That was particularly evident in the Sandline crisis of 1997.

The PNG defence force has been aptly described as a developing country’s military with no ambition to rule. The defence force regards itself as a professional organisation that has “has got beyond tribal and regional differences”.

The professionalism of the PNG police force is more questionable. A more professional police force could help ameliorate PNG’s endemic law and order problems by giving highest priority to deterring the violence and theft that is having a major adverse impact on the economic opportunities of poor people.

The main risk to democratic institutions in PNG seems to me to lie in the potential for crime and corruption to expand to a point where criminal gangs take over the government.


1. Noric Dilanchian has provided the following comment:

You've written a good article Winton.
As my only closely relevant background, in my last year in law school (1982) I helped a friend write her Law in Developing Societies course thesis about protests by indigenous people on Bougainville Island before the first major conflict.
Our conclusion then was that massive mining pollution and industry behaviour, among other factors I cannot remember, were conducive for societal collapse. It then happened.
I was also reflecting on your thinking in light of three books I read late in 2023 on the 20th century history of Iran. There a central problem was that the royal rulers always sought exclusive rule-supporting control over the armed forces. That had very bad consequences. As for the police in cities, they performed the connected with elites thug role comparable to and evident in Sydney during and before Premier Robert Askin's administration (1965-1975).

2. Pat Green wrote:

If I could draw comics, I would draw a helicopter way up in the sky, and attached to it is a silhouette of PNG. Hanging up high on the rope is a bunch of politicians cutting the rope above their heads with a big tramontina that has "idependence" etched on it.

There is no future in the current system. 

Monday, January 8, 2024

Was British colonial government as bad as modern critics would have us believe?


Nigel Biggar acknowledges that British colonialism contained evils and injustices, but he judges it to have been much better than its modern critics would have us believe.

Biggar directs the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life at Oxford University. His aim in writing his recently published book, Colonialism: A MoralReckoning, was to provide a moral evaluation of British colonialism, rather than a history of it.

 As indicated in the passage quoted above, Biggar argues that many of the modern critics of British colonialism have an unscrupulous indifference to historical truth. He suggests that the controversy over empire is really about the present, rather than about the past. The real target of today’s anti-colonialists is “the Anglo-American liberal world order that has prevailed since 1945”. They denigrate the historical record of “the West” in order to corrode faith in it. He writes:

“What is at stake is not merely the pedantic truth about yesterday, but the self-perception and self-confidence of the British today, and the way they conduct themselves in the world tomorrow.”

Everyone who has regard for human rights, rule of law, and democracy should encourage British people to continue to be forthright in their advocacy of these ideals.

The focus of criticism

Biggar documents why modern critics of British colonialism are unfair in claiming that it was characterised by racism. He highlights three main examples:

The critics emphasize British links to the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, but overlook the leading role that the British government played in ending slavery in the 19th century.

The critics emphasize instances of appalling racial prejudice but ignore policies that were driven by the conviction of the basic human equality of the members of all races.

Some critics slanderously equate the actions of British colonial authorities with those of the Nazis by claiming that they were engaged in genocide. They don’t acknowledge the efforts of colonial authorities to protect native peoples from harmful encounters with settlers.

Benefits of British colonialism

Biggar also documents many benefits of British colonialism. One of the points he makes is that it “brought up three of the most prosperous and liberal states now on earth – Canada, Australia, and New Zealand”. My friends in the United States can take comfort from the fact that the American revolution served to educate the British about the desirability of allowing those former colonies to govern themselves.

More generally, British colonialism promoted free trade, created peace in the colonies, developed public infrastructure, made foreign investment attractive, disseminated modern agricultural methods, disseminated medical knowledge, and “provided a civil service and judiciary that was generally and extraordinarily incorrupt”.

I will focus here on the quality of the civil service and judiciary.

Quality of governance

As a classical liberal, I am inclined to the view that less governance is better than more, and that governance imposed by foreigners is particularly obnoxious. Could it have been possible for the quality of governance offered by the British to have been better than the alternatives on offer during the colonial periods?

That seems likely to have been the case in many instances. Biggar notes that many local rulers in India wanted the British to secure power to obtain advantage over their rivals - they preferred British rule to indigenous alternatives including ongoing local wars. It is not obvious that any real-world alternatives to British colonialism in Australia and New Zealand (e.g. colonization by another European power) would have provided greater protection to indigenous peoples. In the absence of British colonialism in Africa, it is likely that the slave trade would have persisted to a greater extent, aided by the expansion of militant Islam, and internecine wars that were an ongoing source of slaves.

It is not difficult to understand why people working for British colonial administrations in the 19th and 20th centuries developed a reputation for being largely incorruptible. It is even possible for me – a person who subscribes to the private interest theory of regulation - to understand that when organisations develop a culture that is strongly opposed to corrupt behaviour, individual members tend to obtain a great deal of satisfaction – a sense of mission - from upholding that culture.

