Jan Bentz: ‘Neoliberal Social Justice: Rawls Unveiled’, by Nick Cowen

In Neoliberal Justice, Nick Cowen considers the policy implications of Rawls’s theory of ‘justice as fairness’ when realistic assumptions about human behavior and social theory are introduced, arguing in favor of classical liberal or neoliberal democratic policies, albeit without abandoning central aspects of the Rawlsian framework.

Cowen argues in favor of classical liberal or neoliberal democratic policies, which entail constitutional safeguards for commercial activities. He views these policies as commendable, asserting that alternatives like liberal socialism and property-owning democracy would be less effective in achieving justice in practical situations. Embracing this perspective does not require abandoning key aspects of the Rawlsian framework.

Instead, Cowen contends that support for liberal democracy and capitalism arises from a careful extension of Rawls’s principles, taking into account a contemporary understanding of political economy based on recent historical experiences. His approach is prompted by the decisive distinction between civil and economic liberty, as well as Rawls’s ambivalence between private-property and socialist regimes. Cowen claims that this ambivalence is rooted in an unrealistic conceptualization of an economy as a complete ‘system’ and the economic problem being primarily the allocation of scarce resources between alternative ends.

In Rawls’ treatment, an economic system is considered as a single unit. Cowen suggests considering Rawls’s theory alongside an alternative ‘catallactic’ understanding of economic activity, which would more suitably align with the understanding of a political community composed of individual free and equal citizens engaging in an exchange of rights and duties in the form of a social contract, as Rawls envisioned. Thus, Cowen proposes viewing the Rawlsian framework through the lens of robust political economy (RPE). The present book contributes to this perspective by considering significant features of human political and social life, such as imperfect knowledge, bounded rationality, and opportunistic behavior. The book delves into various aspects of distributive justice, constitutional theorizing, and public policy through the lens of Rawlsian Political Economy. It progresses through different levels of analysis: ideal theory, constitutional theorizing, and practical policy-making, all while considering the implications of imperfect knowledge and self-interested behavior within the Rawlsian framework.

In Part I, the author argues for the importance of institutions in ideal theory, defending Rawlsian emphasis on the basic structure as a site of justice. They highlight scenarios where even individuals with extraordinary goodwill can produce detrimental social outcomes, emphasizing the necessity of effective institutions in translating goodwill into cooperation.

Part II explores the epistemic characteristics of institutions necessary for widespread social cooperation. The author contends that certain private-property market institutions are essential due to problems of calculation, discovery, and subjectivity, which non-market alternatives fail to address adequately.

In Part III, the focus shifts to constitutional theorizing, discussing how economic institutions should integrate into a wider political framework. The author proposes a constitutional perspective to evaluate rules necessary for achieving justice as fairness, advocating for commendable constraints on both bureaucratic and democratic interventions in economic activity.

Part IV examines whether economic liberties should be considered basic liberties prioritized in public decision-making, as they contribute to the development of citizens’ essential moral powers. The author argues for the inclusion of economic liberties as preconditions for justice, advocating for their regulation to ensure fair value while maintaining their essential role.

In Part V, the implications of RPE for establishing a Property-Owning Democracy (POD) are outlined, comparing it to Welfare State Capitalism (WSC). The author evaluates the feasibility of a high liberal approach to POD and proposes a robust POD regime aimed at increasing wealth dispersion through alternative mechanisms.

The conclusion emphasizes that the proposals for neoliberal social justice align with Rawls’ conception of justice as fairness, extending rather than critiquing his theory. It acknowledges the need for further theoretical development, particularly regarding global justice and ensuring compliance, while asserting the attractiveness and realism of the novel proposals presented.

The book stands out for its meticulous writing and compelling arguments, offering a comprehensive exploration of Rawlsian economic theory. The author provides a thorough bibliography after each chapter and effectively elucidates the Rawlsian thesis, demonstrating a deep understanding of the subject matter. Throughout the text, the author’s efforts to contribute positively to the Rawlsian economic context and framework are evident, as they engage rigorously with the complexities of distributive justice and institutional design. By synthesizing theoretical insights with practical policy implications, the book not only enriches scholarly discourse but also offers valuable insights for policymakers and practitioners seeking to navigate economic challenges within a Rawlsian framework.

While the author presents a comprehensive argument for his approach to neoliberal social justice based on Rawlsian commitments, several potential shortcomings could be: (1) A limited scope and applicability of Rawlsian theory. The author acknowledges the restricted domain of Rawlsian theory, which primarily applies to an idealized political community under conditions of moderate scarcity and reasonable pluralism. However, by attempting to evaluate real-world regimes through this lens, there’s a risk of overlooking the complexities and nuances of actual social and economic systems. This restricted application might not adequately capture the multifaceted challenges and dynamics present in non-ideal societies, potentially leading to misguided policy recommendations or unrealistic expectations. (2) The assumption of symmetry in knowledge and incentive problems. While the author’s emphasis on analyzing institutions through the lens of Robust Political Economy (RPE) offers valuable insights, the assumption of symmetry in knowledge and incentive problems across political and economic spheres may oversimplify reality. Real-world institutions often face asymmetrical challenges, and the applicability of a uniform framework for evaluating diverse social and economic phenomena may overlook crucial differences. (3) Last but not least, the text shows evidence of a certain idealization of the Rawlsian framework. Despite the author’s attempt to strengthen Rawlsian theory by applying realistic conditions more systematically, the risk of idealizing the framework itself remains. By aligning closely with Rawls’s liberal commitments and assumptions, the author may overlook alternative perspectives and approaches to distributive justice and other types of realistic politics.

While the author’s approach offers valuable insights into the challenges of achieving distributive justice within real-world contexts, it’s important to critically evaluate the scope, assumptions, and applicability of Rawlsian theory to ensure a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of social and economic dynamics. Based on what is said above, the book is recommended particularly for those with a scholarly interest in political economy, questions of justice, and Rawlsian thought. However, for a general audience without such background, caution may be advised, as its complexity and academic content might make it less accessible and gratifying.

 

‘Neoliberal Social Justice: Rawls Unveiled’ by Nick Cowen was published in 2021 by Edward Elgar (ISBN: 9781800374539). 231pp.


Jan C. Bentz is a lecturer and tutor at Blackfriars in Oxford, with interests in how medieval metaphysics shaped modern thought. He also works as a freelance journalist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neil Jordan: ‘Contemporary Monastic Economy’ by Isabelle Jonveaux

In Contemporary Monastic Economy, Isabelle Jonveaux (Head of the Institute for Pastoral Sociology (SPI), Western Switzerland, and Lecturer in the Sociology of Religion at the University of Fribourg) presents a sociological analysis of the economic activities of those who have adopted monastic life. The book draws on fieldwork and interviews with monks and nuns of various orders on different continents and ‘seeks to explore the responses and strategies of monks and nuns with regard to how they live their economic and monastic life without altering the latter’ (page 3). Thus, the book examines the ‘trade-off’ between the monastic life as devotion to prayer – traditionally characterised as fuga mundi – and the need to engage in work and economic activity, as monastics always have. The book is full of rich detail on this subject and offers an engaging and detailed account of various aspects of monastic economy, including domestic economy, understandings and perceptions of poverty, the use of e-commerce, the design and function of shops, processes of ‘heritagisation’ and differences (and inequalities) between male and female monastics in terms of the types of work and economic activity undertaken. However, it can also inform our understanding of purpose and value in business and work. This review is based on a reading of the book with these concerns in mind.

A theme that runs through the book is the tension between the idea of a life consecrated to God and the notion of work or economy, by which needs are supplied and resources managed. The central point is that since the monastery’s purpose is divine service rather than economic success, economic activities are subject to the norms of faith and the monastic identity. We are therefore given accounts of the ways in which work and economic activity are understood by monastics.

The author provides a brief history of the notion of work in monastic thought, showing how it became central to the monk’s identity, as expressed in the Benedictine notion of ora et labora. Though work had the capacity to distract monastics from devotion, it came to be considered as valuable, both as a means to instilling patience and humility – a form of ascetic practice, as it were – but also as an activity that can constitute a form of spirituality or prayer if carried out diligently and with love. Work is therefore valued not solely for its economic function but for its own sake and in this, monasteries depart from ‘rational’ business practice. This is reflected in the preference among many for ‘full employment’ of all members and the reluctance to ‘dismiss’ those who are inefficient. Indeed, this idea also stands behind the decision on the part of some monasteries to avoid mechanical methods of production, if such efficiencies would deprive a brother or sister of work.

Such an approach to work informs the practice of monastic economy, as ‘the economic activities of monasteries are determined by the meaning given to work’ (page 35). The book discusses various means by which monastics deal with the conflict between economic activity and their vocation, but the most interesting when considering issues of value and purpose in business and work is the strategy of integrating economic activity into monastic life.

Such an approach can involve some re-definition of economic activity in order to ensure that the work is consistent with Christian values, perhaps by regarding a product in an ‘extramundane’ fashion so as to focus on its value as distinct from its economic worth. Chapter 4 explains how this is achieved by nuns who produce and sell altar breads and explains that monasteries favour the sale of artwork. Art is considered to have a value and meaning of its own beyond its economic worth, such that selling the work is ‘less a search for income than the transmission of a value to the buyer’ (page 67).

More frequently, though, it is a question of ensuring that work and activity are informed by Christian values or those of monastic life specifically. The first of these, we might consider to be a commitment to the human aspects of economic activity, or what some of the monastics referred to as its ‘fraternal dimension’ as they seek to resist the anonymity and distance that can often reduce commercial transactions to their purely economic function. This might take the form of simply being present in a monastery shop to talk to customers, adding personalised notes to mail order items or selling the products of other monasteries. Where monasteries have guesthouses, they might encourage those staying to assist with chores (or, outside Europe, even pay for their stay by undertaking work). It is most clearly expressed in attitudes to any staff employed at monasteries. Typically, monastics will want to know each by name and will prioritise wellbeing, perhaps ceasing production in order to allow for days of reflection. Some aim to provide work for local or disadvantaged people specifically and will hire employees on a solidarity contract at times of high unemployment. This extends to a growing interest in social goods, in spite of the traditional monastic ideal of self-sufficiency, with some monasteries in Africa supporting social programmes aimed at helping those who have been dependent on charity to find a living. Rooted in the local environment, such monasteries seek to contribute to local development.

In addition, monastic economy is concerned with the environment and sustainability, not only out of a reverence and love for creation as its stewards, but also because of a commitment to stability of place. While traditionally monastics have sought to make nature conformable to the good of man, ‘ecological ordering is rather to enable future generations to continue to enjoy natural resources while establishing a respectful relationship with nature – out of respect for its Creator – as opposed to its destruction for economic purposes’ (page 194). This engenders a long-term view in which economic development is to occur gradually – potentially over centuries – which in effect constitutes an ethic of patience in business.

The central focus on prayer and fraternity – and what this entails in terms of providing meaningful work – means that monastics will often limit production, even if this means that they cannot meet demand. This approach, of limiting economic activity so as to realise both economic and religious benefits, together with their concern for nature, has given monastics a reputation for quality in their products, which are seen to embody the continuity of tradition and skill: ‘The importance given to quality stems as much from a religious decision-making to take care of the article produced, to transmit beauty and goodness, thereby continuing the work of divine creation, as from objective economic decision-making based on the conditions of the monastic economy’ (page 124).

