Category: Political Science

Hong Kong in the broader history of liberty

That is my other Bloomberg column for this week, here is one excerpt:

Still, actual life in Hong Kong seemed to be pretty free, especially compared to the available alternatives, which included the totalitarian state that was Mao’s China. Yet as the British lease on Hong Kong approached expiration, an even deeper problem with a non-democratic Hong Kong became evident: Because there was no legitimate alternative sovereign to protest, the British simply handed the territory over to China. (Compare Hong Kong’s experience to that of Taiwan, which did evolve into a free democratic state and remains independent.) Hong Kong was bartered away like a piece of colonial merchandise. Everyone learned the hard way that democracy really does matter.

Hong Kong still ranks near or at the top of several indices of economic freedom. But that may be a sign these indices have lost touch with the nature of liberty. In Hong Kong, the notion of a credible commitment to the future ceased to have meaning some time ago. Not only is there the specter of Chinese intervention, but there is also a broader understanding that the rules of the game can change at any time, including of course when it comes to extradition procedures. Meanwhile, many Hong Kong residents know their behavior is being monitored and graded, and they know the role of the Chinese government will only grow.

Thus is revealed a deeper lesson still: Freedom is not merely the ability to buy and sell goods at minimum regulation and a low tax rate, variables that are readily picked up by economic freedom indices. Freedom is also about the narratives people live by and the kind of future they imagine for themselves. Both of these are greatly affected by the legitimacy and durability of their political institutions.

The piece also offers a brief discussion of the Bruce Lee movie “Enter the Dragon.”

My trip to Israel

I was very pleased to have been sponsored by the Friedberg Economics Institute, who were wonderful hosts and put together great audiences on my behalf.

Here is my interview with Globes, which they helped to arrange, excerpt:

“We started this trade war with China by shooting in all directions. It would have been much wiser to form our alliances first, and then consider doing something versus China. I believe that the current trade war with China is unavoidable. It would have taken place even without Trump as president. There are too many cases of unfair trading by China, of Chinese companies operating unfairly and even spying, of stealing of US ideas, and preventing US or Western businesses from operating in the country. This dam had to burst sooner or later.

“What is happening now is not good for any country: not for the US, not for China, and also not for Israel, which like many other small countries will be harmed by the trade war. We’re in a situation in which everyone loses.

“The US is pressuring, and will pressure, Israel not to cooperate with China. It has already begun, and it will get worse. You can understand Washington – if you have the Sixth Fleet in Haifa and China controls part of the port, US concern is understandable. On the other hand, China depends on oil from the Middle East. It needs reliable partners in the region in order to ensure its regular supply, and Israel is the only country that meets this criterion. Imagine a future in which China exerts strong pressure on Israel to help it conduct its foreign policy. I think that it will be harder and harder for Israel to cope with Chinese pressure on the one hand and US pressure on the other.”

A variety of other topics are covered at the link.

My Conversation with Russ Roberts

The podcast master himself, here is the audio and transcript, here is the opening summary:

What are the virtues of forgiveness? Are we subject to being manipulated by data? Why do people struggle with prayer? What really motivates us? How has the volunteer army system changed the incentives for war? These are just some of the questions that keep Russ Roberts going as he constantly analyzes the world and revisits his own biases through thirteen years of conversations on EconTalk.

Russ made his way to the Mercatus studio to talk with Tyler about these ideas and more. The pair examines where classical liberalism has gone wrong, if dropping out of college is overrated, and what people are missing from the Bible. Tyler questions Russ on Hayek, behavioral economics, and his favorite EconTalk conversation. Ever the host, Russ also throws in a couple questions to Tyler.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here’s a reader question. “In which areas are you more pro-regulation than the average American?” They mean government regulation.

ROBERTS: Than the average American?

COWEN: Yes.

ROBERTS: I can’t think of any. Can you help me out there, Tyler?

COWEN: Well, I’m not sure I know all of your views.

ROBERTS: What would you guess? Give me some things to think about there. In general, I think government should be smaller and regulations should be smaller.

COWEN: I’ll give you–

ROBERTS: Let me give you a trick answer. Then I’ll let you feed me some.

COWEN: Sure.

ROBERTS: Many people believe that the financial crisis was caused by deregulation. I think that’s a misreading of the evidence. It’s true that some pieces of the financial sector were deregulated, but government intervention in the financial sector was quite significant in advance of the crisis. In particular, the bailouts that we did of past failed financial institutions, I think, encouraged lenders to be more careless with how they lent their money, mainly to other institutions, not so much to people out in the world like you and me.

