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November 08, 2013
Writing about web page http://isc.independent.gov.uk/files/20131107_ISC_uncorrected_transcript.pdf
Yesterday the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee met the chiefs of Britain’s three intelligence agencies. Among other matters, they debated the price we should be willing to pay for national security. I was interested by how this quickly turned into a debate over the meaning of national security itself. There were unexpected differences among legislators and spies; the spies themselves did not speak with one voice. (Here's the uncorrected transcript.)
Hazel Blears, a Labour MP and former local government minister, who is also an ISC committee member, offered up the conventional formula that might be most appealing to an economist:
I wonder if you would agree that in order to have the trust and confidence of the nation, which provides a strong platform for your work, that it is important that we again look at the balance between privacy and security.
She was saying, in other words, that privacy and security are competing objectives of government, and we have to balance them, or trade one against the other. The slope of the "trade-off" is then the price. If we want more security we may end up with less privacy, so the price of security is the amount of privacy foregone. Do we have the right balance? Or, are we paying too much for security in lost privacy? It’s hard to say; we’ll come back to that.
Here’s what was said by Sir Iain Lobban (GCHQ):
I believe a government's first duty is to protect its people. Some ways that it does that I think are necessarily secret. I don't think "secret" means "unaccountable" in any sense, and I think the Foreign Secretary, certainly appointed by an elected government, authorises our operations. There is a Parliamentary Committee which gives us plenty of oversight. There is also the two Commissioners, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, the Intelligence Services Commissioner, who the Chief mentioned earlier.
In these words Lobban said something different from Blears. For him, government has a list of priorities. Security (meaning “to protect its people”) comes first. Everything else comes after. In this perspective there is no balance (or “trade-off”). First, achieve security; privacy comes after. Where it comes (second, third, fourth, etc.) is up to the government and the scrutineers. In case you might think I'm overinterpreting, Lobban went on later to say exactly this:
I don't particularly like talking about the privacy and security balance because I think it is a false choice. I think our job is to provide intelligence around security which enables security in a way which safeguards privacy to the maximum extent possible.
In other words, you can have as much privacy as is left to be had -- after you have ticked security off the list, and security comes first. I don't want to make this sound too bad. Lobban also said other things that, if you believe them (and I have no particular reason not to) are quite reassuring, for example:
[GCHQ] can only look at the content of communications where there are very specific legal thresholds and requirements which have been met. So that is the reality. We don't want to delve into innocent e-mails and phonecalls. I feel I have to say this: I don't employ the type of people who would do. My people are motivated by saving the lives of British forces on the battle field, they are motivated by fighting terrorists/serious criminals, by meeting that foreign intelligence mission as well. If they were asked to snoop, I would not have the workforce. They would leave the building.
Now, here’s the contribution of Andrew Parker (MI5):
I think fundamentally, the raison d'etre of an organisation like MI5 is to protect the sort of country we live in against threats to it. The sort of country we live in is a free society, a democracy, a country where we do prize our individual liberty and privacy. Those values are extremely important to all of the men and women who work in our Agencies, who are members of the public, who live in communities and don't want to live in a surveillance society or a North Korea. They want to live in a country like this. Our job is to keep it that way.
Here Parker took a third line, different from that of either Blears or Lobban. In his view the purpose of security is not to protect persons, or even the people (as Lobban had it) and the price of security is not privacy (as Blears said). Rather, the aim should be to secure “a free society.” Because privacy is one of the characteristics of a free society, he implied, security and privacy are not in conflict; security that infringes on privacy is not security.
To repeat, for Lobban, security and privacy are not in conflict because security comes first. To Parker, security and privacy are not in conflict because privacy is part of a free society and a free society is what must be secured.
Of these three views I have most sympathy, by far, with the third – the "Parker view" that the ultimate mission of national security is to protect the institutions of a free society and democracy. In too many countries the mission of national security has been to protect the incumbent government and repress dissent. Consider the things that distinguish our own society from the settings in which the KGB or Gestapo held sway. Aren’t the most important of these the democracy that allows us (as voters) to toss out the government if we wish and our freedom (as private persons) to be the people we want, say what we believe, and associate with whom we choose?
But this is only the beginning of the problem. Intrusive mass surveillance in the hands of a bloated security apparatus seems unlikely to protect democracy or freedom. If we seriously want to protect free speech and free association, we should uphold limits on surveillance. Inevitably, then, we will incur some risk that a few bad people will successfully exploit free speech and free association to do bad things to some of us. So there is still a trade-off here, but the balance we have to strike as a society is not between security and privacy. It is between two kinds of security: the security of our freedoms and of our physical persons.
Hazel Blears captured this difficult point quite nicely:
You [the intelligence agencies] are currently under some criticism for knowing too much. If there is a terrorist incident, no doubt you will be under criticism for knowing too little. It is a rock and a hard place.
In other words it is questionable whether the mission of national security as safeguarding our way of life, not our persons, is politically viable in the long run, when all the bad (and good) luck has come in. It’s easy to agree beforehand that we should tolerate a few risks. It’s much harder to maintain that after the event, when lives have been lost as a result. At the very least, clear leadership is required. That’s a tough one, especially for politicians and security chiefs who do not want another 9/11 or 7/7 on their watch. In other words freedom carries risks, and may call for a little courage from time to time.
October 14, 2013
Writing about web page http://www.conservativepartyconference.org.uk/Speeches/2013_George_Osborne.aspx
At the Tory conference George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, made an interesting point about the views of Ed Milliband, Leader of the Opposition:
For him the global free market equates to a race to the bottom with the gains being shared among a smaller and smaller group of people. That is essentially the argument Karl Marx made in Das Kapital. It is what socialists have always believed.
Osborne’s point made me think about the influence of Marx on modern intellectual life. To many this is something of a puzzle. Isn’t Marxism discredited as a political philosophy? Haven’t the economic policies of Marxist regimes generally failed to provide for “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” – the words by which Marx once distilled the goal of communism? How many of those that identify with the ideals of socialism today have actually read and followed even one page of the fifty volumes of the Marx-Engels Collected Works?
My answers: Yes, Yes, and Not many. Yet Marxism shows no sign of dying out; it lives on in a variety of political movements and branches of academic and cultural life.
Why’s that? The question is puzzling only if we think of Marx as the the reason why Marxist ideas exist. Of course Marx was the originator of Marxism, but I am quite sure that if Marx had never been born to invent Marxism, some other scribbler would have taken his place. The basic ideas that underlie Marxism pre-existed Marx, and would have existed without his writings, and are continually reborn and propagated among people who know nothing of Marx for a straightforward reason: because such ideas correspond with how most people experience everyday life. Marx’s importance, therefore, was not as the discoverer of these ideas but as the writer that gave them a scholarly form.
What are the experiences to which Marxist economics correspond? Behind the complicated terminology of capital and value and Marx’s elaborate philosophical and historical argumentation of them are four simple ideas:
- The market is a jungle, a chaotic struggle of each against all, in which the strongest, most ruthless predator wins. Lurking behind every transaction is the chance that someone will rip you off.
- Of all the possible functions of market prices – accounting, economising, distributive – the only one that matters is distribution. A rise in the price of food or fuel cuts the real income of workers and redistributes it in favour of the producers that employ them.
- Work is hard and stressful, and the main source of pressure is the employers' drive to make you work harder and longer, in order to save them money or increase their profits.
- You can’t do anything about this on your own. Idealistic advocacy has no traction without numbers. Everyone should get together and intervene forcibly to bring about radical improvement.
What kind of economics do these four ideas make? They make the economics of everyday lived experience for most of the world’s seven billion people. I’m not talking just about the poor and ignorant. It’s nothing to do with education or position in society. My guess would be that most people in my immediate circle of family and friends that are not trained economists hold, most likely, two or three of the four ideas; I expect that all might hold at least one.
Suppose you decided to give your life to elaborating these four ideas and you spent years working them up into a philosophy of economics: What kind of book would you write? I think you’d end up writing something pretty much like Das Kapital. In other words, Marxism is a philosophization of the economics of lived experience, but it's the economics of lived experience that should really demand our attention.
What kind of economics would lived experience support? It would make, in the words of Frederic Bastiat, the economics of “that which is seen.” It would take into account only the most immediate effects of things. It would leave out the other effects, those that “unfold in succession – they are not seen: it is well for us,” Bastiat went on, “if they are foreseen. Between a good and a bad economist this constitutes the whole difference – the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee.”
What’s wrong with the economics of “that which is seen”? By analogy, think of the physics of “that which is seen”: the earth is flat and parallel lines never meet. Or the chemistry of “that which is seen”: burning is the release of phlogiston. I’m not saying that economics is a science like physics or chemistry in all respects. What I’m saying is that Euclidean geometry, the idea of a flat earth, and the theory of phlogiston are perfectly serviceable for making sense of a number of things everyone can see from day to day. It’s true, though, that these ideas miss out badly on other things and this prevents them from being useful in many contexts. For the purposes that are missing, we need more; we need the physics and chemistry of “that which is not seen,” including molecular science, gravity, and relativity.
What is added by the economics of “that which is not seen”?
- The market creates many opportunities for sellers to abuse buyers, yet the market is not chaos: it enables specialization and competition. The same market economy that often feels like a jungle is the mechanism that has sustained the West’s unprecedented prosperity and is also the hope for sustained progress of the Rest. But this is not seen because it has taken hundreds of years to materialize; life’s too short for it to be seen. (My colleague Omer Moav makes a similar point in a penetrating review, which he showed me recently, of Ariel Rubinstein's Economic Tales.)
