Category: History

The rise and fall of empires

The last two centuries witnessed the rise and fall of empires. We construct a model which rationalises this in terms of the changing trade gains from empires. In the model, empires are arrangements that reduce trade cost between an industrial metropole and the agricultural periphery. During early industrialisation, the value of such bilateral trade increases, and so does the value of empires. As industrialisation diffuses, and as manufactures become more differentiated, trade becomes more multilateral and intra-industry, reducing the value of empires. Our results are consistent with long-term changes in income distribution and trade patterns, and with previous historical arguments.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Roberto Bonfatti and Kerem Coşar.

My Conversation with Leopoldo López

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the CWT summary:

As an inquisitive reader, books were a cherished commodity for Leopoldo López when he was a political prisoner in his home country of Venezuela. His prison guards eventually observed the strength and focus López gained from reading. In an attempt to stifle his spirit, the guards confiscated his books and locked them in a neighboring cell where he could see but not access them. But López didn’t let this stop him from writing or discourage his resolve to fight for freedom. A Venezuelan opposition leader and freedom activist, today López works to research and resist oppressive autocratic regimes globally.

López joined Tyler to discuss Venezuela’s recent political and economic history, the effectiveness of sanctions, his experiences in politics and activism, how happiness is about finding purpose, how he organized a protest from prison, the ideal daily routine of a political prisoner, how extreme sports prepared him for prison, his work to improve the lives of the Venezuelan people, and more.

And one excerpt:

COWEN: In 1970, you were richer than Spain, Greece, or Israel, which I find remarkable. But do you, today, ever look, say, at Qatar or United Arab Emirates, Dubai, and think the problem actually was democracy, and that here are oil-rich places that have stayed stable, in fact, but through autocratic rule, and that it’s the intermediate situation that doesn’t work?

LÓPEZ: Well, I think that I, personally, will always be in favor of a democratic regime, a democratic system that promotes a rule of law, the respect for human rights, the respect of freedoms. I think that’s a priority. For me it is, and I believe it’s a priority also for the large, large majority of the Venezuelan people that want to live in a democracy.

However, there has been great mismanagement due to misconceptions of the economy, to a state-led economy that did not open possibilities for a private sector to flourish independently of the state, but also with the level of corruption that we have seen, particularly over the past 22 years — it’s what has led Venezuela to the situation in which we are.

In Venezuela, you could argue that we did much, much better economically, and in terms of all of the social and economic standards, than what happened during these last 20 years of autocracy. This autocracy had the largest windfall and the largest humanitarian crisis.

During the democratic period of 40 years, Venezuela became one of the most literate countries in Latin America, with the largest amount of professionals being graduated every year, with the best in social, health, and education standards, vaccination rates, housing programs that were in Latin America. So, we did perform much better under the democratic period than has been the performance by any means in the autocratic regimes of the last 22 years.

Interesting throughout.

The human capital deficit in leadership these days

It is very real, just look around the world.  Even Mario Draghi is on the way out.  Here is one take from Adrian Wooldridge at Bloomberg:

Leadership is most vital during a period of transition from one order to another. We are certainly in such a period now — not only from the neoliberal order to something much darker but also to a new era of smart machines — yet so far leadership is lacking. We call for leaders who are equal to the times, but nobody answers.

Kissinger offers two explanations for this troubling silence. The first lies in the evolution of meritocracy. (Full disclosure: He mentions a book I have written on this subject). The six leaders were all born outside the pale of the aristocratic elite that had hitherto dominated politics, and particularly foreign policy: Adenauer and Sadat were the sons of clerks, Thatcher and Nixon were the children of storekeepers, Lee’s parents were downwardly mobile. But theirs was a meritocracy with an aristocratic flavor. They went to elite schools and universities that provided an education in human excellence rather than just passing tests. In rubbing shoulders with members of the old elite, they absorbed some of its ethic of noblesse oblige (“For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required”) as well as its distaste for populism. Hence Lee’s recurring references to “Junzi” (Confucian gentlemen) and de Gaulle’s striving to become a “man of character.” They believed in history, tradition and, in most cases, God.

The world has become much more meritocratic since Kissinger’s six made their careers, not least when it comes to women and ethnic minorities. But the dilution of the aristocratic element in the mix may also have removed some of the grit that produced the pearl of leadership: Schools have given up providing an education in human excellence — the very idea would be triggering! — and ambitious young people speak less of obligation than of self-expression or personal advancement. The bonds of character and duty that once bound leaders to their people are dissolving.

