Showing posts with label entrepreneurial qualities. Show all posts
Showing posts with label entrepreneurial qualities. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Is Alexander Hamilton's ideal of a modern commercial republic still relevant today?

 


Alexander Hamilton was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He served as secretary to the Treasury from 1789 to 1795 during the presidency of George Washington.


I knew little about Alexander Hamilton’s contribution to American economic policy before reading Samuel Gregg’s book, The Next American Economy: Nation, State, and Markets in an Uncertain World, 2022. Gregg suggests that America faces a choice between a form of state capitalism – top-down interventionism focused on achieving political objectives such as greater economic security for specific groups and “national security” – and a free market economy. He argues that in making the case for free markets it is helpful to take another look at the ideal of a modern commercial republic as espoused by Alexander Hamilton.

Centralization of powers

Prior to reading Gregg’s book, I knew that Hamilton had argued successfully for greater centralization of government powers than prevailed in the original confederation. On that basis, I had entertained the idea that he might possibly have been responsible for much that is wrong with the U.S. today.

Gregg presents a more positive view of Hamilton’s contribution. He suggests that integration of the states into a more unified commercial republic made it easier for Hamilton to apply principles of free trade among the states and between the U.S. and other countries.

Gregg’s line of reasoning poses a challenge both to libertarian globalists, who see national governments as the source of barriers to the functioning of free markets, and to economic nationalists who want governments to prevent foreign economic competition because they see it as a threat to national sovereignty. He challenges libertarian globalists by suggesting that “failure by the government to smooth the economic ups and downs which are part of life in a market economy risks opening the door to political movements that have no particular regard for human freedom”. He challenges economic nationalists by suggesting that tariffs and other measures that protect of American industry from foreign competition are harmful to Americans.

 It isn’t necessary for libertarian globalists, like myself, to abandon utopian thinking in order to see merit in effective unilateral action by national governments to promote free trade. At a national level, the case for free trade rests on it providing individual citizens and their descendants with the prospect of better opportunities than would otherwise be available to them.

To eliminate the excesses of statism, it is necessary for political leaders to exercise statecraft (or what Adam Smith and David Hume referred to as “the science of the legislator”. As Gregg puts it Smith and Hume recognized that:

 “the knowledge furnished by … integration of moral, political, and economic inquiry needed to be brought to bear upon society by statesmen and governments in the interests of its improvement”.

Gregg notes that although Edmund Burke’s involvement in economic policy was “attuned to political realities” he leaned strongly towards promoting greater commercial freedom within Britain’s empire and between Britain and other nations.

America’s Founding Fathers, including Alexander Hamilton, were also influenced by Adam Smith and David Hume.

Hamilton’s vision of a commercial republic

Samuel Gregg explains how Hamilton advanced his vision of a commercial republic in his contributions to the Federalist Papers and in his role as secretary to the Treasury. Hamilton’s vision of a modern civilized nation combined republican government and a private enterprise economy, with merchants subject to the discipline of competitive markets. He hints that character traits that make for commercial success – industry, innovation, economy, self-restraint, honesty, prudence – are also republican virtues.

Hamilton argued for free trade between the states and for revenue tariffs only on international trade. He suggested that tariffs “force industry out of its more natural channels into others in which it flows with less advantage”. He maintained that trade policy should be driven by national interest and was adamantly opposed to use of trade sanctions as an instrument of foreign policy.

What next?

Samuel Gregg ends his book by acknowledging that he doesn’t know whether there is a real possibility that an American commercial republic could emerge to shape America’s future. He hopes that it could on the basis that he can “see no reason why America cannot embrace the habits, incentives, and disciplines associated with markets while also grounding them in the language, norms, and virtues of the American experiment”.

Since 2022, when Gregg’s book was published, it has become clearer that the U.S. is likely to continue, for a few more years at least, down the path towards greater international trade protectionism.  The choice that the two major political parties are offering voters in the 2024 presidential election certainly does not include a candidate offering an alternative to higher trade barriers.