- If something that you consume is in short supply so that the price goes up, you lose in the short term, and this is seen. Beyond this, however, is an unseen process by which all gain. There is adaptation. Responding to the increased cost, we economize on uses, we search for substitutes, and we find or create new sources of supply. The adaptation is not seen because it would require the simultaneous observation of a million small responses.
- Work is stressful, and a predatory employer can increase the stress for the sake of profit. But that is incomplete. In the Marxian perspective there is only one kind of surplus, called profit, one source of surplus, called labour, and one class of recipients, the capitalist class. In the competitive market economy every transaction gives rise to a surplus on both sides. Day by day, billions of small surpluses accrue to both sides, buyers and sellers, that are party to every transaction. In other words, there are surpluses everywhere and they accrue to everyone; they are not the monopoly of one class. But this, too, is not seen.
- Everyone getting together to force change does not always make anything better, and this might be the case quite often. This is not seen for two reasons. First, in every case to establish the results of intervention requires the careful construction of a counterfactual (in other words, what would have happened without the intervention) which, to most people, seems intolerably speculative. Second, when intervention has demonstrably not brought about the benefit sought, there is a natural human tendency to shift the responsibility from our own action to the counteraction of those that disagree with us, whom we make into scapegoats.
Whatever things are not seen, it’s hard to know they are there. Understandably, therefore, most people stick to the economics of what they can see for themselves. Most of those don’t think of themselves as Marxists or even socialists. Still, it ensures a reservoir of instinctive sympathy in our society for ideas that are aligned with Marx's and helps to explain his lasting influence. This reservoir is continually refilled from everyday experience. That's why Marxist ideas live on and will often be well received by well educated, well intentioned people.
Full disclosure: In years gone by I considered myself a Marxist and I read a lot of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and others. At various times I joined a Capital reading group, and taught the economics of Marx (alongside Smith, Ricardo, List, and Schumpeter), and I even wrote a pamphlet called The Economics of Capitalism; I still have a copy; one day I’ll scan it and put it on line. Somewhere between that time and this, however, I changed my mind for reasons that I wrote down here.
September 16, 2013
Writing about web page http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/03377ccc-16e0-11e3-9ec2-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2ezCPilYN
Last week I went to Downing Street for an informal discussion about Britain and China ... No, not with the prime minister, but between some academic China watchers and a couple of prime ministerial aides. Here I can only say what I said myself, but I thought afterwards whether I could package it for general interest. Here's the basic idea.
The Chinese government is currently trying to rebalance the economy. This will create both opportunities and risks for a country like Britain that exports worldwide and also has some world-class corporations that are willing to invest worldwide. It's important to be aware of what the opportunities are, and also the risks.
What does rebalancing mean? It means, primarily, trying to build China's mass market for consumer goods and services. The composition of China's spending must shift somewhat away from government and infrastructure towards consumption and the mass market. This does not mean that the government will become unimportant or that China will stop building new towns, universities, and transport systems. All of these are already huge and since the economy is still growing relatively rapidly they will remain important and also continue to grow. But net exports and capital formation together account for well over half of China's GDP, making one of the highest saving rates ever recorded for a modern economy. In other words, there is a lot of room for consumer spending to grow more rapidly at the margin, if only the pressure of government spending on infrastructure and military projects will allow it.
When China's prime minister Li Keqiang says "we will expand consumer demand" (in the FT, 8 September 2013), that doesn't make it happen, of course. The UK coalition government has talked about rebalancing our economy away from financial services to manufacturing for some time. That hasn't made it happen. Even in a totalitarian police state, rebalancing the economy can be quite difficult. Stalin's first attempt at rebalancing came in 1932, the last year of his first five-year plan, when too much capital formation and rearmament were killing off millions of people from famine. Rebalancing was urgent -- literally, a matter of life and death. The second five year plan was being written. It was supposed to rebalance the economy back towards consumption. Consumption did recover, but it was not a great deal more than a dead cat's bounce. After a year or two investment and rearmament took off again. The whole economic system had been designed around creating a surplus for accumulation and military spending. Given that, it was pretty hard for it to do anything else.
China's economic mechanism has also been designed around accumulation and military spending. An important problem with rebalancing China towards consumption is that success might weaken the drivers of the mechanism underlying China's huge success of the last 30 years. This mechanism is the rivalry of China's provincial leaders, each of whom compete with each other to win favour with Beijing and promotion to Beijing by pushing the growth of production in their own province. That growth depends a lot on infrastructural investment. If the provincial leaders can't push infrastructure as strongly before, then Beijing will have made it harder for them to compete. If they don't compete as strongly, the economy may falter, undermining the core purpose of rebalancing.
Still, China's ruling party has come to accept that a growing mass market can stabilize society and relax social tensions, making China stronger internationally. So let's suppose they can make it happen. There are opportunities here for British businesses to meet rising consumer demand, whether by exporting or by investing in China and producing within China's borders. As people get richer they want to be healthier, and better informed, and to enjoy faster communication. There is sure to be rising demand for things like telecoms and pharmaceuticals that Britain is good at making and doing.
One problem with exporting to China and investing in China is that China's market is very wide -- too wide, in fact. It is spatially highly dispersed, because too many Chinese live in small towns and rural settlements. It is also not very well integrated, with significant barriers to internal trade across provincial boundaries -- a product of the inter-provincial rivalry that has helped China's past growth. In other words, if you sell to the Chinese, you might expect to go to a market of 1.3 billiion people, but what you actually reach is one of 30 or so provincial markets. Of course, this isn't so bad because a typical province in China is the size of a European country in population, which is pretty big. It's also true that China's market integration is most likely improving over time. Still, it doesn't yet add up to the idea of selling a lightbulb to every Chinese family.
Another problem is that China's market has many, many opportunities for vested interests to conspire with government officials against competitive threats (and therefore against the consumer). Corruption remains a huge problem. China's government is currently waging an anti-corruption campaign. Anti-corruption is fine, but the campaigning aspect is problematic. The best way to reduce corruption is to reduce product market regulation and have open, competitive markets and the rule of law. China's communist party continues to prefer party rule to the rule of law. The result is that, when you see a person (like Bo Xilai) or an organization (like GlaxoSmithKline) targeted for corruption, you can't really be sure whether they are guilty as an impartial court would see the evidence, or whether the political authorities decided to make them guilty of something and then make the evidence up.
That's a particular risk for foreign investors in China. Of course, foreign investors face risks everywhere. Anyone who has followed the recent history of BP in the United States will be aware that a foreign corporation can become a target even in a liberal democracy with an independent judicial system. The point may be that at least BP had first to do something wrong before it became a target. In a corrupt police state like China's, in contrast, you can get into trouble even if you did nothing wrong. Or perhaps, more accurately, there are contexts in which everyone bends the rules, or the rules may be so complex and pervasive that you can't operate at all without breaking them somehow. Then, the foreign investor either sticks to the rules, which leaves you unable to compete, or you compete and break the rules like everyone else, but that means you are making yourself ever vulnerable to those in power. Indeed that might be one purpose of a rule book that no one can adhere to conscientiously.
Finally, helping China to build its mass market is an opportunity for British business, but it is important to recognize that for China's leaders building the mass market is not an end in itself but an exercise in national power-building. Prime minister Li acknowledged this when he linked China's mass market with sustainable growth and both of the latter with "national strength." In other words, if we help develop China's consumer market, we should do so with open eyes: we are also colluding with a project that is designed to reduce our own country's relative power and influence in the world to China's benefit.
Is that a reason to stand aside? In my view, not at all. In the long run, free trade and investment have civilizing power. (In case anyone thinks that's snobbish, I mean it literally: free exchange develops civil-society institutions in ways that governments cannot.) Countries that make themselves economically interdependent are are then somewhat less likely to come into conflict. That's not a deterministic statement, by the way. The power of trade is double edged, because trade can be exploited to build national power. The civilizing influence of trade takes lots of time. It works through probabilities, not certainties. It's an average thing, with plenty of variation and historical counter-examples.
So we should trade with China and invest in China with our eyes open. We should remain aware that China's rulers are heirs to the communist tradition. In this tradition the world is an arena for a zero-sum power struggle in which, in the long run, one country's gain is likely to be another's loss. These leaders want China to develop its mass market not for the sake of consumer welfare but because a more sustainable Chinese economy and a more stable society will better support their national and international strategic goals.
The benefits that we should seek from economic interaction with China are those that will flow to the citizens of both countries, and to consumers as well as producers. For example, the benefits of trade and investment will come back to the British economy not only through our exports to China's growing market but also by access to imports from China that lower prices and raise living standards in Britain.
August 29, 2013
Since last week’s gas attack on a Damascus suburb, the political class has been gripped by the idea that “something must be done.” Meanwhile Wall Street, already declining through early August, fell further as this week began. At the same time oil prices have ticked up sharply, not because Syria is a significant oil producer, but in response to fears for Middle Eastern supplies generally.
A military attack on Syria would clearly affect stock values. War diverts trade: some businesses lose while others gain. Is war good for business in the aggregate? Not likely. When an economy is depressed, and the fighting is at a comfortable distance, additional military spending might give a short-run stimulus to business for everyone. In the long run, however, war is a wealth-destroying activity. Because stock values reflect long-run profit expectations, the chances of a positive aggregate effect from hostilities are vanishingly improbable.
It is a somewhat different question whether the launching of an attack will move stock values on the day. Cruise missiles rarely come from a blue sky. Those for whom war has clear implications will usually have looked into the future and hedged their bets.
On the day the fighting starts, it is true, war changes from a probability to a certainty. But if the probability was already seen as close to 100%, the impact on asset values will inevitably be small. Only a true surprise would move them by much.