Deregulation’s a little bit tricky, so I wanted to get that in. I’m not sure how that pertains to the question. It does, probably, in some way. So give me something I should be more regulatory about.

COWEN: Well, one answer —

ROBERTS: Baseball? Baseball, of course. [laughs]

COWEN: I would say animal welfare — government should have a larger role. But also what counts as a tax-exempt institution, I would prefer our government be stricter.

ROBERTS: Well, I’m with you there. Yeah, okay, kind of.

COWEN: Well, that’s more regulation, okay?

ROBERTS: I guess.

COWEN: Kind of.

ROBERTS: Yeah, kind of. It’s different standards.

COWEN: Higher capital requirements for banks.

ROBERTS: I’m okay with that. Yeah, that’s a good one. I’d prefer a laissez-faire world for banks, more or less. If we can’t credibly promise not to bail out banks — if that’s the case, we live in a world where banks get to keep their profits and put their losses on taxpayers — bad world. A more regulated world would be better than the world we live in; not as good as my ideal world, though. But there’s a case where I would be in favor — like you just said — more capital requirements.

You’re on a roll. See what else you can come up with for me.

COWEN: Spending more money for tax enforcement, especially on the wealthy.

ROBERTS: Not the worst thing in the world.

COWEN: You can spend a dollar and bring in several times that, it seems.

ROBERTS: I don’t think rich people cheat on their taxes. Do you? [laughs]

COWEN: “Cheat” is a tricky word, but I think we could spend more money.

ROBERTS: We could probably collect more effectively.

COWEN: And it would more than pay for itself.

ROBERTS: Yeah. That’s probably true.

COWEN: We’re actually big fans of government regulation today.

ROBERTS: Yeah, we’ve really expanded the tent here. [laughs]

Do read or listen to the whole thing.

Why do right-wing authoritarian regimes allow so much citizen exit?

Derek Bonett emails me:

I’ve been considering the differences between left-wing authoritarian regimes and right-wing authoritarian regimes throughout history. One particular difference springs to mind that I do not believe has been explored:

Left-wing authoritarian regimes very frequently restrict emigration. Legal emigration from the U.S.S.R. and the Eastern Bloc was very difficult, same with Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, the DPRK, “Democratic Kampuchea”, Ethiopia under Mengistu, the list goes on.

But, strikingly, it seems to me that with the partial exception of the Third Reich, fascist/ultranationalist/right-wing authoritarian regimes generally do not restrict emigration. In the Third Reich, it seems that even Jews were allowed to emigrate until 1941. Mussolini’s Italy didn’t impose extensive emigration controls either. And, accordingly to my admittedly casual familiarity with these regimes, neither did Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Pinochet’s Chile, nor the more generic authoritarian regimes of Chiang Kai Shek’s Taiwan or Park Chung He’s South Korea.

Does your much more comprehensive reading of history confirm this difference? Has someone already written about this?

Perhaps the more “right-wing” regimes tolerate different sorts of income inequality.  Cuba and the USSR had plenty of inequality, but the main earners, in terms of living standards, are restricted to people within the state apparatus.  That means a lot of the talent will want to leave.  Many fascist regimes, however, are quite willing to cultivate multi-millionaires and then try to co-opt them into supporting the state.  Since you can still earn a lot in the private sector, exit restrictions are less needed.

What would be other hypotheses?

No sweet spot for Singapore in US-China tensions

That is the title of the new and remarkable Bilahari Kausikan Op-Ed in The Straits Times.  I will serve up some bits, and please note this is now the world we live in:

Evoking the Long March [by Xi] is intended to prepare the Chinese people for a prolonged struggle with the US. It was, in effect, a tacit admission of the CCP’s mistakes with the consequent need for a retreat, while holding out the promise of ultimate victory…

The Chinese have long memories. Despite our constant denials, they still consider Singapore a “Chinese country” and may feel entitled to our support and will not quickly forget if we are regarded as insufficiently helpful in their time of need.

Some in the Trump administration also seem inclined to view the issue in racial terms. As the only ethnic Chinese-origin majority sovereign state outside greater China, we may be subject to special scrutiny.

What Singaporeans need to understand better is that, under present circumstances, there may be no sweet spot we can occupy that will keep both the Chinese and the Americans simultaneously happy. There is no silver bullet, and it is a fool’s errand to look for one.

Neither can we just lie low and hope for the best. You may not look for trouble but trouble may come looking for you. And trouble is all the more likely to seek you out if either side thinks you are, or can be, intimidated.