Unfortunately, the adverse impacts of increased trade protectionism in the U.S. cannot be guaranteed to result in a strong impetus for policy reversal. The U.S. economy is sufficiently large and diverse that increased barriers to international trade are likely to have relatively minor adverse impacts by comparison with those that would occur in most other countries if they followed similar policies.

It looks to me as though trade liberalisation is unlikely to occur in the U.S. until influential politicians come to see merit, from a foreign policy perspective, in supporting multilateral efforts to encourage trade among countries that have more than minimal regard for free market principles.

Meanwhile, Samuel Gregg’s book will hopefully be widely read in other countries where some current political leaders may be more receptive to Alexander Hamilton’s vision of a commercial republic based on free market principles.

Conclusion

Samuel Gregg’s book, The Next American Economy, urges Americans to adopt the ideal of a modern commercial republic, as originally espoused by Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton argued for the U.S. to adopt, unilaterally, the principle of free international trade on the grounds that this would serve the economic interests of Americans and promote republican virtues.

Unfortunately, American political leaders do not currently seem to be in the mood to re-endorse Hamilton’s vision of a modern commercial republic.

Hopefully, Gregg’s book will be widely read in other countries where some political leaders may be receptive to messages about the contemporary relevance of the role that free market polices played at an early stage in the economic and social development of the United States.


Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Do you live in harmony with your daimon?

 


Some readers will be wondering what the question means. What is this daimon? How does it relate to eudaimonia? How can you identify your daimon?

Your daimon

In his book, Personal Destinies, David L Norton explains that your daimon is your innate potentiality – a unique “ideal of perfection”. Every person has this innate potentiality as well as an empirical actuality. Self-actualization is the process of discovering your daimon and living in harmony with it.

Norton suggests that people begin to discover their daimon during adolescence. He argues that autonomous self-awareness first occurs in the form of one’s awareness of being misidentified by other people. (That is clear in a passage quoted in the preceding essay on this blog.) Adolescence is a period of exploration and experiment when mistakes are inevitable. Exploration and experiment are part of the process by which individuals may discover their daimon and obtain the maturity to choose to live in harmony with it – to live an integral life.

Integrity is the consummate virtue. It is “living one’s own truth”. An integral life follows from choosing “wholeheartedly” the self one shall strive to become.

Eudaimonia

I have been accustomed to thinking of eudaimonia in terms of the good life, or self-actualization. As indicated in the passage quoted above, however, Norton draws attention to the distinct feeling of eudaimonia that constitutes its intrinsic reward. He describes that feeling as “being where one wants to be, doing what one wants to do”, as well as the feeling of being where one must be, and wholeheartedly doing what one must do. (pp 216, 222). The feeling of eudaimonia signals that the present activity of the individual is in harmony with his daimon. (p 5).

By contrast, the dysdaimonic individual is impelled to two different directions at the one time:

“The dysdaimonic individual is perpetually distracted, being only in a part of himself where you find him while part of himself is somewhere else, his ‘here’ and ‘there’ being not continuous but contradictory.” (p 221)

Norton suggests that eudaimonia is fully present whenever a person is living in truth to himself or herself. Eudaimonia is as much present for the individual who has just set foot upon his path, as for the accomplished genius of self-actualization. I particularly like this sentence:

“It would make good sense to say that to set foot upon one’s path is as good as arriving at the end, provided we recognize that a condition of being on one’s path is to be engaged at walking”. (p 239)

Norton’s book begins with a quotation from Carl Jung, who speaks of the daimon as an “inner voice” that has determined the direction of his life. Norton recognises that we may be apprehensive that “an ear turned towards our inwardness will detect at most only meaningless murmurings”. Many people who read the book will no doubt have a desire to listen to their daimon but might still have some difficulty in hearing its voice, amid all the meaningless inner murmurings that are seeking their attention.

How can you identify your daimon?

As a philosopher, David Norton could not have gone much further than he has in this book in helping readers to identify and follow their personal daimons. Anyone wishing to proceed further might find some contributions from positive psychology to be of assistance. In what follows, I briefly mention some approaches that I think are helpful.

