Saturday, January 14, 2012

Five top books on Austrian economics

Peter Boettke is professor of economics at George Mason University. His books include Why Perestroika Failed and, as editor, The Elgar Companion to Austrian Economics.

He discussed five books on Austrian economics with Sophie Roell at The Browser.

One title on the list:
After War
by Christopher Coyne

The last book you’ve recommended is After War: The Political Economy of Exporting Democracy, by Christopher Coyne.

This book is amazing. Coyne took on the topic of how successful the US can be at exporting democracy and the free market in after-war situations. This became a big venture in the 20th century, when the US became much more aggressive about this idea that we could intervene to try to help make other countries better off. Part of it was for geopolitical reasons – after 9/11 we believed that one of the things we had to do was make the Middle East more conducive to free markets and democracy, because then it’s less likely to generate terrorists. So then the question is, is that an effective strategy? Coyne takes the strategy as stated by the officials, and then assesses whether the means employed are successful. He uses a very low threshold, which is, after the US intervention, after the country is supposedly settled, does it meet the standard on the Polity Index of modern day Iran? What he found was that in US-led efforts, basically somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of the efforts failed to meet even that minimum standard.

Yes, I’m looking down his list of 30 or so invasions that have taken place, and it’s not looking too good.

Right. Everybody points to Japan and Germany, but he points out that before the war, Japan and Germany had very high measures of civil society. In most of these other places, what you’re trying to do is create civil society, and at the point of a gun is not a very good way to do it. So I think Coyne really does show the futility of our efforts. All these efforts at war – the loss of lives, the billions of dollars spent – got us what?

If only this book had been around before the invasion of Iraq. It could have saved more than 100,000 Iraqi lives.

That’s what you think, right? In Coyne, there is not a lightness to his pen, in the same way there is with [Peter] Leeson [in The Invisible Hook]. Leeson is dealing with an entertaining topic. Coyne is dealing with a deadly serious topic. Both of them are bringing to bear the kind of economics that comes out of Mises and Hayek, to address why it is people should care about economics and why it is that their caring should not lead them to be sombre and boring, but actually fun and enjoyable, while talking about very sad subjects sometimes.

Thinking through the conclusions of After War, I’m thinking that if the US wants to invade a country successfully, France would be a good choice.

Chris’s point, if you think about what he’s saying, is that imagine you have to put two pieces of a puzzle together. You have a piece and you have to find a piece that fits exactly in it. Chris is arguing that that bedrock of institutions is there prior to our intervention. When we try to intervene and press on them puzzle pieces that don’t fit with their bedrock of institutions, we get distortions. It’s like putting a square peg into a round hole – you’d have to force it, it wouldn’t really look too good, and your puzzle wouldn’t get completed. Because of this issue of underlying institutions, Japan and Germany were able to accept the puzzle pieces. That’s why he ends by saying it’s not going to be about war and imposition, but about trade and development. That’s what’s going to allow that cultural piece, that bedrock piece, to morph into a piece accepting of other pieces. All we can do is give them the opportunity to benefit from free exchange with other individuals. If you give people the freedom to choose, they’ll move in that direction, but what you don’t have is the ability to put a gun to the back of someone’s head and make them engage in freedom.

So if you’re writing a serious book of Austrian economics, it won’t need to have equations in it?

No. Most standard economics assumes that the relationships we are trying to understand can be captured by a continuous function that’s smooth and twice differentiable. What the Austrian analytics suggests is that life is not actually a continuous and smooth function that’s twice differentiable, but instead a lumpy function, a discrete function, in which there are all kinds of difficulties in the ability for us to model them the way our standard approach does. So, instead, what we engage in is discursive reasoning. You use the logic of economic action, the logic of choice, you worry about opportunity cost and presume individuals are doing the best that they can, given their situation. But notice, even in that phrase, you have to spend a lot of time specifying what that situation is. That situation is full of historical context and institutional details. A lot of your story is made up of the specification of the context in which economics decisions are made.
Read about the other books Boettke tagged at The Browser.

The Page 99 Test: Christopher Coyne's After War: The Political Economy of Exporting Democracy.

--Marshal Zeringue