Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Does dialogue imply recognition of natural rights?

Two philosophers, John and Robert, were travelling in a lawless country when they were attacked by two bandits. In the initial exchange of gunfire, Robert and one of the bandits were killed. The other bandit had John in his sights, and John thought he was about to be shot.

John shouted: “Please don’t kill me. That would be a violation of my natural rights”. The bandit laughed. “I don’t believe in natural rights”, he said. “Around here, I decide who has rights, and you don’t have any.” 

The bandit moved closer, so John didn’t need to shout his response: “The government of the country I come from also takes the view that there are no natural rights. It claims that it has the authority to decide who has rights and what rights they have. It is wrong and so are you”.

The bandit asked John to explain what was wrong with claiming that rights are determined by the people with power. John replied: “By engaging in dialogue with me about rights, you are implicitly recognizing my natural right to self-direction. If I didn’t have that right, I would not have been able to consider your argument and to reject it”. 

The bandit laughed again, before asking: “Where did you get that idea from?”. John explained that the idea had come from Hans-Hermann Hoppe.[i]

While John was explaining Hoppe’s idea, the bandit became distracted by a wasp hovering around his face. John took advantage of the situation to pull out a small handgun that he had concealed in his clothing and to point it at the bandit.

With the tables now turned, John said: “Give me good reasons why I shouldn’t shoot you”. The bandit pleaded that he didn’t deserve to be killed because that would be disproportionate punishment. He explained that he was not responsible for killing Robert and said that he didn’t intend to kill John.

John responded: “In the defence that you have just presented, you have claimed the right not to be subjected to disproportionate punishment. That means you have contradicted your earlier statement that you do not believe in natural rights. Have you changed your mind? Do you now believe in natural rights?” 

The bandit claimed that he did now believe in natural rights. John was not sure that he was being truthful, but had already decided to spare his life. John decided that, under the circumstances, it would be enough punishment to lecture the bandit at length about the principle of estoppel, that Stephan Kinsella has applied to natural rights dialogue.[ii]

A couple of days later, John was discussing the incident with Peter, another philosopher friend, whom he knew had often claimed to be a natural rights skeptic. After John had related his story, he added the thought: “I am now having regrets that I didn’t shoot that bandit when I had the chance”. Peter responded: “No, you did the right thing! Killing him would have been disproportionate punishment”.

John saw an opportunity to make an important point: “Peter, do you realize that by acknowledging that there is such a thing as disproportionate punishment you have implicitly recognised the existence of natural rights?” John then gave Peter a reference to Stephan Kinsella’s discussion of rights scepticism.[iii] 

I leave it for you, dear reader, to decide how this story might end. I would like to think that the bandit and Peter have both now stopped claiming that they don’t believe in natural rights.

[i] Hoppe, Hans-Hermann, 1989, A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism: Economics, Politics, and Ethics.
[iii] Kinsella, op.cit. loc 1886-1921/8713.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Is cultural change responsible for a long term decline in productivity growth?

The story of cultural change that Edmund Phelps tells in Mass Flourishing has a happy beginning and a sad ending.

Phelps’ cultural story of the advent of rapid economic growth in Britain and America in the 19th century is much like that of Joel Mokyr and Deidre McCloskey (discussed here and here). The main difference is Phelps’ greater emphasis on grassroots innovation within firms.

Phelps makes a strong case that Joseph Schumpeter, famous for his theory of entrepreneurship, over-emphasized the importance of exogenous scientific discoveries (external to innovating firms) as a source of innovation. Phelps probably goes too far in downplaying scientific advances, but his story about the importance of grassroots innovation to the emerging modern economies seems highly plausible. He suggests:
“a modern economy turns people who are close to the economy, where they are apt to be struck by new commercial ideas, into the investigators and experimenters who manage the innovation process from development and, in many cases, adoption as well” (p 26).

Phelps describes a modern economy as “a vast imaginarium – a space for imagining new products and methods, imagining how they might be made, imagining how they might be used” (p 27).

A substantial part of the book is devoted to a discussion of socialism, as practiced in the Soviet Union, and corporatism, as practiced in Italy and Germany in the 1930s. The contemporary relevance of that discussion become relevant later in the book in his discussion of reasons for the decline in productivity growth that seems to have occurred in the U.S. since the 1960s.