Economic historians first became interested in this topic in connection with World War I, the outbreak of which was a surprise to many. Niall Ferguson (in the Economic History Review 59:1 (2006)) and others (Lawrence, Dean, and Robert in the Economic History Review 45:3 (1992) have documented that as the war began European bond prices fell and unemployment rose in London, Paris, and Berlin. The panic on Wall Street was so great that the New York Stock Exchange was closed for the rest of the year.
To update the record across the last 100 years, the chart below shows closing values of the Dow Jones Industrial Average in New York for the ten working days before and after eight war onsets (the value on the day itself is omitted).
Source: Mark Harrison, "Capitalism at War," forthcoming in The Cambridge History of Capitalism, edited by Larry Neal and Jeff Williamson for Cambridge University Press. [Thanks to Christopher Renner for drawing my attention to a misprint and a small error in the first version of this chart.]
The days shown are:
- September 11, 2001: Al-Qaeda attacks American cities
- August 2, 1990: Iraq invades Kuwait
- August 7, 1964: Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
- June 25, 1950: North Korea invades South Korea
- December 7, 1941: Japan attacks Pearl Harbor
- September 1, 1939: Germany invades Poland
- March 1, 1917: The Zimmermann telegram published
- July 28, 1914: Russia mobilises against Germany
Only two of these events saw stock prices climb, and then only slightly. In five cases they fell, and in two the stock market was closed (for more than four months after the outbreak of World War I in Europe, and for four days after 9/11).
Notably, although stock prices rose a little after Hitler’s attack on Poland in 1939, they fell thereafter. When Pearl Harbor arrived, they remained below the level recorded two years earlier. The median change in stock prices over the eight crises was a 5.3% decline.
Contrary to commonly held opinion, war has also been bad news generally for the very rich. Tony Atkinson, Thomas Piketty, and Emmanuel Saez have collected historical data on top incomes in many countries across the twentieth century. These show sharp wartime declines in the personal income shares of the very rich in every belligerent country for which wartime data are available.
This does not rule out the idea that a few corporations gain business, and a few people become richer as a result of conflict. It just tells us that the average effect goes the other way. Besides, war is always first and foremost a political act. If Western bombs fall on Damascus in the next few days, it will be because someone decided it made good politics, not good business.
Mark Harrison does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
August 08, 2013
On the Pieria magazine website there has been an exchange of views on capitalism and socialism. I guess it is my fault; on 28 June I contributed a summary of some remarks on the subject. I concluded:
Liberal capitalism isn’t perfect, but it has done far more for human welfare than communism. It has been the solution more often than the problem. Last time capitalism experienced some difficulties, many countries went off on a search for alternatives. That search for alternatives led nowhere. It wasn’t just unproductive. It was a terrible mistake that cost many tens of millions of lives. Lots of people have forgotten this history. Now is a good time to remember it.
On 31 July, the blogger UnlearningEconomics responded:
In my opinion, this view rests on a highly selective interpretation of events. It requires that we gloss over two major historical points: first, the historical circumstances of existing communism; second, the history of capitalist countries. It fails to acknowledge the fact that existing socialism occurred primarily in undeveloped countries, which we would naturally expect to exhibit lower standards of living than developed ones. It ignores the deliberate campaign of destruction and sabotage toward the socialist states by the capitalist states, a process comprehensively documented by US foreign policy critic William Blum (Blum, 2003). It also requires that we define past and present abuses of capitalist states as somehow 'outside' capitalism, in order to place ourselves above the (real or imagined) abuses of the communists.
I do not hope to defend anyone's atrocities, though I am happy to refute some of the absurd exaggerations that sometimes pervade these debates. In any case, my main aim is to show two things: first, the abuses of existing socialist states are better explained by their political circumstances than their innate evils of the ideology; second, capitalist countries have a similarly abhorrent record, one which is not so easily explained by political necessities. My rendition will definitely annoy capitalists and anti-communists by being too sympathetic toward communism, which is a dirty word for many. It will also potentially annoy communists and socialists by not being sympathetic enough and repeating some of the more simplistic mainstream narratives. However, the important thing is that we examine the history of both systems in context, rather than lazily parading the kill count of the other side to try and shut down debate.
UnlearningEconomics (below I'll call him or her "UE") goes on to present "brief" (but, for a blog, quite lengthy) histories of both communism and capitalism. The general story is that if communism has had a bloody history it is mainly because communist revolutions occurred under unfavourable circumstances and had to struggle against the encirclement and aggression of the surrounding capitalist states; as for capitalism, it has its own bloody history, which is too often ignored.
What is there here that we can agree on? Perhaps we might agree that twentieth century warfare was terrible enough that it could damage social norms and other institutions of a relatively poor country like Russia or China; in such conditions organized minorities with unscrupulous leaders could seize power and use it to do terrible things. The efforts of other countries to intervene and prevent this, then as now, were largely fruitless or even counterproductive; perhaps they should not have tried, although politicians are not generally selected for lack of ambition and public opinion too often demands that something must be done.
UE goes beyond this to suggest that somehow history has been unfair to those same minorities and psychopathic leaders by allowing them to seize power only under terribly adverse circumstances. We owe it to them (the argument seems to go) to compensate them for their disadvantage; we should allow them at least a few decades of unchallenged power, so that they have a fair chance to show what they can achieve. But this seems completely unhinged.
In bringing up my children, I tried to teach them that people show their inner qualities when things go badly. It is easy to look good when things go well. Only good people will still be good when things go badly; adversity reveals character. I believe this rule can also be applied to politics. It is when things go badly that we see political leaders and their programmes and ideals put to the test.
Can systems be blamed for atrocities of whatever kind? It is not systems that take food from the mouths of the hungry or put bullets into the back of anyone’s head. People do this. But the system matters, nonetheless. What the system does is to leave more or less scope for the concentration of power in the hands of people who are inclined to exploit it without restraint. Liberal capitalism at least allows the separation of economic power from politics and decentralizes decisions to firms and households in markets. This is because, in the words of North, Wallis, and Weingast (2011), it is an “open-access order.” Communism is a “closed-access” order that restricts who may exercise political power and concentrates control of the economy in the hands of that privileged elite. Given that, ask which of these systems is more likely to permit the abuse of power and allow abuses to be hidden from the public gaze?
When general outlooks clash, it is not always enough to stay with generalities. Sometimes we have to get down with the particular facts. History is full of good stories, and UE tells some of them well. The problem is that not all good stories are true, but this becomes evident only when they are confronted with the detail. So, I will confront some of UE's history with the detail. I will not cover everything; I will focus for the most part on the "brief history" of communism, where I think I have more to offer.
- UE says: Unfavourable views of communism ignore “the fact that existing socialism occurred primarily in undeveloped countries, which we would naturally expect to exhibit lower standards of living than developed ones.”
This is seriously incomplete. Existing socialism occurred in relatively few undeveloped countries, and generally only in those weakened by war (Russia, China, Korea, and Indochina). Central Europe would scarcely have counted as undeveloped; there the precondition was war followed by military occupation. Cuba may be the only example of a country that had a communist revolution without a foreign war. In 1945 in several places the boundary of “existing socialism” was laid down in the middle of a region that was previously economically and ethnolinguistically integrated. As well as showing that warfare counted for more than lack of development, these examples also provide natural experiments for the long run consequences of system change. Think of Estonia versus Finland, East versus West Germany, and North versus South Korea. For discussion see Harrison (2013).
- UE says: Unfavourable views of communism also ignore “the deliberate campaign of destruction and sabotage toward the socialist states by the capitalist states” (citing William Blum).
Again, seriously incomplete. The UE view of postwar history rests on selection, overstatement of the capacity of outsiders to intervene in Russia and Eastern Europe, exaggeration of popular support for communism (the most popular communist party in Europe at the end of the war was probably the French party with no more than a quarter of the popular vote), and ignorance of the documented process whereby Stalin’s secret police entered Eastern Europe in 1944 and 1945 “embedded” with the Red Army and armed with a template for dictatorship that they began to apply immediately, regardless of whether or not communists were in the government (Applebaum 2012). Far from resenting western "sabotage," millions of Central and East Europeans felt abandoned by the West as Stalin crushed their hopes for national self-determination. Finally, it forgets that the one American initiative that could have decisively altered the trajectory of Eastern Europe was not “destruction and sabotage” but Marshall Aid, which Stalin instructed his allies to reject.
- UE says: The unfavourable conditions of the Russian Revolution are shown by the fact that “Russia had suffered the worst losses out of any country during the war.”
No. It is hard to imagine that Russia would have suffered the Revolution without three years of world war, and it is true that battle and non-battle deaths of Russian soldiers up to 1917 were heavy (1.8 million). At the same time Russia's losses were fewer than Germany’s absolutely, and (given Russia’s large population) were proportionately fewer than of those of Britain, France, Italy, Serbia, Rumania, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey (Broadberry and Harrison 2005). Russia’s economic loss of GDP per head up to 1917 was less than that of Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, and Turkey (Markevich and Harrison 2011). The latter conclude: “We have seen that the economic decline up to 1917 was not more severe in Russia than elsewhere. In short, we will probably not be able to explain why Russia was the first to descend into revolution and civil war without reference to historical factors that were unique to that country and period.”
- UE says: “By the time Joseph Stalin took (absolute) power in 1929, many – including, perhaps, himself – believed the threats the USSR faced were justifications for his purges and the Gulags.”