Two relevant approaches which I discussed briefly in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing involve identifying personal values and character strengths. Stephen Hayes developed Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to help people to identify the personal values that they want to guide them in important aspects of their lives. Russ Harris, a therapist who has written extensively about ACT, has written a book, The Happiness Trap, which I reviewed here. Harris’ book is highly relevant to some of the issues discussed by David Norton.

Martin Seligman and Christopher Petersen identified 24 character strengths that they view as the routes by which virtues can be achieved. People can obtain useful information about themselves by responding to a questionnaire at the VIA Institute of Character, and having the responses fed back in summary form.

At a more personal level, I should mention the help I have obtained from the “inner game” books written by Tim Gallwey, a sports and business coach. Gallwey’s books (described here) are pertinent because they deal with performance problems that arise when an individual becomes confused by inner voices that conflict with his or her authentic inner voice. Gallwey suggests many techniques to help people to maintain focused attention on the task at hand, avoid self-doubt, and exercise free and conscious choice when that is appropriate. People are helped to discover their true identity as they master this “inner game”. My podcast episode, entitled “Tim Gallwey, my inner game guru”, can be found here.

Conclusions

David Norton’s book, Personal Destinies, provides an insightful account of the nature of eudaimonia. He explains it as a distinct feeling as well as the condition of actualizing one’s innate potentiality.

I have suggested some contributions from positive psychology that I think are helpful in complementing the approach adopted in this book.


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 grâce.”

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.

Implications

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.


Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Where have the supporters of capitalism gone?

 

Cartoon by Peter Nicholson from “The Australian” newspaper: www.nicholsoncartoons.com.au

Some erstwhile supporters of capitalism probably don’t realize that they have gone missing. They still support private ownership of property and businesses, and may claim to see merit in the profit motive. However, they overlook that capitalism also involves “prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market”.

The quoted words are from the Merriam-Webster definition of capitalism. Use of a definition from an American dictionary seems appropriate because the supporters of capitalism who have gone missing seem to me to be mainly Americans. That is unfortunate because Americans were once the world’s strongest supporters of capitalism.

In Australia, most of the people I hear talking about capitalism seem to use it as a term of disparagement. The people who support capitalism talk about free enterprise and economic freedom.

I have the impression that it is fairly common outside of America for supporters of capitalism to avoid using the word because it is commonly viewed as a term of disparagement. That may stem from the word’s origins. When I was growing up, someone told me that Karl Marx had invented the word. That is not correct. Marx rarely used the word. He preferred to describe capitalism as “the capitalist mode of production”. Nevertheless, even in America the term was apparently considered to be a socialist expression until well into the 20th century.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the strongest supporters of capitalism had no qualms about using the word. Milton Friedman used the word in the title of a book, Capitalism and Freedom. Friedman made it clear that he was writing about “competitive capitalism – the organisation of the bulk of economic activity through private enterprise operating in a free market”. Ayn Rand used the word in the title of a book, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. She defined capitalism as “a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned”.


Where have America’s supporters of capitalism gone? Johan Norberg prompted me to think about that question as I was reading his latest book,
The Capitalist Manifesto: Why the Global Free Market Will Save the World. This book is a follow-up to In Defence of Global Capitalism, which Norberg wrote about 20 years ago. Globalization has now become a dirty word to many erstwhile supporters of capitalism, but Norberg remains a strong defender of global capitalism.


Who opposes the free market?

One of the most interesting contributions of Norberg’s new book is his account of the changing opposition to the ideal of a global free market. Norberg wrote In Defence of Global Capitalism to counter the arguments of left-wing activists who mistakenly believed that free trade, foreign investment, and multinational corporations were making the world’s poor even poorer. George Monbiot, Oxfam, Bono etc. eventually began to see some merit in free trade, but opposition then migrated to economic nationalists on the conservative side of the political spectrum.

Norberg suggests that the opponents of globalization share an underlying misconception that it is a zero-sum game – someone’s gain is another one’s loss:

“The worldview is the same, the roles are just reversed – twenty years ago free trade was considered bad because we exploited them, now it is considered bad because they exploit us.”