There are further arguments — much more in fact — at the link.  And here is an ngram on “leadership.”

Is being bombed bad for your mental health?

We find that cohorts younger than age five at the onset of WWII or those born during the war are in significantly worse mental health later in life when they are between ages late 50s and 70s. Specifically, an increase of one-standard deviation in the bombing intensity experienced during WWII is associated with about a 10 percent decline in an individual’s long–term standardized mental health score. This effect is equivalent to a 16.8 percent increase in the likelihood of being diagnosed with clinical depression. Our analysis also reveals that this impact is most pronounced among the youngest children including those who might have been in-utero at some point during the war.

Here is more from Mevlude Akbulut-Yuksel, Erdal Tekin, and Belgi Turan.

What should I ask Walter Russell Mead?

He is a leading foreign policy expert, and I will be doing a Conversation with him.   Here is from Wikipedia:

Walter Russell Mead (born June 12, 1952) is an American academic. He is the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College and taught American foreign policy at Yale University. He was also the editor-at-large of The American Interest magazine. Mead is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, a scholar at the Hudson Institute, and a book reviewer for Foreign Affairs, the quarterly foreign policy journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations.

His new book is The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People.

So what should I ask him?

How well will Colombia end up doing?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  I am ultimately optimistic, but let me present the case for the negative:

Yet those positives have been in place for a while, and the results are less than earth-shattering. By World Bank estimates, Colombia has a per capita income of slightly more than $16,000, using purchasing power parity standards. For purposes of comparison, Mexico comes in at slightly over $20,000. Argentina is considered to have been an economic failure since the Peronist years, but still has a per capita income exceeding $22,000.

Also troubling is the country’s export profile. After fossil fuels, which have a limited future, the country’s leading exports are coffee, gems and precious metals. None of these is large enough or sophisticated enough or training enough quality labor to push the nation over the top. When it comes to complex manufacturing, the country is lagging well behind Mexico and Brazil, much less South Korea.

A pessimistic view of Colombia would cite the country’s very different geographic regions that have never seen full economic or even political unification. The lack of a fully developed nation-state has been reflected in the country’s ongoing troubles with guerrillas and drug lords. The major urban centers of Bogotá and Medellín are both deep in the interior, surrounded by mountains, and unable to take advantage of major navigable rivers. There is no world-class port or harbor, and except for its connection to the US, the country is inward-looking and has attracted relatively few immigrants, recent Venezuelan refugees aside. The Amazon cuts off Colombia from much of the rest of South America. De facto Colombia has no richer neighbor to pull it up by its bootstraps, Panama being much too small and most of Brazil being too distant. Colombia’s problems also include a recent uptick in troubles with former guerrillas.

I look forward to my next visit to the country…

Sell Drone Space Like Spectrum!

Photo Credit: MaxPixel

Drone airspace resembles spectrum in the 1980s, an appreciating asset that could be bought, subleased, traded, and borrowed against – if it were only permitted.

Much like legacy spectrum policy, there is immense technocratic inertia towards rationing airspace use to a few lucky drone companies. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has begun drafting long-distance drone rules for services like home delivery, business-to-business delivery, and surveying. In the next decade, drone services companies will deploy mass-market parcel delivery and medical deliveries in urban and suburban areas to make deliveries and logistics faster, cheaper, and greener.

…Federal officials recognize that the current centralized system of air traffic management won’t work for drones: at peak times today, US air traffic controllers actively manage only about 5,400 en route aircraft.

Red flags abound, however. FAA’s current plans for drone traffic management, while vague and preliminary, are clear about what happens once local congestion occurs: the agency will step in to ration airspace and routes how it sees fit. Further, the agency says it will closely oversee the development of airspace management technologies. This is a recipe for technology lock-in and intractable regulatory battles.

US aviation history offers the alarming precedent of expert planning for a new industry. In 1930 President Hoover’s Postmaster General, who regulated airmail routes, and a handpicked group of business executives teamed up to “rationalize” the nascent airline marketplace. In private meetings, they eliminated the established practice of competitive bidding for air routes, divided routes amongst themselves, and reduced the number of startup airlines from around forty to three.