Seriously incomplete. There is no “perhaps” here: Stalin had a precise understanding that is now well documented (e.g. Khlevniuk 1995; Simonov 1996; Davies et al. 2003; Harrison 2008; Velikanova 2013). In 1921, 1924, 1927, and 1929 there was no foreign threat. But rumours of war were frequent, because the Soviet Union’s strategy of inciting revolution and mutiny abroad kept Soviet foreign relations in a state of continual tension. In domestic society, Stalin's secret police told him, every rumour was destabilizing; peasants and workers started to wonder when the chance would come to get rid of the Bolsheviks. Stalin was aware that above all he had to secure the regime internally and externally and that drift could only weaken him. This is why he launched Soviet society simultaneously on the courses of forced industrialization, mass collectivization of the peasantry, and political violence. Justification? Yes, of course, if taking power and holding it are sufficient motivations. Not otherwise. Khrushchev was personally responsible for tens of thousands of killings under Stalin, and this left him with a bad conscience. In trying to come to terms with it he blamed Stalin many times but not Hitler, the CIA, or anyone else outside the country.
- UE says: “The country did face a very real Nazi threat that, failing industrialisation, it would not have been able to overcome.”
No. Stalin changed course towards industrialization, collectivization, and mass violence in 1929, when there was no significant external threat. The Nazis came to power in 1933, and no European leader (including Stalin) recognized the threat from Hitler before 1935. Before Hitler, a threat to Siberia appeared from the East in 1931 with the Japanese annexation of Manchuria. These threats came after, not before, Stalin’s “revolution from above.” As for whether the Nazi threat justified Stalin’s policies after the event, I have written about this in many places (most recently Harrison 2010).
- UE says: “This reasoning is consistent with the fact that once Stalin died and the more immediate western threats disappeared, ‘de-Stalinisation’ took place: the Gulags were softened and reduced in size; the cult of personality was dismantled … things certainly improved once the Nazi threat had been eliminated.”
No. The Nazi threat was eliminated in 1945. The softening of the Soviet regime after 1953 had everything to do with Stalin’s death and nothing to do with the disappearance of “immediate western threats.” De-Stalinization took place not because of the disappearance of western threats but because the entire Soviet leadership was tired of living in fear of their own lives, and then went further because Khrushchev and Mikoyan had bad consciences about their own responsibility for past mass killings. The Gulag was dismantled immediately, not because of the disappearance of western threats but because Lavrentii Beriia had long before determined that it was an economic drain and a source of social contagion but Stalin had prevented him from acting on his findings. There was bitter resistance to dismantling the cult of Stalin from other communist leaders (especially Mao), not because of western threats but because it threatened their own legitimacy (and their own cults). The cult of Stalin was dismantled but was soon replaced by the cult of Khrushchev.
- UE says: “The Great Leap Forward (GLF) … undoubtedly caused a large degree of famine, surely because of the over-centralised and inflexible nature of the policy.”
Seriously incomplete. A centralized, inflexible policy was enough to start a famine, but it does not begin to explain explain how the famine proceeded, nor does it explain the secrecy that then shrouded it for decades.
Think about what is required for an act of policy to cause millions of famine deaths. Here is the problem: When people starve to death, they do not die suddenly and unexpectedly. It takes them months, even many months to weaken, become sick, and die. Some die before others. Some die of hunger; some are carried off by diseases to which they lose immunity. Some die at home; some drop dead in the street. Some die passively; some steal or even kill for food; a few turn to cannibalism. In other words, a policy that causes millions of famine deaths (such as in the USSR in 1932 to 1934) or tens of millions (in China in 1958 to 1960) cannot go unnoticed by those carrying out the policy.
In fact, in both the USSR and China, the famine process worked like this (Davies and Wheatcroft 2004; Chen and Kung 2011). First, the leaders issued quotas for the collection of food, province by province. They also gave the provincial leaders to understand that their future depended on meeting the quota. The provincial leaders competed to raise more grain than their neighbours in order to show loyalty and to save their own lives and the lives of their families. And they passed these incentives down the line to their subordinates charged with doing the actual work. When some people reported that the quotas were too heavy, or they resisted or dragged their feet, they were arrested and others took their place. Food collections began and the first people started to die. When some people reported that other people were dying, they were told that this was just “simulation or provocation”: enemies were maliciously withholding food and starving their own children to cause trouble (Davies and Wheatcroft 2004, p. 206).
While the first ones were dying, the people responsible for extracting grain from the villages had to go deeper and deeper into the countryside to find food and take it by force. On every journey along all the different routes they took, they had to go past the people from whom they had already taken food, who were now dead or dying, to find more food that they could take. In China, the provincial leaders of lower rank had more to prove and Chen and Kung (2011) show these people tried harder, so that more grain was collected and more people died in their provinces. Returning from every journey past the already dying and dead people, they sometimes reported what they had seen (although it was sometimes “forbidden to keep an official record”) but in public they had to remain absolutely silent about, not just at the time but for the rest of their lives. The same applied to everyone with business that required them to move around the countryside. While they were doing this, others had to be ordered to stop some of the dying people who were not dead yet from moving out in search of food elsewhere. They had to be ordered to stop them because the food that had been collected and stored elsewhere was destined for others; if the dying people were allowed to eat it, it would not be available to feed Stalin’s Great Breakthrough or Mao’s Great Leap Forward. A particular reason for these orders is that when hungry people are allowed to mix with people that have enough to eat, it is extraordinary difficult to stop kind people from giving some of their food to starving families; the Germans found this in occupied Europe when they tried to cut Jewish communities off from food, and this is one reason why they first herded Jews into ghettoes and later decided to accelerate the Holocaust (Collingham 2010, pp. 205 ff). Finally, both at the time and later, the surviving victims and perpetrators alike learned never to talk about it, perhaps not even to their children. As a result, witnesses of terrible things (such as Yang 2012) often concluded the events they had seen were isolated and exceptional.
In other words, the “over-centralised and inflexible nature of the policy” was enough to start a famine, but further deliberate actions were required to ensure government priorities for food supplies when millions of people were dying of hunger. All this must be read into the “over-centralised and inflexible nature of the policy,” and it suggests why those words do not begin to provide a full explanation.
- UE says: “It is also worth noting that the remaining Cold War paranoia was certainly not a USSR-only phenomenon, with McCarthyism and the red scare in the US reaching levels which now seem ridiculous to most.”
No. McCarthyism was ridiculous and, partly as a result of it, the FBI missed many Soviet agents that were actually at work in American government and society after the war (Moynihan Commission 1997).
- UE says: “In Poland, the popular party Solidarity wanted some form of worker ownership – in other words, socialism – until, in desperation, they had to turn to the IMF, who made capitalist policies a condition for any aid. In Russia, Boris Yeltin’s ‘free market’ reforms were resisted, which was met with force; similarly, in China, the Tienanmen Square massacres were not made in favour of capitalism but in favour of democracy and worker control” (citing Naomi Klein).
No. None of us can possibly know what demonstrators in China or elsewhere “really” wanted. Politics is the art of the possible, and for this reason people tend to express their choices strategically, in the light of the constraints they perceive and the choices they expect others to make. I saw this myself in Russia: As long as the communist party was in full control, many dissenters preferred to limit their demands by appealing to rights guaranteed by the Soviet constitution, asking for a return to “true” Leninism, calling to rehabilitate Old Bolsheviks like Trotsky and Bukharin, and so forth. Only when the communist monopoly gave way did it become politically and psychologically possible for free thinkers to go further; some didn't but many did. UE refers to IMF conditionality in a disparaging way; but why would a responsible aid donor give aid without wishing to rule out uses of its resources that would be damaging or counterproductive? UE relies on Klein’s Shock Doctrine as a source; on its use of evidence see Harrison (2009).
- UE says: “While estimates of deaths from Mao’s GLF are exaggerated using dubious estimation techniques (which effectively allow the demographers to pick the number arbitrarily), little to no cover has been given to the increase in Russian deaths during the ‘transition’ to capitalism, which, by a reasonable estimation method of simply counting the increase in death rates, claimed 4 million lives between 1990 and 1996” (citing Utsa Patnaik).
No. UE (or perhaps Utsa Patnaik) seems to confuse demographic studies with the literary and journalistic accounts written by people who do not have a good understanding of error margins. Demographers know that when people die in numbers so large that they are not recorded individually there is always an error margin. The error margin has several sources: mismeasurement of the population before and after the shock, imputation of normal mortality during the shock (required to infer excess mortality), and correctly apportioning the birth deficit between babies not born (or miscarried) and babies born and died within the famine period. In other words the best available estimation techniques give rise to ranges rather than point estimates, and it is from these ranges that nonspecialists feel entitled to pick and choose.
As for the cause of Russia’s mortality spike in the transition years, the research attributing it to mass privatization (Stuckler and McKee 2009) has been widely disseminated; less well known is that it has also been thoroughly criticized (Earle 2009; Earle and Gehlbach 2010; Brown, Earle, and Telegdy 2010; Battacharya, Gathmann, and Miller 2013; see also reply by Stuckler and McKee 2010). In the last years of the Soviet Union Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign temporarily prevented millions of Russians from drinking themselves to death. However, it did not alter their desire to drink. Their deaths were postponed and so stored up and waiting to happen when alcohol became cheaper again and more easily available. Thus, the increase in Russian deaths during transition is more plausibly attributed to an increase in the availability and collapse in the price of alcohol.
I’ll conclude on the subject of atrocity. UE writes: “I do not hope to defend anyone's atrocities, though I am happy to refute some of the absurd exaggerations that sometimes pervade these debates … the important thing is that we examine the history of both systems in context, rather than lazily parading the kill count of the other side to try and shut down debate.” I noticed that the UE blog goes further, wishing to move debate on from “disingenuous ‘Black Book of Communism’-style kill count porn” (the "Black Book" reference is to Courtois et al. 1999).