Norberg seems to assume that most readers will already understand why free trade is a positive-sum game – beneficial to both importers and exporters. He uses colourful illustrations to reinforce the point:

“Free trade allows the farmer to grow a new mobile phone in his wheat field, the textile worker can sew a new motorbike and the author can (if lucky) write a holiday trip to Tuscany.”

The author argues that free enterprise is primarily about “opening the dams of human creativity – to let everyone participate and test their ideas and see if they work”.

The opposition of economic nationalists to free trade is associated with the narrative that during the early years of the 21st century, cheap imports from China caused deindustrialization and wage stagnation in the United States.  Norberg’s most important contribution seems to me to be in challenging that narrative. He makes the point that the loss of jobs in manufacturing is attributable largely to automation rather than import competition. He suggests that the slow-down in wages growth in the US dates from the mid-1970s, reflecting a necessary correction of cost levels because wages had previous been growing faster than productivity. The Rust Belt apparently lost more jobs in the decades before globalization reached the US, than it has in recent decades. The share of manufacturing jobs in the US declined more rapidly prior to 2001, when China was admitted to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), than it has in the decades since then.

 Fear of China

Economic nationalists suggest that the involvement of China in international supply chains has been particularly problematic because of the theft of technology. Norberg points out that China has been by no means unique in that respect. The US itself apparently once had a policy of smuggling inventions and bribing European artisans to reveal their secrets. There is evidence that the Chinese government has a relatively good track record in following WTO rulings relating to disputes about intellectual property and government subsidies.

Norberg acknowledges the potential for Chinese investment in digital and physical infrastructure to pose a security threat because the Chinese government views Chinese companies as its agents. He points out that this does not mean that the US and its allies were wrong to encourage China to open up to the outside world. He suggests that if China had not opened up, it is much more likely that the Chinese people would have generally perceived Westerners as irreconcilable opponents. He fears that use of trade barriers to isolate China could strengthen the most reactionary and nationalist forces in China.    

Leviathan’s helpers

Where have the capitalists gone? Many business owners and executives now seem to spend less time on conventional entrepreneurial activities than on seeking to ingratiate themselves with politicians and bureaucrats who are engaged in active industrial policy.  

The chapter in The Capitalist Manifesto entitled “Picking Losers” should be of particular interest to Jim Chalmers, Australia’s Treasurer. In his article in The Monthly (Feb 2023) Chalmers wrote:

“As the influential economist Mariana Mazzucato has explored in her work, markets built in partnership through the efforts of business, labour and government are still the best mechanism we have to efficiently and effectively direct resources.”  

Johan Norberg has quite a lot to say about Mariana Mazzucato’s naïve views. I will not attempt to provide a summary here because it might spoil the fun for readers. However, I particularly liked this sentence:

 “Governments are bad at picking winners, but losers are good at picking governments.”

That observation seems particularly relevant to Australia at present.

Concluding remarks

In focusing on reasons why support for capitalism has declined, I have failed to mention many of the virtues of capitalism discussed in The Capitalist Manifesto. For example, I was particularly interested in what Johan Norberg had to say about the relationship between capitalism and various aspects of happiness, in his chapter on “the meaning of life”.

I began by noting that many supporters of capitalism are reluctant to use the word because socialists have historically used it as a term of disparagement. I commend Johan Norberg for writing a capitalist manifesto. In doing that he is following in the footsteps of great advocates of economic freedom who had no qualms in talking about the virtues of capitalism.

In this book, Norberg has provided an interesting account of how many erstwhile supporters of capitalism have come to oppose global free markets. The most important contribution of the book, in my view, is the challenge it offers to the narrative that cheap imports from China have caused deindustrialization and wage stagnation in the United States.


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.

Indexes

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.

Discussion

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.

Conclusion

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.


Sunday, November 6, 2022

Are you also a decentralist?

 


Max Borders shares his personal philosophy of life in his book, The Decentralist: Mission, morality and meaning in the age of crypto. His aim in doing that it to persuade readers to become decentralists.