All of this might suggest that there is something idealistic and insufficiently hard-boiled about monastic economy. Monastics themselves do not present their economic activity as a universal model, but their approach is – of necessity – profoundly rational in many ways. After all, they can only engage in social projects, provide work or even have a life of prayer if the monastery is able to exist in the first place. They therefore do apply pricing schedules (which aim to be ‘fair’ while reflecting the added economic costs of the values according to which they work), use technology (indeed, the monastic approach lends itself to innovation, as the author discusses in Chapter 9) and diversify activities in order to minimise risk. In seeking to make best use of nature, perfecting their techniques and treating it with respect, they are ‘rational pioneers of ecology’ (page 189).

This review has barely touched upon the richly illustrated discussions of the many ways in which monastics deal with the conflict between consecrated life and economic activity, or the multiple examples of how their values inform their work. Such illustrations show that work clearly does have a value beyond economic production and that economic activity is about more than simply generating wealth or maximising profit as quickly as possible. Both work and economic life can provide meaning, afford the development and sharing of knowledge and skills, shape and express identity, involve a range of responsibilities and provide us with opportunities and obligations to contribute to the good of others, to society more broadly and to the natural world – and should be informed by values of respect, fairness and patience. While these observations all emerge strongly from a study of monastic economy, they are not dependent on a monastic vocation for their salience. One need not be a monk or a nun to realise that ‘it is possible to maintain values which are often lacking in the capitalist economy, such as respect for people and working in harmony rather than in competition’ (page 181).

Although the book is a scholarly monograph, the writing is very accessible and the theorisation is of a fairly ‘light touch’ kind, such that those with no grounding in sociology can still follow the author with ease. I would fully recommend this fascinating book to anyone with interests in contemporary monasticism or wishing to broaden their reading on values and purpose in business, but the ‘library-level’ pricing typical of many academic publishers means that until such time as the book appears in paperback, the best approach might be to borrow the book through inter-library loans.

 

‘Contemporary Monastic Economy: A Sociological Perspective Across Continents’ by Isabelle Jonveaux, was published in 2023 by Routledge (ISBN: 978-1-03-207336-1). 178pp.


Neil Jordan is Senior Editor at the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics. For more information about Neil please click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frank Field: “Remaking One Nation” by Nick Timothy

Most books that change the political weather are aimed at a centre-left audience. Remaking One Nation is unashamedly addressed from the right but not exclusively to the right. The book could not be better timed and I will argue that the majority of commentators who say the 2019 Conservative election manifesto is now dead in the water are wrong.

I don’t believe that this hideous virus is going to make it impossible for the Government to begin implementing its election manifesto. Rather, I believe that implementing the programme becomes an even more serious objective. Two political forces are crucially at work that not only open the opportunity to the Government to follow its manifesto, but make its implementation ever more important to repair the damage to the social and economic framework to this country that has resulted from this Chinese virus. Indeed, the Government’s overall election manifesto objective, of raising areas where large numbers of people have lost out, will become an integral part of the Government winning public approval that its strategy to exit the lockdown is not only workable, but intrinsically fair.

The ideas underpinning Remaking One Nation, subtitled The Future of Conservatism, could become a leading political force in the Boris era. Boris has a political record of being a One Nation Tory long before he went quietly to St Thomas’s Hospital to begin his fightback against Covid-19. A part of today’s commentariat’s daily diet is whether Boris will have experienced a Pauline conversion as he fought for his life in St Thomas’s Hospital. I doubt whether this is so, which is good news for all of us citizens who sense that he is a One Nation-builder – i.e. a Tory whose policies are essentially about building bridges rather than dividing the nation along class lines. Boris has a programme of achievements as twice-elected Mayor of London and I don’t see why we should expect any difference to his politics now he is in Downing St. If anything, his recent brush with death will reinforce his basic instincts, not change them. Boris’s record in power is, of course, different from the politics he operated to gain the premiership.

Nick Timothy’s book begins by describing the scene in the May camp just before Nick was given early news of the exit poll which showed that the 2017 election gamble had badly misfired. The Tory majority in parliament, instead of being increased, was cut so that no one party had an overall majority to work the Commons. It does not take many pages for Nick to recall the phone call he immediately had with Theresa May to tell her the news, her weeping during this conversation, and Fiona Hill, who jointly ran with Nick the No 10 operation, being quickly dispensed to Maidenhead for the Prime Minister’s local result. Not to be in Maidenhead already showed the extent to which the electorate had hidden from Tory chiefs their real intent, during the wearisome long election campaign. There is precious little written about the devastating impact that this election failure had on Nick. He merely hints at how serious he found it to cope with the post-2017 election period. He tells us, in a throwaway line, that he did not once think of suicide. This statement tells us all we need to know about how serious a blow this was to the person who had the intellectual nous and the position to draft the Tory election manifesto. The whole book is well written, but these events are recalled both beautifully and with much grace.

Nick then goes on to a discursive discussion on liberalism. I recommend that readers leave this section to the end. The book’s long-term importance, and political impact, is to be found elsewhere. In Remaking One Nation, Nick sets out in some detail what is wrong with Britain as it currently stands and what his election manifesto was attempting to achieve. What Nick writes about the underlying diseased nature of British society, and how his drafted election manifesto was intended to play out. This section has near-universal appeal. There is much consensus in our political society that survived Mrs T’s great onslaught. One of Nick’s political gifts is to write a programme that was not determined by historic party divides. And here is an attractively crafted critique to which all too many of us would willingly sign up. From this critique, Nick moves into policy and here is a political strategy that just failed in 2017. The 2017 results showed Tories nationally winning the popular vote in all classes except for the poorest. Two years later, the same strategy saw a final scaling of many of the ‘red walls’ defending so many Labour seats in the north and midlands.

Let me concentrate on one failure in the book which for me, becomes apparent when the book moves from criticism to policy. Here is my only criticism of the book, which is of the link between a pretty tough inditement of a Britain where rewards are so clearly delivered along class and party lines – and the politics of reform. Political strategists have a duty to seek those proposals which are the lynchpin in driving fundamental change. In this analysis Nick reports, that for most children, life chances are determined before the first day at school. And worse: that the following 14 years at school does not lessen overall the outcome of pupils analysed by class and income. If anything, class differences widen over the school life of pupils. It is in education that we are offered the once in a generation chance fundamentally to change the country in which we live.

The foundation years are key for children, both in what they learned at home and what that home is like. During my 40 years as an MP, for largely the same geographical area called the Birkenhead parliamentary constituency, I witnessed one change of such magnitude that is all too difficult to appear as a balanced commentator bearing witness to the truth. That objective of truth is one to which I am still committed.

During the Thatcher governments, and those of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Britain was opened up to globalisation and its impact was beginning to be felt quite early on. We witnessed such a mass slaughter of semi-skilled and unskilled jobs paying decent wages that, in comparison, makes Herod’s slaughter of the firstborn look like a tea party. Since the advent of globalisation, the role of males, as breadwinners, has simply been eliminated for much of the semi- and unskilled world of the male labourer. A world of too little or no work paying family wages disenfranchised males from their hunting and gathering role.

A previous social security reform paid single mothers more proportionally than two parent families claiming benefits. This well-intentioned act, plus the wipe-out of family wage jobs, is very largely responsible, I believe, for a significant rise in the numbers of children being raised in single-parent households rise out of all expectation. The changes we have witnessed were originally economically driven. Later, but not much later, this revolution in caring for children became one that was culturally driven: young women could see that there were plenty of other young women with children, ostensibly without partners or husbands, and who were making a go of it with a combination of social security payments and a wage packet.

If we are to break this cycle of intergenerational poverty with too many poor children facing make or break disadvantages that effect poor children with a lack of life chances, I believe it is actually crucial to go back to Nick’s analysis which hints at why the foundation years strategy of previous Tory, coalition and Labour governments failed. A strategy that intervenes to strengthen families must be immediate i.e. wherever possible when the baby is the womb. A strategy operated from schools of midwives and health visitors making this first link with mothers who have had a grim experience at school is, I believe, vital for any social revolution. Mothers need to be supported, and fathers when they are present, to be their child’s first teacher. Once the link has been made by such a team working from primary schools over the first two years of a child’s life, the need would then be to bring those mothers and their children into school for art, music, movement and lessons of this kind. Action to counter families not forming is crucial to the next leap forward in increasing life chances, and such a strategy must be seen as fundamental to a repositioning of education’s role in this country.

 

“Remaking One Nation: The Future of Conservatism” by Nick Timothy was published in 2019 by Polity Press (ISBN-13: 9781509539178). 224pp.


Frank Field was Member of Parliament (MP) for Birkenhead from 1979 to 2019.

 

 

 

 

Richard Godden: “Global Discord” by Paul Tucker

Global Discord does not fit neatly into any of the categories of book that are reviewed on this website. It is not primarily a book about business, capitalism or wealth and poverty. In fact, it is not primarily about economics. However, its focus is on something of crucial importance to all of these things: the global political order. Its author, Paul Tucker, the former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, suggests that “the deep architecture of the international economy [is] influx for the first time in decades” (page 3) and he sets out to analyse both the causes of this and potential responses to it.

He never expressly identifies his intended audience. The primary audience is doubtless those responsible for formulating the policies of Western nations in relation to international affairs, including, in particular, international finance and trade. The issues that he discusses are, however, of crucial importance to a far wider audience. Unfortunately, the book is dense and heavy going in parts. This will limit its appeal but those who take the trouble to study it carefully will find it rewarding, particularly if they seek to reflect on how his suggested approaches to international engagement might be applied in their corner of the global political, financial or business world.

Tucker identifies three major differences between the kind of globalisation that we are now witnessing and that which existed in the past: first, derivative markets have separated cross-border flows of funds from flows of risk; secondly, after accumulating vast sovereign wealth funds, some states have acquired great influence in global capital allocation and, taken with state-owned enterprises, state-capitalist actors are operating on a scale that has not been seen “since Europe’s merchant companies traded and intervened around the planet half a millennium ago” (page 7); and, thirdly, today’s infrastructure for cross-border financial transactions create vulnerabilities that can be weaponised.

Tucker suggests that there is “a deep cleavage in modern international affairs” (page 78) and his overwhelming concern is China. He argues that the West needs to face up to the fact that, far from China moving in the direction of a liberal economic and political order, it is moving in precisely the opposite direction. Quoting the now well-known “Seven No’s” of the Chinese Central Committee, he points out that, “While Western states took different paths to [wielding power across their territories, the Rule of Law, and accountability], for China the destination is different” (page 220). Thus he argues, surely correctly, that “commentators in the West who insist current tensions are not ideological – and should not be allowed to become so – are deeply mistaken, while nevertheless pressing an important practical question: What to do?” (page 461).