Phelps’ focus on the U.S. economy as the main driver of technological progress seems appropriate. He notes that European countries experienced high productivity growth while playing the technological catch-up game, but their productivity growth has generally been lower than in the U.S. in recent decades. He attributes their lack of dynamism to ongoing corporatism over the decades since World War II. The classical corporatist model - involving state direction of industry and promotion of solidarity and social responsibility – has been augmented with codetermination of labour and capital (instead of owner-control) and stakeholderism (instead of a focus on income generation).

The author suggests that corporatism has also grown in the United States. Industries that have been subject to government policy interventions have been affected by a new populist type of corporatism as businesses have sought to use their political influence to mould government regulation to their advantage. The result is a “densely interconnected system of mutually beneficial relationships between private and public’, which tends “to redirect the economy’s innovation toward politicians”. He notes that supporters refer to that system as industry policy and detractors refer to it as corporate welfare. It should be referred to as rent-seeking.

The cultural change that Phelps sees as leading to a decline in economic dynamism is not fully reflected in changes in economic freedom indexes. He sees a deterioration in the “core functioning” of modern economies. This involves, among other things:
  • Managerialism, short-termism and the rise of a “money culture” in business, with wealth-seeking turning people away from innovation.
  • A rise in the litigiousness of American society - people who devote their time and energy to suing one another have less time and energy for innovation.
  • Excessive patent protection resulting in an economy clogged with patents – “a creator of a new method might require as many lawyers as engineers to proceed”.
  • More people aspiring to attain social station rather than to achieve something.
  • Adolescent culture – less willingness to accept temporary austerity in the quest for achievement; less ability to concentrate intensely (unable to resist distractions of social media).
  • A resurgence of traditional values putting more pressure on business to allow people to work from home etc.

Has this cultural change in U.S. business caused a decline in the long-term productivity growth rate? If so, what can be done about it?

In a series of posts written in 2015, I was sceptical that there had been a decline in long term productivity growth. I suggested that the slow-down in measured productivity growth in the U.S. and some other countries may be attributable, in part, to difficulty in measuring the outputs of the information and communications technologies (ICT) industries. I also noted research findings suggesting a technological diffusion problem, rather than a slow-down in technological advances, with productivity growth of global frontier firms remaining relatively robust.

The addition of a few more years of data seems to lend support to the view of the historical pessimists that there has been a long-term decline in U.S. productivity growth. And Phelps’s cultural change explanation does seem plausible.

Unfortunately, the remedies that Phelps offers are less plausible. He suggests that governments can act to restore dynamism if they become aware of its importance and gain some practical knowledge of how innovation is generated. He suggests:
Nations will have to push back against the resurgence of traditional values that have been suffocating in recent decades and revive the modern values that stirred people to go boldly forth toward lives of richness”.

Edmund Phelps seems to be hoping that a reinvented corporatism, perhaps inspired by the starship Enterprise, will foster grassroots innovation and be less prone to rent-seeking than the industry policies it replaces. Good luck with that!

I prefer to put my faith in the potential for new technologies to disrupt and subvert populist corporatism.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Does democracy cause growth?

This question has contemporary relevance, but it came to mind as I was reading Mass Flourishing, by Edmund Phelps, who won the Nobel in economics in 2006. Mass Flourishing, published in 2013, is subtitled How grass roots innovation created jobs, challenge and change.

Phelps’ hypothesis:
Political institutions arguably played a significant role in the creation of the modern economy. One of these was representative democracy, which arose rather close to the emergence of economic modernity” (p 92).

That challenged my prior view that political change favouring economic freedom, innovation and productivity growth came first, and that voting rights came later to redistribute the fruits of economic progress.

Phelps recognizes that democracy involves downside risks (e.g. tyranny of the majority, interest group politics) but gives plausible reasons why democracy may have helped promote economic growth:
  • A democracy would push the public sector to support the interests of lower and middle classes, thus encouraging business activity (including grassroots innovation) and public education. By contrast an autocracy would tend to be more interested in serving landed interests, national prestige etc.
  • Rule of the people tends to lend credibility to rule of law, thus reducing sovereign risk.
  • Elected politicians have an incentive to heed voters, whereas autocrats may not even be aware of their interests or concerns.