This shocked me. Is there room for debate over the scale, causes, and significance of the excess deaths that arose around the world from communist policies? Absolutely. Should any figure in the Black Book of Communism be above discussion? Of course not. But kill count porn? The demand for these people to be remembered and their suffering acknowledged comes from the victims themselves. “We were forgotten. For our broken lives. For our executed fathers. No one apologized. If we don’t preserve the historical memory, we shall continue to make the same mistakes” (Fekla Andreeva, resettled as a child with her “kulak” family, whose father was executed in the Great Terror, cited by Reshetova 2013; see also Gregory 2013).
- Applebaum, Anne. 2012. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56. London: Allen Lane.
- Bhattacharya, Jay, Christina Gathmann, and Grant Miller. 2013. Gorbachev’s Anti-Alcohol Campaign and Russia's Mortality Crisis. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 5(2): 232-60.
- Broadberry, Stephen, and Mark Harrison. 2005. The Economics of World War I: an Overview. In The Economics of World War I: 3-40. Edited by Stephen Broadberry and Mark Harrison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Brown, J. David, John S. Earle, and Álmos Telegdy. 2010. Employment and Wage Effects of Privatisation: Evidence from Hungary, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine.”Economic Journal 120, no. 545: 683-708.
- Chen, S. and Kung, J. (2011), ‘The Tragedy of the Nomenklatura: Career Incentives and Political Radicalism during China’s Great Leap Famine’, American Political Science Review, 105(1): 27-45.
- Collingham, Lizzie. 2010. The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food. London: Allen Lane.
- Courtois, Stephane, Mark Kramer, Jonathan Murphy, Jean-Louis Panne, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, and Jean-Louis Margolin. 1999. The Black Book of Communism. Ed Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Davies, R. W., and Stephen Wheatcroft. 2003. The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, vol. 5: The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-1933. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
- Davies, R. W., Oleg Khlevniuk, E. A. Rees, Liudmila P. Kosheleva, and Larisa A. Rogovaia, eds. 2003. The Stalin-Kaganovich Correspondence, 1931-36. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Earle, John S. 2009. Mass Privatisation and Mortality. The Lancet 373 (April 11), p. 1247
- Earle, John S., and Scott Gehlbach. 2010. Did Mass Privatisation Really Increase Post-Communist Mortality? The Lancet 375 (January 30), p. 372.
- Gregory, Paul R. 2013. Women of the Gulag. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press.
- Harrison, Mark. 2008. The Dictator and Defense. In Guns and Rubles: the Defense Industry in the Stalinist State, pp. 1-30. Edited by Mark Harrison. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
- Harrison, Mark. 2009. Credibility Crunch: A Comment on The Shock Doctrine. University of Warwick. Department of Economics.
- Harrison, Mark. 2010. Industry and the Economy. In The Soviet Union at War, 1941-1945, pp. 15-44. Edited by David R. Stone. Barnsley: Pen & Sword.
- Harrison, Mark. 2013. Communism and Economic Modernization. In The Oxford Handbook in the History of Communism. Edited by Stephen A. Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Khlevniuk, Oleg. 1995. The Objectives of the Great Terror, 1937-38. In Soviet History, 1917-1953: Essays in Honour of R. W. Davies: 158-76. Edited by J. M. Cooper, Maureen Perrie, and E. A. Rees. New York, NY: St Martin's.
- Markevich, Andrei, and Mark Harrison. 2011. Great War, Civil War, and Recovery: Russia’s National Income, 1913 to 1928. Journal of Economic History 71:3, pp. 672-703.
- Moynihan Commission. 1997. Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy. Senate Document 105-2 Pursuant to Public Law 236, 103rd Congress. Washington, United States Government Printing Office.
- North, Douglass C., John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast. 2011. Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
- Reshetova, Natalia. 2013. Women of the Gulag. Hoover Digest no. 3, 108-115.
- Simonov, Nikolai S. 1996. "Strengthen the Defence of the Land of the Soviets: the 1927 War Alarm and its Consequences." Europe-Asia Studies 48(8): 1355-64.
- Stuckler, David, Lawrence King, and Martin McKee. 2009. Mass Privatisation and the Post-Communist Mortality Crisis: a Cross-National Analysis. The Lancet no. 373 (January 31, 2009): 399-407.
- Stuckler, David, Lawrence King, and Martin McKee. 2010. Did Mass Privatisation Really Increase Post-Communist Mortality? – Authors’ Reply. The Lancet 375 (January 30, 2010), pp 372-74.
- Velikanova, Olga. 2013. Popular Perceptions of Soviet Politics in the 1920s: Disenchantment of the Dreamers. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
- Yang Jisheng. 2012. Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine. London: Allen Lane.
July 16, 2013
Writing about web page http://www.pieria.co.uk/articles/in_defence_of_protectionism
On Pieria, John Aziz writes in defence of protectionism, that is, the use of taxes and subsidies to shield a country's economy from foreign competition. He begins from the Ricardian story of the benefits of two countries sharing the benefits of free trade based on comparative advantage.
England was good at producing wool, Portugal wine, so they trade and both are better off. There is the fairy tale about how because market transactions are always voluntary and always beneficial that trade, being simply a market transaction across borders, is always win-win.
But this, he says, is a "fairy tale." In real life, he argues, comparative advantage has little to do with resource endowments and is generally artificial. Comparative advantage may be part of the historical pattern, he concedes. But it misses something essential. What's missing? He goes on.
Let's imagine a model with two different goods, say, guns and butter. England specialises in producing guns and munitions, and Portugal in butter and agricultural produce. For years, they trade and enjoy the benefit of maximising output through specialisation. Then, England starts a trade dispute with Portugal. They cease trading. England loses access to butter and various agricultural products from Portugal's large population of butter-producing cows, having to replace Portuguese butter with lower-quality and higher-priced Welsh butter. Portugal, however, loses access to guns and munitions. Although this is immediately recognised as a risk to national security, and Portugal quickly tries to start up its own domestic firearms industry, the trade dispute escalates into full-blown war and with their geostrategic advantage in guns, England swiftly triumphs and occupies Portugal.
The implication is clear. Portugal should have insured itself against the contingency of conflict with England by limiting trade through protectionism. By means of an interventionist industrial policy, Portugal would have developed its own guns and could then have resisted England.
Several things are noteworthy about this argument.
First, it too is a fairy tale. As John Aziz rightly points out, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. All our models are fairy tales. The point is that some are useful and others not. How can we tell? We test them against stuff that has actually happened. If they survive the confrontation, then we can use them to suggest practical implications for the future. So, the fact that it's a fairy tale is of interest, but it's not a problem. Let's move on.
Next noteworthy point: Let's test this model against something that actually happened. Not literally, because England has not been to war with Portugal since long before gunpowder came along. Replace Portugal by Germany, however, and the fairy tale suddenly acquires an ominous ring of truth. Doesn't it have an uncanny fit with what happened in 1914?
No, not exactly. In 1914 Germany and Britain went to war. While Britain was the pioneer of free trade, Germany had practised protectionism since 1879. German tariffs limited trade and promoted self-sufficiency in both industrial and agricultural goods. In Britain, by contrast, free trade accelerated the decline of agriculture and maximized the exposure of the British economy to imports. In 1913 at least 60 percent of the calories used at home for human consumption were imported. Many observers thought that left Britain ridiculously vulnerable to wartime blockade. German naval strategists agreed. It's true that in World War I food became a weapon of war just as much as guns.
Yet in the outcome it was Germany, the protectionist power, that struggled to manage the wartime disruption of trade and saw civilians die of hunger, while the British got by without serious shortages.
What explains this turnaround? As Mançur Olson (1963) argued (and before him Friedrich Aeroboe), the German economy entered the war in 1914 already weakened by protectionism. Food tariffs had encouraged peasant farmers to stay on their farms. This kept a large subsistence agriculture in being and reduced productivity and incomes. Because German farmers were already well into diminishing returns it was then hard to increase output at need, when war broke out.
As for industry, because imports of food into Germany were restricted in peacetime and labour held back in agriculture, German urban employers faced higher wage costs. To compensate for higher wage costs, industrial firms economized on labour and pushed up productivity. But across the economy as a whole, efficiency and average incomes were reduced.
A history of protectionism gave no national advantage in either World War. I've argued (in several places; see Harrison 2012 for example) that the main factors that gave systematic advantage were a country's size and wealth, and the main source of disadvantage was a peasant-based agriculture.
In that case, what's protectionism all about? In understanding protectionism, redistribution is much more important than development. Whether tariffs and subsidies raise or lower long-run growth, in the short run they redistribute income away from consumers and exporters to import-competing firms, often by very large amounts. This should draw attention to their political significance. As Dani Rodrik (1995, p. 1470) once wrote:
Saying that trade policy exists because it serves to transfer income to favored groups is a bit like saying Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest because he wanted to get some mountain air.
In history, protectionism has given politicians a powerful instrument to bind those "favored groups" into their projects. To Bismarck, protectionism was political: it brought together the interests of "iron and rye" to share rents and support Germany's "peaceful rise." Similar motivations lie behind most real-life experiments in protectionism that I am familiar with. The only real exception is the Soviet experience of autarkic industrialization; that was different because Stalin was an absolute dictator who ruled by fear and had no need to pay off campaign funders.
Modern promoters of the developmental state (including Dani Rodrik) could reply that they advocate only those selective interventions that are designed to improve social welfare, not corrupt the political process. That's an argument I understand, but it requires a benevolent, far-sighted government with the power to intervene and the self-restraint to do so only for the common good, not for the good of its supporters. That's a bit of a problem. I don't see a political system anywhere, short of totalitarian dictatorship, in which you could advance those policies and see them implemented without vested interests jumping on your bandwagon and hijacking it for their own purposes, which will have nothing to do with social welfare.
(It's ironic, then, that John Aziz lists "graft and corruption" as a problem of trade liberalization, because opportunities for corruption are created only where the government has something to withhold.)