He repeatedly accuses Western policy makers of wishful thinking in their dealings with authoritarian states and China in particular and he has many criticisms of current global institutions pointing to both specific design flaws and more general issues. Some of these criticisms relate to specific institutions: he describes the second Basel Capital Accord as “deeply flawed” (page 98) and suggests that the WTO is based on unrealistic universalistic rather than pluralistic concepts. Other criticisms are more general: he points to the hazards of delegation to international organisations, particularly in a world in which international treaties are what economists call “incomplete contracts”, and the dangers of what he refers to as “judicialization”.

His concern in relation to the latter is that international courts and tribunals are ruling on matters that ought to be left to political negotiation and are applying interpretations of treaties and even “natural law” concepts in a way that results in states being bound by things to which they do not believe they ever agreed. Some might argue that this is simply the concept of the Rule of Law applied in an international context but, as is the case in relation to some domestic systems (e.g. the role of the Supreme Court in the USA), it gives rise to a situation that is dangerously close to the Rule of Judges. In short, it is an example of judicial overreach and it has potentially serious political consequences for the perceived legitimacy of the world order, particularly when set against the context of the ideological divide to which Tucker draws attention.

Much of what Tucker says is thus critical of the existing order and those who have contributed to its creation. However, Global Discord is not a negative, destructive book. Tucker’s main aim is to assist in the building of a new global order that is based on coherence defensible principles whilst being capable of surviving in the real world. To this end he devotes a lot of space to analysing the theory of international relations and he suggests that we need to contemplate four broad scenarios for the next quarter to half century: “Lingering Status Quo (continuing US international leadership); Superpower Struggle (the scenario most resembling the long eighteenth century’s French-British contest); New Cold War (autarkic rival blocks); and Reshaped World Order (more Vienna 1815 than Washington 1990)” (page 115).

Against this background, he moves to more specific, concrete issues. The final part of the book includes chapters on the international economic system, the IMF and the international monetary order, the WTO and the system for international trade, preferential trade pacts and bilateral investment treaties and Basel and the international financial system, and the book concludes with an eight page appendix setting out, in numbered pithy points, Tucker’s suggested principles for constitutional democracies participating and delegating in an international system. No-one can accuse Tucker of merely dealing in abstract theory!

Tucker describes his approach as “realist” in the sense that it is “not a morality-first account deriving duties, rights, and legitimation principles from fundamental, externally given, universal principles, with some kind of morality system providing ultimate foundations” (page 268). However, he suggests that his approach does not “consign moral values to the side lines” since it requires “sociability with path-dependent, problem-solving norms, which leaves something to be said about the sources or mechanisms of normativity” (page 268).

Many will criticise this approach. Some will do so on the basis that it is insufficiently “realist”. Many others, especially Christians and others with strong moral compasses, will worry that morality plays an insufficient part in it and Tucker concedes that, in his view, the West has to adopt a “live and let live” policy and accept that engagement with illiberal regimes is necessary despite a possible desire to promote a universal morality-based international order.

Tucker is not a moral philosopher and he does not engage in detail with the moral issues. However, one does not have to accept moral relativism to conclude that there is a good moral case for his overall approach. A purist approach is highly unlikely to have the outcomes desired by its protagonists and could well result in outcomes that cause much suffering, whether by resulting in war or, more likely, by preventing co-operation over issues such as pandemics, mass-migration and climate change and by stifling international co-operation and trade, with the result that prosperity declines and poverty increases. Furthermore, Tucker bases his thesis on some fundamental tenets that are, at heart, moral: the desirability of peaceful co-existence; the idea that “order is not to be sniffed at: war and instability are quite a lot worse, as is fear of them” (page 323); the need to “stake out the ground that constitutional democracies should insist on to avoid sacrificing our deep domestic norms: to remain who we are” (page 356) whilst accepting that illiberal states will remain who they are; and the idea that perfection cannot be demanded, legitimacy is not binary and “Authority can be legitimate if it is the best realistically available” (page 287). Whilst this may not go far enough for some moral purists, there is, at least a strong argument to the effect that Tucker’s overall approach is likely to produce the best realistic outcome for the world political and economic order and is thus fundamentally ethically defensible.

The purists will also have difficulties with some of Tucker’s more specific statements. In particular, his suggestion that “We need to make judgements about the past only insofar as they materially affect the present (through institutions, norms, values, embedded habits, and so on)” (page 316) will not resonate well with those who are urging ever more delving into past wrongdoings. However, the purists have never explained how their approach leads to a world in which people are able to live together harmoniously and productively. Indeed, the proponents of the recent trend in legislation in the UK towards there being no time bar in relation to the raking up of the past should reflect on whether their proposals are as ethically pure as they like to believe. For example, Tucker suggests that “it is simply no good looking back to the Gulag” or various other dreadful episodes of the twentieth century (page 316) but this is precisely what the UK Prevention of Crime Act 2002 requires: it, unrealistically, regards an enterprise that has once been tainted by crime (e.g. those that benefitted from contracts with slave labour in the Gulags or those that assisted the Nazi regime) as forever tainted.

In developing his arguments, Tucker analyses in some detail different philosophical approaches to international affairs and different concepts and models of international co-operation (e.g. the nature of international law). He largely dismisses Thomas Hobbes’s extreme “realism” and criticises John Rawles’s demand for what he regards as an unrealistically “thick” and binary (“in or out”) international order, while acknowledging his debt to David Hume and Bernard Williams.

This analysis of the philosophical underpinning of Tucker’s concepts will enhance the attractiveness of Global Discord for some more academically minded readers. However, it is the primary reason why the book is dense and, in parts, heavy going. Tucker would doubtless argue that the analysis is essential to the development of his case and this is doubtless true. However, on occasions, the reader is left with the feeling that the analysis is a bit laboured and that the language could be simpler. This is a pity because it mars an otherwise excellent and important book that deserves to be widely read.

 

“Global Discord: values and power in a fractured world order” by Paul Tucker was published in 2022 by Princeton University Press (ISBN-13:9780691229317). 483pp.

 


Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 30 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world.

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and he is currently a member of the Panel. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the firm’s Executive Committee.

 

John Kroencke: “Streets of Gold” by Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan

Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan provide a compelling, data-driven account of the multigenerational progress of immigrants to the United States in Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success. This book is the result of years of research using ancestry.com data to provide clear evidence on a topic that is often spoken about with references to myths or ideological beliefs. This highly engaging and accessible book offers a blend of this pioneering original research (which yielded the two economic historians multiple articles published in leading economics journals) and the broader social science literature.

Throughout the book, the authors use their assembled data to check whether various widely held beliefs about immigration hold up. They look not just at economic success in the form of the incomes of immigrants and their descendants but also at social assimilation. Along the way, they introduce real immigrants as representative examples of their broader findings.

After an introductory chapter, a methodological chapter, and a brief history of immigration to the United States, the core findings of the researchers are presented in four middle chapters. In turn, they examine a) the economic outcomes for immigrants themselves, b) the economic outcomes for their children, c) cultural assimilation, and d) potential harms to native-born Americans. The final chapter looks at attitudes towards immigrants and uses the findings presented in the book to craft a new evidence-based, pro-immigrant narrative.

The findings of the book suggest that the success of immigrants is clear in the medium to long term. They argue that the rates of assimilation (established by analysing data from name choices, intermarriage, and language abilities) and economic mobility of the descendants of immigrants in the distant past are romanticised and that contemporary immigrants are often judged against these myths.

The scale of the data, new techniques, and the power of contemporary computing allow quantitative insights that were simply impossible before. The authors can follow immigrants across generations to see the path of not just immigrants but their descendants. They can compare the paths of families descended from immigrants from different countries and with different skill levels. The scale and specificity of the data collected and analysed allows nuance and specificity in a topic that often draws out more passion than intellect.

In addition to presenting the authors’ own findings, the book carries out a review of some of the existing economics literature across the relevant chapters. Taken together, the literature provides empirical tests to test theoretical predictions and economic theory to explain empirical findings. For the most part, it finds that many concerns about immigration are overblown (perhaps most notably the purported negative effect on native wages).

The second chapter helpfully summarises the history of immigration to the United States, explaining why immigrants from Europe (and increasingly Southern and Eastern Europe) came to the United States during the Age of Mass Migration, why fewer immigrants came during the early twentieth century, and why immigrants to the United States since the 1960s have mostly come from Asia and Latin America.

The authors manage to draw general conclusions while emphasising that immigrants are unsurprisingly heterogeneous. Some immigrants arrive in the United States with high skills (and determination), which allows them to outearn native-born Americans. On the other hand, those who arrive without skills valued in the marketplace are less able to earn close to the average Americanthough often far more than in their native country. While their incomes catch up as they gain skills (most notably language skills), they often fail to catch up over their lifetime.

In aggregate, the gap between immigrant earnings and native earnings nearly halves: “shrinking from 30 percent upon arrival to 16 percent twenty years later” (page 75). Furthermore, through pioneering data analysis, the book shows that the children and grandchildren of even the least well-off immigrants continue to converge with the rest of the population. In fact, “the children of first-generation immigrants growing up close to the bottom of the income distribution (at the 25th percentile) are more likely to reach the middle of the income distribution than are children of similarly poor US-born parents” (page 85).

The authors do not shy away from showing variation in the performance of the children of poor immigrants by country of origin or the lingering divergence across generations (though nearly all outperform children of similarly poor natives even if you restrict the comparison to white natives). On pages 94–95, the authors show that while most of the circa 1980 cohort of the children of immigrants who earned at the bottom of the income distribution earned more than similar natives, some do marginally better (e.g., France or Honduras) and some do dramatically better (e.g., India or China).

Basic facts about immigrants, both past and present, escape even high-ranking officials. For instance, two countries that stand out in the data both start with the same letter “N.” Immigrants from one country are “the most educated population in the United States, with 81 percent holding at least a college degree” (page 59), while immigrants from another, “…were among the lowest-paid immigrant groups in the early twentieth century, earning $4,000 less annually than US-born workers (in today’s dollars) and failing to make up much of this earnings gap even after thirty years in the country” (page 73). The first is Nigeria, and the second is Norwaythe authors note that this is the opposite of President Trump’s infamous 2018 assessment of the two countries.

The authors argue that contemporary cultural compatibility assessments must prove they are different than past assessments of Catholics and other migrants (most notably East Asians), who have now clearly integrated into the mainstream of American culture.

One important reason why immigrants and their children succeed is that immigrants move to areas within the United States with greater opportunity. Unlike Americans, who are embedded (or stuck) in local communities that may offer fewer opportunities, immigrants can and often do choose to live in cities with strong labour markets that offer the best chance of success. In fact, while “children of immigrants outearn other children in a broad national comparison, “this can be explained in part by geographical opportunity as “they do not earn more than other children who grew up in the same area” (page 99). The separate question of what factors prevent economic mobility among natives is important, and government policy restricting housing supply clearly does not help.

In short, the authors deftly deal with the evidence and have written a book that is compelling and detailed but not too long. Some more academic readers may tire of the illustrative examples they use or the throat-clearing about anti-immigrant politicians (the former at least makes the book more compelling). The book ends on a more prescriptive note, which may be of less interest. However, the data presented makes a compelling case against standard worries about immigration. Interestingly, popular support for immigration is rising. Despite the huge number of immigrants already in the US and the degree to which it has become a political touchstone, immigration polls much better than it has in the past, with the percentage of Americans thinking that immigration is a “good thing” increasing from 52 percent in 2002 to 75 percent in 2021 (page 190).