However, in my view Phelps' line of argument runs into problems when he considers whether the mechanics of democracy occurred at the right time and place to trigger an explosion of economic dynamism. He looks at the experience of five countries: Britain, America, France, Belgium and Germany.

In respect of Britain, he refers to the revolution of 1688 as having given representation to new wealth and new cities, and the Reform Act of 1832 as extending the franchise to men without property. The Glorious Revolution didn’t establish democracy and the Reform Act was too late to be a trigger.

Phelps refers to the U.S. Constitution of 1788 as having created a government that was radically more representative than Britain’s parliament at that time. However, my American friends keep telling me that their Founding Fathers established a republic rather than a democracy.

The experience of France seems to support the hypothesis. Both democracy and dynamism were slow to arrive in France. The experience of Belgium was ambiguous.

German experience didn’t support the hypothesis. There was strong innovation in Germany in the latter half of the 19th century, but little democracy except at local levels.

Phelps’ conclusion suggests a smaller role for democracy than his original hypothesis:
“In any case, the reasonable inference is not that modern democracy caused the modern economy or vice-versa, but that both sprang from the same matrix of values and beliefs—the same culture” (p 96).

Joel Mokyr has emphasized the role of institutional adaptability, rather than democracy, in facilitating growth. He responds as follows to the observation that commercial energy was combined with stable rule by an exclusive elite in 18th century Britain:
Yet British institutions also had to possess a built-in capability to adapt to radically changing circumstances, and every such adaptation led to further changes in the economic structure of Britain. It is this kind of dynamic that created the success that allowed the growth of useful knowledge and technological ingenuity to become the foundation of sustained economic development” (The Enlightened Economy, 2009, p 427).

The adaptations that Mokyr refers to include the reform of many institutions that had supported rent-seeking and redistribution. He suggests that by 1850, “the elite that ran British government no longer saw political power as a means to acquire more privileges”, but instead “made sure that no other political group would be able to do the same so it could keep what it already had” (p 395).

As noted at the beginning of this post, the question of whether democracy supports economic growth has contemporary relevance. Bill Easterly’s examination of economic growth experience in his book, The Tyranny of Experts, (discussed here) suggests that political leaders matter very little for either good or ill in driving economic growth. He argues that freedom promotes individualistic values that favour economic development. By contrast, autocrats tend to promote the interests of the kingdom (or state) above those of the individual and foster collectivist values that are inimical to economic development. 

China’s experience of autocrats promoting limited economic freedom, which has resulted in a major growth dividend in recent decades, is interesting in that context. As in Germany in the latter part of the 19th century, the leaders of China may see a degree of economic freedom as a way to promote the interests of the state.

 Finally, as a matter of empirics, there is evidence that if you classify countries as either democratic or non-democratic and control for other factors, the democratic countries have better growth performance. In a recent study covering 175 countries, Daron Acemoglu et al have found that democratizations increase GDP per capita by about 20 percent in the long run [JPE, 2019, 127 (1)].

Unfortunately, those findings do little to allay my concerns about the impact of interest group politics on future productivity growth in the western democracies. I will write more about that, and about Edmund Phelps views of possible causes of declining dynamism, in a later post.

Monday, February 3, 2020

When and how did the concept of progress originate?

Are you one of those people who has not given up hope that following generations will have better opportunities than you have had? If so, you may be interested to know when and how such hopes came to be considered realistic.

If progress is defined very broadly in terms of hope for advancement of mankind, it is possible to argue, as does Robert Nisbet, that the concept has ancient origins:
“the Western idea of progress was born of Greek imagery, religious in foundation; the imagery of growth. It attained its fullness within Christianity, starting with the Church Fathers, especially Augustine” (Idea of Progress: A Bibliographical Essay by Robert Nisbet, 1978-79).

Augustine held that prior to Judgement Day, the blessed will know an earthy paradise.

However, that is probably not what you have in mind if you hope that following generations will have better opportunities. As Nisbet acknowledges, “there is almost no end to goals and purposes which have been declared the fulfillment or outcome of mankind's progress”.

