Books

The author of this new and excellent book is my colleague Peter T. Leeson and the subtitle is Why Self-Governance Works Better Than You Think.  Here is one excerpt:

Twenty-two of thirty-seven street gangs Jankowski (1991: 78-82) studied have written constitutions.  Sicilian Mafiosi follow a largely unwritten code of rules, and recently police found a written set of “ten commandments” outlining the Mafia’s core laws…Kaminski (2004) identifies extensive (yet unwritten) rules dictating nearly every aspect of Polish prisoners’ lives, from what words are acceptable to use in greeting a stranger to how and when to use the bathroom.  And the National Gang Crime Research Center considers constitutions so central to criminal societies that the use of a constitution is one of the defining characteristics it uses when classifying gangs…

Peter of course does not favor criminal gangs, rather he seeks social principles for voluntarism and yes perhaps you could call these views a kind of anarchism.  My stance, however, differs from his.

I accept the reductionist argument that government too is a kind of anarchy, since it must rely on norms and internally polycentric and perhaps even ultimately intransitive mechanisms for maintaining order.  There is no “final court of authority” in the practical sense, but rather a series of overlapping constraints which give rise to a spontaneous order of rules and governance, for better or worse.  In this sense anarchy is not an absurd idea at all, and we can imagine many varieties of orderly anarchy, including those in a more libertarian direction.  That said, while I often favor smaller government, when it comes to political philosophy I do not seek to move toward “more anarchy.”  In fact I often admire the relatively centralized governmental structures of Great Britain and New Zealand, with their clean and sharp lines of accountability.

I think modern anarchy would indeed be “orderly,” but I also think that private protection agencies would end up colluding and re-evolving into a form of coercive government (pdf), furthermore in a form that libertarians would find objectionable.  I would much rather have the West’s current democratic governments, for all their imperfections, than a for-profit “shareholder state,” not to mention the transition costs and the uncertainties along the way.  The best thing you can say about a shareholder state is that it might have a better immigration policy.  In the meantime, we are seeking to rebuild the history we have.

The subtitle is An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness, and the author is Russ Roberts.  The focus is on Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and why that is an important book.  This is Russ’s best book in my opinion, so you should consider buying it here.  My favorite section is the discussion of the Chilean maid, definitely recommended.

When it comes to mail delivery service in Iceland, two days stand out from the rest. The first is when the IKEA catalogue arrives. The second is when the bókatíðindi shows up in the mailbox.

“This is the Christmas catalogue,” says Bryndís Loftsdóttir of the Icelandic Publishers Association, handing over a copy of last year’s glossy, 208-page tome. “It’s always the same,” she continues in an amused tone. “Weeks before this is published we anxiously get phone calls from people asking, ‘When is it coming? Can I get it now?’”

A copy of the bókatíðindi, which lists approximately 90% of the books published in Iceland each year, is mailed to every household in the country, free of charge. While in most countries the presents under the Christmas tree come in all shapes and sizes, Loftsdóttir jokes that in Iceland one finds a row of neatly wrapped books. “The book is still the most popular Christmas present in Iceland,” she says. There’s even a name for the phenomenon: the “jólabókaflóð,” which means Christmas book flood.

I like the photo at the link.

Moral Effects of Socialism

by on July 19, 2014 at 7:25 am in Books, Economics, Philosophy | Permalink

Dan Ariely and co-authors have an interesting new paper looking at moral behavior, specifially cheating, in people who grew up in either East or West Germany.

From 1961 to 1989, the Berlin Wall divided one nation into two distinct political regimes. We
exploited this natural experiment to investigate whether the socio-political context impacts
individual honesty. Using an abstract die-rolling task, we found evidence that East Germans
who were exposed to socialism cheat more than West Germans who were exposed to
capitalism. We also found that cheating was more likely to occur under circumstances of
plausible deniability.