“Universal” and “interoperable” air traffic management are popular concepts in the drone industry, but these principles have destroyed innovation and efficiency in traditional airspace management. The costly US air traffic management system still relies on voice communications and manual writing and passing of paper slips. Large, legacy users and vendors dominate upgrade efforts, and “update by consensus” means the injection of innumerable veto points. Drone traffic management will be “clean sheet,” but interoperable systems are incredibly difficult to build and, once built, to upgrade with new technology and processes. More than 16,000 FAA employees worked on the over-budget, pared-down, years-delayed air traffic management upgrades for traditional aviation.

…To avoid anticompetitive “route-squatting” and sclerotic bureaucratic control of a new industry, aviation regulators should announce a national policy of “airspace markets” – government sales of high-demand drone routes, resembling present-day government spectrum auctions.

Brent Skorup has the details, from a prize winning paper at CSPI.

Adam Smith and Colombia

I gave a keynote address in Bogotá to the International Adam Smith Society, here is my talk.  Why is Adam Smith still relevant to Colombia of all places?  It’s not just the market economics, rather my remarks focused on Book V (the best and most interesting part of WoN!) and Smith’s take on standing armies and why they are conducive to liberty.

Geographic mobility is one secret of successful immigration

According to Boustan and Abramitzky, the secret weapon deployed by immigrant parents wasn’t education. It wasn’t a demanding parenting style like the one described in Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” either.

It was geographic mobility.

Immigrant kids tended to outperform their peers from similar economic backgrounds because, unencumbered by deep hometown roots, their parents were willing to move to where the jobs were. If you compare immigrants to similar native kids born in the same place, they succeed at similar rates. It’s just that immigrant kids are much more likely to have grown up in one of those high-opportunity places.

“Immigrants are living in locations that provide upward mobility for everyone,” Boustan said.

Here is the full article, which also argues that recent immigrants have been climbing the economic ladder no slower than in the days of Ellis Island.  By Andrew Van Dam, based on the work of Leah Boustan and Ran Abramitzky.

*The World the Plague Made*

The author is James Belich, and the subtitle is The Black Death and the Rise of Europe.  This is a fascinating but not entirely persuasive book.  In any case it is one of the books to read this year.  Here is a summary sentence:

This book has argued that plague’s dire crucible triggered the Fourth Divergence.

My main worry is simple, namely that the author does not demonstrate his main proposition that the Black Death significantly boosted living standards where it hit.  That might be true, and I would say I don’t have a view of my own view on the matter one way or the other.  (Here is a recent and very useful survey indicating the positive effects were mostly short-run.)  But I would need to see a more careful presentation of wage data, and the author too frequently invokes a) massive literature citations, and b) a pat “half the people, so twice the per capita wealth” argument.  Losing up to half the people is highly disruptive, including for the ability to exploit material resources.  And is it per capita wealth that matters, or income?  Matters for what and for which income classes?  I needed to see much more on this.

Anyway, if you buy into the main premise (or even if you don’t) what follows is interesting throughout.  Belich takes on exactly when and why various plagues stopped circulating, and whether insufficiency of rats was a major reason.  Here is one interesting passage:

The rise of rat resistance — and the decline of it — seems like to have played a major role in the decline of plague — and the exceptions to it — throughout West Eurasia.  But as we saw in the last chapter, plague history increasingly diverged regionally from 1500.  Epidemics ended in Western Europe by 1720 and Eastern Europe by 1780.  Major strikes continued to afflict the Muslim South until about 1840.  the end of plague is conventionally attributed to human agency, notably the growing power of states to run effective quarantine measures, public health regulations, and border controls.  Other factors include a shift from wood to brick and tile, which was less rat-friendly , and to cheaper arsenic in the 1720s, which was not rat-friendly at all.  The decline of wooden houses and thatched roofs, ideal black rat environments, and their replacement by brick and tile varied by class, which may account for the trend toward higher casualties among common folk after 1500.

Belich then sheds some doubt on the public health measures argument, noting that Italy had bad plague outcomes in the 17th century, even though it had the best public health measures at the time.  No simple answer, but plenty of interesting discussion.

Another of my favorite sections of the book covered the difficulties at the time in persuading women to emigrate, and how that shaped colonial policies.  You also get the author’s take on the Persianate nature of the Mughal invasions, a lengthy account of how the plague shaped the settlement of Siberia, an optimistic take on the capabilities of peak Ottoman empire, how the fiscal state was Britain’s main innovation, how Britain manned its sea fleets from the Nordic countries, and much more.  You might say this is all too much, but who am I to complain?  I did find every page of the book substantive and interesting, even if I often felt the author was biting off more than he could chew.