I decided that I was already a decentralist before I had finished reading the introduction. The fundamental point is that decentralism is required because individuals need to pursue happiness in different ways. The mission of decentralists is to create conditions for radical pluralism – a garden of forking paths. Sometimes we flourish by walking together; at other times we need to take different paths in order to flourish. The garden of forking paths creates opportunities for people to blaze different trails.

There is no easily accessible summary of the main principles of decentralism espoused in the book, so I have attempted to write one:

  • In navigating our lives, we recognize the existence of centralized political authority while fostering parallel consent-based systems which have potential to underthrow (rather than overthrow) centralized authority.
  • We choose persuasion in preference to compulsion.
  • To better govern ourselves and to communicate with moral suasion, we recognize that human minds are governed by emotion and instinctual energy, as well as by reason.
  • We create and foster “flow systems” with a high degree of flexibility and eschew attempting to control or regulate society.
  • We advocate an evolving technological ecosystem that can bring about a decentralized transformation in governance, finance, enterprise, aid, and even defence.
  • We aspire to moral practice (excellent character) that encompasses non-violence, integrity, compassion, stewardship, and rationality.
  • We advocate the daily practice of mindfulness to help guide us in our commitments to realize the consensual society.
  • We believe that the potential for widespread acceptance of the values of decentralism is the culmination of humanity’s stepwise journey from a focus on survival values, through a range of intermediate stages which have provided expanding opportunities for human flourishing.
  • We accept and seek to apply the principles of a free market.
  • We seek to make our lives meaningful at an individual level by learning to tell the “story of me” (Who? What? Why? Where? How? When?) and at a social level, “the story of us” (development, mutual understandings, shared conceptions of the good).

I agree with those principles. Max Borders persuaded me a few years ago to look forward to the social singularity. Hopefully the ethical principles he advocates for the age of crypto will help that vision to be achieved.

Some ideas in The Decentralist seem to me to be wacky but they are not central to the ethos of decentralism. I strongly disagree with the suggestion that we should dispense with “the idea of truth as something to be discovered in the world instead of experienced by the subject” (p 123). An untrue story is not made true by being widely accepted and told frequently. We cannot prevent reality from biting our bums merely by embracing delusions about it.

The book is easy to read. The digital gimmicky of the presentation style will no doubt appeal to many readers. Each chapter elaborates a number of concepts corresponding to the chapter number. So, in Chapter 1, we have “one revolution”, in Chapter 2, “two hands”, in Chapter 3, “three governors”, and so forth. Those who would prefer to read a book covering a similar range of issues, and advancing similar views using a more conventional style of scholarly discussion, are welcome to read my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

From my perspective, the most interesting chapter of The Decentralist is Chapter 3, which considers implications for communication of classifying people as thinkers, relaters, and movers, depending on whether their minds are governed primarily by their heads, their hearts, or gut instincts. I had previously been introduced to the idea that humans have brains in hearts and guts as well as heads, and should seek alignment between them. When we speak metaphorically of following our hearts, keeping cool heads, and being gutsy, we are expressing ideas that are deeply entrenched in human culture (and even anatomy, perhaps). I was also aware of marketing techniques appealing to emotion and instinct. However, I had not previously given explicit consideration to the potential for normal persuasive communications to benefit from attention to emotional and instinctive needs of readers, as well as to their need to be given reasons to change their minds.

This book, itself, combines appeals to emotion, reason, and instinct in persuasive communication. For example, the introduction appeals to emotion in its discussion of an individual’s desire to be happy, it appeals to reason in its discussion of broader aspects of human flourishing, and it appeals to instinct in recognizing the importance of action in pursuit of the differing goals of individuals. The metaphor of a garden of forking paths seems to me to be a wonderful way to combine those concepts.

Conclusion

The Decentralist strongly supports the view that individuals have greatest opportunities to flourish under conditions where they are free to choose for themselves which path to take. The personal philosophy that Max Borders espouses in this book will hopefully persuade many more people to adopt the ethics of decentralism.


