Repealing The Financial Revolution

15 10 2013

The Financial Revolution made the rise of the modern state possible by establishing the credibility of sovereign borrowers and thus reducing their borrowing costs. Whenever you look at an aircraft carrier or an Interstate Highway, think of the Financial Revolution.  The financial revolutions in the Netherlands, England, and later the United States involved the creation of systems to ensure that the government’s creditors were always promptly and in full. The result was increased state creditworthiness and falling borrowing costs. Even during major wars, governments could borrow. The geopolitical and social implications of this change were massive. All of this was founded on investors’ trust in the state.

Of course,  hardcore libertarians have never been happy about the emergence of the strong states that the Financial Revolution made possible. In the last few decades,  libertarian minarchists and anarcho-capitalists have used a number of tactics to roll back the state: “starve the beast” tax cuts, encouraging tax competition,  constitutional litigation, charter cities, seasteading. These tactics haven’t been terribly effective. 

Now many of the more impatient libertarians are supporting the  Republican legislative posturing that now threatens to cause the US to default, which raise sovereign borrowing costs.

One has to admire the elegant simplicity of this tactic: cause a default and you effectively repeal the Financial Revolution,  making it much harder to operate the fiscal-military welfare- warfare state the libertarians despise.

I would suggest that these libertarians in a hurry need to ask whether libertarian policies have ever emerged from a crisis.

European Versus American Way of Life

25 08 2009

Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, has published a blog post entitled:  “Touristic Bias: Why Americans Overrate Europe, and Europeans Underrate America”.

His basic argument is that while a typical European city centre is more picturesque than the average American city, Americans have a better quality of life than people in Europe. Most Europeans, he points out, don’t live in tourist destinations like the Left Bank in Paris. I thought that Caplan’s article was interesting but a little short on statistics, especially when you consider that he is an economist. The absence of really basic stats like life expectancy and the murder rate is really noticeable. Some of the people who commented on his blog replied to Caplan by citing figures that show the American-style suburban car culture that Caplan praises is actually pretty widespread in many European countries. For instance, a reader in Sweden pointed out that some European countries have roughly as many cars per capita as the US (500 per 1000 inhabitants). This fits with my own observations: the UK has massive Tesco supermarkets that are roughly the same size as any Wal-Mart, drive-thrus, and roadside restaurants that are basically the same as the US chains. The cars are bit smaller, but car culture is entrenched. Outside of London and a few other the UK’s other big cities, it would be rare to see a man of working age on a bus during the middle of the day, which would also be the case in the US or any other New World Anglo-Saxon country.

When I read the column, I was left wondering whether Caplan has ever lived and worked in a EU country. I checked his CV and turns out he hasn’t, so I’m not certain why he thinks he is more qualified to write this article than the zillions of academics who have lived and paid mortgages in multiple countries. (I would be interested to hear the Australian perspective on this debate). I have a lot of respect of Caplan and his research, but I think that this particular piece is poorly thought out. Not his best work. A powerful piece of evidence that Caplan could have cited in support of his position but which he did not is that the most EU countries, including the UK, experience net emigration to the USA (i.e., more Britons move to the US each year than Americans came to Britain). I’m perplexed as to why Caplan didn’t cite this data, which could have bolstered his case.

Another big problem with Caplan’s piece is that Europe, unlike the United States, consists of many radically different countries (Sweden versus Moldova). I know that some people like to talk about the EU as a sort of United States of Europe, but it’s not a single country. If you want a fairer comparison, contrast life in the EU with life in the three NAFTA countries: the gap between Manhattan and southern Mexico is probably as great as the different between London and, say, Tirana.

The other flaw with Caplan’s piece, which appears on a pro-free-market or libertarian website is that he appears to suggesting that because life in the market-oriented USA is better than life in the more socialist EU, this somehow proves that deregulation and the free market are the way to go. (He doesn’t say this explicitly, but this appears to be the thrust of his article).

There are several problems with this argument. 1) Caplan hasn’t proven than life for Americans in better than life for (West) Europeans. 2) Life could be better in the US simply because of lower population densities rather than because of differences in how societies organize themselves. New Zealand, Australia, and Canada are essentially more socialist versions of the USA (wide open spaces with a bit more social spending). 3) I’m not convinced that all Europeans countries are less “free” economically than the USA. Some EU countries have policies that American libertarians admire. The USA can be very statist in some areas and some of most prosperous EU countries (e.g., Denmark) are actually quite market-oriented, at least according to the measures used by an international organization of free-market think tanks.

Update: Megan McArdle of the Atlantic Magazine has posted some thoughts on Caplan’s piece. (McArdle’s piece is better thought out than that of Caplan and the resulting discussion thread contains posts of higher average quality, in my opinion).  I liked the fact that she mentioned Toronto in her post for several reasons. First, I’m from there. Second, bringing a third territory, in this case (Canada) into the discussion helps us to clarify our thinking about the differences between the US and “Europe”. It is hard to compare two thing unless you have at least one other thing as reference point – this is true in geometry and true when comparing countries.