So definitely recommended, though with caveats on the side of some of the actual conclusions.

Here are my previous posts on the work of James Belich.  In general he is someone whose books I always will read.

The Destruction of the Georgia Guidestones and the Bamiyan Buddhas

I am saddened and disturbed by the destruction of the Georgia Guidestones. The Guidestones, “America’s stonehenge,” were a set of six large, granite slabs, erected in 1980 and paid for by a mysterious group of unknown benefactors. The slabs were arranged precisely for astronomical reasons and contain inscriptions in multiple languages. On July 6, 2022 the Guidestones were blown up and then, what remained, was completely destroyed for apparent safety reasons.

The Guidestones were not a significant marker of cultural heritage, unlike the 1400 year old massive Buddhas of Bamiyan which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Nevertheless, it is hard not to see the parallels between the destruction of the Guidestones and the Bamiyan Buddhas. Earlier this year Kandiss Taylor, a minor candidate for the 2022 Republican nomination for Governor of Georgia, made the destruction of the Guidestones one of her campaign pledges, claiming they were a Satanic evil. Thus, the destruction of the Guidestones was likely motivated by fears and hatred similar to those that motivated the destruction of the Buddhas. At the very least, an interesting art work, created at considerably expense by a group of public benefactors, was maliciously destroyed.

The Guidestones were meant to last for a thousand years and to offer guidance to humanity after a castrophe such as a nuclear war. The Guidestones lasted 42 years. It doesn’t bode well.

Georgia Guidestones in Elbert County, GA.jpg
The Georgia Guidestones, Quentin Melson, Wikipedia.

What exactly is the problem these days?

In my latest Bloomberg column I tried to express the “model” in as few dimensions as possible.  Here is an excerpt:

I am increasingly worried that human success and failure are ruled by taste — the demand side, in economic terms. If there are fewer beautiful and charming residential post-World War II neighborhoods, it is because most people do not want to live in them. If there are fewer movies today with the dramatic impact and compositional rigor of “Citizen Kane,” it is because people do not very much want to see them. It is not that it is too difficult or expensive to make another “Citizen Kane.”

Again, this is not an argument for pessimism. Hollywood movies may be worse, but television programs are much better. Neighborhoods may look less interesting, but the insides of homes are more comfortable. For every potential lost Baroque concerto, there are gains in other areas of life.

Still, it is striking how much the quality of taste can decline — and stay there for long periods.

Social contagion plays a significant role in this process. That is, when some people become interested in a particular genre, many others may follow: Think of the rise of Beatlemania. The process also works the other way: Think of the decline of disco.

The question is why some particular tastes decline, and others rise. There are probably deep structural explanations, but for the most part those reasons are not transparent to our understanding. For all practical purposes, many shifts in cultural tastes are random.

It’s also important to realize that a lot of politics is about aesthetic tastes for a particular set of values, a particular set of people, a particular set of processes and outcomes. There was a series of democratic revolutions starting in the late 18th century, just as there were numerous fascist revolutions starting in the early 20th century and neoliberal revolutions in the 1990s. Social contagion can help explain those as well.

My fear, quite simply, is that we have entered an age in which the popular taste for good political outcomes, and fair political processes, is much weaker than it used to be. You might think that people would always want at least decent political outcomes, but that hypothesis has gotten increasingly hard to defend in the last 10 years, both in the US and globally. Attachment to democracy, for instance, seems significantly weaker, as does love for capitalism. People’s tastes are being pulled in different directions, whether it be the Proud Boys or the extremely woke.

All of which is to say, a rather simple and unglorified possibility is becoming more likely: People have stopped wanting good things to happen.

I realize this explanation is banal and does not hold much emotional appeal. Many people prefer conspiracy theories, or tightly structured theoretical hypotheses, or to pin the blame on some particular political faction, usually one they oppose. Or they focus on some very specific issue, such as climate change.

I view all of those problems, real though they may be, as downstream from the more fundamental issue: Why haven’t our systems of government responded better to whatever particular dilemmas concern us most?

Happy 4th!