Streets of Gold is an interesting and compelling work based on sound academic research. It will be of interest not just to historians, economists, and other social scientists but to a broad range of people. It should be read by anyone who wishes to make informed statements about this often contentious topic.

 

Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success by Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan was published in 2022 by Public Affairs (ISBN: 978-154179783). 256pp.


John Kroencke is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics. For more information about John please click here.

 

 

Kaetana Numa: “In Defense of Public Debt” by Barry Eichengreen et al.

Barry Eichengreen is Professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. His economic and economic history research focuses on monetary and financial systems, and he is an author of over 20 books, among them Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression, 1919–1939, Globalizing Capital: A History of the International Monetary System, and The European Economy since 1945: Coordinated Capitalism and Beyond.

Eichengreen’s and his co-authors’ In Defense of Public Debt is organised into 14 chapters, tracing the history of public debt from its earliest origins in the Greek city–states and the Roman Republic, and arriving at the Covid economic scene (the book was published in September 2021). Each chapter focuses on a specific time period with its particular theme and relevant cases studies. For example, Chapter 3 “States and the Limits of Borrowing” recounts the fiscal and political developments primarily in the European states in the sixteenth–eighteenth centuries that augmented commitment to repay debts and enabled more borrowing; it also identifies certain ‘impediments’ (such as fiscal decentralization and competition) that limited states’ abilities to borrow more.

The book reads like a history of public debt, and in that respect, it presents a thorough historical account of the topic. In addition to analysing the overall levels of public debt, the authors also examine the development of the actual methods of public borrowing, creditors’ rights and representation, and the role of banks and various intermediaries. Readers may be pleased to find that the history of taxation and monetary systems are interwoven into this historical narrative of public debt.

In the introduction chapter, the authors promised to give a “balanced account” of public debt; curiously, “balanced” was meant as “placing more weight on the positive aspects than is typical of the literature” (page 5). Even so, the positive aspects put forward in this book are often vague. There is surprisingly little discussion of the use and efficiency of public debt, beyond the general recognition that states have historically relied on borrowing to fund wars, invest in infrastructure, social services, and, more recently, to bail out the financial sector and bankroll public services during a pandemic. The readers are expected to take it for granted that debt is used to fund vital causes. Yet are all uses of debt equally sound and defensible? This question is mostly ignored, except for some hints that spending on general consumption would not be as desirable as spending on investment. It admits that even though budget surpluses should be pursued to reduce debt when the economy is growing, this is difficult to achieve in practice. When it comes to generating primary surpluses, the book’s proposed answer is always higher tax, rather than spending cuts.

Eichengreen’s book leaves one with an impression that there is economic evidence of a positive relationship between public debt and economic growth. This relationship is meant to act as a “positive feedback” in the economic growth models, whereby “The link from public debt and its role in financial development to faster growth, and from faster growth back to financial deepening and economic development, is just such a feedback” (page 212). Among other things, we learn that with respect to foreign borrowing in the nineteenth century, “Countries that borrowed more invested more and grew faster on average, suggesting that issuing sovereign debt paid” (page 7), with a concession in the Notes section that evidence of a positive link “is weaker for the twentieth century” (page 228). However, a more balanced account of public debt would have had to mention the ample economic evidence of a negative relationship between high levels of public debt and economic performance. For example, most recent economic studies on this subject identified a negative link between high public debt and economic growth; there is also a tipping point threshold (in the range of 70% to 100% of GDP) when debt begins to have a significantly detrimental effect on growth (see, for example, De Rugy, V. and Salmon, J. Debt and Growth: A Decade of Studies).

This is not to say that Eichengreen’s book does not mention any negative aspects of public debt, as it does recount examples of heavy interest payments, defaults, and, in worst cases, loss of sovereignty. Yet even though the various debt default episodes make for interesting reading, they ignore the subsequent harm caused to society, and do not show the full extent of the social and economic miseries experienced during such episodes. Moreover, the negative aspects are often presented as examples of debt mismanagement or perils of public debt, even though they could in fact point to more systemic issues.

The question of morality of accumulating public debt does appear towards the end of this book, yet the moral arguments against public debt, as well as those making these arguments, are presented here in a dismissive tone: “They fret”, “worry”, “complain” (page 181). Readers appreciating the vital link between market and ethics may find it strange to see moral objections to public debt being dismissed outright as not belonging to the economic realm, with the authors suggesting that “there was also another view, in which debt was viewed in economic rather than moralistic terms, and where its issuance was seen as a solution to problems, not as their source” (page 182). Yet as already noted above, plenty of recent economic evidence shows high levels of public debt having a detrimental effect on economic performance; thus, even when analysed in economic terms, debt is hardly a solution. Meanwhile, moral issues stemming from public debt, such as the distributional and intergenerational justice issues, raise serious dilemmas that deserve to be answered.

The lack of a response to these moral arguments is but one of the questions left unanswered. Another one, just as problematic, relates to how to deal with rising debt in the future. This book does not engage with the alarming long–term projections of public debt. For example, the UK public sector net debt as a share of GDP is forecast to quadruple by 2070 to 418% of GDP (Office for Budget Responsibility Fiscal Sustainability Report – July 2020). Developed countries will be faced with growing social security and healthcare costs (which have not been pre–funded and are further hampered by unfavourable demographic circumstances), raising more issues for the policymakers. Even with respect to the immediate public debt situation, Eichengreen’s book concedes “there are no simple solutions” (page 223), noting the possibility of runaway inflation (even though the book was sceptical about such a development), the dangers of higher interest rates, and the limited prospects of economic growth or budget surpluses.

Unfortunately, the fears of sharp inflation and rising interest rates have already materialised by mid–2022. This brings us back to the moral issues with debt, namely, to the responsibility of architects of fiscal and monetary policy for the economic pain presently being inflicted upon the wider society. Eichengreen’s book referred to debt as a temptation to which politicians may succumb to. This demonstrates that there is more to public debt than pure economics, and that those seeking a way out of the looming debt crisis should not dismiss the ethical arguments against public debt after all.

Those looking for a truly balanced account of public debt will need to look elsewhere but there is much of value in this book for those interested in economic history.

 

“In Defense of Public Debt” by Barry Eichengreen, Asmaa El–Ganainy, Rui Esteves and Kris James Mitchener was published in 2021 by Oxford University Press (ISBN-13: 9780197577899).  320pp.


Kaetana Numa, PhD is Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Governance and Society, King’s College London.

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Godden: “The Economics of Belonging” by Martin Sandbu

Martin Sandbu’s basic thesis in The Economics of Belonging is simple: Western liberal democracy (essentially, the post Second World War socio-economic model) is under threat from within, owing to a significant proportion of western electors losing confidence in it; this loss of confidence is caused by the erosion of a sense of economic belonging, which is the result of decades of economic mis-management by Western governments; and, if the threat is to be dealt with, these governments need to adopt a package of policies radically different from those that have been adopted to date.

The book is sub-titled “A radical plan to win back the left behind and achieve prosperity for all” and, having spent five chapters setting out and defending his view of what has gone wrong, in the remainder of the book, Sandbu sets out a long list of ideas for dealing with the issue he has identified: the establishment of what he calls a “high pressure economy” (involving fiscal and monetary policy designed to keep demand pressure high and other policies to secure high minimum wages); the introduction of universal basic income (UBI); the introduction of a meaningful wealth tax; the removal of tax relief for debt; the strengthening of collective bargaining (including giving unions bargaining rights on behalf of non-members); the provision of significant subsidies to disadvantaged regions; and a host of other, less dramatic, initiatives. He commends governments which, during the Covid pandemic, pursued policies “bolder than anything ever seen in peacetime” (page xii) and his only criticism of the asset purchase programme of the past decade is that it has not gone far enough. He wants more of the same sorts of economic stimuli and much more besides.

Sandbu is a Financial Times journalist and, although the book does not indicate its target audience, it gives the impression that it is aimed at the kind of people who might read the FT. They are certainly the kind of people who are likely to enjoy, and potentially benefit, from reading it. Economists will not find much new in it and, conversely, those who are not used to thinking about socio-economic matters may struggle with some of the analysis. However, non-specialists who are used to thinking about such matters should find it a worthwhile read especially since it deals with an issue that should be a great concern to anyone who values Western liberal democracy: the concern that Western electorates might become so discontented that they themselves destroy it.

This is not to say that the book can be given an unequivocal recommendation. It needs to come with a health warning: Sandbu writes well and with great conviction and there is a danger that readers will fail to notice leaps of logic and inadequately supported assertions that litter the book. Paradoxically, this danger is particularly acute because Sandbu commendably frequently mentions at least some of the main concerns about his proposed policies. The problem is that it is easy to miss the fact that, having raised some concerns, he often does not deal with them adequately or does not mention other material concerns. For example, although he acknowledges that there is risk associated with his proposed “high pressure economy”, he does not properly examine the nature and extent of this risk (e.g. the serious role of inflation and its consequences) let alone discuss how it can be mitigated. Furthermore, he never considers the issues associated with the transition from existing policies to those proposed by him. Those in the UK who remember Chancellor Anthony Barber’s “dash for growth” in the early 1970s or who have reflected on the impact of Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous recent budget will recognise that these are serious omissions.

In some cases, the absence of adequate analysis of potential issues results in Sandbu’s proposals seeming to be surprisingly naïve. For example, his arguments for the UBI are interesting and worth considering. However, his defence against the counter-argument that its cost would be exorbitant is that previous calculations have shown that a basic income of £6,700 for a couple with two children could be provided by abolishing tax-free income tax allowance (page 120). This may be true but Sandbu fails to explain how a basic income of this amount would provide the economic security that he is seeking.

Another example of apparent naivety is provided by his suggestions relating to collective bargaining and the role of trade unions. He acknowledges that the role of trade unions has not always been beneficial and that they can be a barrier to change and he recognises that what is needed is unions that “function well” (page 122). However, he fails to explain how it is that this can be secured. Once again, those with long memories will wonder how his proposals would avoid a return to the industrial paralysis of the 1970s in the UK.

On occasions, the book contains hints of romanticism or, at least, rose tinted spectacles. President Roosevelt and the post-war politico-economic consensus are its particular heroes. In fact, a reader who is unaware of post war history could be forgiven for believing that the period from the end of the Second World War down to the last 20 or 30 years was one of universal contentment and satisfaction. Unfortunately, the social tensions, economic problems and, in particular, industrial relations chaos of the 1960s to 1980s, tell a different story. Furthermore, some of Sandbu’s proposals seem worthy rather than realistic and world changing. Among these are his proposal for community banks (page 163), which are surely never going to have more than a marginal role in the economy, and his extoling of the merits of libraries and arts institutions (page 200), which one suspects are rather too middle class to deal with the problem of belonging which Sandbu is addressing.