…If socialism indeed promotes individual dishonesty, the specific features of this socio-political
system that lead to this outcome remain to be determined. The East German socialist regime
differed from the West German capitalist regime in several important ways. First, the system
did not reward work based to merit, and made it difficult to accumulate wealth or pass
anything on to one’s family. This may have resulted in a lack of meaning leading to
demoralization (Ariely et al., 2008), and perhaps less concern for upholding standards of
honesty. Furthermore, while the government claimed to exist in service of the people, it failed
to provide functional public systems or economic security. Observing this moral hypocrisy in government may have eroded the value citizens placed on honesty. Finally, and perhaps most
straightforwardly, the political and economic system pressured people to work around official
laws and cheat to game the system. Over time, individuals may come to normalize these types
of behaviors. Given these distinct possible influences, further research will be needed to
understand which aspects of socialism have the strongest or most lasting impacts on morality.

It’s interesting that Ariely et al. try to explain cheating as a result of socialism. My own approach would look more to the virtue ethics of capitalism and Montesquieu who famously noted that

Commerce is a cure for the most destructive prejudices; for it is almost a general rule, that wherever we find agreeable manners, there commerce flourishes; and that wherever there is commerce, there we meet with agreeable manners.

See Al-Ubaydli et al. for a market priming experiment and especially McCloskey on The Bourgeoise Virtues for more work consistent with this theme.

Will Amazon copy Netflix?

by on July 17, 2014 at 12:07 am in Books, Economics, Film | Permalink

According to Gigaom, the e-commerce giant [Amazon] is working on a subscription ebook service called Kindle Unlimited, which would offer unlimited ebook rentals for $9.99 a month.

There is more here.  According to one estimate it would be for 638k titles or so, of course it will matter a great deal which ones.  I would consider this “developing,” but also “not yet confirmed.”

Addendum: Virginia Postrel offers a good analysis.

*The Falling Sky*

by on July 15, 2014 at 2:06 am in Books, Education, Medicine, Philosophy | Permalink

The subtitle is Words of a Yanomami Shaman, and the shaman is Davi Kopenawa from the Amazon, with transcription and assistance from French anthropologist Bruce Albert.  Imagine 487 pp. of a highly intelligent, articulate shaman telling you what he thinks, and perhaps more importantly telling you what he thinks about.  Here is one bit:

As children, we gradually start to think straight.  We realize that the xapiri [spirits] really exist and that the elders’ words are true.  Little by little, we understand that the shamans do not behave as ghosts without a reason.  Our thought fixes itself on the spirits’ words, and then we really want to see them.  We take hold of the idea that later we will be able to ask the elders to blow the yakoana into our nostrils and give us the xapiri’s songs.  This is how it happened for me a long time ago.  The spirits often came to visit me in dreams.  This is how they started to know me well.

For those who are willing to swerve in the direction of the mystical, I recommend this strongly, read the Amazon reviews at the first link above.  Here is a brief excerpt from one: “This is an astonishing book, a gripping story, and a poetic revelation of an entirely different world view than our own. Every single page sparkles with provocative meditations on the impact that industrial societies have on the environment and the role of Yanomami shamans in protecting it for the sake of all humanity.”  You won’t find cost-benefit analysis here.  Here are some selections from the book.  Here is one blog review from LSE.  Google is not turning up too many other reviews, but this came out in late 2013 and it is a truly significant work deserving of further attention and it is rather dramatically under-reviewed.

Arrived in my (classical liberal) pile

by on July 14, 2014 at 2:45 pm in Books | Permalink

1. Jason Brennan, Why Not Capitalism?

2. Steffan Hentrich und Sascha Tamm, editors, Regeln für eine freie Gesellschaft: Ein James-Buchanan Brevier.

3. Jason Brennan and Lisa Hill, Compulsory Voting: For and Against.  I like Jason’s chapter entitled “Should We Force the Drunk to Drive?”