Biggar notes:

“Back in the closing decade of the eighteenth century, Lord Cornwallis’ insistence that officials in the East India Company should live on their salaries, give up private trading and resist bribes ‘helped to create a civil service that became widely regarded as incorruptible and just, one that even Indian nationalist newspapers would later regard as ‘absolutely above suspicion’ and ‘the high water mark of morality in the public service of the country’, and as beyond being ‘bribed to do anything.”

Biggar devotes quite a few pages of his book to quoting subjects of colonial rule who were full of praise for British colonial rulers. He also notes that in the 1950s several million Chinese voted with their feet to leave the communist Chinese mainland and live under British colonial rule in Hong Kong.


The modern critics of British colonialism have no reason to be concerned that it is about to make a comeback. Their reason for seeking to denigrate it is to undermine the ongoing efforts of people in Britain, and some of its former colonies, to promote the ideals of a liberal world order. Nigel Biggar’s book makes an excellent contribution to public discussion of the issues by pointing out that many of the critics have an unscrupulous indifference to historical truth.

Sunday, December 31, 2023

How would you describe your philosophy?


I don’t think anyone has ever asked me the question posed above. When I tell people that I am an economist, some of them ask about my views on economics before regaling me with their opinions. When I tell people that I am a blogger, they usually ask what I blog about before telling me what I should blog about. I don’t claim to be a philosopher, so there has been no reason for anyone to ask me to describe my philosophy.

However, a comment by Ed Younkins in the addendum to the preceding post on this blog prompted me to think about whether it would be possible for me (as a casual reader of philosophy) to prepare a coherent summary of my philosophical beliefs.

Some readers might be interested in the process I used to summarise my views. I asked ChatGPT to ask a series of questions to help me to explore my philosophical beliefs. I responded to her questions by providing copies of extracts from blog posts etc. that I had written, and asked her to summarise my responses. The summary she produced was done competently, but I did some further editing.

I view the outcome as a work in progress. If anyone points to holes in my reasoning, I will endeavour not to be excessively defensive in my responses.


I am a Neo-Aristotelian classical liberal.

As will be apparent from what follows, I am strongly of the opinion that it is appropriate to consider what kind of thing an individual human is before engaging in philosophical reasoning related to any aspect of human experience. That is why many of my beliefs are grounded in current scientific knowledge (and speculation) about human evolution, neurology, and psychology.

It seems appropriate to begin with philosophy of mind because awareness of our own awareness is the starting point for all consciousness reasoning. I will then proceed to outline views on epistemology, metaphysics, human nature, ethics, and political philosophy.

Philosophy of Mind:

We cannot doubt that we think. When we are thinking, we may be aware of the flow of inner thoughts and feelings and of our experience of the world in which live. Our observations of other animals suggest that they share with us some awareness of their surroundings. That awareness is a product of evolution – it serves a purpose in helping animals to survive and reproduce. Similarly, our awareness of our own awareness is just another step in the evolutionary process – the purpose it serves is to help individual humans to flourish within the cultures in which they live.  (Main influence: Richard Campbell).


Humans are born with a potential to acquire knowledge that is particularly relevant to human flourishing. However, knowledge acquisition is primarily experiential. Experiences during early childhood have a major impact on brain development. As brains mature, neural maps become increasingly solidified, but brains retain some plasticity throughout life. Brains learn by evaluating feedback from actions taken – they adjust internal models when predictions are incorrect.

Conscious reasoning plays a crucial role in determining what knowledge adult humans acquire. It makes sense to use probabilistic reasoning when considering alternative explanations for observed phenomena.

Practical wisdom (wise and well-informed self-direction) is integral to individual flourishing. As well as being important in its own right, it helps individuals to maintain good physical and psychological health, good relations with other people, and to live in harmony with nature. (Influences: Aristotle, David Eagleman, Michael Huemer).


Metaphysical realism: We exist as part of a real world. Beings exist independently of our cognition of them. (Influences: Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl).

Human Nature:

Humans have inherent potentialities that are good. (Main influence: Abraham Maslow).


Our awareness that we need to make something of our lives emerges before we can make conscious choices relating to our individual flourishing. Ethical intuitions relating to traditional virtues – practical wisdom, integrity, courage, temperance, justice – are a product of social evolution and family upbringing.

Ethical intuitions provide only a foundation for ethical reasoning. Although everyone has a natural inclination to engage in activities that contribute to their own flourishing, actualization of their individual potential requires some understanding of that potential, and the application of practical wisdom that is linked to that person’s dispositions and circumstances. Each individual is responsible for developing his or her own character, and adopting the good habits required to flourish more fully. (Influences: Robert Nozick, Aristotle, Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen).