Perhaps the reality is that Sandbu has tried to cram too much into 239 pages, with the result that his has been guilty of superficiality and a lack of convincing analysis. This is frustrating because he commendably takes issue with those who, simplistically, see globalisation or immigration as the cause of our current problems and, taken individually, a number of his points are interesting. For example, his defence of a net wealth tax as an alternative to other taxes is worthy of consideration and Switzerland provides an example supporting Sandhu contention that his proposal is not necessarily about high taxes. Likewise, his arguments in relation to the removal of tax relief for debt are powerful are supported by a number of respected economists.

These are, however, points of detail and Sandbu is not inviting us to tinker with the detail of our existing economy but adopt his radical package of change. He is clearly convinced that he is right in advocating it but one needs to ask whether all Western governments over the past general have really been quite as stupid as he believes. It is at least worth considering whether there might be a reason why his policy prescriptions have nowhere been implemented. He admits that the problem of belonging exists in almost all Western countries (pages 58-62) despite them having pursued very different policies over the years (e.g. contrast the USA, France and Sweden). Furthermore, although Sandbu is surely right that there is a problem relating to people feeling alienated (i.e. having lost their sense of belonging) and that economic factors have played a large part in the creation of this problem, his dismissal of cultural issues as a material contributor to the problem and his assertion that, despite globalisation, the solution largely lies in the hands of national governments (page 181) may justifiably be challenged.

That said, Sandbu rightly sounds a warning siren and those who cannot accept his prescription for dealing with the current Western malaise need to ask themselves what their solution to the problem is.

 

“The Economics of Belonging” by Martin Sandbu was published in 2020 (the paperback edition being published with a new preface in 2022) by Princeton University Press (ISBN-13:9780691228907). 239pp.


Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.

 

 

 

 Andrei Rogobete: “Humans as a Service” by Jeremias Prassl

Jeremias Prassl is a Fellow of Magdalen College and an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law at Oxford University. He advises public and private sector organisations on regulating the gig economy. In his book entitled Humans as a Service, Prassl re-evaluates the merits and pitfalls of the “gig economy” and seeks to discover ways that society might benefit from the gig economy without falling into “extreme forms” of labour force commodification (page 4).

For those of you wondering what the “gig economy” is, Prassl describes it as “…an ever-growing number of start-ups, […] online platforms and mobile apps [that] connect consumers, businesses, and workers – often for jobs lasting no longer than a few minutes” (page 2). The term “gig” invokes an artist’s gig for a time-limited and (usually) one-off performance.

This new and growing space labelled as the “gig economy” poses both opportunities and challenges.  On one hand the digital space has enabled an unparalleled level of growth and innovation in the exchange of goods, services and other forms of capital at instant speeds – creating value for all participants (page 3). On the other hand, critics argue that a deregulated gig economy leads to a commodification of labour whereby “those with money will be able to […] hire those without money by forcing an online bidding war to see who will charge the least for their labour” (Ibid.).

The book seems to be written with the “educated reader” in mind. The author makes extensive use of practical examples whilst limiting overuse of legal jargon, which makes the book accessible to the specialist and non-specialist alike. The contents are structured among six main chapters and while we will not detail each in part here, we will touch upon some of the key points that may warrant further discussion.

Chapters I and II lay out the foundations of the gig economy: its internal workings, the role of digitalisation, the role of regulation (or lack thereof), and so on. Prassl points out that large actors within the gig economy are mistakenly given the benefit of the doubt when found guilty of mistreating their employees (or contractors). This is largely done by hiding under the “innovation” banner and perhaps abusing the public’s perception of innovation as a natural industry disruptor. Once section in the second chapter highlights the discrepancy between the authorities’ response to Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct zero-hours contracts scandal, and the ill treatment of ride sharing drivers for Lyft & Co. in the US (page 41-42). Prassl asks, “Why, then, is it that Mike Ashley was (rightly) subjected to parliamentary humiliation, whereas the sharing economy is celebrated by its very own cross-party caucus in the US Congress?” (Ibid.).

Chapters III and IV continue the discussion and look at life within the gig economy and the dilemmas that innovation can give rise to, particularly in respect to applying the appropriate level of regulation. Prassl points out an “innovation paradox”: “…it is undoubtedly true that key elements behind the rise of the sharing economy are completely new – first and foremost, their reliance on the internet, smartphone apps and digital platforms […] When it comes to work in the on-demand economy, on the other hand, the story is a very different one” (page 72). It is the capacity to accurately differentiate between the truly novel and the outwardly novel that policymakers will need if they are to develop an appropriate regulatory framework.

Chapters V and VI conclude the discussion by looking at various approaches of harnessing the benefits of the gig economy whilst restoring and protecting workers’ rights. Prassl argues that a key element is ensuring that everyone plays by the same rules, “…we need to redress structural imbalances and create a level playing field – with employment law at its foundation” (page 119).

To conclude, Humans as a Service by Jeremias Prassl is a great overview of the opportunities and challenges that the gig economy brings for all stakeholders involved. However, (and given that this piece of work is primarily written from a legal perspective), one cannot help but feel that insufficient voice has been given to the non-legal (or non-regulatory) solutions to the problems facing the gig economy. Some of these might include: allowing for market corrections and re-structuring, online reputation management, the implications of reputation damage, the increasing role of independent reviews in online decision-making, and so on. This would encompass a much broader discussion that the book sorely misses.

That is not to say these are unequivocal answers – yet a more thorough investigation into the non-regulatory means of transforming the gig economy would have benefited the book greatly. If readers can look beyond the “regulation is the answer” approach (which no doubt, some will), Humans as a Service is a good and informative read. It is just a shame that it missed the opportunity of being an excellent read. Perhaps an economist’s response to the book would help – let’s hope that we see such endeavour in the future.

 

Prassl, Jeremias. “Humans as a Service: The Promise and Perils of Work in the Gig Economy” was first published in 2018 by Oxford University Press (ISBN:9780192517388). 199pp.


Andrei E. Rogobete is the Associate Director of  the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics. For more information about Andrei please click here.

 

 

 

“Money and the Rule of Law” by Peter J. Boettke, Alexander William Salter and Daniel J. Smith

Is the delegation of monetary policy to independent central banks that are granted constrained discretion a good or a bad thing? Most non-specialists have probably never pondered this question and many that have done so have probably concluded that it is a good thing. But is it? Peter Boettke, Alexander Salter and Daniel Smith think not and in Money and the Rule of Law they argue their case.

Parts of the book are difficult for a non-specialist to evaluate and some readers will find its US centricity unhelpful. The endless citations of previous works within the text rather than footnotes and the existence of a significant amount of repetition is also irritating. However, none of these failings should put off potential readers whether specialist or not and whether American or not. The book raises issues that deserve to be debated far more widely than they are.

The authors’ starting point comprises two points: first, that good money is essential for human flourishing and that, consequently “monetary institutions are not peripheral, but central, to human betterment” (page xi); secondly, that as Adam Smith long ago pointed out, governments have an unfortunate habit of spending in excess of revenue, accumulating these deficits into long-standing public debt and paying off the debt through the debasement of their currency. This tension creates a problem that needs to be addressed by all modern societies.

To many, the solution lies in the existence of an independent central bank because it is seen as a way of transferring control over monetary policy into the hands of experts free from government interference. Furthermore, the conferring of discretion on these experts is considered necessary in view of the balance of policy considerations involved and in order to allow flexible responses designed to preserve macroeconomic stability, particularly in a crisis.

This solution superficially appears convincing but Boettke, Salter and Smith attack it head on. First, they challenge the notion that the US Fed has contributed to macroeconomic stability saying that “the Fed’s century-long experiment with discretionary central banking is at best inconclusive, and at worst a failure” (page 147). In particular, they argue that, far from discretion being essential in a crisis, it makes matters worse, asserting that the Fed contributed to the Great Depression of the 1930s and that its interventions may have made the recession resulting from the Global Financial Crisis worse than it would otherwise have been and, at the very least, have added to moral hazard in the financial sector. These claims may be surprising to some but they are by no means self-evidently wrong and, in relation to the Great Depression at least, the authors are able to point to the support of Ben Bernanke, the former Chair of the Fed, as well as Milton Friedman and others.

The failings of the Fed and other central banks might be accepted as unfortunate but inevitable stages in their learning process but Boettke, Salter and Smith suggest that the problem is far more fundamental than this would suggest. They point to the serious problems faced by central banks including technical problems (e.g. lack of clarity as to objectives), knowledge problems (uncertainty being, as Alan Greenspan put it, “not just a pervasive feature of the monetary policy landscape but the defining characteristic of that landscape”, page 23) and incentive problems (including the internal and external pressures brought to bear on central bankers, which the authors catalogue with some enthusiasm). They recognise that some of these problems are, at least in theory, soluble but they argue that “Knowledge problems render discretionary central banking not just difficult but impossible” (page 4). Discretionary central banking fails for exactly the same reason as other forms of central economic planning in that “monetary policymakers lack a feedback mechanism that generates the requisite knowledge to maintain, or even tend towards, monetary equilibrium” (page 37).

These are important points. It is odd that the West has largely rejected central economic planning on practical as well as philosophical grounds and yet appears to believe a planned monetary system is workable and it is even more odd that, despite evidence to the contrary, many continue to believe that it is possible for central banks to fine tune the system, turning the steering wheel to adjust to unexpected irregularities of the route, to use Friedman’s analogy. Consideration of the track record of central banks and appreciation of the problems that they face might thus of themselves be sufficient to cause us to doubt the merits of discretionary central banking.

That said, the failings and problems of central banks are not the primary reason why Boettke, Salter and Smith object to discretionary banking: their primary objection is that “discretion on the part of monetary policymakers is inconsistent with basic jurisprudential tenets of post-Enlightenment political thought” (page 13). In particular, it is “incompatible with the justificatory tenets of constitutional democracy” (page 15) and “fails to adhere to the rule of law in any meaningful sense” (page 146).

These claims may seem to be extreme but they deserve close attention. A proposal to transfer control over tax policy to an independent body of experts exercising “constrained discretion” based on vague and conflicting policy objectives would doubtless be greeted with incredulity. It would be regarded as incompatible with accepted principles of democratic control and the fundamental tenet of the rule of law that “questions of legal right and liability should ordinarily be resolved by application of the law and not the exercise of discretion” as well as the principle that “the law must be accessible and so far as possible intelligible, clear and predictable” (Bingham, The Rule of Law 2010). So why is the transfer of control over monetary policy viewed differently? It may be felt that control over monetary policy is very different from control over taxation, but is it? Monetary policy has a huge indirect impact upon property rights (e.g. it may result in an arbitrary redistribution of wealth and inflation results in a form of arbitrary taxation) and central banks now exercise discretionary power over the grant of liquidity that is opaque and unconstrained by anything other than very vague principles. Furthermore, the problem has become progressively more acute as central bankers (including even the European Central Bank) have interpreted their mandates widely and changed their views as to the way in which to balance various policy objectives and as they have engaged in increasingly novel activities (e.g. the Fed is now lending directly to US corporations which represents an extraordinary lurch away from free market principles).