4. Jason L. Riley, Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed.

The editors are Dow James and Glen Whitman and the subtitle is Zombies, Vampires, and the Dismal Science.  Authors include Steven Horwitz, Sarah Skwire, Ilya Somin, and also Hollis Robbins, “Killing Time, Dracula and Social Coordination”, among others.

1. From 1964: “Eleven-year-old Harriet M. Welsch is obnoxious. She dresses like a boy, throws temper tantrums, swears at her parents and thinks terribly unkind thoughts. She refuses to eat anything but tomato sandwiches for lunch. She even invents her own middle initial.”

2. She also keeps a notebook, spies on everyone, and writes down the truth about them.  Her notebook is made public and she is disgraced, until making a comeback as the elected editor of the school newspaper (though see below).  At the end she learns that some lying is necessary.

3. One message of this book is that writers, and journalists in particular, are neurotics.  And liars.  A more core message is that heroines are allowed to be nasty and tell the truth.  Harriet throws a pencil in the face of Beth Ellen.  Compare this with the goody two-shoes Nancy Drew.

3b. “Harriet…Are you still writing down mean things about people?” “No. I am writing my memoirs.”  When I first read this book at age ten or so, I didn’t get the jokes.  Note also the phallic wurst joke on p.105.  Food/sex references run throughout, and there is a running contrast between Harriet’s duty to be an onion (hard, gets cut down the middle) with her desire to instead do nothing but munch on tomato sandwiches.

4. The opening of the book makes Harriet sound like an macroeconomist: “Harriet was trying to explain to Sport how to play Town.  “See, first you make up the name of the town.  Then you write down the names of all the people who live in it.  You can’t have too many or it gets too hard.””

5. Harriet the infovore announces her intention to know “everything in the world, everything, everything.”

6. On p.278 author Fitzhugh indicates to us that she is not herself telling us the entire truth about growing up.  It is yet more brutal than this book is allowed to let on.  After that page, everything which happens in the text is a lie, designed to make the casual reader feel better and to sell more copies.  Harriet is not in fact voted editor of the school newspaper and not allowed to publish her critical rants to general acclaim with only a few retractions.  This is a Straussian text and it makes fun of the reader’s willingness to believe in happy endings.  The opening “make believe” scene mirrors these later deceptions.

7. This short essay compares Harriet to To Kill a Mockingbird.  Other commentators stress that Louise Fitzhugh, the author, was a lesbian and perhaps Harriet is a budding lesbian too (she dresses like a boy and has a tomboyish haircut).  I view Sport’s father, who is obsessed with getting a $$ advance for his book, as the stand-in character for Fitzhugh (start at p.260 and see also p.52 on the obsession with writing and money).  Luxury is portrayed as corrupting and leading to indolence, so becoming a successful writer is a self-destructive process, noting that Fitzhugh herself stagnated after this hugely successful book.

8. In this book parents are typically indifferent, brutally indifferent I would say, toward their children.

9. In the movie version “…Harriet competes against Marion Hawthorne to see who has a better blog.”

10. This is a deep work, rich in jokes, and more than worthy of its iconic status.  I am very glad to have reread it.

Here is my previous post on Catcher in the Rye.

Arrived in my Twitter feed

by on July 9, 2014 at 12:25 pm in Books, Philosophy | Permalink

Notice of:

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness

By Russ Roberts, now available for pre-order.

In March 1917, the EEF [Egyptian Expeditionary Force, from Great Britain] launched offensive operations in southern Palestine.

That is from the new and noteworthy book by Kristian Coates Unrichsen, The First World War in the Middle East.  I wouldn’t say it is a fun book, but it is clear, well-written, and very good background reading on a number of today’s crises.

You can get a good sense of this by seeing the distribution of “most marked” Kindle passages within the book itself.  For the winner, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, “all five top highlights come from the final 20 pages.”  That suggests many readers actually finished the book (as did I, though I found it forgettable).  So that wins the prize as the most read bestseller this year, although it does not seem every single bestseller was sampled.  Not so well read are Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and coming in last (first?) overall is a book which has been covered rather frequently on MR as of late, can you guess the name?, 700 pp. or so and “the last of the top five popular highlights appears on page 26.”