The historical link between protectionism and aggressive nation building is strong. Using data for 1950 to 1992 Erik Gartzke (2007) has shown that restricting a country's trade and capital flows is a good predictor of its propensity to engage in conflict. From data for 1865 and 1914, Patrick McDonald and Kevin Sweeney (2007) have shown that protectionism was a robust precursor of engagement in "revisionist" wars.
John Aziz concludes with a warning:
China's monopoly on rare earth metals which have very many military applications may have national security implications for other nations including Britain and the United States whose ability to manufacture modern military equipment might be impeded by a trade breakdown.
Shouldn't we worry? Yes, but that's because we need to understand China, not because we should be preparing for war. Indeed, one of Mancur Olson's key conclusions was that it's a mistake to think of particular raw materials, and even oil or food, as in some way "strategic" or "essential." Only the final uses of resources are essential. In practice, if some particular material suddenly becomes scarce, the price goes up and and opportunities present themselves to economize at the margin or find alternative sources or substitutes.
The price goes up, it's true. In other words, the alternatives may be costly. But the richer you are, the more easily you can meet the cost. That's why rich countries survive trade disruption and win wars. As for protectionism, to the extent that it diverts resources from their best uses, it makes the country poorer in advance and so less able to afford the measures that might become necessary in a national emergency.
Which brings me to the last noteworthy point about the arguments that John Aziz makes: They have nothing to do with personal well being. As he correctly comments:
The relative value of outcomes is simply a matter of one's criteria.
In truth, the two fairy tales that he tells differ in addressing completely different criteria. The free-trade fairy tale always was and is about the personal welfare of all members of society. Here, society is global: when trade is free, all gain, not just the residents of one country. The protectionist fairy tale, in contrast, is about nation-building and facilitating conflict in a world where elite coalitions build states, states compete for power, and a gain for one country is a loss to others.
The world is a complicated place. In the same spirit as John Aziz when he notes that the free trade story has some merit, I'm going to accept that the unregulated interaction between real world economies sometimes creates losers. There have evidently been historical circumstances when protectionist policies accidentally did no harm, or even did good by accidentally correcting some market failure.
But the design of protectionism has generally been far more driven by vested interests and power building than by concern for social welfare. Those who enter themselves in the reckoning against free trade often rely on an idealized understanding of the record.
- Gartzke, Erik. 2007. The Capitalist Peace. American Journal of Political Science 51:1, pp. 166-191.
- Harrison, Mark. 2012. Pourquoi les riches ont gagné: Mobilisation et développement économique dans les deux guerres mondiales. In Deux guerres totales 1914-1918 − 1939-1945: La mobilisation de la nation, pp. 135-179. Edited by Dominique Barjot. Paris: Economica, 2012 (here's a preprint in English).
- McDonald, Patrick J., and Kevin Sweeney. 2007. The Achilles’ Heel of Liberal IR Theory? Globalization and Conflict in the Pre-World War I Era. World Politics 59:3, pp. 370-403.
- Olson, Mançur. 1963. The Economics of the Wartime Shortage: A History of British Food Supplies in the Napoleonic War and in World Wars I and II. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Rodrik, Dani. 1995. Political Economy of Trade Policy. In Handbook of International Economics, vol. 3, pp. 1457-1494. Edited by Gene Grossman and Kenneth Rogoff. Elsevier.
June 12, 2013
Writing about web page http://lectures.gaidarfund.ru/articles/1698
When I visited Moscow in April, Ilya Venyavkin of the Gaidar Foundation was kind enough to interview me. The interview has just appeared in Russian on the Gaidar Foundation website. Here I've translated it back to English.
Mark Harrison: “When people said they’d prefer a strong leader to democracy, as an economic historian I say: I’ve heard that before somewhere." A professor of economics at the University of Warwick, Mark Harrison recalls his attraction to communist ideas and explains why we need economic historians, and why the USSR reminded him of Tolkien’s Mordor.
- Gaidar Foundation: Why did you become interested in the Soviet economy?
Mark Harrison: I’m a child of the Cold War - my parents followed events in the Soviet Union closely and felt the fear of nuclear war. At the age of six or seven, I already knew of the Soviet Union as a threat. An incident when I was in school had quite an influence on me: during English class we had to demonstrate correct usage of an idiom, “a household name” (“a person that everyone knows”). When my turn came, I said: “Khrushchev.” Then my problems began. First, the teacher began to ask me why I named Khrushchev and not, for example, Kennedy; then my classmates teased me that I was a communist. At the time I had no idea what that meant, and in the end I decided to find out. A few years later I began studying economics, and one of the reasons I became interested in it was Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. I read it and asked my father if what was written there was true. My father said he didn’t know, and then I decided to look into that too.
The end of the 1960s, when I went to university, was a time when youth culture and student movements flourished: we were all revolutionaries and socialists. I studied at Cambridge and we had lectures from Charles Feinstein, one of the leading economic historians of the twentieth century. Charles was born in South Africa and was a member of the Communist Party of South Africa. In his homeland he faced a choice: leave the country or go to jail. He ended up in England and I learned a lot from him. Another of my teachers was Maurice Dobb: he was a member of the British communist party, and he wrote the first serious (although somewhat biased) history of the Soviet economy. All this led me naturally to the idea of studying the Russian economy.
- GF: And you also became a leftist?
MH: Yes, and I stayed on the left for quite a long time.
- GF: Were you hoping to find in the USSR a model of a more just social and economic order?
MH: That’s what I hoped, but it’s not what I found. I can describe clearly the impact on me of visiting the USSR in 1972. I brought two thick books: one was the works of Jane Austen, and the other was The Lord of the Rings in three volumes. I read Jane Austen first, and that was great because it was a complete escape from life in the Soviet Union. Then I started to read The Lord of the Rings, and a depression descended on me because I saw something just like the Soviet Union: border guards, barbed wire, a secret police ...
To live in the Soviet Union was both frightening and interesting. As a foreigner I lived a privileged life - we always knew that nothing would happen to us, unless we did something really stupid. We knew we were living in a police state, and we quickly learned the simple rules – for example, always to call only from a phone booth, if possible, and not to tell anyone about one’s plans.
- GF: Did you come across the secret services during your first visit?
MH: Not directly. But I’ll tell you a story: before going to the USSR (our student trip fell under an intergovernmental agreement), we attended a meeting at the Foreign Office where a diplomat, who was in charge of the meeting, told us:
You are going to Moscow to study and that’s fine. But be careful, because the KGB will be interested in you – they may follow you, see who you are talking to, or even try to compromise you by using alcohol or drugs to put you under pressure. If that happens, come to us and we’ll help you.
Last year, I chanced on a document in the archives of the KGB, dating back to the end of the 1960s. The document says that the British Foreign Office is advising everyone who visits the Soviet Union about the working methods of the KGB. It goes on to detail all the advice that our diplomat gave us. I was reading the paper and I was wondering what they would write at the end – would they say that this was pernicious anti-Soviet propaganda? But in the last paragraph I found the words:
We circulate this information to all operative staff so that they can be aware that our working methods are known.
- GF: Do you remember exactly when you became disillusioned in the system?
MH: I continued to believe in the possibility of a more just world order and I was attracted by the idea of Euro-communism – the ideas of reform communism that arose in Italy, France and Spain. With many friends I was very excited when Gorbachev came to power. We hoped that he would be able to combine the ideas of socialism and democracy. But this did not happen. That was when I realized that I needed to move on – the stage of my life that began in 1970 came to an end in 1991.
I think it’s a very interesting example of how each new generation came to the Soviet experience with new knowledge and new hope. New knowledge meant an understanding of how terrible everything could be, but there was always the hope that it could all still be put right, and Khrushchev had that, and then the Eurocommunists, and then Gorbachev. Today what I believed then looks completely crazy, but nonetheless I believed it wholeheartedly.
- GF: How did you react to the rejection of socialist values in the 1990s?
MH: I think that at that point I was already becoming a liberal. I am very grateful for my experience of the 1990s, because I was able to see how a colossal system broke down as production stopped, money lost its value, and law and order stopped working. I understand that the transition period was very difficult, although I don’t accept (as some do) that it was because of this that millions died.
Another issue is the growing nostalgia today in Russian today for the days of Brezhnev or Stalin. But it is very useful to compare this situation with that of Germany: After the fall of the Berlin Wall, all the opinion polls showed that residents of the former East German state were very happy to get rid of self-censorship and constant surveillance by the Stasi. Today, people have had time to forget about what it was like for them, and nostalgia for the GDR is growing.
- GF: What do you think of Gaidar’s reforms as a scholar?
MH: I’m not sure I have an easy answer. I have a few answers. First, he was a brave man. Secondly, I am not sure that at that moment he had a lot of choice. The state was collapsing and in such a situation it’s not particularly important what policy you choose, or whose advice you listen to, because you have only a very limited ability to influence the situation. The collapse of the Soviet Union had begun under Gorbachev and by 1991 has already gone so far that, it seems to me, the trauma of transition was unavoidable. As you know from my lecture, I’m not one of those who believe that the Soviet Union could have followed China’s path.
The main problem of the transition period in Russia was the oligarchy that emerged from privatization and the loans for shares deal; many people both here and in the West believe that there was dirty dealing. This is the original sin of the Russian reforms, which continues to define the nature of the economic and political system in Russia.
I could imagine a different version of events in which the Russian companes could have been sold off in open international auctions. In this case, the Russian government would have been able to recoup much more money, and then a limited stratum of extremely rich people would not have been created. But that raises another question: could the Russian government at that moment have afforded to sell the most important industrial companies to foreigners?
Now I think a lot about the disastrous consequences of nationalism, and this is another example of how nationalism hinders the government from making the right choices.
- GF: Was it possible to avoid the collapse of the Soviet Union?