So how should these concerns be addressed? Unfortunately, Boettke, Salter and Smith have no precise answer to this question. They argue that central banking should be rule-based rather than discretionary and, at one point, suggest that the answer may lie in the “Richmond Fed doctrine”, which “holds that the central bank should limit itself to the creation and supply of high-powered money to the market, even during financially turbulent times” (page 118). However, they clearly recognise that this could only ever be part of the solution and they describe the conflicting views of the three leading economists who have shared their concern about central banking (Hayek, Friedman and Buchanan) without clearly expressing their own views on the relevant issues. This is a significant failing but it is only fair to point out that the authors’ illustrious predecessors also struggled at this point and changed their views radically over the course of their careers. Perhaps the only viable and effective options (e.g. potentially, Hayek’s competing currencies or Friedman’s computer automated monetary policy) are so radical and so untried in a modern context that we all find them difficult to contemplate.

In any event, Money and the Rule of Law comprises a wake-up call: we need to ask ourselves whether we are sleep-walking into an economy governed by discretionary central planning that is both economically damaging and philosophically unacceptable. The book deserves to be widely read.

 

“Money and the Rule of Law: Generality and Predictability in Monetary Institutions” by Peter J. Boettke, Alexander William Salter and Daniel J. Smith was published in 2021 by Cambridge University Press (ISBN 978-1-108-79084-0). 184pp.


Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Godden: “The Community of Advantage” by Robert Sugden

Neoclassical normative economics seeks to avoid state paternalism. On the assumption that human beings display “integrated preferences” (i.e. preferences that are stable, context-independent and internally consistent), this objective may be secured by public policy objectives being based on “preference-satisfaction”. However, psychological experiments over the past 30 years have demonstrated that the assumption is false: human preferences are highly context-dependent (e.g. people display loss aversion and thus value an item more when they possess it than when they do not). This finding challenges neoclassical economics and raises the question whether there is no alternative to centre-left paternalism.

Professor Robert Sugden of the University of East Anglia thinks that there is an alternative and in The Community of Advantage makes “an attempt to maintain the liberal tradition against … a challenge from behavioural economics” (page 4).

Sugden dismisses previous efforts to meet that challenge. In particular, he takes on those who argue that, whilst human decisions may be influenced by irrational factors, people have “latent preferences” which may be used as a plumb line for preference-satisfaction. He asserts that there is no experimental basis for believing that such preferences exist and thus they cannot form the foundation of welfare planning. He thus dismisses Sunstein and Thaler’s concept of welfare planners creating conditions in which people are “nudged” towards decisions that satisfy their latent preferences. In short, Sugden shares Hume’s scepticism about human rationality and believes that economics should proceed on the basis that such rationality does not exist.

Some might conclude that this leaves liberal economics nowhere to go. However, Sugden suggests that it can be saved by the substitution of what he calls the “Individual Opportunity Criterion” for the traditional preference-satisfaction criterion. He argues that, “as viewed by each citizen separately, more opportunity for that person is better than less” (page xi) and hence he attaches “normative significance to opportunity sets without explicit reference to individuals’ preferences” (page 115). He defends this approach on the basis that it treats humans as responsible agents and the concept of responsibility “provides philosophical underpinning for the claim that opportunity has value” (page 106).

Sugden sets this proposal in the context of “a contractarian perspective”. He points out that, whether expressly or impliedly, economists normally address “an impartially benevolent autocrat” (page 23) and argues that it is both more useful and more consistent with a liberal view of society, to adopt the point of view of individual participants in society: “the most fundamental characteristic of this perspective is that a recommendation is addressed to a set of individuals, showing those individuals how they can coordinate their behaviour to achieve mutual benefit” (page 37).

This is, of course, a liberal, market-based view and Sugden, therefore, examines and defends the moral status of market relationships. He recognises that the findings of behavioural experiments challenge the idea that the achievement of mutual benefit is generally well served by the free actions of self-interested agents in competitive markets. Such experiments have found situations in which self-interested agents would fail to realise opportunities for mutual benefit but ordinary human beings succeed in doing so. Sugden, however, argues that it is wrong to think that there is “a fundamental opposition between the attitudes that are expressed in market relationships and those that are expressed in genuinely social relationships” (page 207). His conclusion is that “it may be possible to think of market relationships as expressing cooperative attitudes that are complementary with kinds of pro-sociality that can help individuals to solve collective action problems” (page 208).

Underlying these ideas is a long history of philosophical thought. The “contractarian” viewpoint is expressly derived from the thinking of Hobbes and Hume and a nuanced view of human behaviour in a market context can be traced back to Adam Smith (see Humanomics by Vernon Smith and Bart Wilson, which is reviewed on this website). More fundamentally, as Sugden acknowledges, he is greatly indebted to John Stuart Mill’s concept of the market as a “community of advantage”, hence the title of his book.

Sugden’s approach is thus vulnerable to some of the charges levelled against his philosophical forebears. In particular, many will question the moral relativism inherent in it and point out that, despite his best efforts to eliminate absolute moral values, the statement that “the ultimate authority for judging what is in a person’s interests is that person himself” (page 83), which underlies the Individual Opportunity Criterion, appears to be an assertion of an absolute reference point.

The psychological foundations of Sugden’s approach are of more recent origin than its philosophical foundations and some caution is required in relation to them. The results of “trust games” and similar experiments are not in doubt but the interpretation of at least some of their findings is controversial, as Sugden himself acknowledges. Consequently, whilst his case for the consistency of his theory with human psychology is persuasive, it is not conclusive. In particular, whilst it is clear that people often do not display “integrated preferences”, it is not clear that the concept of rational preferences must be completely discarded. Sugden asserts that he does “not want to claim that individuals are never conscious of akrasia” (i.e. acting against their better judgement; page 81) and, once this concession has been made, one has to take seriously the possibility that individuals have some latent preferences (their “better selves”) even if this concept cannot bear the weight that has sometimes been placed on it by economists.

Many readers will thus take issue with much of what Sugden says. However, those who dislike his moral relativism may still accept that a “contractarian” viewpoint is useful and those who disagree with his view of human psychology should still take note of the fact that he is suggesting that a liberal approach to economics is justified even if one adopts this. Furthermore, the philosophy inherent in his defence of the market economy should not distract from the fact that his underlying position is one that can be endorsed by a wide spectrum of people. The final few lines of the book are worth quoting in full:

“I share Mills’ conviction that cooperation for mutual benefit is the fundamental organising principle of a well-ordered society. The market is not, or should not be, an arena of non-moral, instrumental motivation from which practices that are more genuinely or more intrinsically valuable need to be insulated. Market transactions are a crucial part of the network of cooperative relations that make up civil society” (page 281).

The Community of Advantage is not an easy read. Indeed, Chapter 6 (The Invisible Hand) is such heavy going that some readers may be tempted to give up at that point. However, the reader who leaves out some parts of the book will still benefit from other parts and the fact that large parts are stitched together sections of previously published papers is helpful since key concepts are considered on a number of occasions.

Those who persevere with the book will be rewarded. Whatever one’s philosophical starting point, it is worth reading.

 

“The Community of Advantage” by Robert Sugden was published in 2018 by Oxford University Press (ISBN 978-0-19-882514-2). 281 pp, plus notes.

 


Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Andrei Rogobete: “The Populist Temptation” by Barry Eichengreen

 

Populism seems to have taken centre stage in today’s public discourse. Whether it’s the election of Donald Trump or Brexit, media outlets, academics, and indeed, the politicians themselves seem to be pointing the finger towards populism. Yet what exactly is populism? Which social and/or economic conditions might give rise to populism? Can populism be countered and if so, how? These are a few of the timely questions that Barry Eichengreen attempts to explore in his book, “The Populist Temptation: Economic Grievance and Political Reaction in the Modern Era”.

Barry Eichengreen is an American economist and Professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. An economic historian by background, Barry’s previous notable publications include, “Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression”, “The European Economy since 1945”, and “Globalizing Capital: A History of the International Monetary System”.

Throughout his works Barry Eichengreen displays a strong command of global economic history and his latest work The Populist Temptation is no exception to the rule. Divided into twelve chapters, the structure is more akin to a collection of essays than the traditional narrative format. Paradoxically, the book is both straightforward yet dense, making the reader take far more time on any given chapter than he or she would have done so otherwise. It reads like a history book with a particular emphasis on economics and while many of the historical remarks are factual, much of the interpretation is subjective. Here it is worth touching upon some of the more contentious issues that can be found:

The author sets out the aim of the book from the onset, that is, to look back at Western history and attempt to identify under which “economic, social, and political” circumstances populism tends to take hold and what are the most effective policies to combat it (page ix). In this pursuit, Barry Eichengreen argues that “populism is activated by a combination of economic insecurity, threats to national identity and an unresponsive political system” – but can be “quelled by economic and political reforms that address the concerns of the disaffected” (page x). We will touch upon some of these reforms shortly.

Chapters 1-3 therefore open up with a conceptual discussion on populism and a historical account of populism in the United States and the United Kingdom. Barry Eichengreen defines populism as, “a political movement with anti-elite, authoritarian, and nativist tendencies” (page 1). He rightly points out that both left and right-wing populism can take on these characteristics – albeit the former focuses hostility toward the so-called ‘elites’, while the latter towards minorities and immigration (ibid).

Another interesting point made is that populism is also a political style. Populist politicians portray themselves as ‘no-nonsense’ leaders, ready to listen and speak directly to the people (page 4). They also make highly effective use of social media by undercutting the traditional media outlets. Most importantly however, populist leaders are able to capitalise on economic uncertainty coupled with a ‘low-trust’ society where significant demographic groups feel that the system is rigged against them (page 10).

Chapters 4-6 turn the attention toward Germany and the socio-economic reforms of Otto von Bismark in the late 19th century but also the American ‘associationalist way’ in the first half of the 20th century. The chapter highlights the positive role of government welfare measures in combating economic uncertainty. This included a combination of the social insurance state and tariff protection for both agriculture and industry that led to an effective suppression of anxiety about economic change on both the “left and the right” (page 57).

Chapters 7-9 bring the historical narrative to the post-war era. The so-called ‘baby boomer’ generation benefited from a period of relative stability and moderation where most of the economic growth was more widely shared (page 102). The problems started from the economic slowdown of the 1970s and exacerbated by the OPEC oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 (page 104).

Barry Eichengreen argues in chapters 9 and 10 that the rise of Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK built against more than just economic insecurity (post the 2008 financial crisis). Trump’s election reflected deep national, social, and personal insecurities that were only exacerbated by economic insecurity – conditions which in turn fed opposition to immigration (page 117). Similar things can be said about Nigel Farage and Brexit in the UK which the author discusses in Chapter 10.

Therefore, what are the solutions to rising populism? Chapters 11-13 explore several possibilities. A return to economic growth and rising wages would perhaps be the first and most important change (page 146). Others include investment in education and skills, and a more inclusive economy where firms could be given “tax incentives to adopt employee stock option plans. […] and a curbing of [corporate] excesses” (page 148). Reforming the immigration system could also be effective in combating populism yet the author acknowledges the deep disagreements in the best way to go about it (page 158-159). The EU could also take more steps to being more democratically accountable and closer to the people, such as nominating the president of the Commission by popular vote (page 176). However, the book acknowledges in its ending that both the US and the Europe will remain susceptible to populism and that neither “admit to easy solutions” (page 187), yet understanding the underlying problems is a starting point.