Political Philosophy:

Individuals should be free to pursue their own ends provided they do not encroach upon the rights of others. Recognition of individual rights enables individuals to flourish in different ways without interfering unduly with the flourishing of others.

The role of government is protection of individual rights. Performance other roles should be contingent upon consent of the governed. (Influences: Friedrich Hayek, James M Buchanan, Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl).


The summary presented above focuses on some broad categories of philosophical beliefs. I have left out some categories of beliefs (philosophy of science and methodology of economics) because they are too specific to be covered in this overview. One of the most popular posts on this blog is about aesthetics, but I have not read widely on that topic. Some other important categories (e.g. religion) have been left out because I prefer not to display my ignorance.

Anyone interested in further explanation of my beliefs is welcome to ask me. Many of the relevant topics are covered in my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing. There are also relevant articles on this blog that have been written since that book was published e.g. a discussion of Richard Campbell’s views on the emergence of consciousness (here), and David Eagleman’s views on neural mapping and plasticity (here).


Philosophy of Mind

Campbell, Richard, The Metaphysics of Emergence, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.


Aristotle, The Complete Works (Kindle Edition), ATN Classics, 2023.

Eagleman, David, Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain, Canongate Paperback, 2021.

Huemer, Michael, Understanding Knowledge, 2022.


Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, The Realist Turn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Human Nature

Maslow, Abraham, Toward a Psychology of Being (Chapter 14), D Van Nostrand, 1962


 Nozick, Robert. Invariances, The Structure of the Objective World, Harvard University Press, 2001.

Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics (Translator: F.H. Peters) Online Library of Liberty, 1893

Den Uyl, Douglas J., and Douglas B Rasmussen, The Perfectionist Turn: From metanorms to metaethics, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Political Philosophy

Hayek, Friedrich. The Constitution of Liberty, The University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, Norms of Liberty, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Does stakeholder capitalism contribute to human flourishing?


Many people reading this are likely to view the use of stakeholder terminology by business leaders as little more than a public relations tool. That is certainly how I have viewed it in the past. If you are a business owner, or executive, who wants to encourage employees, suppliers, customers, and community members to feel loyalty to your business, it makes sense to acknowledge that they may also have a stake in seeing it prosper. And it does no harm to remind governments of their stake in the prosperity of your business via its contributions to tax revenue.

However, I have recently come to associate stakeholder terminology with stakeholder capitalism. That ideology has close links to the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the increased tendency of businesses to seek rewards from governments for pursuit of environmental and social goals (ESG). Reading about stakeholder capitalism has added to my previously expressed concerns that such interactions between business and governments are leading liberal democracies more deeply into a corporatist quagmire.

Stakeholder capitalism

Michael Rectenwald’s book, The Great Reset and the Struggle for Liberty, has persuaded me that in advocating stakeholder capitalism, Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF), has in mind a corpus of ideas and policies that are fundamentally opposed to free markets and classical liberalism. Moreover, the WEF may have sufficient influence among powerful elites to eliminate the already dwindling influence that classical liberalism has been having on public policy.

Rectenwald’s book was written in response to a book by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret entitled Covid-19: The Great Reset, which was published in 2020. Rectenwald draws attention to the open espousal of policies opposed to free markets in that book. Schwab and Malleret welcomed the possibility that governments might take advantage of the pandemic “to permanently increase their role”, and eliminate classical liberalism, which they refer to as neoliberalism. They write:

“COVID-19 is likely to sound the death knell of neoliberalism, a corpus of ideas and policies that can loosely be defined as favouring competition over solidarity, creative destruction over government intervention and economic growth over social welfare. For a number of years, the neoliberal doctrine has been on the wane, with many commentators, business leaders and policy-makers increasingly denouncing its “market fetishism”, but COVID-19 brought the coup de grĂ¢ce.”

They go on to predict:

“Shareholder value will become a secondary consideration, bringing to the fore the primacy of stakeholder capitalism.”

Klaus Schwab has been advocating stakeholder capitalism for over 50 years, and has been influential in having that concept endorsed at international meetings of powerful people from business and government. The first Davos Manifesto, signed in 1973 states:

“The purpose of professional management is to serve clients, shareholders, workers and employees, as well as societies, and to harmonize the different interests of the stakeholders.”

The 2020 Davos Manifesto is titled: “The Universal Purpose of a Company in the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. It includes similar sentiments to the 1973 Manifesto, but goes on to state, among other things:

“B. A company is more than an economic unit generating wealth. It fulfils human and societal objectives as part of the broader social system. Performance must be measured not only on the return to shareholders, but also on how it achieves its environmental, social and good governance objectives. Executive remuneration should reflect stakeholder responsibility.”