Scottish Enlightenment vs. Irish Enlightenment

The Scottish Enlightenment seems like a real enlightenment to most observers, the 18th century Irish Enlightenment (Swift, Berkeley, Burke, toss in James Barry too) does not.  In my admittedly unorthodox view, I think the Irish Enlightenment simply had different concerns but was no less of an enlightenment.  Much of the Scottish Enlightenment was concerned with the following:

1. Increasing market size and division of labor

2. Martial virtue and security against foreign enemies

3. Sympathy

That all makes broad sense when you realize that Britain was indeed building the world’s largest economic market, and furthermore had to worry about its enemies on the Continent.  Regular social interactions were becoming normal enough that one could ask basic questions about sympathy, and assume that some degree of sympathy was present.

None of those conditions held true for Ireland.  Market size was small, and external market relations typically were controlled by the British.  As for military issues, Britain could dominate you in any case, so martial virtue was of secondary import, at least until later civil wars.  And sympathy was not to be assumed at all, for reasons of religious, political, and class prejudice.

My “standing on one foot” version of the Irish Enlightenment would be a concern with:

1. Is toleration at all possible?  Toleration needed before sympathy!

2. Can we expect there to be progress at all?  James Barry argues for the universality of progress, but Swift doubts whether moral progress is likely.  Burke wishes to take progress in baby steps.  Berkeley is skeptical altogether.  If you are ruled by the Brits, the richest society to date, but they are still bastards to you, maybe you will be more skeptical about moral progress.

3. A sense of terror from difference, as mirrored both in Burke’s aesthetics of the sublime and the voyages in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.  Everyone is running around deeply afraid of “the other,” and this concern surfaces also in Burke’s fears for the French aristocrats.  The enthusiasms of the French revolutionaries reminded Burke all too much of the earlier Irish civil wars and rebellions and massacres, even though in both cases he knew the privileges of the nobles were not deserved.  Swift is consistently asking whether one culture can understand the other at all.

I view the two Enlightenments as embodying different kinds of skepticism.  The Scots, such as Hume and Smith, hold a deep epistemic skepticism, which led them to recipes for decentralization and mechanism design.  The Irish had a more practical skepticism, doubting whether moral progress in human beings was all that likely.

The Irish and Scottish Enlightenments perhaps clashed most directly when Burke took issue with David Hume’s accounts of the Catholic 1641 “massacres” in Ireland, arguing that a more nuanced understanding of Irish history was needed.  Burke considered writing his own history of Ireland.

Burke, like Swift, understood the point of view of “the settled” fairly well, arguably better than the Scots did:

Beyond Irish affairs, Burke also began the impeachment of Warren Hastings over his actions as governor-general of India. The fourteen-year impeachment clearly displayed his obsessive nature, but it also finds him arguing against the imposition of British laws and manners on India. Instead, he defends the native civilisations, their institutions and religious beliefs.

Bishop Berkeley is a more complicated fit in this story, and might require a blog post of his own.  But think of him as telling everyone that everything they think they know is wrong, and they actually exist in a simulation in the mind of God.  A prospect to strike terror into the hearts of many!  Even the supposed truths of mathematics and the calculus melt away on close examination.  As for politics, Berkeley worried a great deal about corruption and factions, and he favored extensive government interventions, both social and economic, to make life stable again and human beings virtuous.  He feared that perhaps progress was not possible, as growing wealth would lead to luxurious and corrupted tastes.

Overall, the Irish Enlightenment wasn’t nearly as optimistic as its Scottish counterpart.  But it was far more mindful of the perspective of the victim, presaging more modern developments.  And later in the 19th century, the Irish Enlightenment turned its attention to themes of depopulation and excessively high land rents, both extremely relevant to current times as well…

The Irish Enlightenment is, dare I say, underrated?

My Conversation with Barkha Dutt

Here is the link, and here is part of the CWT summary:

Barkha joined Tyler to discuss how Westerners can gain a more complete picture of India, the misogyny still embedded in Indian society, why family law should be agnostic of religious belief, the causes of declining fertility in India, why relations between Hindus and Muslims seem to be worsening, how caste has persisted so strongly in India, the success of India’s subsidized institutes of higher education, the best city for Indian food, the power of Amar Chitra Katha’s comics, the influence of her English liberal arts education, the future of Anglo-American liberalism in India, the best ways to use Twitter, and more.