Thursday, November 3, 2022

What is the best management metaphor?

 


Did you know that the word ‘metaphor’ is itself a metaphor? I just learnt that the word is a metaphor for carrying something beyond – it combines meta (beyond) and phoro (to carry).

Metaphors are ubiquitous.

The function of metaphors (together with similes and analogies) seems to be to assist conscious comprehension of the real world, and communication about it. It is possible to believe, as I do, that we need metaphors to consciously comprehend and communicate what we experience, while still maintaining that we have direct experience of the real world. In our attempt to understand this process of conscious comprehension and communication it is common to use the metaphor of a mind that creates maps or models of reality. However, if we are wise, we keep reminding ourselves that the map is not the territory, and the model is not reality.

I am focusing here on management metaphors because a few weeks ago I was struck by the thought that the potential for competition between use of sporting and musical metaphors in a workplace could be a source of humour. At the time I was trying to think of a topic for a humorous speech to present at Toastmasters. The speech turned out to be somewhat entertaining rather than uproariously funny, but the process of preparing it led me to think more deeply about management metaphors.

The story

The speech began with Sam Musico, who had just been recruited to the firm, being taken to meet the Boss in his office. As was his custom, the Boss asked him what sport he followed. Sam replied that he didn’t follow any sport, he was interested in music. The Boss then leaned on his bookcase, and looked Sam up and down, before saying:

“That’s OK, Sam. Just keep your eye on the ball. I hope to see you kick lots of goals!”

Asked later if he knew what the Boss was talking about, Sam said:

“I think he means to say that he wants me to stay in tune. And he hopes to see me become a virtuoso!”

Anyhow, to cut the story short, Sam did very well when working in our firm. After a few years, he left us and went off to play in the big league, and became a highly successful manager. One day, when we were discussing who to invite to speak to our annual management seminar, the Boss said: “Sam had become a management maestro. We should invite him.”

So, we asked Sam to talk on the topic: How to become a management maestro.

Sam began his speech by quoting a famous management guru who once wrote: 

A successful manager of a business is like “the conductor of a symphony orchestra, through whose effort, vision and leadership, individual instrumental parts that are so much noise by themselves, become the living whole of music.”

Then Sam told us he had a different view. He read us a poem he had written:

“An orchestra doesn’t need a maestro,

The gestures he makes are just for show.

The players focus on the composer’s score,

But your audience wants you to do much more.

Like a jazz band, the success of your enterprise,

Depends on players learning to improvise.

So, the metaphor I’m here to broach,

Is the ethos of a football coach”.

After the seminar was over, the Boss said: “You know, I think Sam might have learnt a thing or two about management while he worked here!”.

The message

The purpose of my speech was to entertain rather than to argue that the sports coach metaphor is the best management metaphor under all circumstances.

The management guru, whose words are quoted above, was Peter Drucker (The Practice of Management, 1954). I left his name out of the speech because the quote was selective. Drucker went on to say: “But the conductor has the composer’s score: he is only interpreter. The manager is both composer and conductor”.

The orchestra metaphor might be appropriate in some contexts. In proposing his orchestra metaphor, Drucker might have had manufacturing industry in mind. It could be argued that, from a management perspective, a manufacturing firm has more in common with a symphony orchestra than with a jazz band, or football team. This video of dancing robots assembling cars may help make the point.

The actual role of the maestro is another issue lurking in the background. The maestro’s responsibilities extend beyond waving his arms around during an orchestral performance. Henry Mintzberg explains that in his blog post, The maestro myth of managing, which provided some inspiration for Sam’s poem. In some respects, the maestro’s role is similar to that of a football coach.

My bottom line (if I may add a business metaphor to the mix) is that the sports coach metaphor is relevant to many aspects of management. However, to claim that the sports coach metaphor is always better than other management metaphors would be like claiming that a map of Australia is always better than other maps. Just as the best map to use depend on the territory that you are considering, the best management metaphor to use depends on the context that you are considering.


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.”

Conclusions

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.

Conclusions

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.