Some CEOs would welcome a long muddled list of performance objectives because it offers them the opportunity to “do their own thing” and provide ready-made excuses for poor performance. Others would prefer to see governments pursue social and environmental objectives by more efficient mechanisms, and to have their own performance judged according to more tangible benefits to shareholders. How does the WEF propose to encourage compliance with its Manifesto?

The WEF’s ESG Index

The WEF published a report in 2020 setting out metrics for measuring company performance with regard to ESG goals. The title of the report is  Measuring Stakeholder Capitalism: Towards Common Metrics and Consistent Reporting of Sustainable Value Creation.

A mechanism for grading companies in terms of their environmental, social, and governance practices and plans might be thought to offer useful information to investors and consumers who concerned about the environmental and social impacts of their decisions. However, Rectenwald points out that it also has potential implications for interactions between business and government:

“Woke planners wield the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Index to reward the in-group and to squeeze non-woke players out of business.”

Ideological reach

In a recent Newsweek article, Jon Schweppe asks, Why did corporations go ‘woke’? His response, in brief, is that “this is part ideology, part price of admittance to an elite club, and part protection racket – doing everything one can to avoid upsetting the mob”.

Rectenwald’s book suggests to me that the WEF should come to mind following any mention of “ideology” and “an elite club” in this context. The corporate partners of the WEF include over 1000 of the world's largest business organisations. The annual meeting of the WEF in Davos is an invitation-only event but is widely reported in the media. Many notable political leaders, journalists etc. have been members of the Forum of Young Global Leaders, which is reserved for people under 40 years of age who show promise of global leadership. In addition, the WEF’s Global Shapers movement, a training camp for young change-makers (under 30 years old) has over 10, 000 active members.


Rectenwald points out that because ESG is “an impressionistic, qualitative, metric” it exposes business leaders and companies to the whims of woke arbiters. He cites the recent experience of Elon Musk who has been unfairly besmirched because he may have benefited from an emerald mine owned by his father in South Africa during the apartheid era. He sums up:

“In today’s political economy, satisfying shareholders, employees, and customers to earn profits has become less important for corporations than ingratiating the woke cartel and the governments that support it.”

Rectenwald’s book goes on to discuss possible implications for individual liberty of potential innovations such as an individual carbon footprint tracker, but in this essay I want to stick with the implications of stakeholder capitalism.

The Hayek quote at the beginning of the essay suggests another important implication of stakeholder capitalism. The quoted passage is from Law, Legislation, and Liberty (v3, p 82). The context of the quote is a paragraph in which Hayek is responding to the idea that large corporations should be required to consider the public or social interest. He suggests that “as long as the large corporation has the one overriding duty of administering the resources under its control as trustee for its shareholders its hands are largely tied; and it will have no arbitrary power to benefit this or that particular interest”. The paragraph ends by suggesting that obliging large corporations to consider the public interest gives them uncontrollable power that “would inevitably be made the subject of increasing public control”.

There is also reason for concern that obliging corporate managers to adhere to ESG will make them less accountable for productivity performance of enterprises because it will be difficult for company boards to assess the veracity of claims that performance has been adversely affected by ESG. Wokeness can be expected to provide a cover for inefficiency.

I acknowledge that stakeholder capitalism may have some positive implications for human flourishing, that should be offset against the negative implications discussed above. For example, in my book Freedom, Progress, and HumanFlourishing, I note that the difficulty that governments have been experiencing in agreeing upon concerted international action to combat climate change was ameliorated by the actions of business organisations in planning for a carbon free future.

Nevertheless, as I also argue in that book, there is more reason to be concerned about the implications of declining productivity growth than about climate change. By further reducing productivity growth, stakeholder capitalism seems likely to cause a great deal of economic misery.

Unfortunately, major economic crises will probably need to be endured before political leaders inspired by classical liberalism emerge once again to implement the public policy reforms that are needed to restore free markets.

Saturday, September 30, 2023

What's wrong with people?


This question is posed in the title of Chapter 10 of Steven Pinker’s book, Rationality: What it is, Why it Seems Scarce, Why it Matters.

I enjoyed reading the previous 9 chapters but didn’t learn much from them. Those chapters were a painless way to refresh my memory about definitions of rationality, rules of logic, probability, Bayesian reasoning, rational choice, statistical decision theory, game theory, correlation, and regression analysis.

I particularly liked the approach Pinker took in discussing the research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky which documents many ways in which people are prone to fall short of normative benchmarks of rationality. Pinker makes the point:

When people’s judgments deviate from a normative model, as they so often do, we have a puzzle to solve. Sometimes the disparity reveals a genuine irrationality: the human brain cannot cope with the complexity of a problem, or it is saddled with a bug that cussedly drives it to the wrong answer time and again.

But in many cases there is a method to people’s madness.”

A prime example is loss aversion: “Our existence depends on a precarious bubble of improbabilities with pain and death just a misstep away”. In Freedom Progress and Human Flourishing, I argued similarly that loss aversion helped our ancestors to survive.

