Why Timur Kuran is one of our most important thinkers

by on November 23, 2010 at 5:46 am in Books, Economics, Religion | Permalink

Timur is well-known as an economist, but his true importance remains neglected.  What follows is my view of "what he achieves," not "what he intends." 

Timur grew up in Ankara and Istanbul and he brings economics, rational choice, public choice theory, law and economics, and a strong knowledge of history to bear on the history and current dilemma of the Middle East.

I view Timur as our most important apologist for the history of Islam, and I mean that word apologist in the classical sense, not cynically.  I am not claiming he is a Muslim (I have no idea), but rather that he has insight into Islam.  He is telling us: "this stuff isn't as screwed up as it might seem to some of you.  It is more like you than you probably think."  Yet, like so many good apologists, you get mostly biting criticism of what he is apologizing for; he is seeking to reform the world he cherishes.

His first book Private Truth, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification (one of the best economics books of the last twenty years) is about how societies can stick with screwed up beliefs and defend them publicly, yet without everyone being evil or stupid, even if they sometimes sound as such.  It has major implications for the theory of revolution, and sudden flips of opinion, yet I read it as a defense of [fill in the blank] society.  His work with Sunstein on availability cascades extends the basic point of how falsehoods spread in otherwise normal environments; it applies directly to U.S. regulation also global religion.

Timur has written a great deal on how "Islamic economics," as the formal movement is known, has not done Islamic economies any great favors.  It is precisely when he seems most critical of Islamic doctrines that he is doing the most repair work, by indicating another path forward.  

He now has a new book out — The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East.  The book explains a large part of why the Middle East and Turkey fell behind the West and law and economics has a lot to do with it.  Various laws in Islamic societies were not conducive to large-scale economic structures, at precisely the time when such structures were becoming profitable and indeed essential as drivers of economic growth.  This is not a book of handwaving but rather he nails the detail, whether it is on inheritance law, contracts, forming corporations, or any number of other topics.

Timur writes clearly but his understated prose doesn't hop off the page at you, no matter how good the content.  He sometimes sounds small when he is in fact writing on a very large canvas.  Yet the relevant unit of labor here is his career's work, not any single article or even book.  I wonder if the economics profession forces on him too specialized a voice or an ill-fitting conception of what Wertfreiheit means.

Here is the final paragraph of the new book and it is one place where the larger vision peeps through more explicitly:

The good news is that the region borrowed the key economic institutions of modern capitalism sufficiently long ago to make them seem un-foreign, and thus culturally acceptable, even to a self-consciously anti-modern Islamist.  These institutions can be improved, recombined, and applied to new domains creatively without opposing Islam as a religion, or even dealing with it.  They can be debated essentially in isolation from public controversies over what Islam represents and its relevance to the present.  Furthermore, Islamic economic history offers abundant precedents for promoting free enterprise and limiting the government's economic role.  In no period has private enterprise been lacking.  Widely admired empires had shallow governments that left to waqfs the provision of social welfare, education, and urban amenities.  A predominantly Muslim society is not inherently incompatible, then, with an economy based on free competition, openness to borrowing, and innovation, and a government eager to support, rather than stifle, private enterprise.

[Segue to Stockholm dialogue:

T: James Buchanan is fundamentally a regional thinker.  I toy with the view that most social science thinkers are, fundamentally, regional thinkers.

B: Is that good or bad?

T: It depends on the region.]

Here is Timur's home page.  You can buy the new book — which I strongly recommend – here.  Here is the book's home page.  Here is a related podcast.  Here is a video of Timur.  Here is a picture of Turkey:

Cappadocia-turkey 

anon November 23, 2010 at 4:03 am

Hope the focus on turkey is not because of thanksgiving.

Ed November 23, 2010 at 6:05 am

Could the fact that the prose "doesn't hop off the page at you" be related to it being translated from Turkish?

DesiAvenger November 23, 2010 at 6:44 am

Beautiful Greek countryside in that photo–I wonder when the Turkish occupation will end??!!

bob tollison November 24, 2010 at 3:05 am

What's regional about the theory of clubs?

k November 24, 2010 at 3:00 pm

thanks for this. Timur seems like an interesting economist.

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