We must have the courage to pursue our own national interests. Sometimes our national interests may lead us to tilt one way, sometimes the other. But it must always be our national interest that guides us and nothing else.

Both the Chinese and Americans may not be too happy with us for pursuing our own interests. But Singapore does not exist to give joy to American or Chinese hearts. So long as neither side is so unhappy that it dismisses us as unredeemable, we can live with their unhappiness and manage it…

Our more complex domestic politics is a complication. I see still faint but distinct signs that some section of our population – how large, I do not know – either for transactional economic reasons, or unthinking ethnic sympathies, or sheer chauvinism, is beginning to look at the current US-China tensions through a racial lens.

As US-China competition heats up, this tendency may be accentuated. This is the greatest danger to Singapore in this new phase of US-China competition. It is still at a nascent stage and must be checked, if necessary by the prophylactic exercise of the coercive powers that are the legitimate monopoly of the state, before external and internal forces act and react with each other in a vicious spiral downwards.

If we hold together, we can manage the external complications. If we do not, and the social compact which is the foundation on which modern Singapore was built is strained or broken, these internal stresses may make the external complications unmanageable.

Since this period of US-China tensions will be prolonged, this is not a challenge that lends itself to definitive solutions. Managing it requires continual vigilance and periodic decisive action. It is our own Long March.

Do read the whole thing, as I said above this is now the world we live in.

Cosmopolitanism vs. nationalism

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  It is hard to excerpt, but here is the closing bit:

The best way for that to happen is to let practical nationalism reign, while at the margin seeking to soften it with moral cosmopolitanism. Both perspectives are valuable, and neither can be allowed to dominate. Each perspective, standing on its own, is intellectually vulnerable, yet the two outlooks together are not quite fully harmonious. It is this dynamic clash, however, that helps to account for the strength of each.

Try explaining all that, and its required background knowledge, in a 280-word tweet. Yet much of the world manages a pretty fruitful balance between moral cosmopolitanism and practical nationalism. There is a wisdom embodied in this lived experience which neither pundits nor philosophers can convey.

A tempered and centrist cosmopolitanism won’t always command the strongest loyalties, nor will practical nationalism always look so pretty. If we can accept that reality, then maybe we can stop throwing stones at each other.

*The New Right: A Journey to the Fringe of American Politics*

That is the new book by Michael Malice, and I have to say it will go down as one of the more important albeit objectionable books of this year.  Imagine an well-informed anthropological treatment of Gamergate, PUA, Ann Coulter, Mike Cernovich, Milo, and all the rest of “that stuff,” both its history and how it fits together.

Just to be clear, this book is not written from the perspective of a journalist trying to make these movements look weird, rather it is written from the perspective of an anarchist trying to make these movements look (relatively) normal.  You might find that approach is not affiliated with the proper mood.  I don’t get the sense that Malice is “one of them,” but his “objectivity” might not be the right kind of objectivity.  I’m not going to try to resolve that meta-issue here, I’ll just say that a “normalizing” treatment of “the New Right” has some descriptive virtues, and you might end up more scared and more concerned than if you read a journalistic expose.  That said, I am not sure the author really grasps the non-niceness of so much of this stuff, or the import of that non-niceness.

Every page of this book is interesting, and so I am going to recommend it.  Here is a Kirkus Review, otherwise MSM doesn’t seem to be touching this one at all.  Here is the Amazon link, 79 reviews and an average of five stars.  The reviews themselves are not entirely reassuring.

I thank an MR reader for the pointer.

The real losers from the U.S.-China trade war

The countries caught in the middle, as I argue in my latest Bloomberg column.  Excerpt:

n this setting, many Pakistani businesspeople work with both China and the U.S. Now President Donald Trump is essentially telling them to choose sides. Will they do business with Huawei or not? Will they work to open up the Chinese economy or not? And so on.

If you’re Pakistan, on the actual matters under consideration, you will side with China. Pakistan is not going to ban Huawei or push China to open its markets to major U.S. tech companies. China will get its way on those issues, and win some very public victories in the Pakistani public arena. Pakistani leaders and businesspeople who sided with the U.S., or expressed strong American loyalties, will feel burned. Their side just lost a very big debate, centered on a conflict that did Pakistan no good in the first place and was at least in the proximate sense started by Trump.

In other words, the U.S. is making it harder for many foreigners to be on its side, even partially. Over time, it is limiting its own soft power in the countries caught between America and China — and soft power is the one area in which America still has (or is it, already, had?) a big advantage over China.

There is much more at the link, including coverage of Singapore and South Korea.