MH: No, I think not. Gorbachev’s decisions were very important. You can quite easily imagine that if Andropov lived a little longer, he would have used repressive methods, and they would most likely have had some effect.
When the miners went on strike in 1989, Gorbachev gave a very clear signal that the old repressive methods would not be applied. It was Gorbachev’s personal decision and everything followed from that. It is easy to imagine how Andropov might have decided otherwise. In that case the Soviet Union would have survived longer, although it would not have become a prosperous state, just there would have been some more time before it collapsed.
- GF: What issue in the economic history of Russia do you think is most interesting?
MH: There are areas of research that I think are extremely promising. My co-author Andrei Markevich is working currently in one of them – to reconstruct the economic history of pre-revolutionary Russia. The point is that what we know about this period is based on various assumptions with little idea of how they correspond to reality. Now Andrei is building regional statistics, and this should give us a much better idea of how Russian agriculture was organized and how effective were the measures to reform it. I think that in 10 or 15 years we will have very precise answers to these questions.
A second major theme, one that I am engaged in now, it is the question of how the security system worked in the Soviet Union and how it influenced the Soviet economy.
- GF: What is going on today in economic history as a discipline?
MH: I think economic historians are currently doing two things that are important both for science and for society. [One is that] they are giving much attention to the long-term. My colleagues are working on the national accounts of England and Holland and tracking them back to the eleventh century so that they can make use of a thousand years of data. Tracking and comparing data in the long term, we can think much more clearly about the nature of economic growth. For example, we find that medieval Europe was much richer than many modern countries, and that the conditions for the industrial revolution matured over several centuries. Such studies are extremely important and of significant interest to the public. This, incidentally, is an additional complexity facing economic historians: in contrast to more traditional historians, it’s more difficult for us to tell a compelling story and attract public attention.
Another important task of modern economic history is to tell people about the economy in historical perspective. Today the world and, especially, the Western capitalist countries are going through an economic downturn and people are in a panic because they have not lived through a similar crisis before. But economic historians can say: Look at the Great Depression of the 1930s for other examples of economic crises – what's going on is not new.
This is an important lesson. Currently many people are saying: Look at the disastrous results of democracy and the free market economy, the government should step in. Maybe we need less democracy and more strong leaders! As an economic historian, I say to myself: I’ve heard this before somewhere. In the 1930s it was just the same. Then, it seemed, liberal democracy had failed and many countries turned readily to communism and fascism. This was a real disaster, ending in the Second World War and 50 million deaths. We shouldn’t do it again.
Video presentation and transcript of Mark Harrison’s lecture: “Stumbling Bear, Soaring Dragon: Could the Soviet Union have Followed the Chinese Road?”
Mark Harrison’s three must-reads for those that are starting out in economic history:
- Lizzie Collingham, The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food(Allen Lane, 2011).
- Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Norton, 1997).
- Paul Gregory, Terror by Quota: State Security from Lenin to Stalin (an Archival Study) (Yale University Press, 2009).
June 11, 2013
Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-22811580
Widespread concerns about mass surveillance in Western societies have been triggered by two revelations in The Guardian: a court order of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court giving the FBI unlimited access to the call logs of the Verizon telephone network; and details of the Prism program that gives the U.S. National Security Agency – and maybe others, such as our own GCHQ, access to servers through which foreign communications pass.
Natural questions arise. Are our liberties at risk, along with our privacy? Are we moving in the wrong direction along the spectrum that runs from a free and democratic society to a totalitarian police state?
To help answer such questions, it would seem only sensible to ask how surveillance works in real totalitarian police states. The answer might give us a reality check. That comparison is what I’m going to offer. I’m going to point out some important similarities between what the U.S National Security Agency (and others) are up to and the functions of the secret police under communist rule. I’m also going to show some differences. My conclusion is going to be that we are a long, long way from mass surveillance in the style of the Soviet KGB or China’s Public Security Bureau. But that should not be completely reassuring.
Here are the similarities that look important to me:
- Mass surveillance
American counter-intelligence is in the business of mass surveillance. They’re looking at everyone. Jeremy Bash, chief of staff to former CIA director and defense secretary Leon Panetta, is quoted in the New York Times as saying:
If you’re looking for a needle in the haystack, you need a haystack.
That haystack is the millions and billions of bits of our data that are being gathered. Mass surveillance was also the business of the KGB, as it is the business of the secret police under any dictator. In fact, counter-intelligence everywhere has an unquenchable thirst for personal facts. Every secret policeman knows that the most dangerous enemy is the one you don’t have on file. You can keep tabs on the ones already in the Rolodex – but what about the sleepers, the new recruits, the ones that are out there and completely invisible to you? It’s what you don’t know that can kill you. So, in the interests of staying alive you can never know enough.
- Detection relies on big data
How do you find the enemy you don’t know? By using data and looking for patterns in the data. This is what the KGB did. They looked for several kinds of patterns. They were pioneers of profiling, for example. They figured that many disloyal people had markers in common, although exactly what mattered changed from one period to another. In one period it was your social origins – upper class (which meant the regime had taken your property) or poor. In other periods it was whether you had family members that had fled abroad, or you spoke a foreign language, or you had stayed behind when the war came and tried to live quietly under German occupation. So, the KGB looked for people with those markers. Another thing the KGB looked for was who knew whom or was related to whom. When they put a person under surveillance, they obsessively tracked friends and family members, telephone callers, letter writers, and so on. A third thing was just to look for unusual patterns of activity in the street and at work. To know what was unusual, they had first to know what was usual, and this in itself required data collection on a massive scale. The abnormal would stand out only against the normal. Qualitatively, this isn’t different from what the FBI or the NSA are doing. They too are mainly just looking for anomalies, or patterns of interest in the data.
- The goal is prevention
The ultimate goal of surveillance is prevention. Exactly what is being prevented may vary. Most western intelligence agencies today are trying to prevent another 9/11 or its London equivalent, another 7/7. They are also trying to prevent the public from finding out exactly how they are doing this, because that knowledge might help their targets to pass under the radar. China’s Public Security Bureau has a wider set of goals: to prevent public disorder, to prevent open criticism of China’s leaders and political order, and to prevent everyone from getting the idea that open opposition could ever be normal and go unpunished. The KGB’s goals were pretty similar. To do any of these things you have to be ready to react instantly to signals that something is up. Sometimes you receive a signal, and you can wait and see how it develops. Sometimes you have to react and nip it in the bud even before you know what it is that “it” might be. To prevent the bad stuff you have to review all situations that look as if they have a potential for going bad, and consider all people that look as if they have a potential to become enemies. Identifying the potential enemies is always and everywhere a judgement call.
- Risk of type I errors.
So much in this line of work is a judgement call that errors are inevitable. Some are what statisticians would call Type I errors and some are of the opposite type – Type II. You make a Type I error when you see a pattern in randomness, so for example a person has a random resemblance to a terrorist by having the wrong appearance and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and suddenly you’ve got them on a plane to Guantanamo Bay. And then a Type II error is when you miss a pattern, or overlook a real spy or terrorist. To explain this another way, when you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, and it’s important to avoid missing it, it’s inevitable that you will turn up lots of things that might be needles because they look quite like needles and in fact you might have even stuck one in the pin cushion before you realized that it’s just a shiny thorn … and now you can’t be bothered to retrieve it. Yes, and that means that where there is scope for error there is also scope for abuse, because secret policemen are not all dedicated professionals; among them will be those that are too lazy, or too ambitious, or too much in love with power to correct a mistake. In most situations Western societies show a preference for Type II errors over Type I errors; we’d rather leave a criminal at liberty than imprison an innocent person. That’s not so hard when we’re talking about shoplifting; it’s harder by orders of magnitude when the criminal at liberty has the potential to behead a bystander or fly a passenger jet into a shopping mall.
Those are the ways in which western counter-intelligence looks very much the same as counter-intelligence under totalitarian rule. But there are also some key differences. Here they are:
- Law governed and openly contested
Most obvious is the existence of a legal framework. It was not always like this but in both Britain and America the intelligence services now operate within the law, subject to both legislative and judicial oversight. The law permits some things and not others. The NSA can find out that X sent an email to Y, but it can’t read your email without a court order that names you and convinces a judge of probable cause. This framework may well look unsatisfactory, and may indeed be unsatisfactory; I’m not a lawyer and don’t pretend to know. At the same time, we also have a free press and intrepid journalists that have strong incentives to find scoops and dig out scandals. As a result, the scope of secrecy and surveillance is law-governed (although imperfectly), open to free discussion (to the extent that we know of it), and contested (vigorously and continually). If you don’t like the law you can take the contest to the polls, and do the hopey-changey thing of tossing out the law makers. Or you can take a personal stand, break the law, and answer for it in the courts like Bradley Manning (although this does not seem to be the path preferred by Julian Assange or Edward Snowden). The contrast with the situation in countries under communist rule could not be more stark. There the KGB responded only to the instructions of the ruling party (and the same no doubt holds in China, Cuba, North Korea, and North Vietnam); there was and is no answerability to the parliament, the courts, or the press. What is more, the merest mention of secrecy and surveillance was completely suppressed; the existence of secrets was a well policed secret.
