Why a Book On Economic Prosperity is still needed
A number of books have been written what makes societies rich over the centuries, and a fair number of them recently. It’s not a topic which hasn’t drawn plenty of attention.
So why write another one?
Most recent books on prosperity tend to focus on one or a few factors. If people have clear legal title to their property there will be prosperity. If people are free to make enforceable contracts of their choice, there will be prosperity. If we print money and use it to give everyone a job, there will be prosperity. If most of the population shares in economic gains, there will be prosperity. If we tax the rich and spread the money around, there will be prosperity.
It’s not that simple. That’s not to say these answers aren’t necessarily correct, it’s that they are massively incomplete. Freedom to make enforceable contracts will not make a society prosperous absent many other conditions. Having everyone share in economic gains is almost half the answer: but it’s both an end and a condition—to get to a society where everyone shares requires a multitude of political, social, educational and economic conditions. Taxing the hell out of the rich is one very important thing to do, but it’s not enough by itself, and the question isn’t just should we tax the rich, but under what conditions will a society tax the rich, under what conditions won’t it, and how do we get the first state and avoid the second?
Non fiction books today, as a rule, are either over-long magazine articles: topics which should have been a 10,000 word essay; or they are very long missives intended to prove an obvious point in the face of massive ideological pressure to keep it in doubt.
The first category can usually be recognized by the magazine style writing, “Ian was a curly haired man with a ruddy complexion and a sardonic smile.”
In the second category are books like the Spirit Level, which proves that inequality is bad, even if poor people have more stuff than rich people used to have is some historical period; and Piketty’s Capital, which proves that if returns on money (Piketty’s capital is just money in its various forms) are higher than income gains for the majority, the rich will get richer. (Um, yes. If car A goes faster than Car B it will pull ahead). The book doesn’t even adequately deal with the fact that most of the new rich are rich because of positional advantage: they made their money off salaries and bonuses; nor does it deal adequately with the fact that the returns on money being so high is a deliberate legislative, executive and judicial choice backed by central bank policy to make it so no matter how much money they had to invest.
The result of these trends in books is that there is no recent book on prosperity which deals with anywhere near the complete range of issues:
- what human nature is like and how it can be and is deliberately shaped in character;
- political coalitions;
- how private and public decision makers are selected;
- how policies create the people and power necessary for their continuation or fail to do so;
- what the effect of generational change on character and thus politics and policy is;
- what human nature is like and how it can be and is deliberately shaped into character;
- how oligopolies and monopolies form and endure; how technology changes the shape of possible economies;
- how violence is related to politics and economics, both within countries and in the global economy;
- what money actually does;
- how permission is given to do new things in an economy;
- the actual physical constraints on prosperity and their relation to character, environment and technology;
- how very different economies have been in the past; how goods are actually distributed and how they could be distributed differently;
- the circumstances under which trade increases or decreases prosperity;
- Bottlenecks on growth, sinks and renewable resources;
- the circumstances under which we can just give people resources allowing them to create myriad of new livelihoods, products and services;
- how ideologies are created, maintained, changed and destroyed and their real world effects on policy;
- a whole slew of practical power considerations,
and far more.
The problem most people have is that they have relatively incomplete alternative worldview. There is no single, relatively recent book, which will give you one. To have one you must create it. Most people will not read the thousands of books of necessary to winnow out the hundreds that deal with one or two of the issues above and deal with them in a useful way which can be made part of a coherent whole. They don’t have the inclination, time or character, nor should most of them be expected to: they live different lives.
Without such a coherent worldview, presented in a relatively small book, most people will pick up bits and pieces here and there and plug it into the prevailing ideological worldview: in our case, neo-liberal capitalism; or they will fall back on an older ideology like Marxism; some form of anarchism substantially created 80 years ago or longer; some right wing variant on fascist thought; or one of the many hybrid forms of capitalist thought.
I don’t think any of those ideologies have a coherent world-view which can be made to work today, though that’s not to say that almost all of them don’t have something useful in them which we can learn from.
The only other approach which could work in theory is the extremely high level provision of principles. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Do as though will, so thou hurt none” (a far harder proposition than most people realize.) I have suggested that if we simply do the kind thing, the vast majority of the time it will be the right thing, and we can afford the remaining times: it will produce far more correct policies than our current ideological regime, or indeed any of the ideological regimes in power anywhere in the world today.
But such proscriptions require a way to create and choose leaders who have the wisdom and character to follow them, and a people who will select those leaders. So you come back to “how do we get those leaders?” Most people do not have faith in goodness or kindness: they don’t actually believe that being benevolent works. For such people you have to, in essence, prove that it does work: you have to show the cases; and you have to do in a pragmatic and hard-headed way, acknowledging the times when coercion, force and violence will be required: those times are few, but they do exist.
Our current system is not set up to provide such a book. Our academics are primarily specialists without the wide spread of learning required for it. Our public intellectuals are selected primarily for obeisance to power, and cannot write such a radical volume. And, I fear, by and large, most publishers are not interested in such a book: it does not fall into any of the neat categories they favor, and cannot be written by a member of the club.
Such a book also cannot be like Piketty’s book, it cannot prove every case in exhaustive detail: if it was, it would be between 25,000 50,000 pages and no one would actually read it. But a small book will be easily criticized even if accurate.
Though more detailed that Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, the book must be similar in making its argument then moving on to the next point, because it must actually be read, and be read by many people. The lack of detailed argument and exhaustive data is not entirely a flaw, however, for within all the holes such a book must have are entire lifetimes of work for more specialized academics and intellectuals and any ideology must create work for the ideological classes, or they will not adopt it.
This, then, is the book I’m trying to write.
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