Pinker doesn’t seek to blame the propensity of humans to make logical and statistical fallacies for the prevalence of irrationality in the public sphere. He is not inclined to blame social media either, although he recognises its potential to accelerate the spread of florid fantasies.

The mythology mindset

Pinker argues that reasoning is largely tailored to winning arguments. People don’t like getting on to a train of reasoning if they don’t like where it takes them. That is less of a problem for small groups of people (families, research teams, businesses) who have a common interest in finding the truth than it is in the public sphere.

People tend to have a reality mindset when they are dealing with issues that affect their well-being directly – the world of their immediate experience – but are more inclined to adopt a mythology mindset when they are dealing with issues in the public sphere.

When economists discuss such matters, they may refer to the observation of Joseph Schumpeter that the typical citizen drops to a lower level of mental performance when discussion turns to politics. They reference the concept of rational ignorance attributed to Anthony Downs and Gordon Tulloch. They may also refer to Brian Caplan’s concept of rational irrationality. (For example, see Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, pp 114-115).

Pinker doesn’t refer to those economists’ perspectives but offers interesting insights about factors that might lead people to adopt mythology mindsets. In summary, as a consequence of myside bias, attitudes to the findings of scientific studies often have less to do with scientific literacy than with political affiliation. The opposing “sides” are sometimes akin to “religious sects, which are held together by faith in their moral superiority and contempt for opposing sects”. Within those sects the function of beliefs is to bind the group together and give it moral purpose.

What can we do?

Pinker’s suggestions for combatting irrationality in the public sphere are summed up by his subheading “Re-affirming Rationality”. He advocates openness to evidence, noting the findings of a survey suggesting that most internet users claim to be open to evidence. He suggests that we valorize the norm of rationality by “smiling or frowning on rational and irrational habits”.

Pinker identifies institutions that specialize in creating and sharing knowledge as playing a major role in influencing the beliefs that people hold. Since “no-one can know everything”, we all rely on academia, public and private research units, and the news media for a great deal of the knowledge which forms the basis of our beliefs. Unfortunately, these institutions are often not trustworthy.

In the case of the universities, Pinker suggests that the problem stems from “a suffocating left-wing monoculture, with its punishment of students and professors who question dogmas on gender, race, culture, genetics, colonialism, and sexual identity and orientation”. News and opinion sites have been “played by disingenuous politicians and contribute to post-truth miasmas”.

It is easy to agree with Pinker that it would be wonderful if universities and the news media could become paragons of viewpoint diversity and critical thinking. However, movement toward that goal will require large numbers of individuals to enlist for a ‘long march’ to re-establish norms of rationality in institutions that specialize in creating and sharing knowledge.                                                                    

Monday, July 24, 2023

Where is the soul of libertarianism?


Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi have contributed an excellent history of libertarian ideas in their recently published book, The Individualists. The question I pose for myself is related to the subtitle of the book: “Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism”.

The reason Zwolinski and Tomasi refer to individualists rather than to libertarians in the main title is presumably because they believe that a commitment to “individualism is at the core of libertarianism”. They also note that many of the most intellectually active friends of liberty in Britain were known as individualists before the term libertarian caught on.


The authors spend some time discussing who is, or isn’t, a libertarian. They note that “libertarian” has been used in both a strict sense, to refer specifically to those who see liberty as a moral absolute, and in a broad sense, to include classical liberals who view liberty as a strong presumption. The book discusses the views of contemporary classical liberals, such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, as well as those of “strict libertarians”, but doesn’t devote much attention to historical classical liberalism.

Zwolinski and Tomasi identify six markers which form the core of a libertarian world view: private property, skepticism of authority, free markets, spontaneous order, individualism, and negative liberty. They observe that while libertarians don’t necessarily view those principles as absolutes, they typically see them “as a tightly integrated system of thought, with each commitment being supported by, and lending support to, the others”.

After providing a historical overview, the book discusses the history of radical and reactionary libertarian ideas relating to private property, libertarian anarchism, big business and free markets, poverty and spontaneous order, racial justice and individualism, and global justice and noninterventionism. Much of this information was familiar but I was surprised about how much was new to me.

Zwolinski and Tomasi’s final chapter focuses largely on the battle between bleeding heart libertarians, left libertarians and paleolibertarians for control of the libertarian party in the United States. The authors conclude that libertarianism is “intrinsically a diverse ideology”, and that “the struggle between libertarianism’s progressive and conservative tendencies, a struggle for the soul of libertarianism, is likely to go on”.