In concluding The Populist Temptation by Barry Eichengreen is a worthy addition on a topic that seemingly engulfs our time. The book is dense which makes it informative but may prove to be a rather slow read for some. No doubt the reader will walk away with a greater perspective and sense of understanding of populism. The problem however remains on the author’s subjective interpretation of government initiatives and their direct impact on controlling populism. Provided that the reader views the ‘government and/or regulation is the solution’ dogma through a critical lens, The Populist Temptation is certainly a worthwhile read.

 

“The Populist Temptation: Economic Grievance and Political Reaction in the Modern Era” by Barry Eichengreen was first published in 2018 by Oxford University Press (ISBN-9780190866280), 244 pp.


Andrei Rogobete

Andrei Rogobete is the Associate Director of  the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics. For more information about Andrei please click here.

Andrei Rogobete: “Rethinking Poverty: What makes a good society?” by Barry Knight

 

Rethinking Poverty by Barry Knight is an explorative study on the current deficiencies of modern western society and the restructuring that needs to take place for the ultimate goal of poverty reduction and indeed, poverty elimination. This may come across as overly ambitious and idealistic to some readers, but the aim of poverty elimination serves as a vision for developing the ‘good society’. The author himself admits that “…we cannot lay down hard-and-fast rules to prescribe what a good society would look like or how we can achieve it” (page 3). The book rather frames its approach around three main questions: 1. What is a good society without poverty? 2. How do we obtain it? 3. Who does what in order to achieve it? (page 2).

I’ll come back to these questions in a moment but first let’s take a quick look at the author himself. Barry Knight is a social scientist and statistician who as authored over 14 books on civil society, development, democracy and poverty. He is also the Director of the Webb Memorial Trust, a foundation promotes and pursues the intellectual legacy of Beatrice Webb. Knight previously advised the Ford Foundation and currently also works with the Global Fund for Community Foundation.

The book itself is well-researched and concise (184 pp.). While primary research is minimal, the book is effective at bringing together a broad range of sources and studies that have already been made available in the public domain. Barry Knight demonstrates significant knowledge and clarity of thought throughout his writing. The structure of the book is comprised of six main chapters and while I won’t go into much detail here, it is useful to gain a brief overview of some of the main points:

The first chapter looks at the general narrative surrounding poverty in the UK and why it has failed. The chapter gives a historical overview of poverty (particularly in the west) and our lack of understanding of poverty itself. Indeed, the author argues that poverty is a relative term: what do we mean by ‘poverty’? Barry Knight defines poverty in ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ terms (page 7). Absolute poverty is a “lack of sufficient resources with which to meet basic needs”, relative poverty is a “low income or resources in relation to the average” (page 8). Quite interestingly, the author acknowledges that while relative poverty has dropped following the financial crises of 2008, the reduction was due to a fall in median income rather than a real fall in poverty levels (page 23).

Chapter 2 turns the attention to current society. Touching upon everything from the EU referendum, social media, the economy and civil society in general. The central argument here is that regrettably, current society has drifted to a form of ‘Washington Consensus’ whereby the market becomes the central “arbiter of all things, government responsibility for social provision is reduced, and civil society takes on – or attempts to take on – that responsibility” (page 48).

The third chapter builds upon the second – if this ‘market-central’ society has failed and led to reduced social mobility and high levels of inequality, is there a credible alternative to be found? The response is based on five core principles for a ‘good society’: 1. We all have a decent basic standard of living. 2. We are secure and free to choose how to lead our lives. 3. We seek to develop our potential and flourish. 3. We treat all with care and respect. 5. We aim to build a fair and sustainable future for the next generations.

Chapter 4 explores ways to achieve a ‘good society without poverty’ (page 89). The author acknowledges that while global economic growth has lifted over a billion people out of poverty, the growth model fails to work in the UK. More specifically, the ‘trickle-down’ model of economics has failed (page 99). Wages have remained stagnant and poverty among those in work has experienced rapid growth. The solution? There must be a new paradigm built upon compromise.

Chapter 5 looks upon building this new consensus for a good society and what shape it may take. Barry Knight argues that the five principles mentioned in chapter 3 must ultimately “emerge out of a mass of civil society” (page 119) and the two vital ingredients for this are creativity and leadership. There is also a discussion on the need of the private sector to change its attitude toward the issue of poverty and start seeing it as an important part of their long-term business success.

The final chapter looks at transformation. A central component of this process is a framework for local development that encompasses, among others, citizens, business, work, anchor institutions, and a sense of ‘place’ (page 152).  The role of national government is also of high importance. It acts as the “principal agent responsible for policy on poverty” and should have the “overarching plan” about the kind of society we want.

Rethinking Poverty by Barry Knight is a useful contribution to the discussion on poverty in the UK. There is no doubt that the book underestimates the transformative power of free enterprise and overestimates the benefits of central government – especially in the structuring of this new society that seeks to eradicate poverty. However, its ideologically leftist approach to poverty is set out in a manner that, unlike other authors, refrains from being overtly propagandistic.  In concluding, the book is a worthwhile read but I have an uncanny feeling that there will be many who take issue with some of the means proposed in achieving this otherwise, noble goal.

 

 

“Rethinking Poverty” by Barry Knight was first published in 2017 by the Policy Press, University of Bristol (ISBN-10 1447340612), 184 pp.


Andrei RogobeteAndrei Rogobete is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics. For more information about Andrei please click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Godden: “The Poverty of Nations” by Wayne Grudem & Barry Asmus

 

The Poverty of Nations comes with enthusiastic endorsements: Robert Sirico says that “The table of contents alone provides clearer instruction than many graduate students get in economics courses” and Rick Warren asserts that “It should be required reading in every Christian college and seminary, by every relief and mission organisation, and by every local church pastor”. The authors have high ambitions: they state that their goal “Is to provide a sustainable solution to poverty in the poor nations of the world” (page 25) and that their “primary audience” is Christian leaders in poor nations (page 31), and they hope that Christians in more prosperous nations will also read the book. Readers, therefore, start with great expectations. Unfortunately, however, many will end up disappointed. Although the underlying thesis is sound and the book contains sensible analysis, it suffers from serious deficiencies.

Wayne Grudem is a well known theologian and Barry Asmus an equally well known economist.  Both are committed Christians and are at pains to stress that financial well-being is not the ultimate goal in life. Indeed, this may be the only economics book that contains a call to trust in Jesus Christ (page 41). Nonetheless, the book’s subject is material well-being. The authors suggest that, once the fundamentals are understood, “it becomes evident that if we want to solve poverty, the correct goal is that a nation continually produces more goods and services per person each year” (page 45). They passionately believe that the best (perhaps, only) mechanism for achieving this is the free market but they also emphasise that “the right kind of economic system does not by itself bring a nation out of poverty” (page 107). They discuss the importance of political and legal systems (especially the rule of law, property rights, the absence of corruption and the provision of adequate education and healthcare), various different kinds of freedom (including freedom of movement and of establishment and freedom from excessive regulation) and core political values (i.e. cultural attitudes and norms).

The authors place the responsibility for pulling a nation out of poverty firmly with the nation’s own leaders. They recognise that wealthy nations have a part to play (e.g. by lowering trade barriers and stopping “commodity dumping”); they accept that limited, targeted use of foreign aid may be appropriate (although they repeat the well rehearsed arguments against its widespread use); and they recognise that some of the blame for Third World poverty rests with more wealthy nations. However, they conclude that “even if external factors or entities have had some negative effect in poor nations, they are still secondary causes of poverty today, not primary causes” (page 83). The poor are not poor because the rich are rich.

The authors recognise that what they are saying is not new. In particular, they owe a huge debt to David Landes, quoting “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” several dozen times (perhaps, excessively). Nonetheless, it is good to see the core arguments for a free market system clearly re-asserted and the chapter on its moral advantages is particularly welcome. The authors defend the system against all comers and suggest that, even in relation to the evils of selfishness and materialism, it is better than the other options. Conversely, they attack these other options, quoting with approval Claire Berlinski’s summary of Margaret Thatcher’s view that “socialism was not a fine idea that had been misapplied, it was an inherently wicked idea” (page 198).

There are also shorter but nonetheless interesting discussions of the dangers of governments becoming monopoly purchasers and the moral issues associated with “wants” (i.e. desires), which the authors suggest should not be equated with greed but rather regarded as “a good thing, part of God’s original creation” (page 218). This leads to the conclusion that “it is important for people to think of an “ideal” life as one of joyful production that benefits both themselves and others” (page 345).

So what is wrong with the book? First, it tries to deal with too many different issues. It contains no less than 79 different recommendations and the result is that the second half of the book at times feels like a list. Many of the points overlap (which results in repetition) and some are not properly argued or developed. For example, the brief discussion of need for religious freedom fails to show how it connects with economic growth, whilst the discussion relating to the family (including sexuality in general) is shallow.

In principle, the idea of bringing together a theologian and economist is a good one, allowing the economic analysis to be firmly grounded in theological and ethical considerations. However, in practice, the result is that neither the economic nor the theological arguments are properly developed. In particular, some of the biblical analysis is disappointingly superficial and contentious. For example, Grudem argues that the Bible sees the role of government as being essentially limited but fails to explain why it is that the authors favour universal compulsory government provided education (which many Christians until the 20th century would have strongly opposed).

The authors place great weight on the Biblical command to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28, which they quote a dozen times). This is a good starting point for a Christian view of economics but the authors place a weight on it that it cannot bear. In particular, it underlies their comments relating to the need to secure “freedom to utilise energy resources” (page 283) and other comments relating to the environment, some of which are highly contentious yet asserted in strident terms. This is a pity because (as Landes has pointed out), the Judeo-Christian subordination of nature to man has been important to economic development and there is a dangerous element of pagan animism underlying parts of the ecological movement today.

The statement that society needs to believe “that the earth’s resources will never be exhausted” (page 339) is another example of the same issue. There is a respectable case for this belief and it is important to challenge at the doom mongers who for two centuries have been constantly warning of catastrophe caused by excessive resource utilisation. However, the single page that the authors devote to this subject results in their claim appearing as an a priori belief rather than a carefully thought through conclusion.

More generally, despite the acknowledgement that the free market system is not perfect (page 207), the book contains little in the way of balanced critique of it and it is disappointing that, after some very good analysis and foundation laying in the first two-thirds of the book, the final third leaves one with the impression that the authors are inviting poorer countries to adopt the U.S. system wholesale, including things such as the right to bear arms (page 232) and the U.S. concept of patriotism (page 359), which do not appear to have much to do with economic development.

These are serious defects. They are likely to alienate many readers and fail to persuade others who might be open in principle to persuasion, including the Third World leaders who the authors claim are their target audience. Furthermore, those wanting detailed historic economic analysis would be better off with The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Nonetheless, there is enough that is good within the book to make it worth reading and it might also be useful as a book to be critically discussed in the Christian colleges, seminaries, relief and mission organisations and churches to whom Rick Warren has recommended it.