And from the conversation:

COWEN: Many outsiders have the impression that relations between Hindus and Muslims and the aggregate in India have become worse over the last 10 to 15 years. If you put aside particular actions of particular political personalities, and you try to think of a structural reason why that might be true — because normally the intuition is, people grow richer, they’re more tolerant, there’s more commercial interaction, there’s more intermingling — what would be your structural account of why, in some ways, that problem has become worse?

DUTT: You just spoke of intermingling, Tyler. I think that one of the biggest reasons for the worsening relations, or the othering, as it were, of communities that are not your own is the ghettoization of how people live. For example, if there were neighborhoods where people live cheek by jowl — that still happens, of course, in many cities, but it also happens less than it used to, and that is true. We are seeing a Muslim quarter, to give an example, or a Christian quarter in a way that we wouldn’t have before our cities were so ghettoized.

I think that kind of intermingling, of living in the same housing societies or neighborhoods, participating in each other’s festivals as opposed to just tolerating them — those are the structural changes or shifts that we are witnessing. It’s also true that it is tougher for a person from a religious minority — in particular, an Indian Muslim — to get a house as easily as a non-Muslim. I think I would be lying if I did not acknowledge that. Also, the last point is interfaith marriages or interfaith love. This is a deeply politicized issue as well.

While I’m talking to you, in the last 24 hours in the Southern city of Hyderabad, one of our big technology hubs, we’ve had reports of a Muslim family that attacked a Hindu man for marrying a Muslim woman. In reverse, we see Muslim women also targeted all the time if they choose to marry Hindus. This is not helped by the fact that you’ve had several states now talking about what they call love jihad. That’s the phrase they use for marriages that are across religious communities, in particular between Hindus and Muslims.

The percentage of Indians marrying not just outside their religion but also outside their caste — which in Hinduism is a hierarchical system of traditional occupation that you’re born into — is woefully low. I don’t know if I remember my data correctly, but I think less than 5 percent of Indians actually marry outside of their own communities. I would need to go back to that number and check it, but that’s what I remember off the top of my head.

Those are the structural reasons: the fact that people don’t love or have relationships outside of their community, don’t live enough with people of diverse faiths, and don’t participate in each other’s lives.

We used to have this politically correct phrase called tolerance, which I actually just hate, and I keep nudging people towards the Indian military. The Indian military actually has a system of the commanding officer taking on the faith of his troops during religious prayers. The military has multireligious places of worship. It even has something called an MMG, which is not just a medium machine gun but a Mandir Masjid Gurdwara, which is all the different faiths praying together at the same place. We don’t see a lot of that kind of thing happening outside of the military.

Another survey done by Pew reinforced this when it spoke of Indians today being more like a thali than khichri. Let me just explain that. A thali is a silver tray where you get little balls of different food items. Pew found that Hindus and Muslims — when surveyed, both spoke of the need for religious diversity as being a cornerstone of India. They like the idea of India as a thali, where there were different little food items, but separate food items. The khichri is rice and lentils all mixed up and eaten with pickle. The khichri is that intermingling, the untidy overlapping.

We are just seeing less and less of that overlapping. In my opinion, that is tragic. Where there is social interdependence, where there is economic interdependence, where there is personal interdependence is when relationships thrive and flourish and get better. But when they remain ghettos, separations just tolerating each other — that, I think, remains in the realm of othering.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

Rent seeking and the decline of the Florentine school

Economists have claimed that the invisible hand of competition is behind the historical episodes of outstanding artistic achievement, from Shakespearean theater to musical composition in Mozart’s Vienna. Competition, the argument goes, acts on producers of the arts just as it does on producers of mundane commodities. By pitting one artist against all others for the public’s purse and the critics’ praise, rivalry encourages them to supply more refined products. While often left unstated, the same argument implies that the absence of competition will be detrimental to the quality of artists’ output. We extend that insight to explain the decline of the Florentine school of painting in the Late Renaissance period. The rise of the Medici family as Florence’s ruling dynasty turned the previously competitive market for paintings into a monopsony. That development, we argue, strengthened the benefits to local painters of forming a cartel to reclaim the rents captured by the monopsonist. The result was the creation of a local painters’ guild that restricted competition, ultimately contributing to a decline in the quality and influence of Florentine painting.

That is from a new piece by Ennio E. Piano and Tanner Hardy in Public Choice.  Speculative, as they say, and declines in artistic quality are notoriously difficult to predict or to squish into standard models.  That said, the earlier model of competitive guild bidding for artists was, I think, better for quality than Medici patronage.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.