That may be an appropriate way to end a history of ideas directed to an audience composed largely of people who live in the USA. As a person who doesn’t fit into that category, however, I am concerned that describing differences of opinion as “a struggle for the soul of libertarianism” may generate more heat than light. As I see it, libertarians should be encouraged to acknowledge good ideas whether they are espoused by conservative or progressive libertarians. I would have preferred to see the book end by acknowledging that libertarians are engaged in an ongoing struggle against authoritarianism as people on opposing sides of the culture wars seek to enlist the coercive powers of the state to pursue their interests.

More fundamentally, the struggle the authors describe - about which set of political prescriptions will come to be most closely identified with the ideology – seems to me to be conducted without much reference to the soul, or essence, of libertarianism. The book left me wanting to promote the view that the soul, or essence, of libertarianism stems from the nature of human flourishing. Zwolinski and Tomasi may have good reasons for not exploring that idea more fully in their book, but it seems to me to be an idea that deserves to be given more attention.

The soul of libertarianism

In my view, the passage from Wilhelm von Humboldt quoted at the beginning of this review comes close to capturing the soul of libertarianism. Liberty is the best principle for the coexistence of humans because it offers conditions most favourable to self-directed individual flourishing.

Humboldt’s contributions influenced John Stuart Mill in writing On Liberty. They were also acknowledged by Friedrich Hayek in the conclusion of the chapter of The Constitution of Liberty discussing education and research:

“And we cannot think of better words to conclude than those of Wilhelm von Humboldt which a hundred years ago John Stuart Mill put in front of his essay On Liberty: ‘The grand, the leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity’.”

Readers who are eager to know more about Humboldt will find an online article by George H Smith published on to be of interest.

The discussion of egoism in The Individualists is relevant to considering the link between liberty and individual flourishing. Zwolinski and Tomasi note that in the 19th century American libertarians, such as Benjamin Tucker, were influenced by Max Stirner, a German theorist, who held that the only standard or right was the ability to transform one’s will into action. That view is in stark contrast to the ethical egoism advocated by Ayn Rand and her followers during the 20th century. Rand denied that might makes right and argued that egoism is compatible with recognition of universal natural rights.

The link between liberty and individual flourishing is recognized today in the writings of some classical liberal and libertarian authors. Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl deserve special mention because they have developed related ideas rigorously in their trilogy of books: Norms of Liberty, The Perfectionist Turn, and The Realist Turn.

Readers looking for a non-technical introduction to these ideas may find relevant discussion in various places including an article by Ed Younkins on The Savvy Street, and in my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.  Rasmussen and Den Uyl have provided a summary of their views in Chapter 2 of The Realist Turn. A quote from the conclusion of that chapter will convey the essence of their understanding of the role of liberty in the context of human flourishing.

“In essence, natural rights represent a realization of certain normative requirements that are inherent in the individualized nature of human flourishing within a social context. In particular, when thinking about rights, we are concerned with the conditions that must be secured for the individualized nature of flourishing to function. Although liberty is the key term in this context, we regard it not as the central concept for flourishing generally, but only with regard to setting the social context for flourishing. And although we reject constructivism as a foundational principle, we recognize the role of social constructs within the constraints provided by a framework of natural rights. As such, our theory is not about the whole of political and social life, but about the political/legal structure within which such life should and must be allowed to function if flourishing is our standard.”


My reading of The Individualists by Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi has prompted me to present a view about the soul of libertarianism. Zwolinski and Tomasi end their excellent history of libertarian ideas by suggesting that progressive and conservative factions within libertarianism will continue to struggle over the soul of libertarianism. I put the view that the soul, or essence, of libertarianism stems from the nature of human flourishing. Wilhelm von Humboldt came close to capturing the soul of libertarianism 230 years ago when he suggested: “The highest ideal … of the co-​existence of human beings seems to me to consist in a union in which each strives to develop himself from his own innermost nature, and for his own sake”. The link between liberty and individual flourishing has been recognized by many libertarians and classical liberals, and is rigorously explained in the writings of Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl.


Bates, Winton, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, Hamilton Books, 2021.

Den Uyl, Douglas J., and Douglas B Rasmussen, The Perfectionist Turn: From metanorms to metaethics, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, Norms of Liberty, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, The Realist Turn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Smith, George H., ‘The Culture of Liberty: Wilhelm von Humboldt’,, 2013.

Younkins, Edward W., ‘Rasmussen and Den Uyl’s Trilogy of Freedom and Flourishing’, The Savvy Street, 2021.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

What determines how much liberty people enjoy in different countries?

 An obvious answer to the question posed above is that governments determine how much liberty people enjoy. But that response may be too glib. Some argue that much restriction of liberty reflects prevailing values of people who see individual autonomy and personal choice as a threat to collective interests of groups and nations.

When I began the research which led to this article, I sought to explore the extent to which international differences in personal and economic freedom can be explained by deep-seated cultural values. My conclusion is that there is a large residual variation which is attributable to ideologies of governments that support or oppose free markets and personal liberty.