On Left Straussianism

We might therefore say that the left intellectual becomes the left Straussian when they decide that, in addition to sometimes filtering their own public speech to advance an ideological agenda, they’re additionally responsible for “protecting” the public from being exposed to conversations not disciplined by political strategy. To the extent that their own ideas are not already disciplined by such a strategy, they limit discussion of them to close friends and sympathetic colleagues.

And:

In each case, thoughtful criticism of an author’s argument—for being confused, or incomplete—was overshadowed by the left-Straussian assertion that, regardless of whether the argument was true or reasonable, it was “irresponsible” for the author to make it in public.

And:

Those who engage in such tactics would never endorse Strauss’s hard distinction between the elect few and the unthinking many—at least not explicitly. But the care they take to pre-screen intellectual material indicates that they share his dark foreboding about the “costs” of public intellectual conversations reflecting rather than repressing the complexities of private ones. Attempting to marginalize or disqualify intellectual arguments itself implies a gap between the commentator, who trusts themselves to evaluate the arguments in question, and their imagined audience, who is assumed to lack either the tools or the ability to do so unaided. Left Straussians may not believe that they are philosopher-kings but they repudiate, in practice and increasingly even in theory, the possibility of the philosopher-reader.

Here is the full piece by Anastasia Berg and John Baskin, via Agnes Callard.

China fact of the day

We find that party members on average hold substantially more modern and progressive views than the public on issues such as gender equality, political pluralism, and openness to international exchange.

That is from Chengyuan Ji and Junyan Jiang, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.  Of course this may partly explain why China’s rising middle class is not so outright enthusiastic for democratization.

Shipping the good economists out?

How many of you even get that reference these days?  Here is the latest from DOA, from Liz Crampton at Politico:

The Agriculture Department is moving nearly all its researchers into the economic effects of climate change, trade policy and food stamps – subjects of controversial Trump administration initiatives – outside of Washington, part of what employees claim is a political crackdown on economists whose assessments have raised questions about the president’s policies.

Since last year, employees in the department’s Economic Research Service have awaited news of which members of their agency would be forced to relocate, after Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue stunned them by declaring he was moving most of the agency to a location outside the capital. The announcement sparked claims that Perdue was trying to pressure economists into leaving the agency rather than move their families.

On March 5, the department began notifying people who were allowed to stay in Washington, but didn’t provide a comprehensive list, only telling employees in person if they made the cut.

But current and former employees compiled one anyway, covering all 279 people on staff, 76 of whom are being allowed to stay in Washington…

A USDA spokesman declined to directly address the employees’ allegation of political bias, but provided a written statement from Perdue saying that the moves were not prompted by the work being done by ERS.

In general I am reluctant to post this kind of report, because I find it difficult to know what is truly going on here, so do read this with an open mind.  Still, it seemed newsworthy.

I thank John Chamberlin for the pointer.

The recent political revolution is a major shift toward the right

And when I say recent, I mean in the last few weeks.  That is the topic of my recent Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

The populist “New Right” isn’t going away anytime soon, and the rise of the “New Left” is exaggerated.

Start with Australia, where Prime Minister Scott Morrison won a surprising victory last week. Before the election, polls had almost uniformly indicated that his Liberal-National Coalition would have to step down, but voters were of another mind. With their support of Morrison, an evangelical Christian who has expressed support for President Donald Trump, Australians also showed a relative lack of interest in doing more about climate change. And this result is no fluke of low turnout: Due to compulsory voting, most Australians do turn out for elections.

Hard Brexit is alive and well, the European Parliament elections later this week could be a disaster, and Modi seems to be on the upswing in the Indian election.  But perhaps most importantly there is this:

One scarcely noticed factor in all of this has been the rising perception of China as a threat to Western interests. The American public is very aware that the U.S. is now in a trade war with China, a conflict that is likely to provoke an increase in nationalism. That is a sentiment that has not historically been very helpful to left-wing movements. China has been one of Trump’s signature causes for years, and he seems to be delighting in having it on center stage.

The Democratic Party is not well-positioned to make China a core issue. Democrats have been criticizing Trump’s tariffs for a while now, and it may be hard for them to adjust their message from “Tariffs Are Bad” to “Tariffs Are Bad But China Tariffs Are OK.” Their lukewarm support for free trade agreements — especially the Trans Pacific Partnership, which could have served as a kind of alternative China trade policy — also complicates matters. The net result is that Republicans will probably be able to use the China issue to their advantage for years to come.

Nor did Obama stand up to China on the militarization of the South China Sea.  Do read the whole thing.