The goals I have in mind relate to growth of opportunities for human flourishing – the pursuit and achievement of happiness in a worthwhile life. More specifically, as discussed in a recent series of posts, flourishing entails opportunities for individuals to have the basic goods of a flourishing human: wise and well-informed self-direction, the prospect of a long and healthy life, positive human relationships, psychological well-being and living in harmony with nature.  Hope for progress involves, among other things, an expectation that useful knowledge will continue to accumulate, and the material conditions of humanity will improve from generation to generation. In those terms, hope for progress isn’t necessarily associated with faith in the possibility of either an earthy or heavenly paradise.

J B Bury, the author of The Idea of Progress: An inquiry into its origin and growth (1921) viewed progress as movement of civilization in the direction of “an ultimate happy state … or of some state, at least, that may relatively be considered happy”. Bury’s emphasis on happiness seems appropriate, but the idea of “an ultimate happy state” seems inconsistent with the idea of ongoing progress.

I disagree also with Bury’s suggestion that “you have not got the idea of Progress until you … conceive that [civilization] is destined to advance indefinitely in the future”. Individual humans are destined to seek to advance their own happiness by reason of their human nature, but it doesn’t follow that civilization is destined to advance. Those who hope progress will be ongoing have a better grasp of the idea, in my view, if they acknowledge, with Karl Popper, that there are “conditions of progress” and “conditions under which progress would be arrested” (The Poverty of Historicism, 1957, p 142).

If we view progress in terms of the advance in useful knowledge and ongoing betterment of the material conditions of humanity, Bury’s claim that it is of comparatively recent origin seems correct. As noted by Joel Mokyr:
“A belief in future progress … requires an implicit model of what could have brought about such progress as well as evidence that such progress had happened in the past” (A Culture of Growth, 2017, reviewed here).

Mokyr argues that the relevant model - in which advances in useful knowledge came to be viewed as an engine of economic progress through improving production techniques - emerged in Europe in the 17th century.

French rationalists and advocates of liberte’

In Bury’s opinion, Bernard LeBovier Fontenelle “was the first to formulate the idea of the progress, of knowledge, as a complete doctrine”, in his Digression on the Ancients and Moderns (1688). Fontenelle argued that superior methodology, logical rigor and critical faculties enabled the science of the moderns to surpass that of the ancients. He also predicted that one day the current generation would themselves be ancients and their achievements would be surpassed by later generations.
Bury’s opinion of Fontenelle’s importance in the history of progress has been disputed, but Mokyr suggest that “although Fontenelle was no towering intellect”, “he was eloquent, well positioned, and influential”, and “part of an intellectual movement that reached its zenith with Condorcet” (p 262). 

Before we discuss Condorcet, mention should be made of Abbe’ Saint Pierre and Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot. The Abbe’ widened the compass of progress to embrace progress toward social perfection. Bury notes that he “shared the illusion of many that government is omnipotent and can bestow happiness on men”.

Turgot viewed history as a record of human progress, advancing through periods of calm and disturbance toward greater perfection. Unlike some other French Enlightenment thinkers, particularly Voltaire, Turgot acknowledged Christianity as having been a powerful agent of civilization. He noted that the development of human societies has not been guided by human reason, but has occurred as a result of passion and ambition. Nisbet suggests that Turgot’s celebrated discourse, before an admiring audience at the Sorbonne in 1750, “probably” represented “the first full and complete statement of progress”. Mokyr observes that Turgot “seems to fall in the Candidesque error of thinking that almost any event in history, no matter how calamitous, led to progress in some fashion” (p 263). Mokyr’s judgement may be too harsh because Turgot’s laissez faire views on economics were apparently based on an appreciation of the mutual benefits of free exchange (see comments by Murray Rothbard).

The Marquis de Condorcet (known as Nicolas de Condorcet) was a supporter of the French Revolution, but his Sketch of a Historical Picture of the Progress or the Human Mind was composed after that, in 1793, during the Terror, while he was hiding from Robespierre. Condorcet viewed the history of civilisation as the history of enlightenment – he saw an indissoluble union between intellectual progress and the progress of liberty, virtue and respect for natural rights. Based on his analysis of history, he reasoned that humanity was on the cusp of a grand revolution toward a happy future. He seems to have viewed that outcome as inevitable, provided appropriate help was provided by people who wanted to be on the right side of history. He asked:
What can better enlighten us to what we may expect, what can be a surer guide to us, amidst its commotions, than the picture of the revolutions that have preceded and prepared the way for it? The present state of knowledge assures us that it will be happy. But is it not upon condition that we know how to assist it with all our strength?”