This conclusion is illustrated in the graph shown above. However, you will need more information about how the graph was constructed before you can get the picture.

  • The graph shows the levels of economic and personal freedom for 85 countries using the Fraser Institute’s latest data (for 2020). There are 165 jurisdictions covered by the Fraser indexes, but relevant data on values from the latest round (2017-22) of the World Values Survey (WVS) was only available for 85.
  •  The vertical axis of the graph is in reverse order – low values of personal freedom at the top, high values at the bottom. The reason stems from use of personal political compass data which is constructed in that way in an earlier article on this blog. 
  • The horizontal and vertical axes are positioned at the median levels of economic and personal freedom for the 165 jurisdictions covered by the Fraser indexes. The countries not covered by the WVS tend to have lower freedom ratings than those which are covered. The median ratings for the 85 countries represented in the graph is 7.2 for economic freedom and 7.6 for personal freedom.
  • I have only labelled data points that have freedom ratings that are substantially different from predictions based on deep-seated cultural values. The methods used to obtain predicted values for personal and economic freedom were explained in preceding articles on this blog (here and here). If you live in a high-income liberal democracy, that country is likely to be represented by one of the unlabelled points in the south-east quadrant - with relatively high levels of economic and personal freedom.
  • The colour of the labelled points depends on whether freedom is greater than or less than predicted on the basis of values – green if greater than predicted, red if less than predicted. The size of the labelled points is larger if both personal and economic freedom are greater than or less than predicted.

 It is apparent from the graph that it is difficult to explain why countries have low personal and economic freedom ratings simply by reference to prevailing values in those countries. Most of the countries in that category have freedom ratings that are lower than predicted on the basis of values. The political ideologies followed by the governments of those countries provide an obvious explanation for their suppression of liberty.

The graph also shows that a substantial number of countries with relatively high personal and economic freedom are performing better in that regard than can readily be explained on the basis of prevailing values.

More detailed information for the countries which have freedom ratings substantially different from predicted levels is shown in the graph below.


Of the 34 countries with freedom ratings that are substantially different from predicted levels, Argentina is the only one to have one category of freedom greater than expected and the other category of freedom less than expected.

Questions to ponder

Are relatively high levels of human freedom less secure in countries in which freedom is greater than prevailing values seem to support? If a high proportion of the population feels that existing policy regimes are not aligned with their personal values, these regimes could be expected to be fragile, other things being equal. However, much depends on those “other things”. The growth of economic opportunities could be expected to be greater in the presence of relatively high levels of economic freedom. That could be expected to foster values that support economic freedom. The growth of economic opportunities also tends to encourage development of emancipative values which support personal freedom.

Are relatively low levels of human freedom less likely to persist where prevailing values support greater freedom? Again, policy regimes giving rise to such outcomes could be expected to be fragile, other things being equal. Unfortunately, however, the “other things” often include use of coercion to suppress opposition to existing policy regimes.

Postscript: 16 June, 2023

I have now made an effort to explore whether some of the above speculations have empirical support. This involved repeating the exercise of obtaining predictions of personal freedom - using WVS data from the 2010-14 to obtain predictions of personal freedom for 2012. It was possible to obtain matching data for only 53 countries. 

There is some evidence that personal freedom is less secure in countries in which freedom is greater than prevailing values seem to support. Of the 6 countries in which personal freedom was much greater than predicted in 2012, only one had higher personal freedom in 2020, another had unchanged personal freedom and the other 4 had lower personal freedom.

The exercise provided no support for the proposition that relatively low levels of personal freedom are less likely to persist when prevailing values support greater freedom. Of the 6 countries in which personal freedom was much less than predicted, none had higher personal freedom in 2020, and 2 experienced a further decline in personal freedom. Unfortunately, over this period none of the repressive regimes were displaced or became more responsive to prevailing values of the people.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

To what extent do international differences in economic freedom reflect people's values?


This is a companion piece to the preceding post in which I considered the extent to which international differences in personal freedom reflect people’s values.

The extent to which international differences in economic freedom reflect different values is of interest because it has bearing on the extent of popular support likely to be given to policy proposals involving expansion or restriction of economic freedom. If people feel that existing economic policy regimes are aligned with their personal values, they are less likely to support radical change.

The accompanying graph suggests the existence of a positive relationship between an index of facilitating values and economic freedom. As suggested in the label of the horizontal axis, the index of facilitating values reflects the priority that people in different countries place on autonomy, and the extent of interpersonal trust in different countries.


I am not aware of any other index of values facilitating economic freedom similar to the one I constructed in preparing the graph, even though there has been a substantial amount of previous research undertaken on cultural values supporting economic growth and institutional change. (Nicholas Moellman and Danko Tarabar have referred to some relevant literature in their article, ‘Economic Freedom Reform: does culture matter?’, Journal of Institutional Economics (2022), 18, 139-157.)

