The ideology that dare not speak its name

by John Q on April 22, 2009

The set of ideas that has dominated public policy around the world for the last thirty years has been given a variety of names – neoliberalism[1], economic rationalism, the Washington Consensus, Reaganism and Thatcherism being the most prominent. Broadly speaking, this set of ideas combines support for free market (or freer market) economic policies with agnosticism[2] about both political liberalism and the relative merits of democracy and autocracy. Since demands for definition are inevitable, I’ll point to mine here.

A striking feature of all of these terms is that they are currently used almost exclusively by opponents of the viewpoint being described, to the point where any use of such terms invariably provokes protests about unfair labelling (this is true even of the most neutral term I can find, “economic liberalism”). Even more striking is the fact that these terms were originally used in a broadly positive sense by supporters of the ideas concerned. I’ve done the story on economic rationalism, Don Arthur covers neoliberalism (with links to more from Taylor Boas and Jordan Gans-Morse (pdf) and you can check Wikipedia for the others.

Why is it that neoliberalism seems to be subject to a political version of the euphemism treadmill? A look at the history will help a bit.

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Rum, Sodomy and the Nash redux

by Henry Farrell on April 22, 2009

John’s post reminds me that I was giving some grief to Matt Welch about seasteaders and the more … conceptually novel side of libertarianism last week (Matt held his own).

This came up in an argument over Peter Leeson’s new book on the joys of eighteenth century piracy as an exercise in stateless government, and the recent excitement off the coast of Somalia. I suggested that Somalia looked like a libertarian paradise – no government, lots of guns etc – something that Matt certainly didn’t agree with personally. But what I didn’t know (until one of the bloggingheads commenters pointed it out) was that Peter Leeson himself has written an article arguing that “modern Somalia is teh awesome”: (or, at least, a lot better than you might think). As he argues in a different, summary essay (linked to below):

Like all other choices, the choices we face in “selecting” governments are constrained. Unfortunately for most developing countries, the political choice set they face is far smaller than the political choice set more developed countries face. Historical features, such as clan tension, rampant corruption, territorial conflicts, and many others, which cannot be changed in the short run, severely restrict the kind of government countries like Somalia can reasonably expect to have if they have a government. Sadly, well-functioning, well-constrained governments like the ones we observe in the U.S. and western Europe are not part of this choice set. Ultra-predatory, corrupt, and abusive governments, however, are. And so is anarchy. As Somalia’s experience illustrates, for many LDCs with these limited options anarchy may very well be the best feasible choice.

I’ll leave the claim here to others who know African politics better than me (Chris Blattman, feel free to chime in) and merely note that these views presents an interesting question for the Princeton people charged with publicizing his book. On the one hand, piracy and Somalia are surely topical issues, but on the other, professor Leeson’s views on piracy and the benefits of Somalian political organization are likely to be unpopular with many people (his current proposed solution for the Somalian piracy problem, by the way, is to privatize the ocean).

I’ve started reading his book on piracy, which is an entertaining enough exercise, but one which I suspect is a bit fishy on the empirics. He clearly has his ideological druthers (see “here”: for his grand theory of why we don’t really need government), but then, so do we all. While I don’t find his claims for anarcho-libertarianism to be particularly convincing, I am probably not the target audience, and they have their place in the grand ideological debate. What I do find disconcerting though, is his obvious sweet tooth for efficiency arguments and just-so stories. History, when you look at it at all carefully, is much too messy to support any ideological explanation unequivocally. The book (and the academic articles that it draws upon) simply feel too neat to me, and don’t persuade me that he went into his research on these topics looking to be surprised by what he found (which I really think you should, any time you engage in empirical research). Others’ mileage may vary.

Reading the Bible in Reading Time

by Harry on April 22, 2009

A story that circulates in some evangelical and homeschooling circles concerns a boy who was told, in a public elementary school, that he could not read the Bible during his free reading time. One version of the story has him being sent home. In some versions of the story (that have been told to me directly) the courts find in favour of the school. I’ve heard the story for quite a while, and assumed there was a grain of truth in it, but have never done the work to find the details (I assumed that the “sent home” version was embellishment, and that the “court finding for the school” bit was… well, at best remarkably ignorant of the law). But now I look for the story, I can’t find any version in what I regard as a reliable news source. Here is the Thomas More Law Center’s version of its own work, which must be true, surely. But google the boy’s name and you get lots of blog posts, but nothing from, for example, the Chicago Tribune, or AP, or.. (There’s the Catholic News Agency, which I might regard as reliable if it weren;t the only source). More mysteriously I’ve heard versions of the story for at least a decade, whereas this version seems very recent. I’m not the best googler or wikipedia user, but am surprised I haven’t found more. Do any readers know the true story?

Periplum Perspectives – “Ready the Dinghy!”

by John Holbo on April 22, 2009

I learned a new word today: periplum! From wikipedia: [click to continue…]