- A much bigger haystack
America’s haystack is of unimaginably vast dimensions. It’s so big that, according to Edward Luce in the Financial Times, it employs a data-intelligence complex with a staff of nearly a million and a budget of $80 billion. The KGB’s haystack was pretty large in its time. It was put together from many individual straws: agent reports of gossip from canteen queues and student dormitories, surveillance reports, information gathered from microphones, phone taps, opening the mail, and so forth. In 40 years the archive of KGB counter-intelligence in Soviet Lithuania (a country of around 3 million people) accumulated at least a million pages of documents. On that basis, the total paperwork of the entire Soviet KGB archive (for 70 years and a country of 200 million people and more) ought to exceed that of Soviet Lithuania by at least two orders of magnitude. And this was in a society with one landline system and one mail service, without networked computers or mobile phones, where no one even had free access to a photocopier. When even intercity phone calls had to be booked through an operator in a city exchange, it was relatively easy for the KGB to monitor anyone’s personal network. So the size of America’s haystack must be thousands of times larger than this, and probably tens or hundreds of times larger than even China’s haystack. This observation, at first alarming, is testimony to the fact that we live in a free society in which communication is unfettered and of negligible cost by historical standards. We, the citizens, are the ones that make the haystack so large by our abundant use of the freedom to communicate.
- Many fewer needles
The problem of finding needles in this vast haystack is magnified by the fact that western societies do not appear systematically to produce needles – certainly not on the scale of more repressive societies. As the sociologists Inkeles and Bauer (in The Soviet Citizen, 1959) reported from the first wave of the Harvard Interview Project, the Soviet system of repression was apparently based on the assumption that everyone had a reason to hold a grudge against the communist rulers somewhere in their past. A parent had lost property, a brother had been arrested, a husband shot, a cousin’s family resettled in the remote interior. As time passed the salience of such historical events might recede, yet for some reason each new generation of Soviet-educated citizens kept on throwing up new kinds of nonconformity and outright disloyalty that had to be monitored and checked. In contrast western societies are not governed by dictators that have systematically expropriated property and penalized wide social classes and ethnic groups; they also provide multiple channels for citizens to express discontent and resentment and organize for social and political change. Despite this, there are still needles: enemies of openness and tolerance. But they are far fewer in number than the hostile forces that repressive regimes cannot help but produce and reproduce continually.
- More type I errors.
You put a much bigger haystack together with far fewer needles and the implication is unmistakeable. When the haystack is small and needles are many, the chances of making Type I errors are reduced. Under communist rule, if it pricked like a needle and it looked like a needle, there was at least a good chance that it was a needle. Any western intelligence agency trying to find those few needles in today’s mega-haystack has a much reduced chance of coming up with real needles compared with their communist counterpart, and a correspondingly heightened chance of false positives. The fact that so many people are looking for the few needles, that the number of big data analysts must exceed the probable number of real terrorists by a factor of one hundred or even ten thousand, just makes it much, much worse. So you want to make a career as an analyst. How can you distinguish yourself if you never identify a threat? How can you fend off boredom if you never reach the point of saying: “This is someone we should look at more closely”? So you do it, and you make a mistake. Well, it was worth looking into. And that is most unfortunate, because as a society we want to live in safety but we also hate Type I errors. We intensely dislike the idea that an incidental bystander might get investigated, or even detained, because of an intelligence error. So intelligence errors sow cynicism and mistrust.
Now I’ll summarize. NSA versus KGB: Is there good or bad news in the comparison? To me the news looks mostly good. Compared with the KGB, the NSA looks quite benign. But there is also a warning. The warning flows from the observation that there is no limit on what our guardians would like to know about us. The more they know, the better informed they are. But the more resources they have, the greater is the scope for over-ambition, the abuse of power, and the false positives that we rightly fear. How much is enough? The purpose of national security is not to suffocate us with cotton wool. It is to enable us to be the people we would like be and to protect the rule of law that we would like to have. In a free, open society the limits of security are something we, the citizens, should always debate, contest, and, if necessary, push back.
About me: I've spent much of the past five years working with archives of the KGB of Soviet Lithuania held at the Hoover Institution Archive. This work is in a paper I have coming out soon in the Journal of Economic History and in other work in progress or under review.
April 09, 2013
Writing about web page http://www.voxeu.org/article/economic-legacy-mrs-thatcher
Like a million other bloggers and tweeters, I woke this morning thinking about Margaret Thatcher, who has just died.
The front page of this morning's Coventry Telegraph calls her "The woman who divided a nation." In the Financial Times, Janan Ganesh notes that those who call her policies "divisive" often wish to avoid a simple fact: "It is almost impossible to do anything significant without enraging some people"; at best, they indulge "the fantasy that her reforms could have been undertaken consensually."
In my heart, at the time, I was enraged by what Margaret Thatcher did. But now she belongs to history. In my head, looking back as an economic historian, I have to acknowledge the necessity of it. When she came to power, our country was a pretty miserable place: stagnant, strife-torn, and full of bullies. Money was more equally distributed than it is now, but money was worth less than power, and power was highly concentrated in the hands of state monopolies, private monopolies, and organized labour. If you are among the many that think heavier taxation and more market restrictions can make a more consensual, peaceful society, you need to take a closer look at this period of our history. In short, Margaret Thatcher did not invent social division and conflict, which were already present, but she redrew the lines in favour of market access and free enterprise.
When the economic historian looks back, what else is there to see? No one has looked back more clearly than my colleague Nick Crafts on yesterday's Voxeu, so I'll leave the last word on that to him.
I'll finish on a personal note. Nothing annoyed me more at the time than what Margaret Thatcher famously had to say about "society," for I am a social scientist and what she appeared to say was that society does not exist:
I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people.
Yet a close reading shows that Thatcher had in mind something very close to the kind of model that all economists must use to understand the distribution of income in society, based on the idea that income must be produced by some before it can be redistributed to others:
When people come and say: “But what is the point of working? I can get as much on the dole!” You say: “Look” It is not from the dole. It is your neighbour who is supplying it and if you can earn your own living then really you have a duty to do it and you will feel very much better!”
It's a message for today. I didn't want to hear it at the time. Thatcher didn't seem too bothered by that, and that annoyed me even more. It's still hard for me to say it, but it was a good thing she didn't care.
February 04, 2013
Writing about web page http://cpasswarwick.wordpress.com/overview-2/peking-conference/proposed-topics/
On Friday evening I found myself debating "Socialism vs Capitalism: The future of economic systems" at the Peking Conference of the Warwick China Public Affairs and Social Service Society. The organizers also invited my colleagues Sayantan Ghosal, Omer Moav, and Michael McMahon, who spoke eloquently. The element of debate was not too prominent because we all said similar things in different ways. I'm an economic historian and the great advantage of history is that it gives you hindsight. Anyway, here is what I said:
Let’s start from some history. There was a time between the two world wars when the capitalist democracies, like America, Britain, France, and Germany, were in a lot of trouble. In 1929 a huge financial crisis began in the United States and went global. There was a Great Depression. Around the world, many tens of millions of farmers were ruined. Tens of millions of workers lost their jobs.
As today, people asked: What was the cause of the problem? One answer they came up with was: Capitalism is the problem. Lots of people decided: the problem is the free market economy! The government should step in to take over resources and direct them! The government should get us all back to work! The government should get us building new cities, power stations, and motorways!
Another answer many of the same people came up with was: Democracy is the problem. Lots of people decided: the problem is too much politics! We need a strong ruler to stop the squabbling! Someone who can make decisions for the nation! Someone who can organize us to build a common future together!
So there was a search for alternatives to capitalism. Different countries tried different alternatives. The alternatives they tried included national socialism (or fascism) and communism under various dictators, like Hitler and Stalin.
What happened next? On average the dictators’ economies did recover from the Depression faster than the capitalist democracies.
(Here's a chart I made earlier to illustrate the point, but I did not have the opportunity to use it in my talk. Reading from the bottom, the democracies are the USA, France, and the UK; the dictatorships are Italy, Germany, Japan, and the USSR. You can see that Italy does not conform to the rule that the dictators' economies recovered faster. Without Italy, the average economic performance of the dictatorships would have looked even better.)
But solving one problem led to another. Before the 1930s were over the dictators’ policies had already caused millions of deaths. A Japanese invasion killed millions in China (I'm not sure how many). An Italian invasion killed 300,000 in North Africa. Soviet economic policies caused 5 to 6 million hunger deaths in their own country and Stalin had a million more executed.
And another problem: As political scientists have shown, democracies don’t go to war (with each other). Dictators go to war with democracies (and the other way round). And dictators go to war with each other. The result of this was that in the 1940s there was World War II. Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, and Stalin went to war -- with the democracies and with each other. Sixty million more people died.
After the war, capitalism recovered. In fact, far from being a problem, it became the solution. By the 1960s all the lost growth had been made up. Think of the economic losses from two World Wars and the Great Depression. If all you knew about capitalist growth was 1870 to 1914 and 1960 onwards, you’d never know two World Wars and the Great Depression happened in between.
(To illustrate that point, here's another chart I made earlier, but did not use. It averages the economic performance of Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, and the USA.)
After World War II fascism and national socialism fell into disrepute, but communism carried on. In China, Mao Zedong’s economic policies caused more deaths. In 1958 to 1962, 15 to 40 million people starved. Communist rule led China into thirty years of stagnation and turmoil. After that Deng Xiaoping made the communist party get its act together. And the communists forgave themselves for their past and agreed to forget about it.
Here's the takeaway.
Liberal capitalism isn’t perfect, but it has done far more for human welfare than communism. It has been the solution more often than the problem. Last time capitalism experienced some difficulties, many countries went off on a search for alternatives. That search for alternatives led nowhere. It wasn’t just unproductive. It was a terrible mistake that cost many tens of millions of lives. Lots of people have forgotten this history. Now is a good time to remember it.
Postscript. At one point I thought of calling this blog "Alternatives to capitalism: the search for a red herring" (a "red herring" is something that doesn't exist but people look for it anyway.) But I realized that would have been wrong, because alternatives to capitalism have actually existed. The problem with the alternatives is not that we cannot find them. It is that the people who went searching for them fell into a dream and woke up to a nightmare.