The priority people place on autonomy seems likely to be important in facilitating economic freedom because respect for individual autonomy implies respect for individuals engaged in commerce, particularly innovators. Trust of strangers seems likely to be important in facilitating economic freedom because it reduces the tribal instinct to seek to use the powers of the state to advance the interests of group members at the expense of other groups.

I have used Christian Welzel’s autonomy index to measure autonomy. This index uses three items in the World Values Survey (WVS) which ask respondents their views about desirable child qualities. Autonomy is considered to be valued more highly by those who independence and imagination as desirable child qualities but do not consider obedience as such a quality. (See: Christian Welzel, Freedom Rising, 2013). I used an updated version of the index based on the latest round of the WVS (2017-2022).

Welzel’s generalized trust index was used to measure interpersonal trust. This index gives higher weight to trust of strangers than to trust of family. I reconstructed the index for the latest round of the WVS by combining items covering close trust (trust of family, neighbours, and people you know personally), unspecified trust (whether most people can be trusted) and remote trust (trust of people you meet for the first time, people of another religion and people of another nationality). Unspecified trust was given double the weight of close trust, and remote trust was given three times the weight of close trust.

In constructing the facilitating values index, autonomy was allocated 75% of the weight and generalized trust was allocated 25%. Those weights were chosen on the basis of regression analysis using the autonomy and generalized trust indexes as explanatory variables to explain economic freedom. (Researchers seeking further information about the methodology used in constructing this index are welcome to contact me.)

 The Fraser Institute’s economic freedom index incorporates a large number of indicators relating to size of government, legal systems and property rights, sound money, freedom of international trade and regulation.


My focus is on the outlier data points in the accompanying graph, and particularly on those countries which have substantially lower or higher economic freedom than might be predicted on the basis of values facilitating economic freedom.

One of the first things readers may notice in the graph is that values facilitating economic freedom are shown to be higher in China than in the U.S. and Australia. That may seem surprising if Geert Hofstede’s analysis, or your knowledge of cultural heritage, has led you to expect Chinese people to be much less individualistic than Westerners. If you need to be persuaded that many Chinese people have an individualistic perception of human flourishing, you might like to read an article I wrote on that topic in 2021.

While you are thinking about China, you might like to compare economic freedom in that country with that in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The most obvious reason why the latter jurisdictions have greater economic freedom is because they have adopted market-friendly ideologies.

Similarly, adoption of market-friendly ideologies explains why Albania has substantially greater economic freedom than Iran and Libya, and why Chile has greater economic freedom than Argentina and Venezuela.


The existence of values facilitating economic freedom helps to explain why some countries have higher economic freedom than others. However, it seems that a substantial part of international differences in economic freedom can be explained more directly in terms of prevailing government ideologies which either support or oppose free markets.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

To what extent do international differences in personal freedom reflect people's values?


The accompanying graph shows that personal freedom tends to be greatest in countries where people hold the most emancipative values (on average). However, it also suggests that in some countries personal freedom is much less, or much more, than might be expected on the basis of the values commonly held by the people. For example, there is less personal freedom in Belarus than might be expected, whereas there is more personal freedom in Armenia and Georgia than might be expected.

Before going further, I need to explain what emancipative values and personal freedom actually measure.

The concept of emancipate values was developed by Christian Welzel to measure the beliefs that people hold about such matters as the importance of personal autonomy, respect for the choices people make in their personal lives, having a say in community decisions, and equality of opportunity. Welzel’s research, using data from the World Values Survey, suggests that larger numbers of people have tended to adopt emancipative values in an increasing number of societies as economic development has proceeded. The strengthening of emancipative values is explained by growth of action resources (wealth, intellectual skills, and opportunities to connect with others) rather than civic entitlements such as voting rights. As emancipative values have strengthened, more people have come to recognize the value of civic entitlements and have used their growing material resources, intellectual skills, and opportunities to connect with others, to take collective action to achieve such entitlements. The process has been ongoing, with people showing greater concern for promoting more widespread opportunities—including greater opportunities for women, ethnic minorities and the disabled—as material living standards have risen and emancipative values have strengthened. (There is more information about Welzel’s research on emancipative values here.)

The personal freedom component of the Fraser Institute’s Human Freedom Index incorporates indicators of rule of law, security and safety, freedom of movement, freedom of religion, freedom of association and civil society, freedom of expression and information, and relationship freedom.

As already noted, international differences in personal freedom don’t always reflect people’s values. The reason why that is so is fairly obvious when one looks at the country labels I have shown on the outliers in the graph. What is it that Armenia, Cyprus, and Taiwan have that Egypt, Iran, China, Belarus and Vietnam do not have?   Representative government. 

Two cheers for democracy!