The full article, by Jordan Ellenberg, is here.

Fracking Australia

by on July 3, 2014 at 11:33 am in Books, Economics | Permalink

As growth in China slows and Australia’s mining boom ends, Australians are asking, Can our luck last? Australia’s Lowy Institute asked me to discuss John Edward’s new monograph Beyond the Boom. My comments and those of a number of experts can be found here. Here is one bit of interest at both antipodes:

As Jon Stewart memorably illustrated, every US president since Nixon has called for freeing the US from ‘dependence on foreign oil’ (within ten years!). Every president has failed. Fracking, however, has delivered the goods. Fracking has reduced the price of energy while generating millions of jobs and reducing net emissions of greenhouse gases. The fracking revolution has only just begun in Australia. Australia has abundant supplies of natural gas and if it creates a national market and avoids parochial calls for price controls and environmental NIMBYism it will certainly become the world’s largest exporter. While profiting from natural gas production and infrastructure investment, Australia will also help the world to move closer to greenhouse gas targets.

1. Back then, if you didn’t use your prostitute and then tried to underpay her, she would call you a “crumb-bum.”

2. It really does have passages like: “”Most guys at Pencey just talked about having sexual intercourse with girls all the time — like Ackley, for instance — but old Stradlater really did it.  I was personally acquainted with at least two girls he gave the time to.  That’s the truth.”  And the “crumby,” squirting water passage on p.70 sounds really bad but in fact ties into what the novel is really about, which I say is impotence and also post-traumatic stress disorder.  Read p.156 with this in mind.

2. Here is the original Robert Burns poem connected to the book’s title, mostly about sex, unlike its use in the novel, which I take to mean saving young men from the grim reaper (p.191) in a manner reminiscent of a Winslow Homer painting.  So the book is saying America is not yet ready to fuck, not really, not in 1951, Fed-Treasury Accord or not.  And in the final section of the book “fuck you” is the phrase which Holden is determined to wipe out.

3. Salinger took part in the D-Day invasion with part of the manuscript in his backpack.  Salinger also fought in some of the toughest battles of WWII and later in his life sought extreme withdrawal.  Here is more about Salinger at war.  It all supports the notion of WWII as the major event in his life and one which he never got over.  It is no accident that the deceased younger brother is named Allie.

4. Back then, they still called it Atlantic Monthly.  pp.134-135 reflect the earlier fascination with dioramas in museums.

5. There is a corniness to how people thought and spoke back then which the book captures remarkably well.

6. Here is a recent re-read of the book which picks up on a lot of its funny slang.  Here is a recent polemic against the book.

7. The Amazon site for the book is here.  Here is the Wikipedia page, the book still sells about 250,000 copies a year.  Steven Spielberg once bid for the movie rights.

I expected not to like the re-read, but overall I thought it was pretty damn good and almost universally misunderstood.

Next up: John Knowles’s A Separate Peace. and maybe also Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy.

What I’ve been reading

by on July 1, 2014 at 1:11 pm in Books | Permalink

1. Tom Doyle, Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s.  This book actually has some fresh material, plus you realize that John and Paul were even more obsessed with each other than we used to think.

2. Francisco Goldman, The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle.  Further evidence that politics is often the enemy of really good books, nonetheless this is still a moderately interesting treatment.

3. Elizabeth Pisani, Indonesia, Inc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation.  Lots of emphasis on the islands.  Pretty good, not great.

4. Hans Ulrich Obrist, ?Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Curating*?, a successful Swiss attempt at being clever and punchy.

5. Carl Wilson, editor, Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste.  Most of this volume concerns Céline Dion, or is that Celine Dion?  Fascinating in parts, the subtitle should have been the title.

As part of an agreement with Bryan Caplan, I’ve also started an attempted reread of Catcher in the Rye, and hope to report back to you on that one…