Bury notes that Condorcet’s “principles are to be found almost entirely in Turgot”, but “Condorcet spoke with the verve of a prophet”. As prophets go, Condorcet seems to have been successful. He predicted equality of the sexes, mitigation of inequality in wealth by means of education, economic development obliterating distinction between “advanced and retrograde races”, and advances in medical science increasing life expectancy. His prophesy of cessation of war has yet to be fulfilled, but if Steven Pinker is right, there may even be a trend in that direction.

Scottish moralists and economists

Nisbet recognises the importance of Adam Ferguson’s contribution in documenting the history of arts, sciences and institutions, without mentioning his most important contribution. Bury mentions in a footnote that Ferguson “treated the growth of civilization as due to the progressive nature of man, which insists on carrying him forward to limits impossible to ascertain” and “formulated that process as a movement from simplicity to complexity”.

Further explanation is required. Ferguson argued that “man is susceptible of improvement” because of “a desire of perfection” stemming from “the powers that nature has given”.  As humans strive “to remove inconveniencies, or to gain apparent and contiguous advantages” they “arrive at ends which even their imagination could not anticipate”. He suggests: “the forms of society are derived from an obscure and distant origin; they arise, long before the date of philosophy, from the instincts, not from the speculations of men”. His main point:
Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design” (An Essay on the History of Civil Society, 1767).

Bill Easterly has noted recently that Ferguson used lack of intentional design to challenge the notion of innate European superiority leading to the right to coerce non-Europeans. He argues that superior group outcomes could not reflect innate superiority because those outcomes “arose from successive improvements that were made, without any sense of their general effect” (The Review of Austrian Economics, 2019).

Bury and Nisbet both recognize the importance to an understanding of progress of Adam Smith’s great work, The Wealth of Nations (1776). Bury notes that as well as a treatise on economic principles, The Wealth of Nations “contains a history of the gradual economic progress of human society, and it suggests the expectation of an indefinite augmentation of wealth and well-being”.
Smith’s well-known contributions on the gains from specialization and trade helped promote a broader understanding of economic progress, and of the potential for governments to hold it back. 

Although he didn’t present a complete model of technological progress, Smith also made an important contribution to understanding of productivity growth. Smith suggested that “the invention of all those machines by which labour is so much facilitated and abridged, seems to have been originally owing to the division of labour”. He observed that people are “much more likely to discover easier and readier methods of attaining any object, when the whole of their minds is directed towards that single object”. That observation anticipates Friedrich Hayek’s insights on the importance of specific knowledge and Edmund Phelps insights on the importance of grassroots innovation to the economic development process.

In my view, Smith’s account of spontaneous order, building on the insights of Adam Ferguson, represents his greatest contribution to an understanding of progress. Smith observed:
This division of labour, from which so many advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion. It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature, which has in view no such extensive utility; the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another”.

In his oft quoted passage about the “invisible hand”, Smith suggested that an individual pursuing his own commercial interests,
by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain; and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it”.

Smith viewed progress as an outcome of voluntary exchange process with potential for mutual benefit. Bill Easterly reminds us that The Wealth of Nations, which is most famous as a critique of zero-sum mercantilist thinking, is also a critique of zero-sum colonialist thinking. Smith was scathing in his criticism of the conquest of the Americas. He wrote:
“The savage injustice of the Europeans rendered an event, which ought to have been beneficial to all, ruinous and destructive to several of those unfortunate countries”.

We can’t turn back history and there is a limit to what can be done to compensate for the injustices of the past, but we should ensure that our personal views of progress are consistent with generation of mutually beneficial outcomes, rather than use of force to enable some to prosper at the expense of others.

Hope for progress involves the expectation that useful knowledge will continue to accumulate, providing growing opportunities for human flourishing, including opportunities for voluntary and mutually beneficial exchange. That concept of progress emerged in Europe in the 17th century and was fully developed in the 18th century. Thinkers who were important in developing the concept include Fontenelle, Turgot and Condorcet, in France, and Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith, in Scotland.