 

“The Poverty of Nations: A Sustainable Solution” was published in 2013 by Crossway (ISBN: 978-1-4335-3911-4). 373pp (excluding bibliography).

 


Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.

 

Andy Hartropp: “And the Weak Suffer What They Must?” by Yanis Varoufakis

 

In this book, Yanis Varoufakis (Professor of Economics at the University of Athens) gives a highly informative and very well-informed account of the austerity measures enforced by the institutions of the European Union (EU) since the financial crisis which began in 2007-2008.  He also sets these events and policies in the wider context and history of the EU, and especially of the economic relationship between the EU and the USA.  As the title shows, Professor Varoufakis is deeply concerned about the impact of these policy measures on the people who are weakest in a society: most plainly, the weak in Greece (his own country), but also in other EU countries.  This is a concern which Christians must of course share, given the many biblical injunctions to uphold the cause of the poor and needy.

Varoufakis’ account is especially well-informed because of his (short-lived) role as Greece’s Finance Minister between January and July 2015: he was directly involved in many lengthy meetings between the Greek government and the major EU bodies.  These negotiations were focused on the debt crisis which hit the Eurozone in 2010 (a direct consequence of the 2007-8 crisis in London and Wall Street), and in which the desperate finances of the Greek banks were a central part.  Prof Varoufakis was already well underway with writing this book when he chose to stand for election in Greece – motivated by precisely the concerns and arguments about which he was already writing.

More than half of the book is taken up with an account of the economic relationship between the USA and the EU and its predecessors: the European Coal and Steel Community, which evolved into the European Economic Community [Common Market].  The key aspects here centre on macroeconomic policy and the nature of global capitalism: and these are, as Varoufakis shows, central to the contemporary challenges for policymakers, for capitalism and indeed for democracy.

This material (chapters 1 to 5) often takes a fair amount of wading through (although it is thoroughly researched).  But the case he presents is a strong one.  In his own words (pp137-8): ‘The reason Europe seemed to be prospering in the late 1990s and until 2008, despite having introduced an unsustainable gold standard [i.e. permanent monetary union in the form of the Euro], had little if anything to do with the design of its single currency and everything to do with the fact that there was no need for political surplus recycling [emphasis added], as the world of private finance was doing plenty of fair-weather recycling’.  What Varoufakis means here by ‘recycling’ is nothing to do households with putting plastics and paper into bins of various colours (!).  Instead he is talking about macroeconomic and monetary flows between and within countries.  In essence, during the 1950s and 1960s, the ‘Bretton Woods’ economic institutions helped to ensure that no developed economy slumped into permanent recession or depression; and, even after the collapse of those arrangements in 1971, the large and growing ‘twin deficits’ of the USA (i.e. both a Balance of Payments current account deficit, with imports exceeding exports, and a public sector deficit, with government expenditure exceeding tax receipts) helped to enable economic growth to continue in the EU and the Eurozone.  There was no need for the countervailing current account surplus in countries such as Germany to be recycled by the hand of politicians, since the macroeconomic ‘weather’ continued to be fair – until 2008.  However, the 2007-8 crisis brought all of this crashing down; and the poor design of the Euro, Varoufakis argues, meant that the Eurozone countries had no defence against the ensuing crisis.

Varoufakis also makes a strong argument for what is many ways is a very depressing proposition.  The argument is that – in the light of the above history – the EU’s political, economic and monetary institutions do not have it in their DNA to provide a suitably flexible response to a crisis such as that of 2007-8 and its aftermath.  In essence the EU’s structures centralize power (e.g. in the hands of ‘bureaucrats’) and are incapable of being made democratically accountable.

On that basis, in the remaining chapters Varoufakis proceeds to explain the interconnections between the post-2008 debts of private (commercial) banks, the perceived need to bail out these banks, and the EU’s requirement that governments must introduce austerity measures as the price for the EU agreeing to complex packages to try to resolve the severe difficulties.   Crucially, argues Varoufakis, the ‘no bailouts of EU countries’ rule was at the heart of why the follies of bankers led to the price being paid by the weakest citizens (in the form of austerity measures), most especially in Greece.  ‘A clueless political elite, in denial of the nature and history of a crisis whose roots go back to at least 1971, is pursuing policies akin to carpet-bombing the economies of proud European nations in order to save them’ (p192).

Varoufakis makes no secret of his left-wing convictions, and his atheism is also evident.  He writes with passion and intelligence about some very serious challenges facing European and global capitalism, and the book is well worth reading.

Let me conclude with some questions that are raised by this book, especially from a Christian perspective.  First, are we sufficiently concerned for how macroeconomic and political forces impact on the weakest in our societies?  The title of the book, as Varoufakis explains on p19, is drawn from Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War: at one point the powerful Athenian generals explained to the helpless Melians that ‘the strong actually do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’ [translation by Varoufakis].  Substitute ‘politicians and bankers’ in place of ‘the strong’, and it is hard not to find this very chilling.

Secondly, what is the future for the EU?  This is evidently a question not only for the UK (whatever one’s views about Brexit).  Varoufakis is an internationalist, and sees nationalism as a great problem; yet he is deeply pessimistic about the EU.

Thirdly, how can global capitalism be better managed, so that the power of money and finance (we might even say ‘Mammon’) is circumscribed and a more truly democratic political economy is shaped?

 

“And the Weak Suffer What They Must? Europe, Austerity and the Threat to Global Stability” was published in 2016 by Nation Books (ISBN – 10: 1568585047), 368pp.

 


Revd Dr Andy Hartropp is an economist, theologian and church minister.  He has two PhDs, one in Economics and one in Christian Ethics.  He lectured in financial economics for 5 years at Brunel University, west London.  He also worked for a year with the Jubilee Centre in Cambridge, primarily leading a team doing research on families in debt.  He trained at Oak Hill College, London, for ordained ministry in the Church of England.  His (second) PhD was published as: What is Economic Justice?  Biblical and secular perspectives contrasted (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2007).  He has spent 13 years in parish ministry.  He worked for eight years with the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, where he was the Sundo Kim Research Tutor in Mission and Economics.  In March 2016 he joined Waverley Abbey College as Director of Higher Education.  He chairs the Ethics and Social Theology Group of the Tyndale Fellowship.  He is married to Claire, and they live in Bicester, near Oxford.

 

 

Richard Godden: “Wealth, Poverty and Politics” by Thomas Sowell

 

How much of modern Western social and economic policy is based on properly interpreted factual evidence and how much on unexamined assumptions and ideology? In Wealth, Poverty and Politics, Thomas Sowell, the venerable Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, sets out to demonstrate that rather more than is healthy is based on the latter.

Sowell divides opinion. He shuns labels but he is a hero of those on the right who favour small government and free market policies. Conversely, he is castigated as a villain by those on the left, although since he is black and was brought up in poverty in North Carolina in the days of segregation, he is a rather unusual villain!

Wealth, Poverty and Politics is unlikely to lessen this division of opinion. It largely repeats things that Sowell has been saying for decades and sets out to slay a number of liberal sacred cows, ranging from affirmative action, through the welfare state to foreign aid.

Sowell’s starting proposition is that, because the humanitarian goals underlying many policy proposals are important, “it is crucial that these proposals be based on an understanding of the actual facts about the causes and consequences of economic inequalities” (page v). He then considers the role of geography, cultural factors, social factors and political factors, recognising that they overlap and interact with one another .

At a high level of generality, all of this is unexceptional. It is when Sowell begins to consider its implications that the radical nature of what he is saying becomes clear. He takes issue with those who start with the premise that “the poor are poor because they are exploited by the rich” (page 257), a view that he demonstrates failed to die when Communism collapsed a generation ago. He takes issue with those, such as Professor Angus Deaton and the late Professor John Rawls, who equate equal prospects of success with equal opportunity, suggesting that Angus Deaton’s statement that there would be no correlation between the earnings of parents and their children in a society with perfect equality of opportunity “is in defiance of both heredity and environment” (page 180). He points out that, even in a society with perfect equality of opportunity, the factors that he identifies are likely to prevent an equality of outcomes.

Specifically, he points out that all cultures are not of equal economic value: “different groups living in the same external environment can have very different productivity if their internal cultural values produce very different priorities as to what they want to do, and at what sacrifices of other things” (page 97). He draws attention to differences in attitudes to learning (provocatively noting that, in the USA black parents in the highest socio-economic quintile have slightly fewer books in their homes than white parents in the lowest socio-economic quintile), differences in attitudes to work (noting that whole societies, such as Spain in the 16th to 18th centuries and the Southern States of the USA until recent times, have regarded work as degrading) and differences in ambition (noting that some social groups, including some white groups in the UK, lack ambition). Perhaps most controversially of all, he suggests that some groups have greater mental capacity than others, although he is careful to stress that the evidence suggests that this is not to do with genetic pre-conditioning but cultural and social factors.

Sowell suggests that “the ultimate wealth of a society does not consist of its tangible output, as such, but the ability – the human capital – to produce that tangible output” (page 413) and that the failure to recognise this leads policy in the wrong direction: efforts to advance economically lagging groups should be directed not so much at correcting society and its institutions as “getting members of lagging groups to reorientate themselves towards acquiring more human capital” (page 181).  This is perhaps best summed up in Henry Hazlitt’s statement that “The real problem of poverty is not a problem of distribution but of production” (page 8).

On this basis, Sowell attacks modern liberal economic and social policy. He lays into US welfare policy, suggesting that it produces counter-productive lifestyles that reduce the need to develop essential human capital and that “having promised progress towards ‘social justice’” it has “delivered instead retrogressions towards barbarism” (page 305). Foreign aid, affirmative action and identity politics are dealt with in a similarly robust manner (e.g. he suggests that multi-culturalism “has often been carried to the point of encouraging lagging groups to proudly cling to their own culture, or even resurrect it in some cases, with little concern that these groups’ economic and educational lacks might be – at least in part – a result of the cultures that they were being encouraged to cling to”, page 166).

Wealth, Poverty and Politics has significant defects. Its argument does not develop in a clear linear manner and it would benefit from severe editing, since many points are made on more than one occasion and some on multiple occasions (e.g. Sowell’s point regarding the lower I.Q.’s of mountain based people). It would also benefit from the inclusion of positive suggestions for policy that interact with the moral issues raised by poverty.

These issues are annoying but Sowell writes in an engaging manner. He has a penchant for quotable quotes and, more importantly, an ability to provide thought provoking illustrations of the points that he is making drawn from a variety of different places around the world and a variety of different periods and contexts in the past 1000 years. This results in interesting comparisons (e.g. between some black communities in the USA and low-income white communities in the UK and between early modern Spain and the contemporary Middle East). Furthermore, his use of statistics is sufficient to back up his arguments without overwhelming the reader and the addition of a number of personal anecdotes adds a human dimension.

The result is a readable book aimed at the intelligent non-specialist that raises issues of critical importance in the West today. Many on the left will want to take issue with what Sowell says but they will need to demonstrate why he is wrong. Many on the right will agree with much of what is said but even they will need to ask themselves whether their policy prescriptions might be counter-productive.

 

The revised and expanded edition of “Wealth, Poverty and Politics” was published in 2016 by Basic Books (ISBN-10:0465096763). 565 pp.


Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.